Although the calendar technically starts with January, for many people around the world September ushers in more significant beginnings. Whether you confront the academic year with indifference, anticipation or dread, it is as cyclical and reliable as debates about the importance of higher education, which frequently revolve around three generally accepted and related claims: 1) Higher education should be accessible to all. 2) Higher education should improve our lives. 3) Higher education should lead to employment. But, as the cost of degrees skyrockets, the decision to opt for university instead of entering the workforce is increasingly fraught with serious economic considerations. And, once you’ve decided that you should continue to study, the even thornier question of what you should study arises. How many of us (especially those of us who studied the humanities) have heard the refrain: ‘What are you going to do with a degree in that?’ There is no doubt about it: education is an investment. Does it make sense to invest in a passion? Or should you only invest in something that guarantees a financial return?
Where the relevance and merit of an art education are concerned, it’s usually necessary to break through the barrier notions that art cannot be taught and that creativity is innate before getting to the paradoxical heart of the matter: there is absolutely no guarantee that attending art school will lead to gainful employment as an artist. This state of affairs is in no way unique to art education – there’s no assurance that studying veterinary science, say, will get you a job as a vet – but it does beg the slightly different questions that usually don’t follow: what does gainful employment as an artist look like these days? Does it mean producing and exhibiting and selling work for a profit? Is visibility currency enough? Does it mean working part-time as an artist and part-time as something else? Making a living from subsidies and residencies? What exactly are an artist’s options for survival and how does an education, at the very least, help to clarify them?
In a recent e-flux journal article, Luis Camnitzer argued that it makes no sense to ‘offer a degree that in some cases costs a quarter of a million dollars, but whose financial return is doubtful’. Commenting on the lucid and advice-filled text about MFA programmes that the artist Coco Fusco published last year in Modern Painters, Jerry Saltz referred to MFA courses in a column for the New York Times as ‘risky business’ and ‘chancy rackets’. MFAs are risky and their returns are doubtful, in part, because it is very difficult to measure artistic success in a fluid field where the values of professional success are never going to be strictly financial but also highly symbolic.
Given this, it’s remarkable that there seems to be a persistent idea that artists who attend MFA programmes enter into a refuge they must transition out of again in order to enter the ‘real art world’ as professional artists (or as cultural and creative entrepreneurs, to use popular lingo). It’s as if the acts of making, thinking and talking about work with peers, outside experts and audiences over sustained periods of time are not part and parcel of the profession. While educational bureaucracies are in the business of imposing standards and implementing benchmarks that measure the viability and substantiate the ranking of degree programmes, internal and external resistance to these standards and benchmarks abound. Sometimes that resistance is pragmatic and sometimes it is purely ideological. One of the most dominant critiques of art schools, which has contributed to the rise of independent schools and pedagogical initiatives, is that their curricular structures and their (subjective in the guise of objective) protocols for assessment hamper artistic growth rather than cultivate it. Some graduate programmes even refuse to refer to their students by that name because the term implies power relationships and hierarchies that sit uneasily with art’s alignment with democracy and freedom, including freedom from understanding the influence of the market on their artistic lives, which is one of the most tenacious and possibly misguided positions still held by some educators.
Recent developments at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris are instructive in this regard. A group of students and staff has been protesting director Nicolas Bourriaud’s handling of a lucrative external sponsorship deal with Ralph Lauren in October 2013. This involved a private soirée hosted at the school that interfered with studio access over several days, but which, in the long run, will restore and equip the large lecture hall known as the ‘Amphithéâtre d’honneur’. According to the press, some have also cast a critical eye on Bourriaud’s decision to cultivate relationships between the school and contemporary art galleries during ‘Choices’, a collectors’ weekend held in May. It’s unclear whether criticism of the director’s actions has to do with commerce or with Bourriaud playing his cards close to his chest.
While vocally defending the fact that the school is not a ‘brand’, students and staff have railed against the participation of the École des Beaux-Arts in these operations and have openly complained that the director failed to consult with them or properly inform them about his decisions. For his part, Bourriaud has maintained that it is in the best interest of the students that a school like the École des Beaux-Arts comes to terms with its relationship to the broader milieu of contemporary art. But when artistic resistance to authorities of all kinds – from directors of institutions to market forces – is also an intractable component of that milieu, where is the middle ground? It helps no one if the entirely legitimate desires for accessibility, transparency, recognition and for resources in and for artistic education, by all of its constituents, continue to be perceived as antagonistic to that goal. Perhaps the ongoing conversation around these issues at the École des Beaux-Arts will help to level the terrain.