The dubious value of art education

Now that we’re entering that time of year when various college and university art programs are cranking back into gear alongside their closed-for-August gallery counterparts (and the time of year when I’ll be reassessing my weekly schedule to include drop-ins at McMaster University’s senior-level art critiques on Thursdays), it seems fitting to have a think about the value of art education at the post-secondary level (with apologies to those students and their parents who have already paid their tuition up front for this little adventure).

The first two of our readings this week come via a post at View on Canadian Art, which has already done most of my job here by linking together two stories on the potential failures inherent in art education today. Though drafted primarily as a story about the Bruce High Quality Foundation‘s experimental free-academy model, Roberta Smith’s NYTimes article is just as much a condemnation of art schools in general, particularly those that endorse training at the post-graduate level:

The professionalization and academicization of the art world has been lamented for some years, but lately they have become epidemic. The recent inflated art market has created the illusion that being an artist is a financially viable calling. Meanwhile art schools and universities — which often provide tenure (safe haven) for artists who may be taken seriously nowhere else — expanded to accommodate the rising number of art students and are now thoroughly invested in keeping these numbers high.

In this context the growing interest among art schools and universities (mostly abroad so far) in offering a Ph.D. in art makes the blood run cold. It also seems like rank, even cynical commercial opportunism. It’s too soon to tell, but I’d like to think that the economic downturn is doing serious damage to this trend and maybe even put budding artists off graduate school entirely.

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Mackintosh Building, Glasgow School of Art (institution of choice for my highly expensive but undeniably sexy graduate degree)

As someone with both an MFA and nascent ambitions to pursue a PhD in the future (though not necessarily in studio art), I’m obviously approaching her opinion from an opposing shore, but even objectively I can’t help but wonder if Roberta Smith’s primary outrage over the financial exploitation of artists (granted, American schooling is prohibitively expensive) would be eased by the knowledge that, last I checked, the two Canadian universities offering PhDs in Studio Art (Western and York) both subsidize their candidates to such an extent that tuition is effectively free. And backward though such a critical move may be, removing money from the equation does force a deeper sort of thinking about the value of advanced studies in the visual arts. I suspect a text such as James Elkins’ Artists with Ph.Ds: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art presents a far more even-handed assessment of the phenomenon, and I look forward to reading it just as soon as I can afford to buy it.

Even so, I’ve yet to see much thought given to the prospect that the much-derided academy may well be nothing more or less than the institution that shapes today’s art, much as the church did for hundreds of medieval years and the wealthy did from the Renaissance after until… well, very recently. The artist as both thinker and maker does change the form and function of art in ways that can be perceived as both positive and negative, but it is the nature of art to adapt itself to inhabit whatever space the world deigns to permit for its existence, be that the cathedral or the open market or the academy. That may not be either Good or Evil, it simply Is.

In the context of this discussion, Andrea Carson at VoCA provides a link to their (for some reason, Carson always refers to herself in the plural) article for The Mark on art schools that is equally dismissive of the academic context as vital incubator for developing artistic skill and thinking, but benefits from offering a balanced solution to the problem of green graduates being unleashed into a big scary art world (“market” is implied) with a dearth of potential for further growth. If art institutions are not providing their students with the means to take their work and ideas into the wider world, it falls to the inhabitants of that world – curators, collectors, fellow artists, among others – to provide a much-needed community of support:

What is needed is more support for emerging artists in the form of discussion and awareness of the importance and earnestness of art. I think we should encourage not collectors, but patrons of the arts, people with an investment in the creative process, rather than just the market. Patrons for whom the value of art is far beyond the commercial, who seek art’s true meaning, not what a press release tells them.

Artists, critics, collectors and patrons should create communities where art is discussed. It seems clear that social networking opportunities could facilitate such discussions on a global level. Artists need to constantly question themselves: Where are they going, what are they doing? Whose ideas have merit, and why? Complacency is anathema to art.

While I’m not especially fond of Carson’s unerring belief in the nebulous force of raw artistic talent to thrive without institutions – even talent is something that must be honed with work and, yes, study – her demand for a discursive space for constant artistic growth in a wider community of diverse players is something I can wholeheartedly endorse.

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(Image from www.gearfuse.com)

To counteract all this cynicism, the last post I’d like to share today is an older one from Art:21 (and by older I mean maybe three weeks… oh, blogosphere, the way you distort time…) that despite the author’s perceived intention presents a bolstering example of the amazing things that can be achieved by students in an institutional setting. In the first of an on-going series of teaching anecdotes (the second was posted today, for those who like their meat fresh), Joe Fusaro talks about his first attempt to teach installation art to a class of 7th Graders who respond so enthusiastically to the concept that they immediately set about creating their own interventions throughout the school. While Fusaro is far from self-congratulatory about the complaints he received from staff after some of the students succeeded in covering every clock-face in the building (including the one in the principal’s office) with brightly-coloured dots, there’s no denying that it was, albeit temporarily, a highly successful act of art that immediately awakened every person in that school community to the power of those clocks in their everyday lives. And it’s the sort of work that would not have been thought of outside an institution.

I highly recommend reading Fusaro’s complete retelling of the story, and his other teaching anecdotes here, particularly if you’re one of the institution-bound artists out there needing to remember why this is all going to be worthwhile, someday.


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