My parents, God bless ’em, had no idea what they were exposing me to when they dropped me off at art college. They were unaware that pretty much every “normal” value that they believed in would be ridiculed daily at my school. Neither of my parents had attended college. My dad was a blue-collar guy and my mom never went to high school, or even learned to drive. I was a white bread, ultra middle-class, Southern Baptist boy from a suburban St. Louis neighborhood where every house basically looked the same and every driveway had a basketball hoop over the garage door. Other than the Catholic church peeking up over the single story houses of our subdivision, there wasn’t an interesting piece of architecture within miles of where I grew up.
Of course, they could’ve dropped me off at any secular college and my parents’ “white middle-class values” would’ve been attacked. But if other secular colleges were pit bulls, the Kansas City Art Institute was a rabid, mutant 3-headed beast with laser eyes. From a Southern Baptist perspective, the Art Institute was the gates of Hell. Maybe my parents’ first clue could’ve been the perky, bra-less, spiky-haired lesbian who gave us a tour of the campus when we arrived. But they couldn’t have known, and I’m so glad they didn’t. At the Art Institute I learned as much about God and life as I learned about art.
Regarding the title of this post, I should say that I’m still not sure what a fundamentalist is, or if I am one, and I certainly never viewed my professors or fellow students as enemies, but I’m going with the stereotype that inevitably gets put on the church subculture from which I came.
You may think I’m exaggerating about the Art Institute. I’ll give you my freshman impressions. The Art Institute was very experimental – creatively, philosophically, spiritually, sexually, and chemically. My first night there, my RA explained that every Sunday night they show pornographic movies in the campus amphitheater. There were no extra-curricular activities or student groups on campus – you know, like organized sports, or Campus Crusade for Christ. But my RA explained that every spring there would be a big event called the Beaux Arts Festival, when trucks of beer kegs would roll up and “everyone” would party and get drunk for several days. (It wasn’t clear to me if this was optional.) When the festival did roll around, the packed schedule of events included Priest Burning and Nude Mud-Wrestling. But by then I had been there long enough to be pretty sure they were only kidding about the priest burning part.
My best friend attended college in a neighboring town, which provided an interesting contrast to the Art Institute. Several of my Southern Baptist peers from home attended this Christian college – William Jewell College, in Liberty, Missouri. I used to go there on weekends to escape the Art Institute. The contrast was stark. The spacious William Jewell campus was architecturally coordinated with neo-classical buildings on green, manicured lawns. It was peopled with clean, shiny students; some readily identifiable as “jocks.” The girls openly engaged in middle-class behaviors such as curling their hair, shaving their legs and armpits, wearing make-up and bras, and smiling. It seemed like the sun was always shining on campus. When I would go there, I felt like something that had crawled out from under a rock.
When I would return to my small, eclectic, inner-city campus, I swear that my memory tells me that the sky was always dark and there was rolling thunder overhead. However, in time I grew to prefer my little campus at the gates of hell, for the same reasons that I prefer a glass of wine over a coke. I do remember the one time my William Jewell church friends came to visit me at my campus. I think they may have done this to cheer me up. We met in the lobby and I started hugging them. Some lone guy at the lobby pool table immediately saw an opportunity and came over and started hugging all the girls, some of them more than once. When we got up to my room one of them asked, “Was that guy down there your roommate?” I had no idea who he was. Within minutes, a different guy came into my room holding a can of beer, and parked himself. It took both of us a few minutes to assess the situation. I knew this guy’s name was Gary, and I had been told he was a Satanist (I’m pretty sure he told people this to yank their chains, but he did kind of look the part.) He assumed this was a party. I was unfamiliar enough with partying to not realize this was his assumption. I just wanted to talk to my friends. I think somebody mentioned Jesus at some point, at which point he got up and left, also mentioning God and Jesus, but using them as expletives.
One of my greatest life lessons learned at the Art Institute was about loving people, and not judging by outward appearances. The Art Institute students specialized in outward appearances. I soon learned that the scariest looking people were usually quite gentle and good-hearted, (for human beings.) They just liked to express themselves creepily. As a freshman I remember going to a “dance” one weekend at the Irving Amphitheatre. This was during the late 70s, when Punk was part of the vibe at the Art Institute, (way before it never actually became a part of mainstream America.) Amidst the pogo-ing and slam dancing, one mop-haired student was “dancing” with a big hunk of raw meat. Mostly he was kicking it around the floor, (to the music.) Another guy was dancing with an actual mop. I’d love to tell you a ridiculously funny story about a Halloween dance one year, but I can’t because the protagonist (who is also the antagonist) is a Facebook friend. But you can imagine; art college…Halloween…drugs and alcohol…costumes. So I’ll just tell you that the prizes for the best costumes that year were sex toys.
You could often tell what a person’s major was by how they dressed. The antitheses were the Sculpture and Design departments. The “designers” would have mostly gone unnoticed on the William Jewell campus, except that they were trendier and gayer. These were the people who would have real jobs after graduating art school. Apparently this was viewed as a sellout by the sculpture guys. My freshman impression was that the sculpture guys hated the designers. In fact they seemed to hate everyone. There was actually a sign hanging in the sculpture department depicting a red circle and a slash. Inside the circle was a (poorly drawn) black silhouette of a limp wrist and hand. (I’m pretty sure this sign is gone now.) These guys (both men and women) wore lots of black leather and ripped jeans, and they never slept. Perhaps this is why they always seemed angry. Several of these guys were pretty ripped themselves, (both men and women.) Keep in mind these guys were not sculptors of Precious Moments figurines. I’m talking sculpture as in big red steel I-beams. It was always like the fires of Mordor over there, with welding sparks flying up into the night sky, hissings, the clanging of metal, and deep, bellowing voices. (My freshman dorm room window directly faced the sculpture yard.)
One of my favorite Art-Institute-character stories has to do with a well-loved student named Bob. This story, which involved no actual interaction between Bob and me, tells you something about both of us. Bob was a very cool-looking dwarf. He had long black hair and a full beard. He struck me as a very self-assured guy who always smelled like pot. Bob and I both were majoring in printmaking at the time. One day he came bopping in to the studio wearing a T-shirt that said “PBPGINFWMY!” For those too young to know, this stands for, “Please Be Patient, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet!” It was a Christian sub-culture thing in the 70s. Kind of like “WWJD”, but stupider. There was even a song. So when Bob came in I thought, “What? Did Bob get saved?!” (Finding a Christian at the Art Institute was like finding live rabbit on a shooting range.) I was so excited! I was going to ask him about it, but then I noticed he still swore a lot and smelled like weed. It took me probably a week to figure out that he was wearing the shirt as a joke. Get it? Think about it.
Then, speaking of shooting ranges, there were the professors. I came to genuinely love several of my professors, eventually, but they were freaking intimidating to a little Baptist boy from suburbia. I actually had a couple of freshman classes where professors asked the Christians to identify themselves on the first day of class. One of them grinned and promised, “We’re going to take care of that for you.” This turned out to be the best thing he could’ve done for me. I definitely got the feeling I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The great thing about these guys was that they were brilliant and unrelenting, but they graded us on how well we supported our thinking, not on how much we agreed with their depressing, existential, nihilistic outlook. I was told by one professor that I could be rational, or I could be a Christian, but not both. So I set out to find out if he was right. It seemed that in the sea of anarchy in which I found myself, the most rebellious thing I could’ve attempted was to be a serious follower of Jesus. Freshman year I had a hard time keeping my mind on my philosophy reading assignments because I was thinking of quitting school and becoming a missionary. This is funny to me now, considering that I was already in a foreign land with a language I barely understood.
Finally, I must mention the art, since it was art school. We were daily surrounded, inside and out, by art on campus, of course, and the whole place was a beehive of art-making and performing. The environment was stimulating and always changing. But even in the studio I found myself out of step with my peers. I was just a kid from the suburbs who happened to have an insane amount of natural artistic ability. That got me a scholarship, but once I was in art school it seemed pretty irrelevant. It came in handy sometimes, kind of like lettuce on a sandwich, but what really mattered was the meat – the statement. No one actually told me this with words, but the statement was supposed to be about death, sex, drugs, death, angst, despair, esotericism, protest, death, left wing politics, anger, nihilism, absurdity and/or death. Did I mention death? Did I mention that I once had an art student living above me who drove a refitted hearse and kept a coffin in his apartment?
Examples of such art abounded. One day in the “dining hall”, I looked up to see a low-relief, fabric and string reconstruction of a vagina, staring down at me. It was titled, “Vaginas are not all they’re cracked up to be.” I believe this was a piece of student work. One faculty member exhibit in the on-campus galley also stands out in my mind. I’m pretty sure this show was mounted by Jim Leedy, a sculpture instructor at that time. The show consisted of actual road kill, mounted on wooden panels, with nails, studs, and other decorative elements hammered in or affixed to each panel. Each panel and carcass was completely sealed in thick white latex paint, so that each panel was reasonably clean and odorless. A focal point of this monochromatic show, at least in my mind, was a panel that featured a dead fetus with some spikes radiating out from its head to form a halo. I have no way of knowing if it was an actual fetus or a replica, but given the pursuit of authenticity at the Art Institute, I assume it was real. Of course, for me this crossed a line and pissed me off, and of course that was probably part of Leedy’s intent. After all, I was in an environment that questioned everything. In fact, I also eventually became a proponent of questioning everything. Questioning is a wonderfully enlightening exercise. I just think it’s important to realize that questioning is not the same thing as rejecting – usually there are good answers to the questions. I’ve come to suspect that the avant garde is not as open-minded as they think they are. For many, “questioning everything” may just be a pretext for doing whatever the hell one wants to do.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that dark or nihilistic art is illegitimate. Art should be honest expression. If an artist lives in a universe where a knowable, relational Creator doesn’t exist, then human beings also cease to exist in any objectively meaningful way, and his/her art will reflect that. At art school, it’s true that I sometimes felt that I was staring down into a downward spiral. But, for these people, given the absence of any transcendent reason coming from a transcendent God to think and create otherwise, all of this hopeless art made sense to me. It still does. In a purposeless universe populated by accidental beings, how could it be otherwise? Such artists may even believe they are doing society the service of exposing pretensions.
Looking back, I consider my art school experience one of my life’s great blessings. It was humbling and spiritually cleansing as it forced me to confront prejudices and arrogance that I might not otherwise have noticed. It built in me a love for understanding viewpoints different from my own. Plus it was extremely entertaining. I like to think I made friends with “the enemy.” People were patient with me and mostly seemed to regard me with curiosity. I made some mistakes. I also got some lifelong friends out of the deal, and even met my wife there. (Eventually she did have to shave her legs and ‘pits to avoid embarrassing our daughters.) My wife did inform me that her circle of friends used to refer to my small circle of Jesus-people friends as “the Den Mothers.” Cute. My wife and I have come to believe that above all else, life is about relationships and communion. The crazy atmosphere of the Art Institute is where I began to understand that.
All drawings copyright 2013, Scott Freeman