Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Art Space Criticism: What Is Interdisciplinary Art?

Hello, my name is Nathan Townes-Anderson and I'm new to the myartspace blog. I'm a new media artist who likes to write casual criticism of contemporary and modern art. My blog entries can be found here and at my website, Enjoy!


You're probably familiar with the term "interdisciplinary," perhaps you came across it tucked away in the small print of your college handbook. Well, in the art world, it's been tossed around since the 1960's (the era of the interdisciplinary academic boom!) but how it actually applies to Art is still a little murky. Today I'd like to casually/rigorously define the term "interdisciplinary" in an art context to clear up any confusion. Because there is, I think, some confusion. Let me summarize my argument first and then I'll blab about the specifics:

In the past, artists have often used an "interdisciplinary" approach to innovate in art. The disciplines these artists integrated into the field of art include both academic and vernacular subjects or processes. However, the current definition of "interdisciplinary art" refers to a specific kind of work also called "Institutional Critique." In this work artists use techniques derived from other academic fields, techniques that remain non-artistic and are not integrated into the field of art. Instead of expanding the field of Art, current "interdisciplinary art" reinforces its boundaries, contradicting historical "interdisciplinary" practices.

(If that last paragraph was confusing, don't worry, read on for the long explanation...)

Ok, the blabbing:

To begin, let's define that vague term "interdisciplinary." I'll say it's a way of working that uses knowledge from multiple fields to solve a problem. For example, if you apply interesting stuff from science and math to innovate in art, that could be called interdisciplinary art making. But while the idea of being "interdisciplinary" has become recently popular, the idea is nothing new. Interdisciplinary work has always happened, and different fields have always communicated and shared ideas. The difference now is that we've named it, institutionalized it, and made it possible to get paid (poorly) to be a professor in it. But, generally, folks with knowledge of several fields can get ahead by applying the cutting edge of one field to another field.

Our concept of the "avant-garde" and the following definition of an interdisciplinary approach are similar, since both (usually) integrate new ideas or technologies into a field. There are many art examples of interdisciplinary approaches: there were the first art photographers ("A photograph as art!? That's not art, it's engineering!"), Marcel Duchamp reading up on scientific discoveries and employing their procedures in his absurd experiments, and just try to imagine Surrealism without Freud ("I don't get it...why a hot dog chasing a donut?"). There are contemporary examples as well, such as Bruce Nauman's academic love of literature and music. In all cases, these artists expanded the definition of art to include their interests in other academic fields, making their approaches to art "interdisciplinary."

However, many times artists have integrated ideas from vernacular culture instead of from an academic field. This integration still follows our "interdisciplinary" model, but substitutes Pop for Academia. Warhol, for example, took his personal interests in business and Elizabeth Taylor and integrated them into the field of Art. Picasso, too, integrated his love of "low" or vernacular visual culture (newspapers, African art sold in Pawn Shops) into Art. The list goes on and on.

But, here is the problem: recent uses of the term "interdisciplinary art" can refer to a specific kind of art making termed "Institutional Critique" (see Fred Wilson, Hans Haake). "Institutional Critique" critically addresses the site or context it is shown in and often reveals institutions' ambivalence or hidden intentions. Take this description of UCLA's graduate program concentration in "Interdisciplinary Studio":

"The Interdisciplinary Studio specialization combines directed research and studio practice within a context which aims to provide students with a critical forum for exploring site- and debate-specific forms of institutional critique. The specialization encourages inter-area projects which involve the theoretical procedures or material processes of other academic disciplines." (from

A bit dense, I know, but they're using the term "interdisciplinary" to refer to the non-artistic research that usually goes into the process of creating such a work. So, in this case, their practice of academic research is not integrated into the field of art, but instead remains firmly part of another discipline.

Speaking literally, this "interdisciplinary" approach does not expand or question the limits of art, because we are immediately informed of where the field of Art ends and where the fields of research begin. Ironically, this artistic approach is the result of an "interdisciplinary" questioning of boundaries, and the hard won integration of contemporary activism into the field of art.

Such a contradiction hints at the conservative nature of such practices, and their limitations as "political" art. Artists continuing to use the "Institutional Critique" model should address this contradiction, now that the initial shock of such practices has worn off. For starters, if they are artists, why is their research considered academic and not artistic?

At the very least, this kind of work should not dominate or direct our discussion of the "interdisciplinary." Duchamp, Picasso and Warhol are way more interesting (and political) than Wilson.

nathan at nathantown dot com


Peter Clothier said...


Not sure how to get hold of you guys by email. Anyway, I was browsing sites the other day and enjoyed my visit to myartspace>blog, which is of special interest to me as an art lover and art critic in Los Angeles.

I'm now working on The Buddha Diaries ( which I hope you might like to visit.

Keep up the good work,

IAC said...

Language is always the problem when words can mean so many different things. "Interdisciplinary" is one of those words that can be changed and construed to work for it's user.

As a recent Art Education graduate, the term "interdisciplinary art education" was tossed around a bit from combining two disciplines such as paint and clay. Or, combining math with a drawing lesson. We had many discussions about this topic and it always lead to "what can we do as a teacher to strengthen our students." Combining other subjects such as math into our lesson, we came to the conclusion that not only did it help ground the students to something they are learning. But, enhance their reinforcement of a certain subject or topic of discussion.

When I look at "interdisciplinary" myself, I look to science and the arts. A great book is "Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light" by Leonard Shlain. His thesis statement is great and inspiring " When the vision of the revolutionary artist, rooted in Dionysian right hemisphere, combines with precognition, art will prophesy the future conception of reality." He uses great examples with historical info.

You also have artist today such as Matthew Ritchie combining together art and metaphysics, Matthew Mullican: art and psychology of symbols, or Cai Guo-Qiang: combing gunpowder and art. These artist are all "Interdisciplinary."

My point is we can not label anyone "interdisciplinary" because I believe everyone already is rooted in more then one discipline. But, we should point out these specific references that artist make to different disciplines so we can better educate the public, other artist, and future artist.