Can Art Be Taught

Outing the MFA Industry

By: - Nov 10, 2012


Anything can be art from an object, to an action, or even a thought.

Naming is knowing. Or claiming.

With the boundaries and definitions of art now seemingly endless anyone is an artist who aspires to be one.

Same goes for critics.

I’m an artist and critic because I say I am.

Proving it, however, is another matter.

It helps to have training, degrees, publications, exhibitions, professional credentials.

Life experience, talent, insight and something to say are useful.

How then, for a young person to enter into this elusive, exclusive/ inclusive, confraternity and ersatz profession.

A generation or more in the past there was an assumption of the ability to acquire a basic set of skills while engaging in specific aesthetic dialectics.

One could taking drawing and painting classes at the Art Students League or pursue the certificate program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Enrollment in the Mass College of Art, the nation’s only state supported art school, was established to train secondary art school teachers.

Traditionally, art schools and conservatories focused on the master/ apprentice system. One acquired the skills to succeed as an artist or performer. These institutions, by definition, did not offer academic degrees. That gradually changed when more and more alliances were formed with colleges and universities. From a business and marketing position, in order to attract students and tuition, a course of study must lead to a BFA and then an MFA. Just making it as an artist or performer was no longer sufficient.

During the Post War era artists enrolled in the summer school of Hans Hofmann in Provincetown to master the tenets of Abstract Expressionism with his heavily accented crits and the rubric of “push/pull.” It helped that the GI Bill supplemented the study of veterans.

Hofmann, during a studio visit, advised the younger artist, Jackson Pollock, “To study nature.” Famously Pollock replied “I am nature.” Later, at Pollock’s funeral following a car crash/ suicide, Willem de Kooning, a colleague/ rival, said “Pollock broke the ice.”

What followed have been generations of Oedipal ice breakers.

Each generation of creators are mandated to kill their fathers and rise phoenix-like from the ritual pyre.

This has, of course, devolved into chaos with masters of the academy mandated to instruct their students in the most effective means of career establishing patricide.

The notion is not to teach art, an agreement on a primary body of skills usually viewed as the “foundation” or first year of an art school, but rather an education “about art” with an emphasis on theory and process.

That calls to mind the last novel of Herman Hesse “The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi).” A group of students were inducted into the board game, rather like Go, which is more complex than chess.

One friend, less brilliant and skilled, washed out and became successful in the material world. Like Scientology or The Masons, the other progressed through higher and higher levels to ever more elite and rarified plateaus finally achieving the rank of Magister Ludi (Master of the Game).

The stunning conclusion of the novel finds the master spending his final years as a dropout from the game and tutor to the son of his friend. It ends with his drowning.

In the current paradigm, each year the nation’s colleges, universities and art schools induct a new crop of initiates to the art game. Some will emerge eventually as masters while others, after wanderjahren as initiate artists paying off staggering student loans with menial jobs, will eventually pursue aspects of the secular life.

The best and brightest of these will be advised by the masters of the academy to incur more debt pursuing an MFA or the now more secure status of a doctorate in studio practice.

In the brutal competition for coveted, tenure track, teaching positions an MFA is eroding as a terminal degree.

The education industry is conspiring to extend the time in which students are enrolled in programs with no purpose other than to find tenured positions.

Which means that most of the actual creativity or production of art is being done by the students themselves. Like salmon swimming upstream to the spawning pools most perish, are exhausted, or simply broke.

For most artists securing a tenure track position means the phasing out of their art practice. The demands of the academy leave little time for the studio. The financial security of tenure comes with little or no incentive to bother. It makes the art professor more and more distant from cutting edge inspiration being passed along to students.

Making art is terribly expensive and it helps to have deep pockets, generous parents, supportive spouses, or influential lovers.

Much of this is laid out in the recent BFA essay by my artist colleague Martin Mugar. Sublimely educated at Yale he is that rarest of artists who thinks.

We have engaged in endlessly nuanced discussions/ debates going back to that first inebriated evening, long ago, when he invited me to dinner at the Algonquin Club on Comm Ave. The Maitre d' lured us out of the dining room and into the lounge with snifters of brandy. We moved on to a nightcap at the popular Pour House on Boylston Street. Since then the debate rages on.

Martin lured me into this discussion by including me in his recent essay. “I have always admired Charles Giuliano’s sense of Boston as an art-hood. He put himself out there like the guys at the drugstore with his column “Perspectives” in “Art New England”. He went to the openings and knew, because of his clout as a critic, there were many good bashes and meals to be proffered by those who courted his opinion. Although he pissed off a lot of people by not writing about them or offering only grudging praise, by being there in the trenches on the scene, like a good reporter or politician, he helped create the warp and the woof of an art community.”

True. But this excess of hyperbole called for an adequate response.

From time to time my status as a critic has earned invitations to give annual crits to students at the Museum School (the classes of Susan Denker and Jane Hudson) and, on one occasion, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard.

The approach, mirroring my practice as a critic, has always been to engage directly with the work and to try to initiate a dialogue with the creator. For me the artist is always the primary source for understanding the work.

Readers of Berkshire Fine Arts will be familiar with this Socratic process.

This is different from the majority of contemporary critics who acquire paradigms and  criteria that they impose on the work in question. The creator is an inconvenience potentially obscuring their sacrosanct objectivity.  

The purest and highest of the critical establishment avoid all contact with those they write about. Including breaking bread, meeting socially, or accepting gifts/ bribes from their subjects. One colleague resists so much as grabbing a cookie from the opening night buffet when departing from the theatre.

My good friend Martin outs me “He went to the openings and knew, because of his clout as a critic, there were many good bashes and meals to be proffered by those who courted his opinion.”

Well, not exactly. True, I enjoy post performance cookies. But it does not in any way influence my reviews. If it is a show I didn’t like, and do not plan to praise, I am apt to depart the buffet post haste. When I have enjoyed the work/ production I hang in and try to photograph or engage in a dialogue with the artists/ performers.

In some instances, dialogues with artists/ performers have gone on for years.

Most of what I think and know comes from these discussions. When I started as a jazz/ rock critic for the daily Boston Herald Traveler the musicians I talked to were my tutors and mentors. Prior to that I had been an enthusiast, avid record collector, and fan.

While still living in Boston, each Wednesday when my class ended at 5 PM, I invited a different artist/ curator/ critic/ gallerist to meet me for a “Beer and Burger.” We hoisted a few while I scribbled notes resulting in an article for Maverick Arts. These regular meetings are now few and far between in the less populated Berkshires.

I have never hung out with individuals whose work I am not interested in. Back in Boston I was getting e mails from artists inviting me for a “Beer and Burger.” That didn’t often work out.

While I studied art history as an undergraduate, and more intensely in graduate school, I prefer to look at, think, and talk about art rather than read theory. This puts me in opposition to the mainstream of current practice.

For me, art is to be experienced directly. It must exist, engage and satisfy on its own terms. There has to be a depth to the work that evokes layers of responses. I’m not much into safe art or pretty pictures. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, most of the contemporary art encountered in New York galleries or the global, art fair, biennial circuit from Venice to documenta.

The contemporary art world is ever more enervating. The most recent Whitney Biennial was a dreadful, depressing experience. Although, with its top heavy video presentations and performances, during a day spent at the exhibition, we sampled only a sliver of that project.

Several years ago, visiting documenta, we stayed for three days with the last spent trying to see at least some of the 600 hours or so of video it entailed. Some of which was quite wonderful if you have the time and patience.

Much of the conundrum of contemporary art centers on the academy, the art education industry, and its theoretical hegemony.

Too often when viewing the work, usually installations and aspects of video/ media, of young artists, one can feel the crits. It is more about well vetted smartness than genuine feelings. Perhaps it’s generational, but I don’t much care about, or connect with, the concerns of most young artists. Commitment, emotion, change evoking insight and content are not qualities easily passed along by art educators.

Mostly what art students appear to latch onto are undigested notions of queer theory, gender politics, post colonialism, race and identity, deconstruction, appropriation, process, materials, media and new technologies.

As to basic skills, a love of the craft traditions of art making, well, fuggedddahboutit.

That baby got tossed out with the bath water long ago.

During my crit at Harvard, for example, one of the students asked what I thought of Hegel?

Not much I responded looking rather at his inept effort to make a work of art. No discussion of Hegel was likely to make him a better artist. This deflection was a way of dodging a direct discussion of his intentionality for the squalid work in question.

Although I am sure, my friend Martin, has read Hegel in depth. Yale you know and all that.

Yes, it would be good to know more about Hegel, and lots of other things, but we have need to know priorities. I am lagging behind with miles to go before I sleep.

Am I advocating trashing the academy and shuttering the art schools with their self perpetuating degree programs?

Outing and closing down the out of control education industry which cranks out how many redundant MFA’s each year? What is the ratio- like twenty degrees- for perhaps one tenure track job? Increasingly, the education industry is cutting back on tenured professors, even with Ph.D’s, and staffing with adjuncts working for minimal wage and no benefits.

Yes. Absolutely. Down with the Academy.

Nothing new here. As F.T. Marinetti wrote in the 1909 Futurist Manifesto “We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.”

Does that make me a barbarian, Attila the Hun, or Christ driving the money lenders out of the sacred temple of art?

Perhaps both, all, or none of the above.

The art world itself has caused this collapse of the house of cards.

Because there is no agreement on what is art and the basic skills to be acquired.

Which is to say that contemporary art may be discussed but it cannot be taught.

When I taught “Ideas of Western Art,” expanding on and providing a context for images in the survey, students resented departing from the textbook. There was too much information. A resistance to riffing on Mannerism. What a juicy subject. They wanted to know “Will this be on the test?” A feisty student asked “What has this to do with me being a graphic artist?”

Then and now I really don’t have an answer. Knowing about the Pyramids may indeed have nothing to do with a career in graphic design.

Just as the arts and humanities have nothing to do with a student of engineering, nursing, criminology, or computer science. It was always amazing to have State Troopers enrolled in my classes at Framingham State. Some of them were really great guys and good students. I would like to think that somehow I enriched their lives.

The arts and humanities are more relevant when preparing students for careers in fine arts, music, literature, and theatre.

There is a different relationship to studying the classics.

One has to be taught how to play an instrument in order to perform Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. It requires discipline to pursue a life in theatre. It helps to have classical training in Shakespeare, Chekhov, or method acting. Someone has to teach you how to play sax like Bird and Trane, to dance the Nutcracker, write a novel, or paint a picture.

There are abundant examples of street art from rap, and hip hop, to graffiti. Young people are shooting videos on iPhones. Or creating graphic arts through autodidact programming.

You don’t need to know how to draw, paint, or sculpt to make it into the Biennials.

Arguably, but not necessarily, it helps to know stuff like Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Bach, Rembrandt, Titian, the Pyramids, Parthenon, Civil Rights.

Yo, hey kids. Forget about the Zone System, Ansel Adams, darkroom chemistry, and go straight to digital and Photoshop. Be the first to win an Oscar for a film shot for $5,000 on an iPhone.

For that you don’t need a degree from Yale or RISD.

Everything they teach will be obsolete by the time you hit the streets with a ton of debt. Remember the avant-garde mantra that success will come only by forgetting all that you have been taught and starting over.

Burn baby burn.

Let’s end with the Manifesto on the foundation of a “Free International School for Creativity and Inter disciplinary Research” written by Joseph Beuys and Heinrich Böll in 1973. 

“Creativity is not limited to people practicing one of the traditional forms of art, and even in the case of artists creativity is not confined to the exercise of their art.  Each one of us has a creative potential which is hidden by competitiveness and success-aggression.  To recognize, explore and develop this potential is the task of the school.

 “Creation—whether it be a painting, sculpture, symphony or novel, involves not merely talent, intuition, powers of imagination and application, but also the ability to shape material that could be expanded to other socially relevant spheres.

 “Conversely, when we consider the ability to organize material that is expected of a worker, a housewife, a farmer, doctor, philosopher, judge or works manager, we find that their work by no means exhausts the full range of their creative abilities.

 “Whereas the specialist’s insulated point of view places the arts and other kinds of work in sharp opposition, it is in fact crucial that the structural, formal and thematic problems of the various work processes should be constantly compared with one another.

 “The school does not discount the specialist, nor does it adopt an anti-technological stance.  It does, however reject the idea of experts and technicians being the sole arbiters in their respective fields.  In a spirit of democratic creativity, without regressing to merely mechanical defensive or aggressive clichés, we shall discover the inherent reason in things.

 “In a new definition of creativity the terms professional and dilettante are surpassed, and the fallacy of the unworldly artist and the alienated non-artist is abandoned.

 “The founders of the school look for creative stimulation from foreigners working here.  This is not to say that it is a prerequisite that we learn from them or that they learn from us.  Their cultural traditions and way of life call forth an exchange of creativity that must go beyond preoccupation with varying art forms to a comparison of the structures, formulations and verbal expressions of the material pillars of social life:  law, economics, science, religion, and then move on to the investigation or exploration of the “creativity of the democratic.”

“The creativity of the democratic is increasingly discouraged by the progress of bureaucracy, coupled with the aggressive proliferation of an international mass culture.  Political creativity is being reduced to the mere delegation of decision and power.  The imposition of an international cultural and economic dictatorship by the constantly expanding combines leads to a loss of articulation, learning and the quality of verbal expression.

 “In the consumer society, creativity, imagination and intelligence, not articulated, their expression prevented, become defective, harmful and damaging—in contrast to a democratic society—and find outlets in corrupted criminal creativity.  Criminality can arise from boredom, from inarticulated creativity.   To be reduced to consumer values, to see democratic potential reduced to the occasional election, this can also be regarded as a rejection or a dismissal of democratic creativity.

 “Environmental pollution advances parallel with a pollution of the world within us.  Hope is denounced as utopian or as illusionary, and discarded hope breeds violence.  In the school we shall research into the numerous forms of violence, which are by no means confined to those of weapons or physical force.

 “As a forum for the confrontation of political or social opponents, the school can set up a permanent seminar on social behavior and its articulate expression.

 “The founders of the school proceed from the knowledge that since 1945, along with the brutality of the reconstruction period, the gross privileges afforded by monetary reforms, the crude accumulation of possessions and an upbringing resulting in an expense account mentality, many insights and initiatives have been prematurely shattered.  The realistic attitude of those who do survive, the idea that living might be the purpose of existence, has been denounced as a romantic fallacy.  The Nazis’ blood and soil doctrine, which ravaged the land and spilled the blood, has disturbed our relation to tradition and environment.  Now, however, it is no longer regarded as romantic but exceedingly realistic to fight for every tree, every plot of undeveloped land, every stream as yet unpoisoned, every old town center, and against every thoughtless reconstruction scheme.  And it is no longer considered romantic to speak of nature.  In the permanent trade competition and performance of the two German political systems which have successfully exerted themselves for world recognition, the values of life have been lost.  Since the school’s concern is with the values of life we shall stress the consciousness of solidarity.  The school is based on the principle of interaction, whereby no institutional distinction is drawn between the teachers and the taught.  The school’s activity will be accessible to the public, and it will conduct its work in the public eye.  Its open and international character will be constantly reinforced by exhibitions and events in keeping with the concept of creativity.

 “Non-artists” could initially be encouraged to discover or explore their creativity by artists attempting to communicate and to explain—in an undidactic manner—the elements and the coordination of their creativity.  At the same time we would seek to find out why laws and disciplines in the arts invariably stand in creative opposition to established law and order.

 “It is not the aim of the school to develop political and cultural directions, or to form styles, or to provide industrial and commercial prototypes.  Its chief goal is the encouragement, discovery and furtherance of democratic potential, and the expression of this.  In a world increasingly manipulated by publicity, political propaganda, the culture business and the press, it is not to the named—but the nameless—that it will offer a forum.”

 Jane Hudson on Art Education

Martin Mugar on Tim Nichols

Does Art Matter