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Pushing the Parameters of Art

After long and morose contemplation, I have concluded that whatever is bubbling away at the source of our institutional and official hostility toward matters artistic, it has nothing to do with money.

Money is America’s native medium, natural as seawater to a school of cod. Art is as tricky as the atmosphere on the moon; when we take a breath of it, we get the sneaking suspicion that Art is mocking us--that, like the emperor’s new threads, Art is somehow pulling a fast one, catching us flat-footed, laughing at us and making us out to be rubes. Truth be told, I have a sneaking suspicion that most people would rather have the tar pummeled out of them than be laughed at.

And so such folks may be found mocking Art before it mocks them, embracing the football coach’s philosophy that the best defense is a good offense.

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It follows that, as a counterweight, artists take their work even more seriously, inhabiting the art world as one would the priesthood, solemn in purpose if not always in form.

No wonder Jennifer Schlosberg is driving her Art soul mates nuts.

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Within its graduate arts program, UCLA offers a course of study called New Genres, vaguely defined as anything that is not old genre--sculpture, painting and the like. Only three or four students a year are admitted to the New Genre program, and Jennifer Schlosberg was one of them.

She’s an Angelena who, after an undergraduate sojourn at Connecticut College and a year of graduate school at UCLA, hit upon a way to make connections with students and mentors. She invited them over to her place to draw her, and be drawn by her . . . and in so doing, she drew them out in a way none of them expected. The result was a graduate project that is on its way to becoming a book that’s rattling the UCLA art scene like Cyra McFadden’s notorious ‘70s dissertation on Marin County.

Over the course of a month, Schlosberg invited 78 people, students and faculty, to a chat-and-sketch session; half showed up, half didn’t. The drawings turned out to be the ligaments to text and context, part diary, part cultural anthropology, a chapter-by-chapter recounting of who these people were and what she imagined they thought of her.

It took a professor to tell her that the conversations, and the relationships that emerged during the sketching sessions, were more interesting than the drawings--and worthy of a book.

All of it started out as “a not-very-well-thought-out conceptual art project,” her own “obsessively monitored and analyzed” life, raw ruminations about friends, lovers and professors, “a snapshot of a moment in my life,” the plastic autobiography of a 29-year-old in progress.

A student project was one thing. When word got around that she was compiling a book about why she thought people did or did not come to draw her, many were apprehensive--especially the 38 who hadn’t accepted her invitation to sit and sketch and chat. “They just flipped out,” she says.

One called her invitation “passive-aggressive.” A professor asked her to drop his class. Another didn’t speak to her for a year. Some students muttered about ethics, and others muttered that she was trying to boost her career by associating with big-name professors. All of it became grist for her chapters, some as short as two sentences, others 30 pages long.

Those people who fear that Art is laughing at them might find some allies at UCLA; there is some solace in ranking Schlosberg’s work as navel-staring of the first order. Schlosberg is not inclined to dispute its introspection; yet what troubles and fascinates her is that some of the same people who define art as anarchy and imagination expressed concretely are the same ones leaning on Schlosberg not to publish, particularly using real names.

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Dicey issues of privacy have broken like dawn over her agent’s Manhattan office building, and Schlosberg is learning to negotiate them with more alertness than a veteran lane-changer on the 405.

She already has another project in hand, “Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex,” and the third-person ambivalence about her first project is resonating for the second one.

“I think, what have I done that I wouldn’t want people to know about? I’m sure I’ve done some things I’m ashamed of and don’t feel good about . . . but I can’t think of anything that it would just kill me for people to know.”

Yet she hasn’t let her family read some of “78 Drawings of My Face,” much less draft chapters of “Ill-Equipped,” with subject matter that’s still a mystery to her 87-year-old grandparents--although it will be much less so, Schlosberg shrugs, after this column appears, and that’s life; that’s Art.


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