Opinion - 01 Oct 2011
The things they don't teach you in art school
As I live through the third recession to take place during my career in the art world I’ve been reflecting on the value of an education in the arts. In his 1762 novel, Emile, Jean Jacques Rousseau sought to design the perfect educational programme for the raising of universal citizens. Does such a thing exist in art education? Let me suggest some rules for young artists and curators to live by that are not taught in art school. Take them or leave them. Use them or abuse them.
1. Art hurts
By this I am not thinking about Chris Burden’s self-crucifixion on the hood of a Volkswagen, Ron Athey performances, or the dramaturgy of professional wrestling. It is possible to have a career in the art world but the odds of making a killing financially are low. Of course this isn’t the reason why people become infatuated with the arts but it is clear that not everyone becomes Andy Warhol, Bono or Andy Kaufman. Upon learning that I had decided against going to law school, my mother (an artist) asked me: ‘How will you support yourself in the manner to which you’re accustomed?’ As I grew up wearing hand-me-downs from my older brothers, a career in the arts was exactly what I needed to support myself in the manner to which I was accustomed. Sometimes it hurts getting there though. The corollary to this rule is the following: learn to wait tables. You will hone your social skills and make some easy cash. In the end those among you who are serious will work your asses off to make it happen. If you can’t wait tables you can always teach. More important artists than you can imagine spent their early years working as guards in world-class museums.
2. Kill your parents
While Sophocles teaches us that killing your parents is a far from productive endeavour, the same cannot be said within the world of culture. A younger generation should be willing and able to overturn the accepted canon, be it curatorial or aesthetic. You should also want my job and be doing everything that you can to get it one day. I would suggest refraining from the tactics of Eve Harrington in the film All About Eve (1950), or Elizabeth Berkeley’s character in Showgirls (1995). No pushing your elders down a flight of stairs please. Killing your parents is just an admonition to get your shit together and take over the world from the complacent generations that came before you.
3. You can learn more in the world than you can in school
I’m sorry if this is disappointing to hear for those of you who are spending tens of thousand of dollars on a graduate education. The point is: your years studying are a luxurious time to read, absorb, obsess, get jaded, experiment with hallucinogens, work on your Twitter feed and so on. However, after spending four years in college and seven on a doctorate and teaching, I learned more about art in one year working at the Walker Art Center than in any school. Working directly with art and artists in institutions is the real art world. Or in galleries. Or in a booth on the Venice boardwalk. Artists: get a job installing art. Art history or curatorial studies grads: beg, borrow, volunteer, or steal your way into a great contemporary art institution. Don’t be shy. Say you’ll do anything (but not in a creepy casting couch kind of way). You have no idea how much we need you but don’t know it yet.
4. Don’t wait for the ‘man’ to come to you
Take Damien Hirst’s first show. The now legendary ‘Freeze’ exhibition was a watershed moment in the emergence of an new generation of British artists in 1988. Hirst and his friends got someone to give them a warehouse space in south-east London. They installed their work with a professionalism that belied their status as art students. They found a way to get the London art world’s movers and shakers to visit their exhibition and in so doing made a small dent in art history. Make your own exhibition, start your own magazine, record or mime company. The end of this trajectory does not have to be multi-million dollar skulls encrusted with jewels. I’m just saying, don’t wait for someone to hand you something.
5. Don’t spend more time networking than making work.
By networking I mean schmoozing, partying, getting in fashion magazines and so on. Cool does not make good work. Hard work makes good work. I recently asked an artist who I was working with whether he was going to take a holiday after our exhibition opened. He told me that he had always felt so fortunate that society allows him to make a living dreaming in his studio that he had a hard time imagining a traditional vacation. The best artists that I’ve ever worked with are so obsessed with their work that the studio is their home and their refuge. Make good work and the rest will come.
6. Have fun
If you’re not having fun doing what you’re doing don’t spend thousands on therapy to figure it out. Take a risk and follow another path. The time you have now is precious. Use it wisely.
7. Live wrong
Repeat this mantra: ‘If that’s wrong then I don’t want to be right.’ Don’t do what is expected of you, do what makes a difference. Ask more questions than you get answers. Plato suggested kicking the poets out of society in The Republic (c.360 bce) because they were too dangerous. There is far too little of the anger of the Sex Pistols, the absurdist outrage of Dada, or the devastating irony of writers like Thomas Pynchon around today. As the world falls apart around us we need young artists, curators, writers, filmmakers and musicians to illuminate our culture as we turn and twist in the widening gyre. With fond affection while awaiting your act of patricide.
First published in Issue 142