The Not-So Wild West

On April 26, 2011, in Blog, by BHQF

Downtown Denver is a common mistake. The city spits out a strip of culture complete with a movie theater, Starbucks, alternative to Starbucks, and a few postcard shops and calls it a day.


Ask anyone in the know where to find the real action and it turns out not to fall so easily in line with the city’s centralized culture program. We ended up at a place called Illiterate Magazine, which operates as a gallery, publication, studio, and meeting space for whatever floats their fancy. And tonight a conversation about art education is on the books. Go figure.

A decent crop of tonight’s participants are from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. The story of the school is becoming common. A mom and pop operation can’t make ends meet, gets bought by an educational corporation, the indefinable mess of artist-peer community gets subjugated to the moneymaking pseudo-progress of online education, and people start to wonder what the hell is the point anymore.

We heard a similar story coming out of Santa Fe. The College of Santa Fe, an operation of the Christian brotherhood, brought in some professional administrators who sold the school to an educational corporation that has the ‘progressive’ notion that artists now live in a ‘global society’ and therefore shouldn’t stay in one place too long (the emphasis is on the importation of foreign students) – meanwhile the administrators wonder why they can’t get students to take root in Santa Fe after graduation.

Santa Fe is supposedly the third largest art town in the country, but most of that is in jewelry and cowboy painting. It’s also a town full of old people who have retired to the high desert altitude to avoid the coming arthritis. There is plenty of money, which means you can’t smoke anywhere. And there are plenty of police, which means the people with the money would rather not share it.

The kids who have stuck it out are doing their best to make it work, trying on for size their abilities at grant hunting and reclaiming empty strip malls. And there persists, against the odds, a belief that all we truly have to educate ourselves as artists is each other.

This sheds some light on the running confusion we’ve come across during this little field trip of ours. We go to one location to publicly bemoan the debt-riddled professionalizing homogeneity of America’s art academies. Then we go to another location to find out what other ways artists are educating themselves. More than once audience members have responded to our presentation by asking us what alternative we’re proposing. But this is missing the point. The fact is, the alternatives are already out there, they just aren’t being called “art school.” The alternatives are at Detroit Soup, and Illiterate Magazine, and Vox Populi (Philadelphia), and The Soap Factory (Minneapolis), and 5E Gallery (Detroit). They are in the unnamed art squats and lone wolf artist studios we didn’t visit as well as the ones we did. And they are in the future of every true artist’s heart, because to be an artist is to always be learning. If we knew what art was, we couldn’t honestly call ourselves artists. It’s a moving target always floating somewhere between ourselves and the world.

Our own project, BHQFU, is not so much an answer to the MFA system as it is an example of the kind of thing that already exists all over the country that, were the academy to loosen its pugnacious grip on the term ‘art education,’ could fill in the blank. An artist’s peers are her true audience and teachers. And rather than seeing this wispy wisdom as an occasional lucky side effect of the academic industry, we’d like to see the culture embrace it as the prime mover of anything bold enough to call itself art education.


People still want to know what’s wrong with the MFA system.

So when we arrived in New Mexico we called Dave Hickey.

Dave agreed to meet us at a Starbucks in Albuquerque under the condition that we do not tell anyone that he is nice. He is not nice. He is, to put it as lightly as possible, brusque. And his short answer to our question of whether graduate MFAs have any value to artists was “no.”

Three hours, a few lattes, and way too many cigarettes later, we piled back in the limo with many of our assumptions confirmed. There is no quick fix of the MFA system. It’s codifying a kind of middle class aesthetic sensibility and reifying the “therapeutic institution.” Schools, like museums, fill up the space regardless of whether there is any talent worth teaching. By segregating the visual arts from its brethren in poetry, music, theater, and dance, we suffer our specialization and lose sight of the transformative capacity of metaphor.

Also, apparently rock and roll is awesome.

Hickey has taken the time to write down some of his thoughts on the matter. Caroline Peters, an artist and educator who we had the good fortune to meet in Denver, sent us the following of Dave’s quotes from an Art in America article titled “Art Schools Group Crit.” So for those looking for more specific answers to the question of why we think art education ought to be thought out of the academy, perhaps this will suffice as a starting point.

1. In the present moment, artists are better off training themselves at home and acquiring the benefit of a good liberal arts or art historical education. This, because the model for graduate art education, established in the early ’70s by John Baldessari and others (myself included), is 40 years old and virtually obsolete.

2. Art schools are unhappy, ugly places. They tend to inculcate philistine, institutional habits of mind and to teach young artists more about teaching than about art. Since teaching art has been destructive to the practice of every artist I know who teaches, I try never to forget that the few good, serious teachers of art pay a price that’s way too high for the privilege of doing it.

3. Teaching art, in my experience, is a genuine privilege that comes with its own oath to “do no harm.” It also breaks your heart.

4. Art is a cosmopolitan practice best taught in cities near the water. Teaching art in a provincial cultural environment that does not celebrate and embrace change is totally self-defeating. It transforms art into a compensatory discourse that can help a stranded student maintain his or her sanity for few years in the boonies. It cannot, however, help people who teach under these conditions maintain their sanity. These people are doomed….

5. Teachers of art practice have one overriding obligation to their students: to be intimately familiar with the contemporary standards of art practice, discourse, trade and exhibition against which their students’ work will be measured–so their students will know the unspoken rules they are choosing to break or not to break. The art market itself should be dealt with evenhandedly and explained in detail. It is a fact and an option from which students should not be cloistered. Demonizing the art marketplace does more damage to students than exposing them to collectors and dealers who are irrevocably a part of the art world.

6. Art school must be free or cheap. It is virtually impossible for a young artist to establish a mature, courageous practice with a six-figure educational debt.

7. Art students should not be placed under the authority of older practicing artists whose work they are mandated to render obsolete. This guarantees bad advice and destructive criticism.

8. Any teacher of art who conceives his or her job to be “teaching young artists to think critically” should be fired immediately for intellectual dishonesty.

9. All group crits with faculty and students in attendance should be abolished immediately. These crucibles privilege the verbal over the visual and allow faculty members to poison and manipulate peer relations among their students.

10. Nurturing attention paid to an art student should never be confused with attention paid to nurturing art.

11. Unfinished work should be presumed not to exist.

12. Art in the context of an art school always looks bad, especially when it’s very good.

13. Regular supervision and oversight of young artists’ practice should be suppressed. My rule: “If you’re not sick, don’t call the doctor.”

14. If art students want to study Continental theory, they should learn German and French and study it in a philosophy department. Because (1) art schools are incapable of distinguishing properly between theory and practice; (2) art school classes in these subjects are little more than uncritical “slow pitch” indoctrinations taught by advocates rather than scholarly adepts; (3) all of the American translations of this work are poisoned by the moment of their making; (4) this entire discourse is now “historical”–a dated, conservative, academic field of study and no longer live talk.

15. Only saints can nurture real talent. I am a writer, not even an artist, and even I can’t avoid feeling a twinge of resentment when a pimple-faced twerp with a skateboard under his arm shows me a mature and persuasive work of art. I can see, much more clearly than the twerp, the road opening before him, the obstacles falling away, and it’s all I can do not to stick out my foot and trip him. If I were an artist, with a stake in the game, I would probably trip him, and tell myself that it’s for his own good. It wouldn’t be. Better to buy the damned art and take your profit on the back end.


One Response to The Not-So Wild West

  1. thanks for swinging by d-town on the grand tour. the presentation at the MCA was super entertaining… and followed by a debate worth having. i particularly enjoyed the agitation from the audience (adjuncts, profs, and BFA grads). job well done, sirs and ma’ams. and i will certainly fire myself for “teaching young artists to think critically…” best to you all on the remainder of the tour-


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