Law schools make lawyers. Engineering schools make engineers. Brain-surgery schools make brain surgeons.
Art schools don’t make artists.
We require a complex certification process before we allow someone to wield a scalpel, but not to wield a paintbrush. This isn’t because art is somehow a less essential human activity. Rather, art is so essential to humanity that it would be inhumane to regulate who gets to do it. The idea of a school for art is rather disturbing if we think of it along the lines of any other professional degree.
So who is art school for? It is for those who experience art as a vocation, a calling, those who must continually mine art for every crumb of metaphor that can be mustered. Art schools do not turn hapless youth into artists. They provide those who are called to be artists with two key things: 1) a critical mass of other artists, and 2) a circumstance composed of space and time away to think through how we make our art.
A critical mass of other artists. That word “critical” gets thrown around quite a bit, but it’s worth holding on to its meaning, to call into crisis. Learning is the process by which our received ideas are called into crisis. And that’s what artists do in an art school.
A circumstance composed of space and time away to think through how we make our art. It is not time to pay the rent. Or redraft our resumes. Or apply for Obamacare. It has nothing to do with these halcyon days of the booming art market. It is space and time to live as an artist, not for trying to make a living.
That’s the theory, anyway. But unless you’re lucky enough to get a scholarship, the two ways to go to art school in said halcyon days are to be born wealthy or to take out massive loans. If everyone in art school is rich, we lose out on class difference, and we end up with a very narrow view of art’s capacity within society. If everyone in art school is in debt because of art school, it can no longer truly be space and time away,and we lose out on the possibility of experimental freedom.
So, if we want art schools to have critical mass and be sites of experimental freedom, we should start by making them free. We must remove the economic barrier—and I do mean completely—and we must make art schools accessible and compelling to artists who look different from each other, who have different cultural backgrounds and experiences, who approach fine arts media in very different ways.
The second half of this proposition tracks fairly similarly to the regularly touted priorities of most liberal-arts institutions. But the result often doesn’t transcend multicultural tokenism or the occasional genre-bending artist talk. We need to see difference (of people, ideas, and things) as foundational to the very possibility of critical community.
I run one such free art school (the freest), called BHQFU. And we start over every semester with this question: how do we make a critical community of artists? We change admissions procedures. We change formats. We change professors. Sometimes we don’t have professors at all. We see our “art school” as a context where we can run experiments as to what an art school can be.
Not everything works. Right now we’re in the midst of two seven-week-long sessions and the general feeling is that it’s either too long or too short. We introduced a rudimentary admissions process to regulate our overflowing classes and quickly learned a number of ways we could have done it better. Some of our students proposed starting a student union that could be involved in some of this administrative decision-making, but they’ve yet to organize themselves productively. So we keep tinkering. And when things do work, we try to figure out what the necessary conditions are to make something succeed.
One experimental free art school in New York City can’t possibly answer the need for critical communities of artists everywhere. What is necessary is a proliferation of experiments unbounded by the insipid and degrading idea that art schools make professional artists.
So the short version of this rant is pretty simple: artists should make their own schools. If any artists out there are reading this and want our help, feel free to get in touch.
SETH CAMERON is a painter and writer, and Ex-President of BHQFU.