Art school is generally regarded as a frivolous choice for a college degree. Art school is often seen as a luxury for the entitled and undisciplined. To counter this perception art schools over the past two decades have become increasingly corporate minded. Using euphemisms like “creatives”, “entrepreneurs” and almost anything but “artist” most art schools pose as liberal arts research institutions or business schools with better graphics. In the rush for market respectability art schools have forgotten their main function: teaching art. Now, I understand that the current field of art requires more diverse skills than those of the 19th century atelier. But even the most avant-garde artist requires training for the alchemy of skillfully manipulated materials in the service of contemplation. Even though art and the artists that make it are considered non-essential to the economy, it is worth noting that the art market is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Art is essential to the culture, which is a living thing that can’t be reduced to pie charts. I would argue that the ability to engage in critical thought through the making of things has value through the whole culture. The two questions at hand then are what does an artist need from a school and how should that training be delivered?
I am an adjunct professor at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in Portland, Oregon. I have been teaching at the college level for 15 years. I regularly make, exhibit and write about art. I am no celebrity. I am one of the many workaday artists that make up the art world. Artists like myself little receive little attention in the press because I am part of a working class of artists not one the of blue chip stars patronized by the 1%. I represent the space most working artists in the U.S. occupy. As in the larger economy the loss of a vibrant middle class, the loss of a thriving artistic middle starves the culture and ultimately kills the economy. Unfortunately most colleges inadequately train for the working life. Students need to be trained for that middle way of the vocation. “Vocational” schools connote slackers who can’t hack real college instead of the truer sense of the word vocation. A vocation is a calling more than a career. In a career you stack up resume hits. A vocation is a life-long devotion. As art schools (like most higher education institutions) mimic corporate structures they treat students as consumers and faculty as low wage unskilled labor. While slashing faculty pay, senior administrators lavish money on outside consultants and branding firms. Boards push the institution into the purchase of extravagant real estate. Cooper Union for the first time in its history is charging tuition because of such shenanigans. So what exactly are art schools preparing students for? Academic life? Corporate minded college boards devalue faculty labor to save their own bottom lines. There are very few avenues for full time teaching (and these opportunities dwindle by the day). Art celebrity? Look at professional sports and you’ll see the distance between the farm league and the majors. Since the recession the market shake out has left little in-between Art Superstardom at galleries like Gagosian and DIY self-marketing on Etsy.
It is increasingly untenable to support our current higher education models. The Harvard model of ever increasing expansion is not a realistic approach for more than a handful of institutions. At this point, I must be clear that I am speaking to the education of visual artists. I can’t speak to other disciplines but I suspect that there are corollary concerns in other fields. I also understand that many readers will have little sympathy for a professor, let alone an art professor and working artist. But I warn those readers to consider that the disregard for another worker’s plight only leads to a devaluing of one’s own labor. For, despite the popular image of the artist as a flighty and silly provocateur the artist is a worker. A maker of culture. Whether or not you like or “get” the work art plays an integral part in the ecology and economy of the culture. When a school tries to ape the market values of a corporation it misses the most essential part of its mission: education. The process of a true education is messy, contradictory and inherently not efficient. Because, let’s face it the efficiency of major corporations is itself a fiction concocted out of myopic number crunching.
This summer my colleague, art historian Joan Handwerg and I will be piloting what we hope is an equitable and ethical model for an art school. Through a small fund provided by PNCA to test new models we will pilot an apprenticeship-based curriculum. This willingness to take a risk and seek a way out of the current educational bind demonstrates foresight on the part of the college. The model is actually based on older modes of teaching art. It has antecedents in the Art Student’s League and Black Mountain College. The liberal arts and the studio component are fully integrated. Students cook and eat together creating an atmosphere of conviviality and camaraderie. The students each have small studios and I work alongside them. Our curriculum includes symposium style delivery of art history and field trips all going right back into studio work. The classes take advantage of the physical experience of the place and the proximity of studio mates. Portland is outside of the power centers of the art world. The locality offers up the opportunity to model after artists who work outside the margins. We believe the most radical and fruitful thinking for an artist’s education occurs through person-to-person transmission, direct physical experience on site and intensive and rigorous twining of theory and practice.
The pilot tests the ability to flip our existing power structures. Currently students pay large tuitions and faculty see more pay cuts and disenfranchisement. In the existing semester system, students are offered a menu of courses from which they construct a patchwork semester. They have three hours here, six hours there and then the inevitable part time job to try and pay for school. In order to maintain the menu an increasing host of part time faculty wait with baited breath to see if their class will go. The experience is disjointed for both student and faculty. Most high paid “disruption consultants” hired by colleges suck on the ether of new technology– massive online courses, unskilled staff members teaching instead of experienced artists, iPads instead of physical books. We disagree with this assessment. Those approaches only serve bottom lines and further disenfranchisement. Digital technology is a useful tool but only one among many. And this generation of students has plenty of choice through those digital technologies. I believe many are hungry for an immersive, physical learning experience. It is an experience closer to the truth of being a practicing artist. Built into the curriculum are professional practices, basic living skills and the ability to drive one’s own work. The student doesn’t experience the false separation between “real life” and school. The ultimate vision (this is not shared by all parties who benefit from the current system) is an art school that is affordable to a wide range of students, honors experienced working artist/teachers both in title and remuneration and becomes a generative institution that is training, supporting and creating art.
Is it possible to reroute the institution away from its current destructive path that can only lead to a pyrrhic victory? We hope that this small experiment will help turn art schools towards something much more sustainable and ethical. There are a growing number of working artists frustrated by the toxic conditions of colleges and universities and starting their own schools. I applaud that impulse. But wouldn’t it be better to overhaul our existing schools? Our current art institutions are akin to a cocoon that believes it is the star of the show not the metamorphosing caterpillar it was meant to protect. The road we’re on is leading to a world of very big cocoons without much life inside them. Because here’s the truth, even if artists and art schools are considered as something frivolous, they are necessary to the health of our culture and economy. Popular economists tend to essentialize what is and what is not important to the economy missing the larger messier truth. I don’t subscribe to the “art saves lives” line. (Too prescriptive and utilitarian). Speaking of utilitarian, the reason that art is often sidelined as a losing proposition or the bauble of the wealthy has more to do with reductive market metrics than the actual function of art in our lives. I believe our culture puts too much stress on the quantifiable and efficient. Business ethos can’t and shouldn’t apply to every facet of life. Art and artists teach us to embrace the contradictory, to value the seemingly useless and find meaning in the cracks between calcified belief systems. Shouldn’t we teach the future’s artists in an atmosphere that fosters broad thinking instead of rote professionalism? I hope that this summer’s experiment is one small ripple among the many around the country that joins the great tide sweeping away corporate education and returns learning to a humane and place based endeavor.