You May Qualify for Art School

— a conversation between Martha Rosler and Sarah Lookofsky

Sarah Lookofsky: I feel compelled to start with some ads that pop up on my Facebook page on a daily basis: a mixture of Roy Lichtenstein lookalikes and model-y people—all with lips slightly agape and searching looks on their faces—summoned to lure me to apply for art school with the promise of generous grants. I haven’t bothered to figure out what is actually on offer (they don’t seem to detect that I am already rather over-educated), but let’s safely assume that the definition of art school is loose and that the “grants” advertised are actually loans. I mention these ads because it seems to me that they give a good picture of the reality of “art school” in the present: The churning out of too many arts professionals annually (not only MFAs but also the multitude of MAs in arts administration, curating, art history, not to mention the PhDs…), frequently saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt post-graduation, that are delivered to an over-saturated field where jobs, when extant, offer little pay and security. Your thoughts on any of the above?

Martha Rosler: The ads on FB are always pitched populist and young, say early to mid 20s (unless they discover you are older and then you get assisted-living ads). You are right, I am sure, that the loans are grants and the schools in question are for-profit scams, disappointment machines for students. But as you suggest, the picture of the art school applicant is a picture of a fashion model, and light in color and European in facial features. Where are the Goths, punks, and bearded boys in flannel? Oh, we are aiming for those who think art is a state of being, an identity, not a get-your-hands (or brains)-dirty sort of profession.

Art schools and programs have been churning out too many graduates since the early 70s; we were complaining about that even then (I wrote about it starting in the 70s). Art school serves a number of social functions aside from teaching art and granting credentials. It serves as a repository for the third son or any recalcitrant wastrel (or any daughter) of the idle (or even the industrious) rich, since for a mere contribution of tuition, room, and board, you can stash that embarrassing child somewhere post high school. I think that Britain decided in the post-industrial 70s to channel disruptive working-class (mostly male) youth into art schools as well, another way to bide time and who knows? Perhaps some might find a métier (as many did, especially, it seems, in music).

Although I’ve been teaching since the mid 1970s, it’s rarely been at free-standing art schools, though I have sometimes done so, in San Francisco, Vancouver, Halifax, and New York. The ambience, expectations, and “outcome” of art schools versus university art programs are sometimes quite divergent, and perhaps growing more so everyday. (There is a crisis in the UK and Canada, at least, where the departmental evaluation standards imposed by administrations on art programs in schools that have affiliated themselves with universities, and in programs already based in universities, are quantified just like all other programs, with respect to numbers enrolled, cost-effectiveness, grant-getting, graduation rate, and so on. Surely we can agree that is hardly appropriate in evaluating the education and training of people in the arts.)

SL: It’s curious that art has been all but abandoned at the lower grade levels, like K—12 in the US, in favor of more qualitative subjects, like reading, math, etc. In higher education, by contrast, they still seem to think it can be measured somehow. This perhaps indicates the divergent definitions of “creativity”—one is unruly and unproductive, while the other can be instrumentalized, turned into marketable skills. But that’s probably a different story for another day.

What about the promise of having a job post-graduation?

MR: The crisis of overproduction used to be based on a false promise that the MFA was a guarantee of a post secondary teaching job, but that was eventually exposed as unrealistic as art schools and departments cut back on faculty and in particular began hiring, and wildly underpaying, adjuncts. At the same time, however, the promise was that to go to art school was to enroll in a success academy, and if you were appropriately productive and nice to your professors and visiting critics, you would get yourself a gallery even before they handed you your degree—by your MFA show at the latest. Thus success became clearly defined not as appropriate development of yourself and your skills as an artist, curator, arts administrator, but—as in the rest of higher education—as an entry to a high-earning profession. The goals of liberal education, namely, the cultivation of a self, a citizen, and a person of refinement and discernment, a person with aesthetic sensibilities, have been replaced by the single goal: maximization of income. The accruing of huge debt burdens was seen as a sure way to guarantee that the unruliness of students manifested in the 1960s, for example, would be curbed so as not to jeopardize that path to high earnings. I know that in the success academies of art, those in New York and California, and perhaps Chicago, some students develop what they hope will be a winning entrée to the gallery world for a career of perhaps ten years, at which point they will have earned enough money either to retire or to go on to do something they think they would like better.

SL: There is a clear parallel (or continuation) of the 1960s debt burden you mention in the present. Since student debt is the virtually the only debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, graduates of all stripes are now frequently trapped in low-paying service-sector jobs, not the high-earning jobs they were promised upon admission. This is, to be sure, a central fueling anger behind Occupy (which coincides with the trillion dollar student loan “anniversary”), but it is probably also that very debt burden that, as you outline, keeps people away from the streets, since they are worried to leave the job they are “lucky” to have…

This leads me to a related point: As a fellow alumna of UCSD, I also want to touch on the current fate of the UCs, the privatization of public education in the US, and the politics of austerity of which they are part (Of course, though these policies are promoted as inevitable, these changes are in fact avoidable; here, too, the banks only stand to gain). Given that you graduated from UCSD in 1974 and have taught in art schools until recently, you have experienced the creeping privatization of education in the US up close. I am curious to hear how you would characterize the impact of these economic and political shifts on the day-to-day of art school (classes, critiques, work produced, etc.)?

MR: In the 1990s, at the onset of the corporatization, neoliberalization (a term we did not know), and quantification of higher education—including art departments, as I’ve described—deans and art-school presidents began bulking up their staff, to administer what was seen as insufficiently well-run institutions by virtue of being governed by the work force: the professoriate. Those goals of various types of real-world success, measurable in income and status, were imposed on art faculties. Departments had to fill a certain number of seats, or classes would be canceled, and thus the number of course offerings decreased. Students were rethought as “customers”—sometimes very high-paying customers and often with parents footing the bill. This new status meant that the balance of power soon shifted to students, in the form of course evaluations. These had been developed by students in the 1970s to circulate among themselves, to point out the good and the bad among the professors to other students and also to communicate the strength and weaknesses of the course and the teaching style to teachers. The corporatizing university quickly understood the value of this assemblage of data, easily quantified, in imposing discipline on faculty members, especially junior faculty and the burgeoning numbers of adjuncts. Please the customers who are always, as the saying goes, “right.” (This created a serious problem, since the success orientation occasioned a fantastic epidemic of cheating at every grade level and with respect to every pursuit and assignment in which high scores were crucial to success, an epidemic fostered not only by the culture of greed and competitiveness but by the easy availability of capturable materials on the internet.)

At my institution, the dean tried to force those among us professors who were chairs to make fund-raising calls to alumni and potential donors. Since the department had not bothered to retain records of past graduates (what are alumni good for, again?), that required a bit of scrambling to find them and discover their fate.

By and large the faculty and chairs refused to cooperate, and soon enough a new dean was hired specifically for his ability to raise money. The fact that he was a person whose after-hours behaviors I will not describe here and who had no interest in education or in the students, and indeed in art (he came from a different discipline), or in learning about it, or in being respectful of or even simply nice to faculty—as emerged in opinions of his ability and procedures expressed by the faculty in a review hastily cobbled-together by the upper administration about five years into his tenure—did not lead to his dismissal, because he continued to fulfill his fund-raising mission.

During the past decade, the number of senior faculty has been drastically reduced, while their workload has dramatically increased, beefing up the credits given per course so that students need fewer of them for graduation; the students’ ability to take courses elsewhere in the university has been sharply curtailed, so that their numbers bulk up the departments’ own; whole areas of concentration, such as performance and film, have been closed down and other non-success disciplines, such as photography or anything not painting or sculpture, have been squeezed, and fewer MFA students in non-success fields are admitted, except to fill TAships in which they teach classes for undergrads in those fields with little or no supervision; money-making “institutes” have been welcomed and resources given to them from other areas’ budgets, such as a lot of money has been spent buying temporary gallery space in New York for the MFA show, a group show that used to be held on campus; commercial gallerists have been invited as “visiting artists,” as have critics; the studio visit of such people has been routinized everywhere (this was not necessarily a feature of artists’ visits in the past); visits to art fairs are organized or encouraged; and the market has insinuated itself in many other ways into the conversation.

SL: All of this stuff is very end product oriented. I find that people are typically stressed about their final show from the moment they enter graduate school. This also leads to a lower emphasis of what should be central to advanced art education: conversations about process and work in progress, which are always much more engaging and productive than the evaluation of finished work.

MR: Most egregiously, critical studies have been banished and replaced by a class or two in which belle-lettrist reviews are perused. The senior painters and sculptors on faculty, some of whom have been hired quite recently (which reveals, should anyone care to notice, that at a relatively advanced age they don’t make enough from their work to remain outside the academy) to oversee these changes. One of them told me point blank: “You know, I don’t believe that critical studies has any place in graduate art education,” and the other (my students tell me) routinely tells students to stop wasting their time on theory classes and get into the studio and close the door. (He also once called the police on a performance artist—back when we had them—who had announced that his performance would include doing violence to paintings much like his.) Their excuse for their viciousness to students during critiques was that this was a preparation for the real world, a common excuse of bad parents. Our long-time performance prof, also a long-time grad director, snapped back that he thought our role was to nurture students while they were among us; shortly after, he was prevailed upon to retire.

SL: Wow.

MR: The desire of the dean to impose discipline on the faculty was immediately reflected in a signal decrease in faculty governance and a clear telegraphing of favor and disfavor that would affect promotion, for example. The success orientation was reflected in a lack of adventurousness in course offerings and a de-emphasis on, say, art-historical and critical learning among undergraduates as well as graduates. The graduate thesis requirement was canceled, though the BFA thesis was not. Also troubling was the inevitable de-emphasis on minoritarian viewpoints, including in terms of ethnic and racial identity and a marked decrease in faculty members of color, and of women.

SL: It strikes me that much of arts education is about affirmation (yay, hurrah!) and decreasingly about offering models for thinking critically and producing critical work.

MR: Although a belief in authenticity of expression is naïve and insupportable, to communicate or advocate what amount to cynicism, instrumentalism, and sheer opportunism is irresponsible and borders on the unethical. The culture of celebration you refer to is a corporate management strategy not much used in art schools, where sadistic domination is the pedagogical method of choice in critiques, as I’ve suggested. Celebration, however, is pervasive as an administrative tool, including in arts administration; it is also deployed in university administration, where it is thinly laminated over contempt. Unfortunately, it is all too common in arts nonprofits. One bulks up the image of oneself and one’s business as much as possible, to attract attention, status, and donors.

SL: You are right; it is probably more pervasive in what often passes for education in museums, etc.…

MR: What used to be the purview of the education department, which is to present the work of an artist for the edification of interested observers, is now often treated as an opportunity to turn visitors on to good young artists (or overlooked older ones) who present opportunities to buy art likely to appreciate in value. In the effort to continue to develop audiences, education departments seems to be assuring young people that art is Fun, whereas in the past, the message was that art was Important.

SL: Finally, I wanted to hear your thoughts on teaching. As an artist, who has frequently taught, what do you consider the most important “lessons” to impart to art students?

MR: I am a bad one to lecture art students; I tell them that school, like most institutions, wants to turn their imaginative capacities into “creativity” and stifle their audacity, and that they need above all to preserve that audacity. I remind them that going to art school to make a living is a bit mad and that they should do it because they want to be there; that they should seek little from their professors but a great deal from their fellow students. Art school and art education may provide the context for becoming an artist, but that is not really where learning, or community building, lies.

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