Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Art School Screed: Make Art, Pay Forever

Posted by Damon Lehrer

I suppose it was a little below the belt of me to actually post Harvard’s VES courses... But having taught in many art schools over a recent ten-year period, I have developed a deep skepticism about the teaching of fine art in colleges and universities. Art schools offer the students who pay dearly to be in them a four-year simulacrum of relevance, tidy hierarchies, and fashionable unruliness. And that’s often about it.

In the case of undergraduates, no efforts are spared in luring students to come to art school with promises that they will be able to live their dreams. The cover page of one high school recruiting booklet I have in front of me states simply: “Make Art, Live Forever.” Naïve and impressionable teenagers are flattered into coming to art school, encouraged to take out loans whose future consequences they can’t imagine. The bloating effect the art education industry has had on the wider art culture by convincing waves of adolescents to consider themselves artists, in order to harvest them like crops, is a toxic topic for another post. Ditto for the question of what today’s undergraduate education in painting or drawing trains you to do in life. (Hint: Very little except to go to grad school, where the same scheme awaits).

I am not accusing the mostly individually good people who make up university culture of perpetrating deliberate fraud and larceny on the youth of America. I long aspired to be one of them: to settle into a spot where I would be paid to argue over curricula, collectively bargain for salaries, teach students who mostly don’t care about drawing and painting something about drawing and painting, and go home and have a few hours to myself. Most professors are doing what they can to live, just like the rest of us. And if they do sense the small and large compromises that are made, they cannot speak out, because they are part of a system that depends on those compromises.

The reality is that in most art schools and departments, student tuition supports seven or eight permanent professors who have been there for decades and have decades more to go before they retire. And the phalanx of administrators and their gym memberships and the buildings and physical plant of the school, as well as the dozens of migrant-worker-like adjunct teachers, who were recently students themselves, hustling and waiting and hoping for a hinted at permanent job (which they will almost certainly never get).

There are two main reasons to go to graduate school in painting or drawing. The first is to improve your work while living for a couple of years in an artistic community. The second is to get an MFA degree, which in theory allows you to teach in art colleges and university art departments.

Now while an MFA does give you the credentials to teach college (two years of “low-residency” study apparently makes you a “master”), there are a vanishingly small number of permanent jobs available in proportion to the number of “masters” anointed each year. Graduates who want to teach will most likely find themselves working as adjuncts, easily replaced by the oversupply of adjuncts they themselves are helping to reproduce. The situation has gotten worse as the economy has slipped, but even in the preceding two decades, it has been extremely hard to land a good teaching job. Our voracious industry of art education is enjoying an economic bubble similar to other recent economic bubbles. The cost of an art education cannot keep rising so ludicrously relative to its value.

(A related topic: the profitability to art schools of expanding the definition of art to “anything," as they have done… so many more student/customers are interested in “anything” than in painting or drawing! And what of the effect on our culture as those “art is anything” students go out and form our culture?)

The Boston Figurative Art Center (BFAC) formed last fall from a group of artists who were enrolled or were considering enrolling in graduate school, but who believed they could achieve a better, more specifically tailored community without the high price.

The Center is part of a trend toward re-establishing guild and atelier-like structures in which professional artists can share knowledge, support and compete with one another. Students can learn about the tools and crafts that are specific to the form of art that they intend to pursue in their professional lives. There is no promise of an empty degree, or a non-existent job, or indeed even of success; only the promise of community and the valuing of real and germane artistic knowledge. To draw and paint well one mostly has to practice and learn by observing how others succeed, and we want to provide an environment that matches that reality.

The group that became the core of The BFAC started in August, 2010 as a class. There were about three students, which slowly grew to six, of varying intensities of attendance. We charged $25 per class, about the price of adult education classes. We bore all the risk if students stopped coming or missed classes. The model got paid, and I usually didn’t.

In October 2010, I was on the verge of giving up when I went out for drinks after class with two students, Mike Pina and George Ratkevich. George was applying to grad school, and Mike was thinking about doing the same. Both were looking for a change in their artistic lives. Needless to say, they got an earful from me about the value vs. expense of graduate school.

On the way back from the bar, I started to think that although we couldn’t grant a useless degree, we could perhaps create an artistic, social, and intellectual community for the many figurative artists without one. And we could probably do it for a lot less than the cost of graduate school. A month or so later, we broke the rent up in six parts, made that the membership fee, and had our first model session as the BFAC.

Now, three and a half months after the official beginning, we have model sessions in three studios, and upcoming gallery shows in July and October. We are contemplating a move to a larger space on the third floor of Vernon Street Studios, and we have a small group of devoted artists and a larger group of artists who work with us and who are beginning to identify with us.

We are seeding a movement of people who are tired of waiting for the culture to come around to acknowledging that what they do is valid and contemporary. We will make our own culture around what we think is valuable, and if there are enough of us, we will start to shift the larger culture toward us. Complaining is no longer enough- now we are going to make an alternative to the absurdity all around.


  1. "...only the promise of community and the valuing of real and germane artistic knowledge. To draw and paint well one mostly has to practice and learn by observing how others succeed, and we want to provide an environment that matches that reality."

    That about sums the whole thing up, doesn't it?

    I came to the BFAC primarily because it seemed like a place where I could improve through regular practice and observation of artists much better than me. As it turns out, those other artists are willing to do to more than let me watch--they answer questions! And give valuable feedback. Indeed, I have much to learn.

    I'm wondering, though, for those of you who are further in your artistic lives/careers than I, what's in it for you? Besides, of course, good company and time with a model. Will you become better artists at the BFAC?

  2. As an undergraduate art student I can relate to what you are saying. It is a little bit disconcerting to see that my fellow students can float through without getting a solid awareness of anatomy. I place a premium on figure drawing ability and it is with pleasure that I attended my first painting session at the BFAC.

    It seemed that in my drawing classes at school that I reached a plateau, but as I observed and got comments from the very friendly and astonishingly talented artists at BFAC I had a realization. I was surrounded by the wrong people. I think this will make a good supplement to my undergraduate studies.


  3. Your description of the dynamics of college faculty, students, and administration rings true to my experience. Marketing claims that students of the arts will find fame, fortune, or "live the life of a true artist" is highly problematic and puts inexperienced young students at a disadvantage by shrouding the real nature of a life in the arts. I think that the situation you speak of applies to all the arts taught in college, from ballet to film. I have witnessed this dynamic in my acting work as an undergraduate student. The idea that "we are really creating art here" permeates, and yet how much ground is really being covered? Is creativity truly bouncing off the walls--or rather is an administration and a group of well-worn tenure faculty making promises that for the majority of students will not come true? Here in Boston as a graduate student in theatre education, I feel the same sense of true endeavor and artistic community that you describe at the BFAC. As an art model, I have only worked at one university setting, but it was enough for me. I enjoy my experience as a model far more in workshops and classes that are structured like the BFAC, when creative juices really flow and there is such a dynamic dialogue. The teacher/student dichotomy is broken down so that the studio is filled with fellow artists who are all learning from one another in a far more collaborative and interesting way. Keep it up, we need more settings like this!

  4. I went to a show at the ICA a few years ago and I remember thinking "I've seen this show before. I saw it in 1973 at the MOMA." It really was the same show, right down to the dimly-lit "happening" room and the infinitely regressive mirrors piece. It sounds like nothing's changed in 30 years, for the students or the teachers. For the students, nothing's changed in the sense that while most art schools feel obligated to expose you to drawing the figure, many would really rather you didn't. This didn't serve the students back then and it doesn't do it now. If anything, things have gotten worse for the teachers. A friend of mine ended up at the Art Institute of Atlanta and in addition to his teaching was obliged to file and do other administrative work before the school would let him take home a paycheck. It's easy to become angry but perhaps we are best served by refraining from being ideological (like the other guys) and simply pursuing our craft as best we can. Make some by God gorgeous art and that should be validation enough.

  5. Thanks for this. I will come and meet you all in person some time soon.