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.