Art School and Privilege

So I’m in an MFA program now, a few months into the three-year Fine Arts graduate program at the University of Minnesota. I had two major criteria when considering whether and where to go to grad school – 1) I didn’t want to move, and 2) I didn’t want any debt. So, there weren’t a wide array of options available – but the U of M handily satisfied both of them, and I’m very happy to be there. In addition to full tuition remission, there’s even a small stipend offered in exchange for teaching or TAing, and (gasp) health and dental benefits.

So, I get paid to go to school; read, think, talk, and make art. It feels like I stumbled upon buried treasure or something – I wonder, why isn’t everyone in grad school? How can this possibly be legit?

Sure, maybe not everyone WANTS to spend their time thinking and making art, and of course the program is selective so not everyone qualifies, and even if they did, I guess $2300 a month wouldn’t pay the bills for every household. So, I am both fortunate to be in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances, and also deserving, worthy – based on my past work and my skillful completion of the application for admission.

But I’m also aware of the degree of privilege involved in having the opportunity to get paid to make art for three years. Yes, I worked hard to be eligible for these opportunities. But I certainly don’t believe that it’s owed to me by the universe, or that I even “earned” it, in the sense that it’s fair and just compensation for my labors.

It’s been fascinating for me to begin to explore the inner workings of art school – and for the most part I find professors and fellow graduate students who are full of gratitude for their circumstances. Especially in this day and age, awareness that coveted tenure track teaching positions are rare and precious seems to permeate the consciousness of everyone involved in these activities – teaching, studio visits, presentations, panels, gallery openings. It’s almost like an unspoken prayer at the dinner table: “Lord, thank you for the bounty before us, we know that there are many less fortunate artists and art educators who aren’t getting paid to do this every day.” This shared gratitude I think fosters a sense of civility and comity – whether or not we like each others work, we are bonded by our awareness of the good fortune that we share.

And at the same time, there’s a pervasive sense that we are all stretched thin, that there’s strain even in the abundance, some pressure to be busy and productive, to work hard for the privilege of our MFA status, to continue to deserve it. The biggest crime, it seems, in the art school context would be laziness, sloth, too much lollygagging and wandering and flaneur-ing. It seems like it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, what kind of work in what medium or genre, as long as you do a lot of it.

It’s almost like if we stopped making a lot of art, that someone would notice what a sweet deal we have and would begin to question the allocation of resources to the art department. Because it doesn’t seem fair, to me, at least – the business school cranks out MBAs, the science departments perform intensive research on every subject under the sun, then there are engineers and architects, and we…. we make paintings and sculptures. But, LOTS of paintings and sculptures, and conceptual media installations.

My goal here is not to discuss the value of art in society, and I can’t offer in-depth understanding of the financial dynamics of a massive state university. But on a fundamental level, it seems very clear to me that we, in the fine art ecosystem, are living off the fat of the land… our department is solvent because undergraduates choose to take art classes, and choose to be art majors, which means that their tuition dollars flow into the art school. That money pays for all of our programs, materials, space, for visiting artists and events. And that money comes from student loans for the most part, which are tied into the global macroeconomic system, guaranteed by the government, in theory to be paid back steadily by those undergraduates over the next 30 years.

And, unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last 10 years, you’re as aware as I am that that entire system is incredibly precarious right now, and shows no signs of resolving itself in a satisfactory way, in the near future or ever, really. The collective student loan debt of America is easily into the trillions of dollars, and many thousands of students are finding themselves in debt situations from which they have no hope of extricating themselves in their lifetimes.

So this system can’t continue – it seems to me that the days of anyone getting paid to go to art school must be numbered. Moreover, this whole fragile ecosystem – visiting artists, professors, administrators, adjuncts, technical support services – seems more precarious than a coral reef.

When it calcifies, ossifies, dissolves, disintegrates – what then? Whither all of the professional artists circulating around the world, to Biennales and festivals and retrospectives? I don’t know… personally, I plan to continue to make things at my house (I’m extremely fortunate to have a house), in my yard, in my neighborhood. I might get to teach a workshop or mentor someone. It’s not like art will be less important – if anything, it’ll probably be more important – but to a specific community, rather than to this vast, amorphous organism called “The Art World.” I also look forward to a lot more flaneuring – wandering around thinking and observing my surroundings. Because the one thing lacking from this school program, from my lifestyle right now, is simply the time to do nothing – which for an artist is perhaps the most precious resource of all.

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