Bauhaus in the Boondocks: Ideas for an Epilogue

Albers teaching a class at Yale in 1956

Or stuff that won’t make the cut in my MFA Research Project at the School of Visual Arts in NYC

I intend to follow some leads from Jacques Rancière’s Politics and Aesthetics (Verso, 2003) and his more specifically art critical Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (Verso, 2013) in writing about the pedagogical techniques of Josef Albers (1888-1976) at the Yale School of Art in the 1950s. While Albers is best known for his abstract paintings, his work as an artist has always been interdisciplinary and includes the practice of furniture design, writing, photography, and performance. In my paper, I primarily look at Albers as a teacher and a performer, reviewing video documentation, writings, and testimonies by his students. In reconstructing the historical networks that give his various practices their significance, I aim to demonstrate how the ethical and social turns cited by the likes of Claire Bishop, et al., operate through the individual practice of a transitional figure like Albers. I will take Rancière’s philosophy to task in exploring the milieu that informed Albers’ classes, with a particular case study on his interaction with Filipino art student, Constancio Bernardo (1913-2003), an obscure but pivotal figure in Philippine modern art and who was part of his first MFA cohort at Yale. Like the rhizomatic nature of Aisthesis, the aim of my essay is a “‘counter-history’ intended to correct the standard picture of modernism in the arts, the one according to which each medium achieves its self-purification.”


In place of the familiar story about the “conquest of autonomy by each art,” Rancière constructed a narrative about the simultaneous emergence and cross-fertilization of the artistic and political avant-gardes. In this respect, his counter-history attempts to recover the political capacities that art and aesthetics lost with the advent of the idea of modernism, which I argue came in a somewhat belated and refracted manner for Constancio Bernardo and Philippine art.
The classroom or atelier of the art academy is a site that is less studied than the galleries, museums, and private studios of artists. My brief investigation of this space aims to dwell in an often overlooked resource in the history of art, that is the increasingly relational and participatory nature of art education since the mid-century, which I contend, became the precursor to the highly philosophical and social practices of the art school educated artists, who are often MFA degree holders and consciously professionalized individuals. Following Ranciere’s propositions regarding the nature of art, I situate Josef Albers and Constancio Bernardo within his idea of an “aesthetic regime”—that emerged at the end of the 18th century but which Ranciere thinks is the dominant modality of understanding art that continues into our own day. 


In the same manner that Aisthesis gave the empirical content to Ranciere’s claim that our understanding of art today can be traced back to the revolution in European culture that accompanied the French Revolution, I make a similar case for relational and participatory practices. Focusing some portions of the paper in further contextualizing the chronological pinpoint of the 1990s or the late 20th century in the writings of  Nicholas Borriaud, Liam Gillick, and Claire Bishop as the genesis of relational and participatory practices by drawing parallels in the immediate post-war practices of Albers and Bernardo. Rancière thinks that the idea of art is misunderstood, “when it is conceived as the progressive separation of art from life.” In the aesthetic regime, Ranciere detects a movement that blurs the boundaries between art and life, as well as the partitions thought to exist between the arts themselves; even the most abstract and remote forms alter what he calls the “distribution of the sensible,” the distribution of bodies, voices, roles and capacities at work in any community.


My brief biographical anecdotes on Albers and Bernardo will hopefully exemplify Rancière’s aims concerning aesthetics, especially his use of Marx’s ideas on decorative art and craft. The emergence of figures like Albers and Bernardo who are both immigrants with deep roots in the working class of their respective original countries and their wielding of geometric abstraction similarly locates them as a phenomenon in the confusion of social hierarchies that separate the artist from the common laborer.