Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Everything Old is New (Genres) Again ...

Ask five people about "New Genres," and you'll get ... five different blank stares.

Oh. Wait.

OK, now ask five artists about "new genres," and there's no telling what you'll get. If you ask Google, you'll get 6.6 million responses, one of which is a "working paper" by a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and one of which is a very fine 13-year-old book about public art by Suzanne Lacy. But nowadays (and from a perspective perhaps different than that of the National Bureau of Economic Research), "new genres" seems to be used to mean "conceptual" or "many-media" or "interactive public art" or "Photoshop, Flash, Lightroom and Dreamweaver" or, sadly, "this is what we call all the stuff that's not painting and sculpture."

The San Francisco Art Institute has an entire New Genres Department, yet manages on their web site to be vague about what genres it thinks might actually be new. One eventually gets the impression that it's all about hybridity, mulitple modes of expression, and conceptual ideas ... although SFAI has a nice shiny new Center for Interdisciplinary Study that is supposed to be all about that (to which, SFAI's web site notes, the New Genres Department "contributes and builds bridges". Hmm.)

UCLA, in grappling for its definition of New Genres, mentions installation, video, film, audio, performance, digital, hybrid and emerging art forms, and suggests "New Genres is a practice which begins with ideas and then move to the appropriate form or media for that particular idea, sometimes inventing entirely new sites of cultural production, new methodologies, technologies, or genres in the process."

So "New Genres" is starting with an idea and picking the most appropriate mode of expression for that idea ... er, silly me, I thought that was the basis of almost all Contemporary Art and postmodern expression. But I see too that New Genres might also be defined as anything containing something new, although that idea is qualified by the expression "sometimes," and so means you could be looking at New Genre work and not actually see anything new, and in fact, you might actually be looking at a new genre that is not itself New Genres, but could be contained within New Genres! Hey!

Sure, that makes sense ... NOT.

All this comes up because I've been perusing job postings, and several of them want someone to teach "New Genres." They are very emphatic about this fact, they are "especially" interested in having someone teach "New Genres." And while I have an idea what I mean when I use the term, I have no idea what they might mean by it, and these job postings frequently offer no further clues. This comes most likely not from ignorance or an interest in being difficult, but instead from the very well-known tendency of academic institutions (especially large ones, like the one that currently employs me) to talk to themselves in their own secret code, and to expect everyone around them to understand.

I wouldn't mind this so much, but in an academic job search, every little advantage is crucial. Not being able to pin down quite what they want makes it very difficult to craft one's cover letter to show off one's most relevant skills, if you see what I mean. In addition, although I possess the insane bravado necessary to feel certain I can teach "it" no matter what "it" is, my enthusiasm definitely wanes somewhat if we are talking about teaching college sophomores "Photoshop 1" or "Web Design Basics", as opposed to, say, teaching college sophomores "Introduction to Net.Art" or "Artist as Activist" or "Exploring Site-Specific Installation."

New Genres as an art term was coined quite some time ago; I've even seen it used in reference to late 16th and early 17th century Italian painting. I think it's safe to say that every genre was a "New Genre" at one time or another, and the category is not fixed but fluid. A number of "genres" that I first encountered massed under a "New Genres" heading have grown and expanded and are now their own genres, but may often still be found categorized as "New Genres" (video and public art come to mind). And the next "New Genres" remain hidden, lurking just below the horizon of public consciousness, waiting to be identified, to further conflict and confuse us all.

1 comment:

Rhea said...

Well said.