Nova Scotia College of Art and Design was the darling of the '70s art world — we think

By the time you read this, a massive survey of conceptual art produced in the 1970s at Halifax’s Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), entitled The Last Art College, will have opened at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Graham Dubé. Untitled, 1972. Wood, tires. Collection of Robin Peck, Fredericton, NB. (Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

How To Lie About Canadian Art is an occasional series of guides to faking your way through discussions of Canadian art history.

Lying is wrong. Wrong, and useful.

Often in this life we are called upon to speak with hearty enthusiasm of things which we know nothing about — in business, this is called taking a meeting; in medicine, it is called humming and/or nodding; and in the arts we simply call it what it is: making stuff up. This is why people in the arts are often invited out for dinner and drinks. People not in the arts but with an interest in the arts are even more coveted, as they are unlikely to couple their art-chat with tiresome boasts about their careers.

The exhibition contains too many "didactic interruptions" and more "archival resources" than necessary. This is the smart way of saying there is too much to read.

And so, for those of you who aspire to be more socially mobile or just to hold your own amongst your betters, but are not burdened by underpaying careers in the arts, here is the first of a series of guides on how to lie, and lie good — lie beyond reproach — about art. If you have moral qualms about dishonesty, then why are you going to parties and cocktail receptions in the first place? As the great Quentin Crisp noted, manners are not morality, they are warfare.

This weekend, a massive survey of conceptual art produced in the 1970s at Halifax's Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), entitled The Last Art College, opens at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Now, let's face it: unless you live in Nova Scotia or are wealthy (i.e. not a journalist), you are unlikely to hightail it to lovely Halifax in mid-winter to attend an exhibition of conceptual art, or any other kind of art. I'm certainly not going, and I like art. Art pays my bills. But what will either of us do when The Last Art College comes up in polite conversation (and trust me, that's the only place art ever comes up in conversation) and neither of us have seen the show? We are going to lie.

Defining conceptual art

So we begin with the basics. What is conceptual art anyway? This one's an easy starter — no two people share the same definition of conceptual art, so whatever you say is automatically correct. However, you want people to think that you have a definition, right or wrong (hint: there is no wrong), so here's a helpful anecdote from my own long experience. 

A few years ago I was asked to speak on a panel with some fellow art fibbers and in the course of my dissembling I voiced my opinion that most conceptual art was cold, dull, clinical, and elitist. An institutional curator (a curator who worked in an institution, not one who assembled miniaturized versions of institutions for exhibition, though the latter sounds like more fun) stood up in a hot, shaking fury and denounced me and my views, equating me to a murderer.

Joyce Wieland. O Canada, 1970. Lithograph on white Arches paper, NSCAD Impression. 57.0 x 76.3 cm. Collection of NSCAD University. (Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

Talk about a tough crowd! But in the midst of her foamy rant, she served up this delicious and incredibly useful summation of conceptual art — conceptual art, she said, was "the aestheticization of indexes." 

Spill those beans and you're already half way onto the next topic. No, I don't know what "the aestheticization of indexes" means, and I could care less. It sounds good, therefore it is gold. That's how you talk about art, by saying as little as possible in as many words as you can cram between shallow breaths. Made up words are best, and anything ending in "tion" will ward off most social evils, such as being asked to elaborate. Nobody wants to look stupid and, what a joyful coincidence, conceptual art is predicated on the very idea that if you don't understand the work it is because you are stupid. In this Art Lie, there is no losing. Losing and winning are only indexes ripe for aesthetization.

A good lie, the kind that keeps people coming back for more while asking for less and less evidence, is built on details, details as pretty and alluring to your prey as sparkling fish lures. So here's some about The Last Art College.

The name of the show

First off, the title of the show is not to be read literally. The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is not the world's last art college. Like jazz dancing classes or free seminars on herbal weight loss products, there will always be art colleges. The title refers to the idea, held dear by many Canadian artists of the generation just before mine, that for a too brief decade between the end of the hippie era and the beginning of disco, NSCAD was the only important art school in the world.

John Baldessari. I will not make any more boring art, 1971. lithograph on white Arches paper, NSCAD Impression, 57.1 x 76.4 cm. Collection of NSCAD University. (Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

The conceit is not without merit. Celebrity artists came to NSCAD and made celebrated art (this is the part where you have to memorize some names, sorry); international art stars such as Joseph Beuys, Sol LeWitt, Gerhard Richter, Lucy Lippard, Jenny Holzer, Donald Judd, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, and Claes Oldenburg. The added bonus of rhyming off these names is that no-one will ask you "who was that?" because as soon as you say, with Lorne Green-like gravity, "famous artists," the listener spirals into a panicky worry that they will not have heard of said artist. Information anxiety tends to cut down on the pesky second-tier questions.

But sometimes one gets cornered by a "keep it real" idiot, a person who does not understand the give and take of conversation, who does not agree to the wholesome social contract of exchanging half (or less) truths. Stop said persons in their tracks by upping the "real" and critiquing, with enthusiasm, the show neither of you have seen. They will not dare to cross the threshold of Advanced Opinion.

Tips and tricks

Here are some sample first parries for The Last Art College.

The exhibition contains too many "didactic interruptions" and more "archival resources" than necessary. This is the smart way of saying there is too much to read alongside the art.

Opine that while historically vital, the works themselves are "ideologically riveting but visually enervating" — that one's an easy goal, as conceptual art in general thrives on giving the viewer very little to actually look at.

Guido Molinari. Opposition triangulaire, 1971. Lithograph on German etching paper, NSCAD Impression. 56.0 x 56.0 cm. Collection of NSCAD University. (Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

If you feel daring, concede that you wish you could have been at NSCAD during those riotous days of lore, despite the fact that you suspect that "Modernism's sub-agenda of heteronormative power (re)assertion" would likely still have been very much in play amongst the mostly male faculty and superstar visitors.

The bit above works in another way, in a way central to successful lying about art: it conveys a keen and engaged non-linear nostalgia.

One of the many benefits of postmodernism is that you can be nostalgic for an age you never lived through, and nobody calls you out or thinks you're delusional. Today you can be 26 and wax on about the Vietnam War as if you'd been a gunner during the Tet Offensive. Time, postmodernism teaches us, is just a construct and its supposedly entwined relationship to Space is as fake as an MGM musical.

Gerald Ferguson. Length Four, 1971. 27:00 minutes, B/W, sound. NSCAD University Visual Resources Collection. (Photos courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

If you talk enthusiastically about The Last Art College as if you were actually at NSCAD when said college was a buzzing hive drunk on its own last-ness, as if you shared roll-your-owns with Beuys and arm wrestled Donald Judd, your enthusiasm, like all manias, will become contagious. And then, my friend, the lie is sold and a pact is struck between you and your listeners, a pact to be ever faithful to the memory of NSCAD's shimmering days of glory.

Nobody sells a lie like a true believer.

The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968-1978. Jan 16-Apr 3. Art Gallery of Nova Scotia — Halifax, 1723 Hollis St., Halifax. Tue-Wed, Fri-Sat 10am-5pm; Thu 10am-9pm; Sun noon-5pm. $12; $10 seniors; $7 students; $5 youth; free, members, children; $25 families.