My undergrad at UT Austin was kind of a weird time for me. It was like this weird mixture of transformative and self actualizing that resulted in me becoming a completely different person at the end. (Which I guess is true for most college experiences) But there's been a lot of talk recently about the Fine Arts Library and its potential move to off campus storage and I wanted to write a little bit about what the library meant to me while studying there.
I come from a smaller town in Texas, not exactly like a nothing town, but like a small conservative place. Growing up there was almost no art around me, I didn't go to big museums and big galleries, I never understood or even saw "modern art" or "fine art" unless we went on a field trip somewhere. And most of those times the field trips were to natural science museum or something like that.
My parents aren't huge art buffs, they don't know hardly anything about contemporary art, and probably even less about art history or its place in the world. My parents don't hate art or think its useless, it just wasn't in their wheelhouse, and more than likely wasn't even accessible to them at an early age either.
So when I went to UT my knowledge of the art world was basically zero. And when the people around me would quote artist, or ask my interpretation, or see if I knew x or y, I generally just nodded my head yes and then went and looked that person up later when they were gone. It was sort of frustrating this way, to me art was about creating and making and crafting ideas. I was influenced by music, and story-telling, long road trips, or Texas summers. I was hardly ever if at all influenced by art itself.
My peers were loaded down with knowledge, they were always on the computer, always on tumblr at the time, always so loaded up with all this visual information and research. It seemed like everyone had this community they belonged to, like a lineage of art makers and creators that they looked up to and influenced all of their works.
It was intimidating to try and talk about art as someone who for the majority of his life had zero interaction with the wider collection of the "art world".
I studied under Michael Ray Charles for a bit, took a few painting and drawing classes with him, and I have to admit I would soak up his lectures like a sponge. Often he would ramble on and on about one thing or another and sometimes I would record these lectures (don't worry they are all deleted now) and listen to them at home when I was in a better state of mind to understand what exactly he was getting at.
He told us once that we have to consumer smarter, that we can't create without something we are drawing influence from, music, literature, movies. He would play Michael Jackson on the speakers all day during class and go on and on about what Michael was drawing his influence from, how he danced or how he looked. Bringing up comparisons oh him and Elvis and all these kinds of visual cues.
So one afternoon after a particularly long session Michael Ray Charles took me down to his office and he showed me his bookshelf. On this bookshelf was a collection of ad books and illustration guides. Just a complete collection of everything visual in his world. And he talked about how when he was in undergrad he'd go to half price books check buy everything use what he needs then return the books. I thought it was one of the greatest things in the world to see a collection of an artists mind in book form, to see the shelves just lined with every possible reference to his work.
With that in mind I hoped over to the FAL to just pull books and see what I could find. I had a vague idea of what I wanted, but the digital catalog was completely useless. Did I want a term paper on comics history? Did I want a 1980 article on ad agencies? The titles of books and listed categories are completely useless unless you know exactly what you are looking for.
So instead I just went through the stacks one by one pulling titles that jumped out to me, flipping through the pages and then returning them if I didn't like them. The books I found there completely changed the way I saw art and the art world. Collections of 1950s-1990s advertising, Abstract comics collections, Old german propaganda art, crude underground zines, French comics, Lee Krasner's paintings in big bold beautiful colors.
All of these things were completely inaccessible to me in Tomball. Where was I going to check out the complete collections of some random no name comics artist who specialized in color theory and abstract mark making?
The internet is great, but its sorted, its sorted and collected by dumb algorithms that convince us that popularity equals better content. The algorithms developed by mostly white, upper middle class, men living in San Francisco and California with a slight conservative bend, could no way capture the entire history of underground french comic artist. Or indie zine creators of Texas.
The algorithms sorted out women, people of color, unpopular artist, street art not found in the nicest parts of LA, and anything that wasn't hip or topical at the time. And the library didn't care about any of that. It's job wasn't to sort things based on popularity or readability but to catalog everything there in an accessible way.
I would sit with a collection of 15 books on a table facing the window, eat a PB&J and spend the 2 hour break in between studios drawing over and over the symbols and shapes that I found in all of these books. And through all of these things I found a home, I found confidence in my own creations and I discovered that the way forward for an artist is completely different for every single person.
It feels a bit sanctimonious to talk about how we need the physical building, how we need the browsing of the stacks and all of that. And I catch myself wondering if this is just a result of me getting older and more nostalgic for the "good ol' way" of doing things. But I do think I would be a completely different person if I hadn't stumbled on them when I did.
It's hard for me to write this kind of stuff, and wonder if i'm giving into just annoying "down with tech" mentality. If i'm misunderstanding a situation or glorifying the past far too much. Surely the library wasn't in the best shape, and its collections weren't always in the best conditions. And I didn't exactly spend every single day there by any means.
But there were times that I really needed it, when the pressure of being around hundreds of different faces every day became way too much. Or when I wanted to just sink off behind some chair and get away from all of this pressure and feelings of isolation. There were times when I just wanted to look at anything else other then pristine clean design or tumblr pages. Or when I wanted to prove to myself (or others) that the weird mark making and bad drawing I did had a place in the wider context of an all encompassing global art world.
I'm more than certain that the library will be gone. That all the books will be moved to outside storage and things will move on as normal. People will still find inspiration, people will still find their corners to go off and relax and hide out for a little bit. People will still read at the PCL and check out weird collections from other various places on campus. It's not like life will stop existing or the entire culture will shift from the dismantling of the library.
But there's something about it that feels very now. The slow destruction and whittling away of the administrative state, of social structures, of foundations of exploration for explorations sake. There's something very toxic and ill tasting in the continuous push towards economic and job security. That strips out the history of those that never found economic or job security through art, as unimportant. The constant recreation of a narrative that says art and artistic pursuit are only important when backed by popularity, notoriety, and money. And that if the data and numbers don't back it up you are nothing.
I don't really have any closing thoughts but I felt like I needed to write something longer to talk about this.