vp180413 Bill Ritchie’s Mistake
Friday the thirteenth – I’m not a superstitious person, but it was unlucky for me that I made a mistake when I was a young man. My mistake was to take the word of the UW on face value and put my trust in its code of ethics.
The institution is a monolith of bricks and mortar and inert, therefore it has no consciousness. The buildings are the result of hard work and craft following the vision of social and government bodies and put in place, in this case, largely by taxpayers. It’s a project taken on in good faith through the American democratic process.
However, once erected, it’s populated by a cross-section of society—crooks and prophets. While the written words in its lofty goals and mission statements ring true to American values, the practices that ensue in the name of teaching, research, practice and service are left to chance.
Chance occurrence got me the UW job and saved me from Johnson’s conscription. Chance occurrence is the subtext of my short career at the UW and will probably characterize my life. For example, on April 14, 2018 two things occurred, by chance on the same day that illuminate my career.
It was by chance I had communication with two graduates from the UW—one was a telephone conversation with a retired art history professor who was a video art student in my class; the other was an artist who took one drawing class from me in the first years of my work.
The first—the art history professor emeritus —was an example of what was best about my teaching years, the kind of person I was fortunate to have met as we again engaged in college-level discourse. We touched on living issues, with mention of key figures in philosophy: Novalis, Hermann Hesse and Joseph Cornell, for example.
The second former student—the one who was in a drawing class I taught—sent two postcards. On these cards he explained (I might say instructed me) that I should forget his bad conduct when he was in my class and handed in a drawing giving me the finger. “I was in my drug-addled days. Put it in the past,” he wrote.
The two extremes—the first the kind of graduate worthy of the PhD and with a long teaching career behind him (and capable of decades more productivity), and the second the kind that made my tenuous, early years of teaching a daily Hell.
The UW art school proved to be a mediocre school. It’s a wonder that the history student had a successful career. As for the other, he muddles through an art world that illustrates that Walter Benjamin’s observation that art became not the pursuit of culture, but of politics.
It was politics that kept me from kicking the drawing student out of my class as there were faculty who were looking for a controversy to help terminate my career, and politics was the way. Once out, I’d be drafted—not by another college but by the army. More than one student drove me crazy with pranks and distractions as I tried my best to teach well.
By the time the history major enrolled in my video art class, I had got footing on a pathway that, ironically, got me fired in the long run. I did my teaching and research assiduously—inspired in great part by the high-quality students I met and whose demands for honesty I fulfilled.
The fact was that the UW was, and is, a mediocre art school nonetheless drew in gifted and serious people gave me joy to be part of it. As it happened, from outside the university I was encouraged in every way—grants, recognition by renowned artists and academics and my family. All this despite my youth and my middling educational background.
I did the best with what I had. In my political naiveté, I didn’t know the lengths to which the faculty would go to hammer down one who raises the bar higher than mediocrity allows. Now, however, I have lost some (but not all) of my naiveté because now I must now write my autobiography and face the fact that I, too, am mediocre. It’s finals.
There is something to salvage, however, like a second-hand art career which other people—young and old—may find useful. Like something useful you find in a thrift store, there are examples in physical evidence stored in our home and art gallery—evidence both of success and failure, and I kept a lot of it.
The ineffable remains of my former students’ achievements may find a new life. The second student bought one of my craft works, a Mini Halfwood Press, number 27. He can send it to a foreign country as as gift to a Colombian woman who is striving to educate people there and who cannot afford to buy my press new.
The historian can write a book about the generation we experienced at the UW which, truly, was a hurricane of new ideas in visual and performing arts and whose leaders are continuing to produce, including himself by his book. That period has been overlooked by less insightful writers in the Pacific Northwest.
In the former I would be able to show people in other nations—twenty of which I have contacts in thanks to the Halfwood Press business—the Americans are not all crazy, selfish fools, that there are among its artists some good-hearted and generous ones making amends for the flawed education system of which they took part.
In the latter’s work we would have a valuable document to serve as a warning to incoming creative people—both Americans and from abroad—as to the dangers of ignoring the value of honest, hard work and scholarship necessary to reconstruct what decades of tomfoolery and chicanery has almost destroyed in the US and abroad.