You May Qualify for Art School

— a conversation between Martha Rosler and Sarah Lookofsky

Sarah Lookofsky: I feel compelled to start with some ads that pop up on my Facebook page on a daily basis: a mixture of Roy Lichtenstein lookalikes and model-y people—all with lips slightly agape and searching looks on their faces—summoned to lure me to apply for art school with the promise of generous grants. I haven’t bothered to figure out what is actually on offer (they don’t seem to detect that I am already rather over-educated), but let’s safely assume that the definition of art school is loose and that the “grants” advertised are actually loans. I mention these ads because it seems to me that they give a good picture of the reality of “art school” in the present: The churning out of too many arts professionals annually (not only MFAs but also the multitude of MAs in arts administration, curating, art history, not to mention the PhDs…), frequently saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt post-graduation, that are delivered to an over-saturated field where jobs, when extant, offer little pay and security. Your thoughts on any of the above?

Martha Rosler: The ads on FB are always pitched populist and young, say early to mid 20s (unless they discover you are older and then you get assisted-living ads). You are right, I am sure, that the loans are grants and the schools in question are for-profit scams, disappointment machines for students. But as you suggest, the picture of the art school applicant is a picture of a fashion model, and light in color and European in facial features. Where are the Goths, punks, and bearded boys in flannel? Oh, we are aiming for those who think art is a state of being, an identity, not a get-your-hands (or brains)-dirty sort of profession.

Art schools and programs have been churning out too many graduates since the early 70s; we were complaining about that even then (I wrote about it starting in the 70s). Art school serves a number of social functions aside from teaching art and granting credentials. It serves as a repository for the third son or any recalcitrant wastrel (or any daughter) of the idle (or even the industrious) rich, since for a mere contribution of tuition, room, and board, you can stash that embarrassing child somewhere post high school. I think that Britain decided in the post-industrial 70s to channel disruptive working-class (mostly male) youth into art schools as well, another way to bide time and who knows? Perhaps some might find a métier (as many did, especially, it seems, in music).

Although I’ve been teaching since the mid 1970s, it’s rarely been at free-standing art schools, though I have sometimes done so, in San Francisco, Vancouver, Halifax, and New York. The ambience, expectations, and “outcome” of art schools versus university art programs are sometimes quite divergent, and perhaps growing more so everyday. (There is a crisis in the UK and Canada, at least, where the departmental evaluation standards imposed by administrations on art programs in schools that have affiliated themselves with universities, and in programs already based in universities, are quantified just like all other programs, with respect to numbers enrolled, cost-effectiveness, grant-getting, graduation rate, and so on. Surely we can agree that is hardly appropriate in evaluating the education and training of people in the arts.)

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