By Kathleen O’Hagan and Dr William Platz
The veil is a material device that articulates, enhances, and controls space, and an epistemological metaphor for expressing both the revelation of knowledge and the suppression of infection. The veil functions to both reveal and conceal.
Given recent upheavals in studio education, it is important that teachers provide students with opportunities to engage the veil, embrace infection, and sense out their circumstances. This conversation between artist, Kathleen O’Hagan, and arts teacher, William (Bill) Platz, confects their ideas of metaphorical veils and infections in studio learning.
Kathleen: Art historian and theorist Simon Morely (2017) argues that it is important to address the gap between discursive teaching concerned with logic and abstract thought, and the veiled dissemination of analogical visual learning. By leaving space “between the thinkable and unthinkable,” I am empowered to “wander” through the veil of determinate knowledge and discover the “embodied knowledge” central to studio art (McCabe 2018). For me, studio learning is positioned between a process of disintegration and materialisation.
Bill: “Wandering towards disintegration” may be an apt way to describe art school experiences in the third decade of the 21st Century. There is real tension – anxiety even – between student dissatisfaction with obfuscation in the studio and a desire for revelation – when “teach me” drifts horribly into the realm of “tell me what to do.”
In Walid El Khachab’s (2018) work on the allegorical veil, the veil is an instrument of control as well as a mechanism of transcendence. Art school lecturers tread this line in their applications of the veil – at once asserting the authority to judge successful learning while not revealing so much that it will impede moments of transcendent production. Let’s consider a productive means by which we might acknowledge the veil, while also penetrating – or even saturating – it with some substance that will contaminate/animate both teacher and learner. Let’s talk about infections. Have you had the opportunity to read Kazmir Malevich’s provocative tubercular theory of art school in The Non-Objective World?
Kathleen: Yes, I have! Malevich (1959) draws an interesting metaphorical connection between arts education and bacterial infection. He argues that just as a tubercular bacillus integrates itself into an organism as an “additional element” that displaces previous systems and incites change, the art school acts as a symbiotic environment in which students are infected, and transformed by, the insinuation of heterogeneous knowledge and experience.
Likewise, the veil in art school acts as a diffused membrane – a metaphorical substrate interconnecting students and saturating them with diverse aesthetic and conceptual stimuli as they pass through it. This exchange creates an unruly environment in which students’ artistic growth is cultivated (as on an agar plate), subsequently producing artist “colonies” and an overall studio “culture” (Elkins 2001). Malevich, however, also criticises society’s prophylactic impulse toward infection and its tendency to use a regressive veiling to prevent “accreted impurities” and the mutation of presiding aesthetics such as the status quo (Malevich 1959; Cheetham 1997).
Bill: Malevich’s choice of a (tubercular) bacterium instead of a virus is productive. Bacteria are not inherently pathological. In fact, they are vital to our healthy function. If I extend your point about substrates to online learning environments, it’s hyperbolic – but instructive – to see the networked digital screen as the perfect ecosystem for viruses to proliferate while healthy bacteria wither. In fact, Boris Groys (2009) cites computer viruses in his response to Malevich.
To reiterate Malevich’s critique of the prophylactic impulse, the prophylaxes of networked systems are celebrated for their protections against compromised privacy, data breaches, and physical proximity, but do they allow for the healthy bacteria of studio knowledge to transmit?
I want to steer us towards our conclusion by sharing a more recent observation: that art schools seem increasingly concerned with apocalyptic thinking, although I do believe that the apocalyptic impulse is a great animating force of creativity. This circumstance is pertinent to your work on veils given that “uncovering” or “revealing” is the root meaning of apokaluptein. I wonder to what extent our recent observations about the potencies and visibilities of infection and the veil may be connected to a more immediate and overt response to a deep apocalyptic impulse in art school.
Kathleen: Interesting! El Khachab (2018) considers two opposing conceptions of the veil as an epistemological metaphor. In one case, unveiling represents the complete exposure of truth and knowledge; the other considers a dialectic of veiling/unveiling in which the path towards transcendence is paved by the complex interplay between “uncovering [and] covering in order to know better”. As such, the persistent need to reimagine and recreate – to invent and re-invent contemporary learning – forms the crux of art school. Infection provokes processing and reinterpretation of the minute influences that have been there from the start.
Cheetham, Mark A. 1997. “Recent Rhetorics of Purity in the Visual Arts. Infection, Dissemination, Genealogy.” Paedagogica Historica 33 (3): 861–880.
Ekman, Ulrik. 2009. “Irreducible Vagueness: Mixed Worlding in Diller & Scofidio’s Blur Building.” Postmodern Culture 19 (2): 4.
Elkins, James. 2001. Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Groys, Boris. 2009. “Education by Infection.” In Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited by Steven Henry Madoff. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Khachab, Walid El. 2018. “The Veil as National Allegory: Cinema, Visual Arts, and the Epistemological Trope of Fabric.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 45 (2): 243–261.
Malevich, Kazimir Severinovich. 1959. The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism. Chicago: P. Theobald.
McCabe, James. 2018. “We Had Faces: Morisot, Self-Portraiture, and the Female Face in Nineteenth-Century Art.” PhD dissertation, Tufts University.
Morley, Simon. 2017. “In Praise of Vagueness: Re-visioning the Relationship between Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Fine Art from a Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Journal of Visual Art Practice 16 (2): 87–103.
Kathleen O’Hagan is a Brisbane-based emerging artist and arts writer. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Art (First Class Honours) from the Queensland College of Art (2021) where she was awarded the University Medal. Kathleen currently works as a sessional Art Theory tutor, and she recently staged both her first solo exhibition and her first exhibition as solo curator.
William Platz is an American-Australian artist, teacher, and researcher, currently residing in Brisbane. He serves as Head of Drawing at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. William completed his BFA and MA degrees in New York and his PhD in Australia. He is privileged to have acted as Griffith University Honours College Mentor for Kathleen O’Hagan.