David Levine: Authenticity, Appropriation and Genius

Photo: Irina Stelea

In the Spring term of 2012, artist and faculty at ECLA David Levine has been teaching the Art & Aesthetics concentration seminar titled: Authenticity, Appropriation and Genius. I have asked David Levine about the experience of teaching this new theoretical course, and about the boundary between art and teaching.

Aurelia Cojocaru: Usually at ECLA you teach studio seminars (Installation, Acting, Studio Theater). The tactic you adopted for this course—shaping the syllabus on the way, from a vast array of works initially proposed—is, no doubt, an interesting way of dealing with the task of organizing a theoretical course from scratch. Ultimately, what did and what did not work? What were the most challenging moments?

David Levine: Well, it’s a little more the way an American grad seminar would be conducted; where the professor is researching a topic and, in a sense, subjecting everyone to his research. You have a pretty big bibliography and then you try to calibrate the reading to where the discussion seems to be going.

The good part is that the reading is responsive to the discussion, and that everyone, the professor included, really is learning from one another. The bad part, I would think, is that it can often seem aimless, overly casual, or goal-less to the students involved. One has a kind of latitude in practical-arts courses that may not be appropriate to an undergrad seminar. I guess I’ll find out.

AC: In the seminars you often bring examples from your own experience as an artist. What is the distance, if any, between David Levine the artist and David Levine the Professor teaching Authenticity, Appropriation and Genius?

DL: There is no difference. Sometimes I teach seminars as art projects. I can’t bring the kind of knowledge or background that the other faculty bring to academic seminars. But as an artist who is working with these ideas, I can bring my own experience and perspective to bear in ways that I hope would be fruitful. Or, if not fruitful, at least ludicrous enough to provoke an inspired counterargument. I want to be honest about the position I occupy—it’s another reason why I opted for a more open-ended syllabus.

AC: One of the texts you included in the syllabus is a very personal one. “The Matter of Rothko” is the result of your investigation of the Rothko case (the controversial execution of his estate); in the essay you evaluate the role of your father in the case, which also leads you into a strictly personal evaluation. Did you feel that assigning the text changed in any way the layout of the course? What was your reaction to students’ reaction and would you assign it again?

DL: I couldn’t gauge the reaction. But, again, there’s no point in me trying to pretend to a purely intellectual concern with these issues; I wanted to make my position very clear.

There are a lot of ways one can learn in a seminar. A professor can lead you, or a professor can offer you something to push back against, or both. The issues around genius and appropriation are interesting regardless of my investment; so hopefully this essay was just one of many possible ways into the topic.

That said, I probably wouldn’t assign it again, though, because I think people felt very shy about discussing it, or perhaps embarrassed for me. I think it disabled, rather than encouraged discussion, so it was probably a wrong move.

AC: You often assign presentations on works or artists whom the student likes or hates. You also provoke students’ personal reactions to the discourses on the key issues (Authenticity, Appropriation, Genius): “Do you buy that?”: is this a reaction to a kind of cold analytic tone in the talk about art? Is this trying to awake some impressionistic [critical] impulse? Or is it just a way of provoking them?

DL: One of the things I find totally fascinating is the tension between one’s gut reaction and the reaction one ‘should’ have. I think they’re both necessary to a good discussion, but people tend to suppress the gut reaction as unsophisticated. And yet it’s the latter investment that gives an argument its force.

With these concepts especially, I’m trying to point to the tenacity of very old ideas about art and art-making that are extremely difficult to give up, even when one knows how conditional they are. Conventional assumptions about authenticity and genius are so basic to aesthetics that even the anti-genius, anti-authenticity discourse of appropriation is predicated on them.

When I ask, “Do you buy that?” I’m trying to figure out why we can’t get rid of these ideas; or, in other words, what we need from these ideas.

By Aurelia Cojocaru (2nd year BA, Moldova)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.