In her September 9th column lauding The Bruce High Quality Foundation University, a free, unaccredited art school created by the artist collective The Bruces in the vain of Summerhill and The Art Students League, Roberta Smith criticizes academia’s role in the art world as one that capitalizes on “the illusion that being an artist is a financially viable calling.” She also criticizes the new Ph.D. programs in studio art as “cynical commercial opportunism.” So, is it financially feasible to be an artist? And if not, is the Masters of Fine Arts, presently accepted as the standard terminal degree in artmaking, a useful degree? Would a Ph.D. program benefit artists?
Remember that ARTISTS DRIVE THE BUS… The entire enterprise is built on one central event: the creative act in the studio.
Artists generate jobs for art critics, art historians, curators, gallerists, art consultants, arts administrators, and art educators, among others. Thus, it’s odd, even arrogant, for Smith to argue about the feasibility, or lack thereof, of artmaking as a profession. In fact, there are markets for art; it is possible to be an artist, although it’s true that it might not be the most profitable or easiest route for one to take. But these days, what is? Law school, once thought to be a reliable path to a six figure salary, particularly if one went to a top-tier school, is now leaving students six figures in debt with no job prospects. And, those who are lucky enough to score jobs at a Vault 100 firm are stuck working 50-60 hours a week, doing mindless doc review. I may not be able to subsist entirely on my artistic practice, but at least my day job involves creating curriculum, working with leaders in my field on a regular basis, designing material for print and web publication, teaching and writing this blog post in my down time.
And, I am certain that MFA made me a more desirable candidate for my job. A good MFA program prepares its students not just by refining their craft, but also by asking them to relate abstract ideas and visual forms, to utilize available resources, to work under pressure, to work both independently and collaboratively with others, to criticize and evaluate ideas and works, and to effectively communicate, skills that are valuable in myriad settings. Of course, the goal of every artist is to be able to exist entirely off one’s own art, to be a full-time artist, but it doesn’t mean that one has failed if he must instead use the critical thinking and creative skills that he honed in art school to do something else.
Smith is rightly critical of the present model for advanced study in art practice that leaves too many young artists in debt, and struggling to find time to both survive and make art. However, this is not just “the big business of art schools.” This is the higher education system in America, whose costs are rising at a much greater rate than our incomes are. What’s more, she is too dismissive of the possibility of a more, rather than less, rigorous educational model for artists as the solution to this problem. Indeed, I don’t know that a Ph.D. program is really necessary for artists, however, it’s illogical to call the prospect of such a thing “cynical commercial opportunism” on the part of a university that chooses to offer one. In fact, most Ph.D. candidates are funded– that is, they are actually paid (albeit not much) to study their discipline and often also teach undergraduate courses. Assuming this model would hold true for a Ph.D. in fine arts (and it seems to for the University of California San Diego’s new program, one of the only such programs in the United States) this would actually be a good thing for artists. They would have the opportunity to be supported for five years as they made art, and would emerge free with all the connections that a graduate arts education affords, and a degree that would allow them to teach at the college level. Finally, five years of study is a much larger time commitment than the two, or sometimes three years required by MFA programs. Perhaps the greater time commitment will serve to weed out less serious candidates.
Last July, in a performance titled, “Explaining Pictures to a Dead Bull,” the Bruces asked, “How can we imagine a sustainable alternative to professionalized art education?” Maybe the way to combat “the conflation of market, art, and academy” is not to abandon entirely any academic qualification for an artist, as the Bruces propose. Perhaps instead, it is to increase academic qualification, to let academia for once truly embrace the arts, to equate artmaking with original research. And maybe then, Roberta Smith will remember who drives the bus.