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.