Monday, September 21, 2009

Artists Without Mortarboards

Somehow, even with my New York Times “Alerts,” I missed Roberta Smith’s article (Sept. 13) “Artists Without Mortarboards.” I did, however, catch this letter in yesterday’s Times from Jeff Abell, associate chairman of the interdisciplinary arts department of Columbia College in Chicago, where, as visiting artist, I taught for a term in 2004:

Ms. Smith’s article has made the already tenuous tenure of artists in academia even more tenuous. Her call for artists to go forth without credentials is naïve at best and seems to assume that graduate programs fail to teach artists survival skills or encourage them to develop emotionally vivid works.

I concur with Ms. Smith that the Ph.D. in art is a bad idea in the United States, where an M.F.A. entails 60 hours of graduate credit. No one says an education is cheap.

To imply, however, that this is money ill spent is to endanger the job of every artist with a university appointment. That Ms. Smith thinks a band of renegade conceptual artists will do a better job of teaching young artists than university professors do is insulting. It’s also like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, as it comes at a time when many colleges are already cutting art faculty.

Although I could be considered a casualty--I'd love to do more teaching-- this reminds me of the lawmaker I saw on television news some years ago, talking about how municipal water supplies should not be improved because it would threaten the bottled water industry (looks as if he got his way).

It's a sure sign that a discipline has become too academically entrenched when its practitioners are threatened by anyone they have not themselves ordained as “expert” or “professional.”

And especially incongruous in a field where the job is to ask questions, not answer them.

1 comment:

CAP said...

I’m fine with academic qualifications, but obviously they’re no guarantee of success in the art world. A lot of people like to imagine that being an artist is a respectable profession like medicine or law, and when suitably qualified, one ought to be able to just hang up a shingle and open for business.

It just doesn’t work like that.

Even in science, being a diligent student doesn’t guarantee a successful researcher. Sadly, yet gladly – you just never know! There are all sorts of unexpected, unrecognised breaks that can help or hinder, all sorts of personality traits that can hold you back or propel you forward. There are networks, elites, cartels and conspiracies. There are no end of excuses for giving up or going mad. But there are also accidents, charities, favours and surprises. Nothing can qualify you for all of it, anymore than you can train to be a perfect person.

It can’t hurt to be on at least a nodding acquaintance with art history and standard technique – but these are just starting points, what you do with them is up to you.