Former Whitney and SFMOMA Director David Ross Discusses His Work at SVA

Sitting on a panel at last week’s Blouin Creative Leadership Summit that included Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal and art recovery expert Colonel Matthew Bogdanos (USMC), attendants of Friday’s proceedings could hear a word or two from David Ross, a directorial veteran of the Whitney, the SFMOMA, and Boston’s ICA. ARTINFO got a chance to speak with Ross for a few minutes before he was ushered up to the platform (in part to tell the audience “I love art… and I hate the art world”) and learn a bit about his most recent gig: director of the MFA Art Practice Department at the School of Visual Arts.

What, in your opinion, should be the primary purpose of a student pursuing a degree in your program at SVA?

The job of the artist, first, is to understand the purpose of their work. What is the purpose of their art? In whose interest does the art exist? Why are they doing what they’re doing? If they can first answer that question, that answer will lead them to a series of other questions, one of which is “What tools? What media? What structures do I need to engage with in order to create the work that’s consistent with the purpose of my work?”

So the decision to work in an inter-media fashion, for instance, is a decision that makes sense for some artists and not for others. There’s no hierarchy. It doesn’t make it better or worse or newer or older or less relevant or more relevant. It’s one decision that comes in a series of decisions, but the decisions all start at a certain point as an artist, starting with, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? What is the purpose of this engagement?”

What kind of answers do most MFA students give when they’re asked, “What do I want to accomplish with my work?”

I don’t ask them that. Every artist has a relatively different idea, although I think a number of artists share ideas.

It could be as simple as, “To make money, to make something beautiful, to change the world, to make my mother happy, or to make my dealer happy.” Once that threshold is passed and an artist has an idea of the purpose of their work, then again, as I said, that just leads to another series of decisions that a fully-informed artist makes in relation to how to create a work that is as authentic as possible, and has the greatest possibility of “succeeding,” another relative term, that’s judged differently by different people.

From the artist’s perspective, artists generally want their work to succeed even if in the eyes of the public, for instance, or the eyes of a critic, it fails. An artist knows when a work has succeeded because it has successfully done what it was they set out to do. It has successfully addressed a set of concerns or at least functioned in response to the idea of “Why am I doing this?” or “Why am I making this?”

What generalizations can you make about the MFA students you encounter? What are they like?

The artists who come to my program, to the MFA in Art Practice, generally, are artists who have been working for a while. The average age is the late-30s, and anecdotally you might say they’ve already built a boat in the basement. And so now, they realize, “Why did I build a boat in the basement? I can’t use it in the basement, and I can’t even get it out of the basement, so if I had known why I was doing what I was doing before I started, I probably would have built a boat near water somewhere, and outdoors,” if you follow me.

I think a lot of the artists that come to my program one way or another have felt like they’ve built a boat in the basement, and they want to rethink the direction and the nature of their practice. I think that’s a healthy thing for artists, whether they come to school to do it or do it on their own. I think that’s a healthy thing to do periodically throughout one’s life as an artist: to rethink the nature and direction and purpose of one’s work, one’s practice.

Are there hazards to avoiding that kind of periodic rethinking?

If you’re not doing that, if you’re just on automatic, because you’ve made a kind of work that, let’s say, has found success in the marketplace — a very important kind of success, clearly not the only kind of success, but an important one, especially if you want to pay your rent, or feed your family — and you say, “OK, that’s good,” and you never ask yourself that question again, “Why am I doing this,” you’ve just become a maker of these things that people want to buy. At a certain point in time, that work is going to become awful thin, and perhaps irrelevant. Maybe no less beautiful, or no less the reason why people wanted to buy it in the first place than it ever was, but the idea behind it may become kind of thin.

As a curator, as a museum director, as a writer, and now as somebody who’s working in an art school, my attitude hasn’t really changed. It’s always been to encourage artists to be honest with themselves, and to ask themselves the hard and big questions in ways that propel their own work forward, that enable them to work in a way that at least is consistent with their own sensibility, not with their own extrinsic, external pressures or forces.

Which the market can sometimes feel like, I imagine.

Well, it can be. If that’s what you want to do, I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t have a hierarchy here and think that people who make art because they want to serve a market are somehow lesser or less interesting, just like I don’t think artists who are commercial artists — overtly commercial artists or illustrators or whatever — are somehow less worthy of our respect or our interests than artists who work independently in their studios without any connection to any notion of commerce. I really don’t have a hierarchy here. I just try to encourage people to be honest about why they do what they do and what it is that they’re doing.

Not everyone who knows about your work is aware that you’re also a practicing musician in the band Red. Do you apply these principles to that part of your life as well?

I’m a musician, and I make a certain kind of music that I believe in, but I don’t disrespect Britney Spears for making the kind of music she makes. I think she’s marvelous. I could never make the kind of music Bette Midler makes, because I don’t have her talent, and I wouldn’t do that, but I think she’s an amazing artist, working in a very emotional vein, and an incredible level, but it’s not the kind of music that personally interests me to make. Although a couple of songs she does, I love to do, too!

Same thing as in the visual arts. It’s not like some artists are good, and some artists are bad, or some artists are evil, and some artists, are, you know, artists of the light. Even artists like Thomas Kinkade — who I think in some ways was a total fraud and creep — he understood exactly why he was doing what he was doing. He was running a kind of business. He was Warholian in a weird way. He created this complex business web based on phony, sentimental religiosity, and he marketed the hell out of it, and did it brilliantly, and made himself very wealthy and made a lot of people pictures that they like. People who own those pictures probably really like those pictures, love living with them, love looking at them, love thinking about this light that’s in them, and who am I to say that they’re not getting something real from their engagement with that work of art?

We can be snooty about it and say, “That’s bullshit,” but in fact, if I was the buyer of one of those pictures in a shopping mall somewhere and I believed in what he believed in, or what he purportedly believed in, and I could afford one of those pictures, or even one of the reproductions, and I lived with one, I’d say, “That’s great.” I think we need to get over ourselves a little bit.

Get over the hierarchy?

Just get over ourselves. Art means so many different things to different people, and the experience of visual art or what we would call “visual art” is pretty broad at this point. It’s so complex and enormous that all we should do is hope for honesty and authenticity in whatever it is.

Getting back to your work at SVA, what would you say to a student whose goal is to reach as many people as possible?

That’s a goal. For instance, if you’re a filmmaker and you want to reach as many people as possible, you’d probably best work for broadcast television. Or maybe, work for someone who makes popular films or learn how to make those kinds of films, if that’s what you want to do. If you want to make films like Shirin Neshat makes, and you want to reach as many people in the world as you can, it probably doesn’t fit, because the work is too rigorous and complicated and too demanding of people, too dark, too many things that have nothing to do with its quality.

In fact, the work may be great, but it’s not going to fit if that’s your goal. If that’s your goal, if that’s what you’ve decided is the purpose of your work, to reach as many people as possible —regardless of what the content has to be, regardless of what the medium has to be, regardless of what compromises you might have to make — then again, it can be done. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure it out. A lot of people make very popular, very shallow, very meaningless work and manage to meet that goal, but in fact only by keeping it at that level. The real surprise is when somebody like Bruce Springsteen manages to reach so many people and make work with great depth and emotion — or an artist, you know, like Cindy Shermanmanages to reach so many people with art that has very complex sets of meanings in it. That’s pretty amazing.

So it is possible to do it, but Cindy didn’t start out her role as an artist to reach as many people as possible. Bruce kind of did. Bruce Springsteen probably did. He’s a rock and roller. But on the other hand, he’s never compromised. He’s never compromised his vision, his ideology, his understanding of music, and he’s a great artist.

On that note, is there anything that you can credit Bruce Springsteen or Cindy Sherman for that you try to integrate into your work at SVA?

The only thing I try to integrate into the faculty I hire and the ways in which I instruct students and the construction of the curriculum is, as I said before, support for artists to be honest with themselves, and to find whatever they need to move their own practice forward once they’ve gotten to that place where they know why they’re making what they make. Then there’s a lot of technical things, because you want to be able to support somebody changing the direction of their practice, for instance, or enhancing their practice, or completely walking away from a certain kind of act of art-making to a kind of art-making that may not be visible, and may not produce any product, and may have a very different set of relationships to the world than the kinds of art making we know now.

I don’t assume that all the forms of making art that will ever be have already been invented and are recognizable by all of us. There may be many ways of making art in a serious way that are yet to be invented, and I would love to see people who are truly audacious be able to try to innovate on that level. What does it mean in this era to be making a work of art in an era where the technology has changed so much?

— Reid Singer

(Photo courtesy SVA.)