Throwing the Gauntlet @ Art Programs

Why we need art programs and how we can reform them.

Artists are still key to the American experience. The sustainability of the American democratic experiment, within an increasingly diverse society impoverished by unrestrained capitalism, requires professionally creative publicly critical citizens. But can America’s art programs produce them? As long as most remain in bed with banks as self-serving, tuition-driven institutions producing non-unionized workers for a dated, late-twentieth-century economy of rarefied trophies, they will remain morally and ethically bankrupt, unable to face the future.

Reasons

During the 1980s, most art programs grew exponentially as art training was streamlined by universities and colleges to fall in line with general undergraduate and graduate structures, degree-granting processes, and fundraising. However, art training was never totally based on skills acquisition, but on the more intangible notion of talent. Indeed, some great talents have been self-taught or cultivated by a single mentor. Academia cannot award talent, no matter its Ivy League pedigree, celebrity faculty, theory seminars (currently out of control, overburdening students with excessive reading and writing without enough time for making), increasing micromanagement of students, and skyrocketing tuition fees that generate the inevitability of a degree no matter the lack of talent. After a graduate student has spent thousands, a degree becomes a consumer’s right, not to mention the avoidance of lawsuits.

By the 1990s, there were more and bigger art programs than ever generating an overpopulation of MFAs deep in debt. In-house tuition assistance was practically zero. It was not uncommon for art students to graduate with $80,000 in loans, plus. Yet the system was growing, so it immediately hired them back in, but as artists with short résumés and as teachers whose only training was as teaching assistants. In that regard, no second thought was given to the fact that Education was a discipline with a history and theory and that if art programs were now in the business of graduating art teachers because art students needed full-time jobs instantly in order to start paying back their loans immediately, they might need basic training in pedagogy. It has always been mistakenly presumed that all artists can teach. Yet regardless of student age, teaching requires the knowledge of how people learn.

Ultimately, by 2000 almost everyone became a willing or unwilling accomplice as art programs began to create institutionalized artists and, by default, institutionalized art strictly informed by history and theory rather than by primary sources and long-term American field experiences. This charted a course in which American contemporary art began heading toward a total disconnect from society. Art increasingly became about art, and though this pleased those who yearned for the continuation of Modernism, it was nothing but a decadent, intellectually incestuous, high recycling of culture—a sign of the end of empire.

We are now entering the second decade of the twenty-first century, with a Ph.D. in fine arts looming in the horizon, ready to complicate things more, to add more debt burden. Had our society remained increasingly homogeneous and affluent, we would not have noticed this critical state of affairs. But the MFA industry is saturated: There are few new jobs and very low salaries to whatever is offered. As with the residential real estate mortgage credit bubble, the art program tuition credit bubble is bursting. Politicians are even talking about the unimaginable: forgiving excessive student loan burden. Our entire economy is in crisis, and no matter what you hear and read, this is not a passing recession. Regardless, what we need culturally from artists lies beyond the hermetic academic cloister. This is the end of an era, and things need to change fast.

Reform

Nationwide, many art programs need to downsize, which is difficult because they are a mayor source of employment to thousands of artists. This will cause much pain; many will feel betrayed by the system—and they should. All art programs also need to reevaluate their tenured faculty. It is not only adjunct professors who should be evaluated yearly; everyone should be evaluated regularly irrespective of job security. Too many tenured faculty have become complacent and stopped making art or are merely repeating themselves, plus a new tool or two, only exhibiting at college and university galleries in de rigueur, promotional, program faculty group shows. I do not care for our current cult of youth at the expense of historical memory, but we need to select our culture’s true elders wisely.

In addition, all art programs need to engage in curriculum overhaul. They need to do this through two approaches: The first is to seek a truly interdisciplinary curriculum that surrenders cynicism and the anxiety of making art to the goal of producing interdisciplinary artist citizens. We are a nation of storage units; we do not need more art inventory. However, interdisciplinarity does not mean accepting people from other disciplines (without BFAs) into MFA programs and turning them into bad painters, because MFA programs are not designed to teach students how to paint so late in the game. Interdisciplinarity does not mean that we have a studio creative process informed by interdisciplinary research that produces yet another neo-modernist collectible for the old economy.

True interdisciplinarinity means that artists sit down with professionals from other fields to listen, learn, and eventually contribute to a non-art making process. Art may or may not be generated immediately as the result of that humble dialogue, but whatever is generated, in terms of designing a new bridge, a new building, a new park, or delivering a service will be better because artists were involved. Later, those artists may produce something informed by that out-of-studio experience, and it may look like art as we once knew it, or not. True interdisciplinarity is about art processes mixing with the processes of other disciplines, informing and being informed, transforming the participants and altering all outcomes. It means artists actively engaged in all aspects of the contemporary human experience: politics, labor, the economy, immigration, environmentalism, scientific breakthroughs, animal rights, new technologies, war and peace.

The second is that sincerity needs to make a comeback into art making: art programs need to take on publicly held points of view. They need to acknowledge that to remain “neutral,” which is to say, merely formalist, is a counter-cultural, institutionally suicidal, retrograde point of view. Increasingly, art students are selecting programs because they want to work with the environment through radical urban and suburban ecology, with political and economic activism through the Occupy movement, with populations in need, such as migrants and exiles, with workers rights at home, the Middle East and China. Art programs must develop expertises in those areas much like they once developed expertise in painting or sculpture. If these programs cannot be developed rapidly “in-house,” they can be through functional partnerships with other institutions.

In addition, all art programs should offer this interdisciplinary training complemented by internships that go far beyond working in galleries and museums: placing art students in nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, schools for the deaf, schools for the blind, autism programs, and all manner of research laboratories and think tanks. (Improving career counseling services will be wise, as art students will be challenged to rethink their initial goals.) Most young artists worry that they have nothing yet to say, but this will give them plenty. This will also turn art programs into active participants if not agents of change in their own communities.

I want to make it clear that I believe that art programs must also continue to teach shop skills or run the risk of producing producers so dependent upon capital that they will become conservative over time. But those skills must be updated through new technologies. The middle class romance with painting must end, even as painting is part of the human condition and must be reframed within the slow movement (in food, in fashion, etc.), significant not because of copying skills but because of its full engagement of our senses, grounding us, reminding us what it means to be embodied no matter our out-of-body virtual fantasies.

There is much talk about socially engaged artists pushing socially engaged art. Indeed, that may be the next fashionable class elective joining the interdisciplinary misnomer. But I fear that this is a new category that excuses all other art making from social responsibility, while it also fosters a prosaic art devoid of metaphor. Metaphor is not something dated. Just ask the advertising industry whose most successful campaigns remain all about sexy or poetic metaphors. If we stop teaching metaphor-making to artists, we might as well become craftsmen or social workers. I work in the public sphere with very difficult, religiously and politically conservative audiences. I do not consider myself a socially engaged artist making socially engaged art. I am a site-specific, durational performance artist who creates portraits of people and places by generating space and time for silent reflection. The template is formal, the content is a vessel, my crew and our audience consist of everybody.

Revolution

So this is the disastrous state of many of our art programs, no matter how good our MFA shows look across the land. In fact, it feels as if graduate art programs are increasingly obsessed about producing commercial-gallery-quality MFA shows that promote the programs (save face yet another year and increase enrollment) more than helping the indebted students start off. And yes, there are exceptional programs and exceptional teachers doing prophetic work that amounts to the heroic as they are surrounded and even sabotaged by mediocre colleagues and employers. Many more art teachers than we suspect have great field practices, but they are forced to leave them outside the classroom for the sake of fossil art program compliance. Thus, we need to start a revolution not just among art students but among art teachers, too. I love teaching; I am the product of memorable teachers. We need a horizontal and vertical academic revolution right now.

Why? Because we cannot do without art programs. When healthy, they are the repository of art training history; they provide old and new technical resources; they offer a critical but safe and supportive community of peers, nurturing the visionary. While practically every other career is drowning in conservatism, the visual and performing arts continue to offer a promise of individual and collective renewal if only we can liberate art training. This is a time of parting the waters between those that will lag as commercial craft programs and those that will rise as flexible laboratories for the artists that America and the Planet need. Considering the speed of hardware and software development, art curricula are now fluid, and as such we will need to revise them every few years.

I hope that you are in the right art program. If not, dare to jump ship, swim across the river, and climb into the right ship. If you skip a semester during your transition, that is better than wasting years in the wrong program and receiving a meaningless degree full of angry regrets. Or start a revolution in your art program, but only if you can win it. Do not waste your money. Money talks; take it elsewhere. Take control of your education.

I think that we Americans are a people constructed through lies: from religious utopia, to Native American genocide, to slavery, to generic whiteness (de-ethnified), to the American Dream of entitled abundance and the “right” to waste. Because the fantasy is bankrupt, ecologically unsustainable, and finally globally exposed, it has ultimately generated an angry people who are nice on the surface—sentimental but raging inside. We need art program to produce artists to address this. Our future depends on it.

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