When I made the decision to go to art school in 1986 I was only the fourth person in my family to go to college. Three of my older brothers went to a much more affordable state university. I insisted on art school. I was going to be a real, serious artist after all. I received a small scholarship to go to the Hartford Art School in West Hartford, Connecticut. You see; growing up in working class Bridgeport knowing you want to be an artist and knowing how to reach that goal are two different things. When I first entered art school I’d never been away from home (even though Hartford is less than an hour drive from Bridgeport). As I mentioned in an earlier dispatch, I was an inconsistent student. Despite the rocky road it was still one of the most important decisions I ever made in my life. Many ideas introduced to me that first year formed my intellectual bedrock. I maintain life long friendships with people I met in Hartford. Successes aside, I did not easily fit into the university mold.
I chose art school very specifically. To decide on art school over a broader university major usually indicates a very driven desire to be an artist. I was very naïve when I entered school. My vision was that I would be a painter and move to New York City. Mary Boone would show my works to great acclaim. This vision was one step away from the caricature of the beret wearing, palette holding artist. Still I knew (since I was eight years old) that my life’s work was art. What I did discover while bumbling through the institution is that art is a discipline– a vocation in a vast field of ideas. It has taken me all these years to really understand some of these early influences. Dies were cast and seeds planted. The intellectual life of an artist is just that– a life. Now I am a teacher in this system. How does art school look from this side?
Firstly, I can’t help but puzzle over the proliferation of BFA programs in the last 15 years. As more programs pop up so do tuitions. As I mentioned above art school was once a very distinct option for a student. Do all these young people want to be artists? If so, what does that mean to them? When I ask my students at Pacific Northwest College of Art about their vision of themselves after school I get a limited range of answers. Some say they want to go to graduate school to teach. Most say they don’t know, maybe get a job as a barista for the benefits and do their artwork on the side. Some have commercial aspirations. Almost no one cops to calling himself an artist. And only the tiniest of fractions mention ambitions as a studio artist involved in galleries. Even then it takes some coaxing on my part. Does this mean that this generation lacks ambition to be art stars? Is the commercial turn an act of rebellion against what is seen as an out-of-touch fine art system? Or do they truly not know? I was certainly naïve at this stage of life as to what entailed being a working artist. If claiming artisthood is an embarrassing thing to admit, why are there so many BFA programs all of a sudden?
Let’s start with the changing nature of art schools. When I was in art school you went to study art. Whether you had a commercial bent or desired avant-garde glory you were studying to be an artist. It was a badge you took on. A couple of trends have changed that picture. One is the nature of contemporary art practice. The field has opened up to include a wide range of activities from community minded events to video to sound. There is no consensus for art’s limit or for what defines artistic skill. Add to this the seemingly arbitrary rewards system conferred by a monied priestly class of collectors and museums. To someone from the outside of this little world (a little world with a steady billion dollar market) it all seems like a put-on and an insult. To keep up with the multiple tentacles of art practice very discrete departments began blooming in art schools and universities. More departments mean more administrative edifices.
The term “entrepreneur” has spread like a virus since the dot-com boom at the end of the twentieth century. It is now an epidemic. Entrepreneurs use language once reserved for visionary artists and artists now speak like policy wonks. The arts and particularly arts administrations have happily adopted the language and belief systems of the market. The conservative tide that began with the incoming Bush administration shows no sign of ebbing. Art is not something that one does for the soul and works outside of society for its betterment; art is part of “the creative class” which brings jobs to the city. In this way growing arts administrations devalue faculty who are working artists in favor for administrator/ facilitators. Art schools use the term “artist” very carefully. Peruse the websites and literature of top art schools. You’ll see that being an artist is almost never mentioned. Being a professional, a creative, a thinker, an entrepreneur– almost anything but an artist– is touted. Art schools do their best to not encourage the messy, experimental aspect of that vocation. It’s all buttoned down now. It’s the difference between The Kingsmen Trio and Woody Guthrie.
In order to compete in a market stuffed with other BFAs, colleges have to offer as much choice as possible. The need to retain students and attract more at the high tuition rates currently at play forces institutions to treat students as customers. In order to have many departments offering a wide menu, the latest equipment and other social amenities something must go. That usually means the power of the faculty. Faculty becomes the equivalent of “associates” in big box retail stores. If the student is the customer than the customer is always right. Of course even when I went to art school there was a perception that artists are flaky and untrustworthy. My parents were very wary about me going to art school because it seemed like a frivolous thing. Artists starve. Only a few make it and most of them are charlatans bamboozling a bunch of swells. (It turns out a lot of workers starve when the market no longer has use for them. Most artists I know are resilient and tenacious.) To counter this perception, schools push the corporate and utilitarian argument to showcase the professionalism of their graduates. True education is secondary in this scenario.
And what of those incoming customers? What product are they looking for? In other words, what is a student being trained for? Many of the educational structures adopted by colleges and universities come from larger national trends. The American educational system is industrial at its heart. For the most part it is designed to train workers not thinkers. Colleges are organized around institutional expediency and not the needs of the individual. That is what private schools are for. And if you’re not from the elite forget it. Assessment, charts, pay blocks, measurable outcomes– these are the real needs of the structure. Those numbers are turned into data for accreditation boards and fundraising activities. Credit hours and the sixteen-week semester were developed with the same aim as factory mechanization. It bears little on the best delivery system for learning. There are much better ways to train artists. Regardless of the “common sense” of free market mercenaries, the whole human being– the student who is a nascent artist, the artist who is not simply a producer of “value”– cannot conform to blanket assessment forms. Really here I should say artists are not special in this regard, but all human beings should fit into that last statement. Market ideology assumes anything that is not profitable (by a narrow definition of profitability) is wasteful. If students stopped thinking like customers and instead began thinking like learners we would have a revolution on our hands.
To accommodate all the contradictory forces of market expectations, diffuse practices and opposing views as to exactly what an artist is; schools generally have two kinds of pedagogical approaches. They are often represented by schisms in older faculty vs. younger faculty and conservatives vs. progressives. For lack of better terms I will call one the vocational approach and the other the philosophical approach. These are imperfect because each contains a philosophy and each contains means to a vocation. But there you are words are fugitives.
The vocational approach can be seen at its most extreme in the French Academy. A very tightly controlled autocratic faculty meted out progress based on benchmarks. Favoritism and abuse of power are certainly a part of this system. The artist leaving this kind of school had very concrete skills in drawing, painting, mixing materials and studio practice. In the craft world this kind of training can still be found. It is simply an updated version of the apprenticeship system. Once a master conferred that an artist was ready to move on, that artist could set up shop and begin entering contests and amassing patrons. The term “masterpiece” comes from a medieval system in which a scholar or apprentice would present his best effort to a panel of masters to be granted master status. Some artists remained journeymen their whole lives. You still see echoes of this in current thesis structures in art schools.
The philosophical approach can also be called the “conceptual” approach. I will discuss in later dispatches why I think “conceptual” is an oft misused term. This approach arises out of the practices of Marcel Duchamp and European modernism. In its current incarnation it relies heavily on French theory from the mid to late twentieth century. Modernism and the avant-garde are presented as a march from Old World parochialism to a utopian casting off of history. Artists in this mold are seen as sanctioned bomb throwers thumbing their noses at anything that stinks of tradition. There has been a lot of powerful and liberating artwork that has emerged from this approach. It also produces armies of naked emperors.
Most art schools have a muddy mix of the two with one approach or the other dominating. On one hand you have traditionalists asserting hand skills and disdaining anything that came after Picasso. On the other hand new media or theory-based faculty throw everything else out but assign punishing amounts of theory to students. Joy in making is to be despised in both cases. One thing I value about being an artist is that I get to live joyfully amidst contradictions. Artists should embrace questions and plug into the energy between clashing ideologies. Leave ideologies to fundamentalists. There is no reason that these two approaches can’t get on together. I think the main reason they can’t is anxiety.
That anxiety arises from a number of deep wells. The first is the above-mentioned confusion as to what an artist is supposed to do or know. Most professionals don’t like to admit this, but it really is a muddle. Measured against our society’s metric of success being an artist really is hopeless. The small group of conferred “art stars” and the craven collectors and institutions that support them eclipse any other measure of success for a working artist. For instance when I’m at a dinner party meeting someone for the first time and I say I’m an artist one of the first questions is “where do you sell your work?” In a celebrity-crazed culture all the minor signifiers of celebrity muddy what the vocation means. It becomes easier not to call yourself an artist and play some other game.
Another well of anxiousness comes from the need to maintain a ravenous institution. I mentioned in an earlier dispatch that the institution is a many-mouthed giant. Colleges started thinking they were corporations. Corporations only have one motive: profit. Their shareholders could care less about the conditions of their workers or the damage wrought by their products. Profit rules. Inexplicably, giant rewards go to executives at the expense of the average worker. It is currently accepted in our mass culture that corporations are inevitable and they must under no circumstances be curtailed. They are job creators after all. That’s folly. Why should schools follow suit? Education is not about profit. Its time we remember that. Our values are askew. We need to be able to sustain education but we don’t need to get rich off of it.
Finally, the corporate conditions in schools have caused faculty to compete like starving rats over ever dwindling bits of cheese. Instead of thinking of the whole, faculty must create ever more specialized fiefdoms and recruit students to their cause. Anxiety about job security and relevance creates a constricting of true innovation. Fragmentation occurs across the institution.
So, Mr. Curmudgeon, you may be asking, what’s your idea? My first idea is to start using concrete language around art. Art school is for training artists. While this sounds rather reductive it is liberating. It doesn’t mean that the artist in question can’t be a Theaster Gates style social practice/ activist or a studio painter engaged in the rich history of the medium a la Dana Shutz or a cartoonist in the mold of Chris Ware. I have no rigid definitions– the heart of the matter lies in the questions. But we must ask the question, what are the ideal educational conditions for an artist? Secondly, slash tuition in half. College should be in reach to a wide range of people. I call for a more intensive, shorter experience of school– an embodied and cerebral apprenticeship. Dispense with all the fat and peripheral frippery and narrow choices so that true depth can be achieved. Why not mirror what happens in an artist’s actual practice? Being an artist is both an intellectual and a physical endeavor. In terms of faculty, I would like to see fewer well taken care of teachers. By that I mean that teaching shouldn’t be something that gets in the way of studio work but is a continuation of it. Rather than have a large pool of badly treated adjuncts, why not commit to a dedicated core of truly working artists? We needn’t burn the institution down but reconfigure it into a space of cultural renewal. And I don’t mean real estate renewal but a place that supports all levels of art making. Art schools should reflect the education of the whole human being. A true education informs an entire life. It doesn’t necessarily conform to charts and outward notions of success. Perhaps if we allowed another measure of a successful life this new generation of artists can lead the way out of the soul-sapped world of corporate institutions.