Imposter Syndrome is Worse in Grad School

Imposter syndrome is nothing new, and I’m not the only one who suffers from it. Literally, we’re all in this together.

While it is so hard doubting myself and my accomplishments, it’s also rough seeing my friends and classmates struggling with the same things. In class, my friends are articulate and passionate about their research. They’re inquisitive and always willing to lend a helping hand. But all of us have our moments of doubt; Doubting that we belong in our program and in our field.

Even though that’s obviously not true. We all earned our place in our program, and we work so hard everyday to stay enrolled in it. I don’t want to be pitted against others in my program. I want us to all do our best in whatever field we’re interested in. Seriously, we’re all doing research that is valuable and I want us all to lift each other up into reaching our goals!

My program is very diverse. All of us have different career goals and we’re all at different points in our careers, too. Some of us (like me!) are fresh out of undergrad, while others are coming directly from another MA program, and still others have been working in the industry for a while and are now returning to school. Getting unique perspectives on my research is literally one of the main reasons why I came to grad school, so I’m really thankful for my cohort!
While this diversity is great, it tugs at all of our collective imposter syndromes. When someone curates a show, gets published, or gives a lecture weare so pumped for each other! After you’re finished celebrating, though, you’re left with a feeling of why didn’t I apply, why didn’t I get nominated, how did they have time to do this, etc.

The more I think about it, the less it matters, though. In reality, we’re all on different journeys through academia and at different points in our careers so comparing ourselves to each other is useless. If I don’t want to be a curator, why should I make myself feel badly when someone got a curatorial placement when I don’t want to work in the museum setting? Or why should I be upset with myself that I don’t have tens of journal articles published if I don’t want to have a tenured academic position at a major research university?

“Comparison is the death of joy,” according to one of the more famous Missourians, Mark Twain. And in 2020, I’ve decided that I’m going to try to compare myself to others less and hopefully focus on me, and the crazy interesting research that I’m working on.

My Issues with the Canonization of Joseph Beuys

Graduate school is great because you get to tailor all of your coursework to your research topic. Obviously, environmental art jazzes me up, and I thought a good starting place for my research was with Joseph Beuys.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Beuys (1921-1986) was a German artist who was interested in a pedagogical approach to art making. He believed that everyone was an artist, and that any human activity was representative of creativity and could be considered art. As a teacher and public speaker Beuys spread this message of social sculpture to Europe and America.
Beyond his teaching, he was an also activist. Beuys helped found two political parties in Germany that attempted to advocate for students and the environment—causes that Beuys was partial towards due to his position as a professor and his lifelong interest in ecology.

Some of his works of art toed the line between art and activism as well. Primarily, 7000 Oaks. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, 7000 Oaks revitalized the landscape surrounding Kassel, Germany, that inspired a global tree planting endeavor.

Beuys facade situates him as a pioneer of the eco-revolution and is further bolstered by his myth of creation. One of the most well known stories surrounding Beuys is the legendary rescue by the Tartars after his plane was shot down over Crimea. Beuys was a fighter pilot for the Luftwaffe (yep, the Nazi air force) when he was allegedly shot down and rescued. This myth has been disproven by countless journalists and art critics, but was important to the formation of his personal ideology. In Beuys’ story the Tartar’s saved his life by wrapping him in animal fat and felt to raise his body temperature and fight off hypothermia. Hence the importance of felt and fat in Beuys’ oeuvre.

Just to recap here:

1) Beuys fought for the Nazi party in World War II

2) Beuys crafted his legendary creation myth on the backs of Europeans that he claimed superiority

Hopefully, this clears up some of my major complaints about Beuys. But if not, keep reading.

Although the canon is highly problematic, it is one of the main ways that art history is taught and influences the art market. And Joseph Beuys is situated in the canon of highly regarded Western artists. Critics and historians fawn over his extended definition of art and his combination of art and activism.
While Beuys does deserve praise for being a pioneer of the radical eco-art movement, we must remember that he was a Nazi and the connotations surrounding his ideology and public persona is riddled with ideas popularized during the Third Reich.

Beuys recognized the universal power of German culture, and he believed that the cultural superiority of the Germans was manifested through their language. The German language came to power due to the unique environment that the Germans lived, according to Beuys. So, if the German language was all powerful and it is derived from the unique German landscape we have a rationale behind Beuys’ obsession with environmental preservation.

I believe that Beuys was simply manifesting ideas associated with Hitler’s regime rather than through a deep connection with the land. Beuys’ belief in the land containing mystical powers of language and culture formation claims superiority of ethnic Germans. While maybe just racist in nature, this message brought forth by Beuys again seeps with Nazi ideologies, in my opinion.
Scholars like Donald Kuspit disagree with me. They believe that Beuys’ work is rooted in healing from the war, and recovering from the traumas it caused Beuys and the Germans as a whole. Kuspit suggests that the war period was complicated for Germans causing them to make decisions that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Kuspit suggests that Beuys would have likely made different decisions regarding Nazi affiliation had the world not been so complex. And, plus he spent the rest of his life creating art representing the traumas and his sorrows from the war, according to Kuspit.

But that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a Nazi apologist.
If we’re not going to dismantle the canon we should at least recognize that problematic tendencies of the artists that we include in it.

Was Joseph Beuys a Nazi? Yes, remember how I said he fought for the Nazi air force.

Should Nazi artists be included in the canon? Yes. But it is our duty as art historians to be upfront with the total history of the artists—including their affiliations that may be hard to talk about or make the artist into a villain.

But should we instead dismiss the canon entirely and teach art history as holistically as possible? Should we include artists who are doing culturally important works regardless of their critical praise by the likes of Clement Greenberg et al.? Also yes. But louder.

Andrea Gyorody, “The Medium and the Message: Art and Politics in the Work of Joseph Beuys,” The Sixties 7 no. 2 (2014): 120-126. Donald Kuspit, “Between Showman and Shaman,” in Joseph Beuys: Diverging Critiques, ed. David Thistlewood (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995), 30-39.

A Brief Introduction: London Mastaba

Since the late 1960s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have had an interest in actualizing large oil barrel mastabas. Their first mastaba was installed in 1968 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. To date, they have only installed two mastabas, but have created concepts for many other mastabas around the globe. A third mastaba is planned to be installed in Abu Dhabi.

Image result for london mastaba

Their largest mastaba, the London Mastaba, was installed in 2018 at Hyde Park in London. The installation consisted of 7,506 multicolored barrels stacked in a mastaba form and attached to a floating steel frame. The barrels themselves were painted in bright hues of blue, red, or purple. According to Christo’s plan, barrels were placed on a pre-constructed floating frame; on the two flat ends of the mastaba, single barrels were placed. On the two long sides and the top of the mastaba, barrels were fastened into long bars spanning the length of the mastaba’s frame. For accessibility, the initial construction of the mastaba was done on the edge of the water. Later, the London Mastaba was pushed into the center of the Serpentine.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude began their art careers in post-war France. Together, they create art that discreetly comments on contemporary global politics. While the installations may not outwardly seem to comment on political structures they often have deep rooted symbolism to contemporary politics either included visually or as a part of the education surrounding their projects. To install their installations, the artists work on a local level with city governments to obtain necessary permits for their projects. They use their involvement at the municipal level to educate not only about their specific art projects, but also the global political climate as well.

One of the more interesting elements of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art practice is their inclusion of humor into their work. While taking themselves seriously as working artists, they incorporate humorous components into their work.

Created as a commentary for the global climate crisis due to the impacts of the oil industry, Christo and Jeanne-Claude ironically made their art out of the elements that they’re commenting on. The work itself also floats atop a picturesque lake in a beautiful park. This directly criticizes the role of the oil industry in destroying the global environment.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are very aware of the placement of their works. As with other site-specific artists the placement of their art is just as important as the installation itself. By choosing Hyde Park, the artists knew that viewers couldn’t help but comment on our global future if the oil industry isn’t stopped.

Review: Infinity Mirrors at the AGO

Installed over a year ago, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors is still captivating visitors to the Art Gallery of Toronto as a permanent installation on the second floor of the gallery.

After the huge success of the Infinity Mirrors Exhibition the AGO decided that it was necessary to include some of the exhibition in its permanent collection. The AGO crowdfunded over C$650,000 from almost 5,000 donors to purchase Infinity Mirrors for their collection.

Access to the installation is limited––visitors must sign up for a time slot on an iPad near the entrance on the first floor. There is usually a gallery attendant there to help you choose your time slot. Once it’s your entrance time make your way to the queue on the second floor, where you’ll check your bags and prepare for what is to come (I took a few deep breaths and wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans).

The gallery attendant will instruct you on the procedures while you’re waiting to get inside. You can spend up to one minute in the room. Don’t touch anything. Get your selfie camera ready.

The door opens and your sixty seconds begin.

Your first thought will likely be, ‘wow this room is small.’ But don’t linger on that fact. Make the most of your time inside of the installation.

The tiny hexagonal shaped room is filled wall to ceiling with huge mirrors and hundreds of orbs suspended from the ceiling and sitting on the ground. Each shiny surface reflects off of the next and you’ll quickly be entranced by the countless reflections in the mirrors.

Centrally located is a column covered in mirrors to reflect the outer perimeter of the room.

Kusama has installed less than twenty rooms like Infinity Mirrors globally, so having one in Toronto is incredible.

Mentioning any of Kusama’s works is basically impossible without referring to ‘selfies,’ ‘social media,’ or ‘millennials.’ To some, it may seem as if her installations are catered to what many refer to the so called narcissist tendencies of millennials.

However, I see no problems whatsoever with art being a site for tourism (shout out to The Lightning Field and other art works in the American West that often function as tourist sites). We should be celebrating the fact that so many young people are visiting museums. More visitors to museums means that they get more funding from donors and the government. That means better care for the permanent collection and more funding for one of a kind traveling exhibitions.

Even better, Infinity Mirrors is free to all ticketed members to the AGO. Those under the age of 25 can enter the AGO for free, and those who are older can pay a flat fee of C$35 per year to visit the gallery.

Visiting an Art Auction House

All university programs have different pros and cons to them. For example, one of the major positives of my undergraduate institution was the fact that the program was quite small. We only had three professors and less than twenty students in the program at any given time. I loved being able to have close relationships with my professors and classmates.

However, the small program was due to the rural location of my university. In northeastern Missouri there aren’t many museums and galleries for our professors to take us to. They did their best, though! Many of my classes took us to a museum in one of the major cities in my state at least once per semester. The art department even offered a course during breaks that took students to major midwestern cities to visit galleries and artist studios. So we weren’t as excluded from the art world as it may seem.

But living in Toronto, we have access to so many more art institutions! In one of my courses this semester we visited six museums in the Greater Toronto Area to speak with their directors and curators. And recently in another course our instructor arranged a meeting between our class and an art auction house in the city. Yes, auction houses are usually open to the public, but our professor arranged a tour given by the lead auctioneer.

Incredible, right?

Truthfully, I’ve never been to an art auction house. A quick google search tells me that there are no more than five auction houses specializing in art in my state.

So I had no idea what to expect.

What I didn’t expect, however, was museum quality art on the walls of a family owned auction house right across the street from a major Canadian institution. I stared in awe at a collection of Emily Carr paintings that I would have never expected to see outside of the museum setting.

In class, we always talk about the art market and all of the ways that it influences and is influenced by culture but I hadn’t ever considered the actual reality of people owning art like this in their homes. Silly for someone pursing a MA in art history I know.

Growing up in the Midwest with a high school teacher as my mother, I never met anyone who had art like this in their homes. In fact, as a kid we didn’t really visit museums ever. Not in school trips, not on vacations, never. In fact, the first museum that I can remember visiting was the Louvre while avoiding a summer rainstorm on vacation when I was eighteen (oh how times have changed!).

Of course I’ve seen auctions online selling Da Vinci’s or Van Gogh’s by auction houses such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s. But I just assumed that museums and galleries were buying these works, not private collectors.

So seeing an auction house in person totally transformed my ideas surrounding the field.

Now that I’m almost one semester into my MA program I’m more confused than ever about my future career possibilities. Upon entering the program I was certain that I would continue on to a PhD program and become a professor. Now, I’m not so sure. This term has opened my eyes to so many different career options in the art field and I kind of want to explore them all.

Museum Anxiety: If you use Instagram, you can visit a Museum

If you’re like me and from a place that doesn’t prioritize regularly visiting museums, you may have what I’ve dubbed ‘museum anxiety.’ For example, you may avoid galleries and museums because you’re concerned that you won’t understand the works presented to you. Museum anxiety is super common, and you’re not alone! However, I’m here to tell you that if you use Instagram you’re ready to visit a museum.

Seriously, looking at art in a museum is not all that different from visiting a museum.

On Instagram, we know how to tell if a post is sponsored or staged. We can see if the person in the post is wearing makeup. If there is something that we can’t decipher in the image, we know to turn to the post’s text for more information. We can use context clues to infer things that may not be explicitly stated. We even know to click on the poster’s bio for further information on the author.

Now, you’re probably thinking, how does this apply to visiting museums?

Great question. Let’s break it down.

Perhaps, you’re on vacation in Florence and you’ve mustered the courage to visit the Uffizi Gallery and you stumble upon the Birth of Venus.

Your first glance tells you that you’re looking at a nude woman standing in a floating shell. She is surrounded by three of her friends. The scene appears to be taking place at the water’s edge. Looking at the image this way is no different than scrolling through your Instagram feed.
Now, you’ll move on to the description written by the museum that’s displayed on the wall. If this was Instagram, Sandro Botticelli (the painter) would post this to further explain his image. Here, he tells you what the painting is about.

It also lists the patrons of the work. Unlike Instagram, artists don’t have to #sponsored. Instead, they often include small details that reference the artist. Here, the orange trees in the mid-ground of the painting reference the patrons––the Medici family. On Instagram, sometimes it’s hard to tell if posts are sponsored or not. That’s why many influencers use tags such as #sponsored or #ad. It is typical of artists to include imagery noting who was a patron of their patron, like the orange trees that were representative of the Medici. This isn’t a requirement though! So it’s important to read the description to note who commissioned the work. Understanding who commissioned a work is important to understanding the narrative of the work. Oftentimes, patrons wish for specific imagery to be included in the work based on their religious, social, or cultural practices.

Now that you’ve read the description of the work you’re now able to look back at the image and have some new clarity that you may not have had before.

After you’ve finished looking at the image you can either search or explore, just like Instagram.

If you really liked the Botticelli painting, consult your guidebook or ask a museum worker to see if the institution houses any more works by the same artist. This is called searching. Just like on Instagram, if you know what you want to find, you can search for it specifically. You can also search for images that showcase a similar narrative. In the case of the Birth of Venus you could look for other Renaissance works that include images from Greek myths (there are a lot!).

If you liked the general idea of the work, but not it specifically it is time to explore. Start with the room of the gallery that you’re in. Walk around and see if anything else catches your eye. If not, that’s okay! Head to another room and see what you find there. This is just like Instagram’s explore page, minus a complicated algorithm. Museums arrange their collections with similar objects near each other. So if you’re interested in one painting, you could like the one next to it.

I hope that this cured your museum anxiety, and now you’re ready to visit your next museum.

Museum Accessibility

When traveling throughout the United Kingdom during my study abroad, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to visit museums for free. In fact, while studying in London, I went to the Tate Modern at least once a week—at no cost! Even in my home state of Missouri, the major museums in both Kansas City and St. Louis are free.

After moving to Toronto, I quickly learned that this is not always the case.

In Toronto, tickets to see the Royal Ontario Museum start at $18 for students, and tickets for the Gardiner Museum cost $9 for students. The Art Gallery of Ontario is free for those under 25, but costs $25 for those 26 and older. I firmly believe that fees such as these make the museum space even more inaccessible for the general public.

In my museums and galleries course, we’ve been discussing the many roles of the museum in society. We know that museums fill a variety of roles in our culture––including existing as a community gathering space. However, we know that museums are more than community spaces with objects. Museums educate on culture and history that could otherwise be inaccessible. They also preserve materials and study the objects in their collections.

The word ‘museum’ itself has many connotations, many of which are negative. Often, museums are considered to be an elite space that only certain groups of people visit. Groups who typically feel welcome in museums are usually well educated and hold a considerable amount of privilege in society. For these individuals, cost is not usually a major hindrance for visiting the museum. But for many others, $9 is too expensive for an afternoon viewing ceramics. Admission fees further elevate the status of the museum and in turn away the general public that they are trying to attract.

All being said and done, this is a tricky situation for museums to tackle. Museums have higher operating costs than ever before. Restoration, storage, and traveling exhibitions all cost money. These rising costs are then passed onto the visitor. Clearly, maintaining their collection and having new exhibits is important for any museum. Without preservation and new ideas museums will soon lose their title as a community gathering space.

As with public libraries and schools, museums are institutions that provide a service to the community. And that service is primarily education. Both schools and libraries receive enough taxpayer funding to fulfill their mission to educate the populous. Why are museums any different?
Perhaps it is not lack of desire to make Toronto’s museums accessible to all, but rather lack of funds. Museums in Ontario do not receive enough federal funding to grow and sustain themselves long term. Allocation of federal and provincial resources is a complicated matter and not solved by this simple blog post such as this.

However, this is an important time to remember the cultural importance of museums. If the cost barrier associated with many museums is removed, visitors will be able to have a better understanding of the collective history of Canada. Understanding the cultures of not just ourselves, but our neighbors is vital.