IHOP. If I had to capture my short tenure as Cranbrook’s Critical Studies Fellow in Fall 2010 in a word or phrase, it would be the recently rebranded acronym for the International House of Pancakes. More than the Triton Pools or the Bog Garden, more than power moms at Hedgegate or Reed’s receptions at Milles House, more even than Michigan lefts, loom in mind the glimmering blue roof at 12 Mile, the glare of booth lights hung too high, and Janson’s warm smile—she with the felicitous art historian’s name who had my order memorized by the third visit—as she placed a short stack of chocolate chip pancakes before me.
I’d like to think that this has less to do with a predilection for the Pick-A-Pancake Combo than with inherent affinities between IHOP and Cranbrook Art Academy. Born in twentieth-century America, both harnessed high-volume production processes (newspapers and fast food) even as, paradoxically, their architecture skewed toward a modest vernacular. Both from the start were and remain international in scope (IHOP with its French, German, and Swedish crepes; Cranbrook with its esteemed émigré faculty, past and present). Both, at least in my mind, are suburban phenomena. Most of all, both constitute visions and versions of utopia: the former, perhaps more Rousseauian, marks a return to childhood (pancakes for dinner!); the latter, Morean in tenor, is a near-feudal community in which everyone has a role, and thus the security of belonging, with Art and Design in place of God and State.
They are enclaves, removed from reality yet no less real to those within them. But differences emerge. Cranbrook is prospective; it trades in hope, not happiness. The second- year projects this book features mark a pause rather than a plateau in trajectories that will surely continue ascent. Cranbrook’s location isolates, but the academy remains connected via its faculty and students, the latter who must reintegrate upon exiting, (presumably) stronger and better equipped for having sojourned in Bloomfield Hills. External reality is held at bay, but it is nonetheless that reality towards which the activities taking place behind the Main Gates are ultimately oriented:
IHOP (utopia) v. CRANBROOK (utopia)
immediate gratification future promise
escape from reality critical reflection on reality
More than providing arrivals with an often welcome and necessary respite, Cranbrook ideally and theoretically encourages reflection upon and critique of the world. It allows for old rules to be suspended and new conventions to coalesce, and for changes to be freely
imagined and corrections to be safely proposed, some or all of which can be implemented at a later date. It does—or should do—so independent of market forces and without subjecting students to the artworld’s mercurial trends, or to the fickle demands of the collecting and general public. Its distance from social realities makes it an incubator. In this sense, it structurally resembles what I had termed regionalism throughout the semester: a kind of wade pool adjacent to though coterminous with the mainstream, a calm loop beside but connected to the line from avant-garde to rear guard.
But again, differences emerge. Regionalism responds to circumstances both more specific and broad, so students insisted. It seemed relevant a topic for 160-odd people who found themselves amidst a bucolic setting that one need not leave for two years except for random found objects (Ceramics), pets (Painting), alcohol (Sculpture), carbs (Fiber), and site visits to Elliott’s (Architecture). More, the United States in 2010 reeled still from economic calamities that foreground, again, “simple living,” and conjured, perhaps for the first time since the nation’s maturation, a future in which we would be a regional, rather than an international, power. And had not art in its wisdom foreshadowed this, with the turn from institutional critical practices and international biennial art (both of which presume the indefatigability of corporate capitalism and the inviolacy of US hegemony, whether adversarially or symptomatically) towards a more pragmatic, less ambitious DIY approach, to which regionalism is related?
With these three varieties of utopia—IHOP, Cranbrook, and regionalism—anchored by a fourth point, the artworld-at-large, a diagram takes shape:
Cranbrook < ---------------------------- > Artworld
* ∧ ∧ *
* | | *
* | | *
* | | *
* | | *
* | | *
SOUP | | Ferndale
* | | Russell
* | | Industrial
* | | *
* | | *
* | | *
* | | *
IHOP < ------------------------------ > Regionalism
Orignal Pancake House
At top are the Artists-in-Residence, with their vaunted positions in the educational hierarchy and their deep professional ties. In Fall 2010 alone, Anders and Liz had solo shows, the latter of which elicited a New York Times review; these were just the ones I heard about. The ten faculty members bridge the academy and the fields of art, architecture, and design, providing students with skills and graduates with connections. Rightward, powerhouses like Russell Industrial and galleries such as Lemberg and Hilberry, international in scope but local in emphasis, mediate “Artworld” and “Regionalism.” Continuing clockwise, suspended between “Regionalism” and “IHOP,” is the Original Pancake House, which, admittedly, I never visited despite repeated admonishments from students (in suburbia, the authentic seems far too simulacral, whereas the simulacral, like IHOP, is paradoxically authentic).
SOUP completes the semiotic square. The Detroit chapter, which I had the pleasure of attending with Sarahs Turner and Pineo, perfectly captured the current DIY tendency even
as it countered the insubstantiality of modesty with an irrefutable engagement with actual,
local communities. With the presentations’ endearing clumsiness, the meal’s unabashed
hippiness (gluten-free, unrefined, vegan Armenian soup), and the hokey but effective concluding vote, SOUP was a pragmatic version of Cranbrook and a politicized variation of
IHOP. The goal was to satiate neither intellect nor appetite but to assuage the conscience; visitors became participants, and those making proposals did not “come hungry, leave happy” so much as they came with ideas and left, with luck, with funding.
To what end, this square? Its closed logic is apposite to discussions about utopias, and
indeed, about the cultural and the aesthetic spheres in general, for all draw their unique
power—their potential to suggest difference and imagine alternatives—from their semi-
autonomy. But this is an ace as well as a joker. As Fredric Jameson observes in “Utopia
Now,” it is the very separation of art and culture from the social—a separation that inaugurates culture as a realm in its own right and defines it as such—which is the source of art’s incorrigible ambiguity. For that very distance of culture from its social context also dooms its interventions to ineffectuality and relegates art and culture to a frivolous, trivialized space in which such intersections are neutralized in advance. This dialectic accounts even more persuasively for the ambivalencies of the Utopian text as well: for the more surely a given Utopia asserts its radical difference from what currently is, to that very degree it becomes, not merely unrealizable but, what is worse, unimaginable.(1)
Art (and craft and design), especially in the academy, hovers on the precipice of narcissism
and indulgence. SOUP, the scope of which was necessarily limited, provided one well-
articulated riposte—to avoid it through engaging in actual, local communities. The Artists-
in-Residence likewise swerve by adamantly engaging in activities that seep into and
implicate a world beyond Academy Way, something that Architecture turned into a core
My hope was for the Critical Studies Program to provide one more countermeasure to the threat of irrelevance. It could do so in two ways at least. First, more traditionally, it could insist on contextualizing studio activities within the existing discourse of art, and on abstracting personal explorations and enterprises into models that could be relevant and applicable to others, even if this meant forgoing nuance and subtlety. After all, only by looking at work in relation to other options could anything coalesce into a productive alternative model, rather than merely instantiate a default, or thoughtless, position. Second, more sophisticatedly, it could encourage students to synthesize the very context in which their work is located—often Cranbrook itself. This would reverse the order of things: students would not be a product of the Academy so much as the Academy would be a figment of their imaginations. In so doing, fact—what one critic has called the “specific social paradigms that are implicated by institutional relationships”—would open up to fiction, and thus to possibilities hitherto unexplored. I badly wanted to—and to a certain extend did—see instances of this process, for it would herald nothing less than a new kind of institutional critique, a renewed resistant practice, not confining but freeing—a kind of
creative critique based on invention and synthesis rather than on negation and deconstruction, and in which the idiosyncrasies of personal pursuits would be put to productive use eroding and questioning established facts. In Jameson’s words, it would entail making “imaginable” the utopian text through elaborating universes so dense and calibrated that they compel conviction and, simultaneously, so ludicrous that they dispel firm belief.
Or perhaps none of this was necessary. En route to Detroit Metro on a grey December afternoon, snow dull and windshield wipers scraping across a thin but tenacious layer of ice, I pulled into IHOP for the last time. That visit, as a parting gesture, Janson drew a smiley face on my chocolate chip pancakes with whipped cream, thus gifting me the ultimate utopian value: happiness.
(1) Fredric Jameson, “Utopia Now,” Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), xv.