David Salle

The topic of Art School Education, which, one way or another, affects all of us, is once again in the air. People have some pretty strong opinions about it, with good reason.

Portrait of David Salle by Phong Bui. Pencil on paper.

One thing seems true: the symbiosis between what goes on in the schools—the kinds of attitudes that the schools foster—and what goes into the world as art has never been closer. Is this a good thing, or is it the path to solipsism, to academic self-regard? There is also the effect of scale: more students in more schools, more artists teaching, etc. Seemingly, everyone, everywhere, wants to be an artist, to be involved with art, at a time when what defines being an artist is more elastic than ever before. Has the swelling of the ranks changed the nature of the enterprise? Has art become more democratized, or is the school experience just being better marketed to an audience hungry to claim that identity?

And is there a qualitative difference between art in schools and art generally? There is a feedback loop of sorts: does it support creativity, or is it merely self-reflexive? I asked a fairly heterogeneous group of artists to weigh in on these questions. Simply put: what’s wrong (or right) with the art schools, and what, if anything, should be done to make them better?

In my view, students are very touching. They want so much, are desperate really, to participate, to find their place in the great flow of art, to be part of it. That yearning can make them a little desperate, lead to attention-getting behavior; it can also manifest as indifference.

Some things about making art can be taught, others less so. Or rather, the effort required to teach the more ineffable qualities is greater than what some teachers want to make. For the most part, art is ill-suited to the university system. There are some structural problems without even getting into the pedagogy of it. The first is time. What can you learn in four years, or the two years of grad school? It takes a minimum of four or five years, working more or less every day, to learn how to paint, and probably longer to have any real feeling for the medium. For the most part, the schools are not set up for the students to paint every day, so progress is slow. The other is money. The economics of art school is all wrong—too expensive for a hobby and too risky as job training. The cost of a degree means that students will face very difficult choices when they leave school. Those who have some moxie will focus on success in the short term. So what is an art school education good for exactly? A lesson in how to think; a worldview; access to a kind of criticality; access to people? We are producing an awful lot of people who can talk the talk; to what end is less clear.


David Salle

DAVID SALLE is an artist who lives in New York.