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Permission to Fail | The Nation

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Permission to Fail

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An installation view of Educational Complex (1995), by Mike Kelley

An installation view of Educational Complex (1995), by Mike Kelley

The fact that artists are now minted by universities (and degree-granting art schools modeled on the university) may have done wonders for their social standing, but it’s also been a source of worry to many critics and artists, who think something of great value might be lost by the professionalization of the artist. In 1969, Harold Rosenberg reported in his art column in The New Yorker: “My mere citing of some figures—for example, only one of ten leading artists of the generation of Pollock and de Kooning had a degree (and not in art), while of ‘thirty artists under thirty-five’ shown in ‘Young America 1965’ at the Whitney Museum the majority had B.A.s or B.F.A.s—was taken by a prominent younger painter as implying that he and his age group were academic. ‘Academic’ is still a bad word, even though no one knows any longer exactly what it means.” Notice that in illo tempore it was still notable that artists had suddenly become armed with bachelor’s degrees. Today it almost goes without saying that an artist has an MFA, and poor old Rosenberg, sanguine though he was about the credentialization of art, is probably rolling over in his grave now that some universities are launching PhD programs for artists.

Rosenberg was certain that university education had been an important influence on “the cool, impersonal wave in the art of the sixties,” which had marginalized the tumultuous heartfelt emotionalism of his friends the Abstract Expressionists. “In the shift from bohemia to academe, American art has become more conceptual, methodological, and self-assured,” he thought. That’s probably so, but in the meantime it’s become impossible not to notice that even as artists are becoming ever more adept in the rituals of the seminar room, their art has not continued to grow still cooler and more impersonal; instead, the temperature of art has simply become more volatile. In the 1980s, the Neo-Expressionists, for all their flailing bombast, were every bit as well-read as the prim and knowing Neo-Geos; today, one and the same school grants identical degrees to both an earnest proponent of “social interventions” among the urban poor and a producer of diaristic zines inspired by the Japanese aesthetic of kawaii, or cuteness. It might be argued that the variety of work being produced by art students reflects the pluralism of the art world (and the art market) in general, but I suspect it is more of a cause than an effect; what Rosenberg thought was the “mental and psychic fragmentation of the typical college art department” has merely blossomed into the greater incommensurability of the products of the professional art world.

To get a taste of the “fragmentation” of present-day art education, one could hardly do better than to leaf through a little book published several years ago called 101 Things to Learn in Art School. I don’t know whether its intended readership is prospective art school students—in which case it’s a poor reflection on the institutions themselves, which apparently can’t convey in the four years it takes to earn an undergraduate degree, plus the two further years it takes to get an MFA, what the book has offered in text that takes an hour to read—or readers who only wish they were. But its author, Kit White, is a professor of painting at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and it was published by one of the best art book publishers, MIT Press, so it comes with a seal of pedagogical approval. Having taught in a half-dozen art departments in the United States and Great Britain, and having been a visiting critic at so many others (in those two countries and Canada too) that I long ago lost count, I can attest that there is nothing in 101 Things to Learn in Art School that I haven’t heard somewhere, sometime—and for that matter probably very little that I haven’t actually said myself—at one or another of these schools. The book really is a distillation of the contemporary art school’s collective wisdom. If a lot of that wisdom takes the form of platitude—Polonius at a studio crit—that’s partly because the real force of wisdom lies in its timely deployment: not just what you say but when you say it, at the precise time the person you’re talking to needs to hear it.

Even so, 101 Things all too effectively shows how much more fragmented the art world has become since Rosenberg’s day. The book comprises at least three different archeological layers of artistic thought. One consists of the precepts of traditional representation: “Learn to draw perspective.” “The human figure is a complex construction composed of a rigid frame overlaid with soft, rounded, elongated muscles.” “Chiaroscuro is the dramatic contrast of dark and light in an image.” The second is the modernist idea that the artwork is a thing in itself rather than a representation: “All images are abstractions.” “Embrace the ‘happy accident.’” And finally there is the scoria of postmodernism and conceptualism, with its emphasis on the linguistic basis of art and its entanglement with its context: “Experience of most things is mediated.” “Context determines meaning.” “All art is political.”

These various teachings often contradict one another. If “all media are delivery systems for content,” it can’t also be true that “a drawing (or a painting, photograph, and so on) is first and foremost an expression of its medium.” The postmodern faith with which the book begins—“Art can be anything”—suggests that the modernist wisdom of Oscar Wilde’s quip “All art is quite useless” must be out of date: if art can be anything, it can be useful too. The advice to “eliminate the nonessential” seems to point toward the anonymous and impersonal in art; not so the recommendation to “cultivate your idiosyncrasies.” If the contradictions latent in the postures that art school students are supposed to fashion themselves after are an ideological incoherence, however, that’s not to say they can’t be pragmatically useful. The student who is too self-indulgent can be counseled to eliminate the inessential, and the one who’s too uptight urged to nurture some eccentricity. Most of what a student should learn in art school are simply different ways of saying “Keep working”; “Pay more attention”; “Think again—are you really sure about that?”

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