My copies of Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited and introduced by Steven Henry Madoff, arrived with today’s mail. Here is part of jacket copy: “Art School brings together more than thirty leading international artists and art educators to reconsider the practices of art education in academic, practical, ethical, and philosophical terms.” Among the contributors are Thierry de Duve, Boris Groys, Robert Storr, Raqs Media Collective, Charles Esche, Ann Lauterbach, Ute Meta Bauer, and Daniel Birnbaum. Madoff invited me to formulate a questionnaire concerning art education and circulate it among prominent artists. The respondents, who discuss their experiences as both students and teachers, are Ann Hamilton, Dana Schutz, Fred Wilson, Guillermo Kuitca, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Matthew Higgs, Mike Kelley, Paul Chan, Paul Ramírez-Jonas, Piero Golia, Shirin Neshat, and Thomas Bayrle. My introduction and a selection of the artists’ answers are below. For more information on the book, visit its page on the MIT Press website.
Some of the twelve prominent contemporary artists chosen to respond to this survey received fine art training in university and art school settings; one studied chemical engineering, and another studied in a workshop setting outside the bounds of academic institutions. Nearly all have, at some point, taught art themselves. With so diverse a group—whose practices, it should be said, are also varied—the lessons to be drawn from their answers are not clear-cut. Nevertheless, several broad themes emerged. First, most of those surveyed agree that you have to learn the rules in order to break them. Whether our respondents felt that M.F.A. programs should be organized by discipline, some grounding in technique seems a necessary prerequisite to the free exploration that these programs should ideally encourage. Second, in looking back at their own educations, many felt that additional study of the liberal arts or humanities would have served them well in their careers as artists. Third, the interviewees were less concerned about the effects of the art market on art education than one might expect, given the hand-writing tone of many articles and essays on the topic. Fourth, and perhaps most important, nearly all agreed that no matter how much time one spends housed in institutions, the lessons that nourish an ongoing, sustainable career can come from anywhere—and that anywhere is often outside academic settings. This may be allied to the first observation. Beyond the specifics of discipline, medium, or technique to be gleaned from professors in art school, what young artists might benefit from most is the time, space, and gentle guidance necessary to be receptive to such unpredictable lessons—to learn a way of seeing that does not occlude any avenues for inspiration or growth. This assertion may be a commonplace, but whether art schools can make a space for this—or, perhaps more accurately, whether professors and students can carve this space out from institutional demands—may be one of the defining questions that such institutions face.
Selected Questions and Answers
In art school, did you learn how to sustain yourself as an artist, both creatively and professionally? Did you feel prepared to be an artist when you graduated?
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: I learned how to make art, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to keep up with what “professional” means, except that I’ve noticed that regardless of fashion, it consistently involves personality rather than argument to an extraordinary degree.
Ann Hamilton: I don’t know whether I felt prepared; I think I was all too aware of the holes in my knowledge and in my inability to be articulate about my work. I was, like everyone graduating, overwhelmed by the prospect of balancing the making of work and making a living. Actually, I don’t think that has changed too much—it’s not a challenge that goes away. But what I did feel prepared for was having a studio practice; I knew what that meant to me. I knew that my studio was in the books I was reading and in the flea markets and junk stores I visited. I knew I liked to look at objects and that the forms I created came as a process of response to a situation. I was just coming to understand, as I graduated, that a studio is a state of mind and not a physical location.
Mike Kelley: There was no art market when I was in school. Being a professional artist at that time was an ideological position. I showed, I traveled, I lectured, but I did not make money from these activities. I considered myself a professional artist and was trained to be one, and I functioned as one within that world. But if professionalism is defined by economic success—well, that’s just not what it meant at the time. There is, of course, a far different attitude about this now. I do feel that my graduate experience prepared me for the art world as it existed at that time. It made me aware that art was an international phenomenon and that I could network within it. For example, as a performance artist, I knew where I could perform—and I did.
Did your art school give you any sense of having an ethical commitment to the community that it was located in?
Paul Chan: No. Where I was, in downtown Chicago, you actually didn’t want to be a part of the very local community. The neighborhood where I lived, with other art students, outside downtown, gave us more of a sense of participation. We started a gallery in Pilsen, on the South Side. This is a complicated question, but the school itself did not instill in us this sense of commitment. Then again, I never really plugged in to what the school would offer that would give me that chance.
Paul Ramirez-Jonas: In a general sense, no. In a limited sense, some of my teachers thought that art should be a critique of the art world and the use of art as a commodity. My formative experiences regarding ethics, community, and politics took place as an undergraduate—outside the field of art. Although I was shy to get involved, my friends in university were extremely active in politics, environmental issues, etc. Even in high school (in Honduras), one had to complete a year of civic service to receive a diploma. It all added up to a series of examples of the importance of action, not just talk. In comparison, my experience in art school was shockingly disengaged. This contrast between university and art school reflects my current experiences as a faculty member. I can’t help but think that this situation relates to my answer to the first question [about the most valuable lesson learned in art school].
With hindsight, would you do it the same way if you had the choice? If not, how would you have gone about your education as an artist?
Shirin Neshat: If I had a chance to repeat my education, I would take some time off between undergraduate and graduate school. My rather unproductive years in graduate school were mostly due to the fact that I wasn’t intellectually prepared to be an artist, and mostly I was never able to place myself as an Iranian within Euro-centric art history. Today I firmly believe that my return to art was provoked by the way in which I immersed myself in life experiences, encountered certain individuals and institutions, and lived in particular political environments that helped to shape and develop my art.
In fact, after I graduated from school, I became artistically inactive for nearly ten years, until the moment when I felt emotionally and intellectually motivated. I generally feel that young artists should be cautious not to get too trapped in a vacuum, where their imaginations look mainly to their intuitions as the source, as opposed to knowledge and experiences that can only be gained outside of school boundaries.
Piero Golia: I think that by never going to school, I never came out of school. I wouldn’t change that at all. In a way, because I never graduated from art school, I’m still not done. It’s easy to see today how students don’t go to school to learn but rather to receive the stamp that says “I’m an artist.” And if you pay $40,000 a year to go to school, you really expect that stamp to get you in to a lot of places. That’s one of the big dangers of the art school system in America. If you go to law school, you come out a lawyer: I can take the bar, I can go to court and argue a case. But when you graduate from art school, you are not necessarily an artist. It’s not enough just to attend, whether for a week or for years and years.
By not having a degree, I will never be able to tell people, “I am an artist,” in an officially sanctioned way. So no, I don’t regret anything. Well, I regret everything, but that has to do with Catholicism and a whole host of other issues. I regret everything, but I’m proud of everything too.