in Opinion | 12 JUN 05
Featured in
Issue 92

View from the Bridge

What are the ever increasing numbers of art school graduates to do?

in Opinion | 12 JUN 05

In the 1970s I attended a lecture by Robert Motherwell. I was an art student; he was a leading light of ‘the greatest generation’ on a swing through the provinces – or so he led us to understand during a slide tour of his Greenwich, Connecticut, home. He used the patter one would expect from an estate agent – how important storage was, and how he built his studio to the proportions of a New York loft. The irony was that those were the days when Artist in Residence walk-ups were still plentiful in Manhattan, before executives younger than the Greenwich set answered the siren song of the Soho ‘lifestyle’ that Motherwell heralded.

Ending his talk, he looked at us and in essence said: ‘I feel sorry when I tell you about all this, because you have been born too late; whatever you accomplish can only be a footnote to Abstract Expressionism. With us Modernism ends.’ He might have added, ‘But if you work the angles right, you might get a spread like this yourself’. But painters of his high calling never said such things; that would have been crass, cynical, anti-art, in short Warholian.

It is hard to say which had more to do with the stampede to the art schools that started in the 1960s – Warhol’s pitilessly brilliant model of art as business or Motherwell’s patrician opportunism – but the effect has been to bring a staggering number of diploma-bearing aspirants into the art world. Yet cautions against ‘arriving late’ cannot all be disregarded, as indicative of either Motherwell’s genteel bad faith or of the hard-nosed après-moi-le-déluge-ism of the neo-avant-garde. Abstract Expressionism ended nothing, and neither did the Duchampian anti-aesthetic of the 1980s and 1990s. There will always be enough room in the cultural imagination for serious – and not so serious – ways of ‘making it new’. However, there may not be many more places available in existing professional hierarchies for those who wish to ‘make a career’, not even in the marginal economies where artists and art worldlings have traditionally earned their living.

Periodic alarms about soon-to-burst-bubbles are a feature of the art market and, although they do swell and burst, so far they seem to be naturally self-reinflating. But like the dot.coms a decade ago, the culture industry – as distinct from culture itself – has entered a new expansionist phase, defying logic at the spike of every escalating indicator. Yet no one can explain how the system is going to absorb the lemming-like mass of hopefuls rushing headlong into the art academies. Too often they are lemmings with attitude: more or less talented, more or less well-informed people with a profound sense of entitlement wrapped around more rational doubt and desperation.

This year the annual graduating class of MFAs will top out at 30,000 students. That’s MFAs: people with expectations, qualifications and accumulated educational debt. This doesn’t include college art majors or those taking occasional art courses. Match this total against the number of galleries or jobs available and the picture of a chillingly social Darwinist art system clearly emerges.

In the past several solutions have been suggested, such as the subsidies and ‘art banks’ of Canada and the Netherlands, where works are collected by the state in exchange for a living wage. On the grimly humorous side look to Les Levine’s Museum of Mott Art, Inc., which in 1974 advertised a course in ‘How to Stop Being an Artist’. Led by ‘Artists Anonymous’, it promised to ‘help you through those passionate urges to create. If you’ve decided to kick the habit but can’t […] we stay up all night if the need be until the urge passes.’ Then there was Peter Plagens’ proposal that support for artists operate the way it does when agricultural surpluses become too great – in effect paying people to go out of production. But practical or satirical solutions hardly touch on the human costs facing generations now answering the market-driven call of Motherwell and Warhol, or the holy calling of Joseph Beuys’ credo ‘Everyone is an artist’. When this bubble pops, it is not speculators’ dollars that evaporate but the dreams of those who have gambled a good deal of their spirit on the illusion of an infinitely growing, perpetually attentive art world.

Now that I am a frequent lecturer in art schools, I think back to Motherwell’s performance and the ‘I’m gonna show that jerk’ effect his declaration had on me. Increasingly, though, I worry that even the most measured encouragement might be worse given the odds against those listening. Art’s vitality has always been based on improbabilities, but the time has come to speak realistically. So here’s my homily to those who make the jump in June: the work comes first, the career second or maybe never, or maybe comes and then goes away for good. You’d better get a lot out of what you’re doing or do something else. As David Smith said, ‘Art is a luxury that artists pay for’. Happy graduation!