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Disintermediation Manifesto, Part 1: Disintermediate Education

Post #1616 • August 7, 2013, 3:19 PM • 2 Comments

The demands: Art schools should be small, cheap, opinionated, and non-degree-granting. Bring back the apprenticeship. Down with professors, up with mentors. Rebel and train yourself.

I'm the proud graduate of two different art programs, and I'm grateful for the time I spent and the instruction I received at both of them. The credentials I received have served my career well, particularly my college teaching career, now in its twentieth year and counting. But I think we're looking down the barrel of a massive contraction in higher education. Capital S-P Serious People contend that we can claw our way to recovery despite federal debts recently reckoned by a professor at UC-San Diego to be six times higher than the official numbers, an astonishing $70 trillion. But as far as I can tell, the higher education bubble is going to burst and nothing can stop it.

The basic premise of the bubble is that college tuitions have been rising faster than inflation for decades and are now priced beyond their worth. This is a sore point among proponents of the life of the mind, for whom higher education, in its ideal form, is priceless. But just because it's priceless doesn't mean that you can charge an infinite amount of money for it. Early on in the Great Recession, a young man of college age might have elected to hide out in higher education while the economic storm passed. He would now be graduating to a "recovering" job market that is still shedding full-time jobs. If you're his little sister, do you follow him into unemployment and five- or six-digit perma-debt? No, you stay at home and take courses at Udacity, Coursera, Khan Academy, or MIT OpenCourseWare. For the life of your mind, you hang out in the community pages of the Republic of Pemberly. Credentials? Forget about degrees—soon, business will just want to see your badges.

Colleges don't make money by teaching a semester-long seminar to six indentured graduate students on the semiotic analysis of Occupy Wall Street. They make it by teaching Art Appreciation to 120 non-majors in need of a humanities credit, and they use that money to fund the seminar. It's exactly those auditorium lectures that the MOOCs are so effective at replacing. They're not going to need an art appreciation MOOC for every college—they're going to need a choice of four or five art appreciation MOOCs for the entire English-speaking world. The plankton are about to disappear from the academic ocean and the higher life forms are in for some hungry years.

How bad is it going to be? I don't see Harvard disappearing, and I don't see the community colleges disappearing (completely), but I wonder about everyone in between. Why would you go into umpteen thousand dollars of debt for the privilege of a bachelor's degree from a mid-level university, when you could jump through fewer hoops for the same knowledge at the fraction of the cost online?

At first I thought the art schools might be spared this fate, but I no longer think so. We don't have auditorium-stuffers, but we do have basic drawing and design classes that fund the senior studios. YouTube is loaded with basic drawing demos. Josef Albers's Interaction of Color is now an app. Drawing groups and independent art programs pepper the urban landscape. In fact, by the time the modernists and postmodernists get turned out of the university and into the street, the traditionalists, who have been losing ground at the university for four decades and never cared much for it anyway, will have all but taken over alternative art instruction. Here in town, there are hopping programs going at the Boston Figurative Art Center and the Academy of Realist Art. You don't even have to leave home—online, there is the New Masters Academy. Skill, as John Seed put it recently, doesn't deconstruct well. De-skilling isn't going to reconstruct well once economic reality smashes through the academic hothouse from which it has so seldom emerged.

I adore RISD, my alma mater, and I expect it will hang on like Harvard will. But for the future of art training I'm looking at places like Zea Mays Printmaking in Northampton, the Sequential Artists Workshop in Gainesville, the Turps Banana Art School in London, the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in Paros. Small, cheap, opinionated, and non-degree-granting.

In the end, what use did we artists ever have for degrees except to cash in on the perpetuation of degrees? Does anyone think less of the Art Students League for not granting them? On the contrary, degrees, and the whole university superstructure, has made the world safe for a particular philosophical narrative that deifies the concept in art, and safety has rendered its adherents insipid even to its own ranks. One writer who calls himself Prolapsarian saw this year's student show at Goldsmiths and concluded:

Clearly, few of you are actually interested in a critique of capitalism (but a pseudo-critique that sells will have to do), but for those of us who care about art, for those of us who think that art’s critical capacities have not been exhausted and extinguished, for those of us for whom the abolition of capitalism is not a choice but a necessity, you are the enemy.

Perhaps things more to his liking are going on at Bruce High Quality Foundation University. At any rate, art doesn't need more professors, it needs mentors. I have heard many anecdotes about professors who refused to divulge knowledge, share contacts, or otherwise set their students up to operate as independent professionals after graduation, instead trolling the students for ideas and tail. Professors are only worthwhile to the extent that they can act as mentors, so let's skip the professorship nonsense and get on to mentoring.

The logical conclusion of these demands for smaller, cheaper, more opinionated, non-degreed schooling is the apprenticeship. Let's bring it back. I still think there is value in the small school, but for artists with the proper temperament for the master-novice relationship, there is likely nothing better for the passing of skills from the wise to the innocent. Between the small school and the apprenticeship, there is the individual artist/teacher. You can, for instance, take classes directly from Koo Schadler or Frank Santoro.

In summary, this is some advice whose time has come: Don't go to art school. But whether you do or not, don't be an art student, be an artist who has more to learn. Then act accordingly. Rebel and train yourself. If you have skills to share and the inclination to share them, do so. The university model for art school is history.



John Link

August 10, 2013, 10:22 AM

I love this essay, even though my spell checker says the title is not entirely in English.

First to pick a nit: The Great Debt Problem is not going to cause a problem because the government, unlike almost all other debtors on earth, merely owes itself. In vast majority, anyway. There is zero chance it is going to call in its debt to itself faster than it can pay back itself. The goldbugs don't like this but really, they have not thought up a better way to proceed and neither can I. So let's forget the national debt problem and get on to the one you nailed.

"... just because [higher education] is priceless doesn't mean you can charge an infinite amount of money for it." This may not be as true for certain technical fields, but it certainly is dead right true for art. Even a "good" education in art, whatever that might be, can't be worth much because there is no room for making a living as an artist, except at the very top by the very very few who must make bazillions or nothing at all.

Some form of art majoring will survive because there will always be some students with enough money to go to college (no matter what it costs) who can't do anything else. So art will be their major and whatever is left of the local art department will certainly find a way to accommodate them. But boy is the art education business going to shrink. And you are on target that the biggest losers will be in the middle, the no-name but nonetheless sky high expensive mid-level schools that have done so well since World War II and the economic boom that sent everyone to college. There still may be quite a few students walking their halls, but they are not so math-challenged as to be unable to understand the dismal payback prospects attached to a degree in art, even discounted 50%, which it never will be.

"Don't go to art school" applies to the big names as well as the no-names. That comes across in your comments. The only time the "university model" for art schools worked was when universities excused art schools from adhering to it. That time is over; everybody is toeing the line now and look at the lunacy that has resulted. But that's an easily observed negative. I'd like to hear more about how this mentor thing would work. Heck, even how could it work? This is a question, not a conclusion.



August 13, 2013, 9:15 PM

Uncle Sam isn't going to send goons out to bust his own kneecaps if he can't pay himself back. The threats instead are the Scylla and Charybdis of debt default and currency debasement.

The mentoring thing could work in a lot of different ways. I know of one artist who is simply offering her mentoring services for a fee. Paul Klein operates in a paid mentoring role for art career concerns. At one time I gave critiques to a spearfisherman with aspirations to become a painter. I refused to take his money so he paid me in fish. He's now a friend and a fine painter as well.

Perhaps one just needs to offer.



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