Free Thinking

Is the Mountain School of Arts in Los Angeles the ideal art school?

The Mountain School of Arts at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2006. Photograph: Alberta Mayo.

The Mountain School of Arts at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2006. Photograph: Alberta Mayo.

In January I became a part-time intellectual at The Mountain School of Arts (msa^). Founded in Los Angeles in 2005 by two artists, Piero Golia and Eric Wesley, the school congregates from January until the end of April for two nights a week in the upstairs room of The Mountain, a flamboyantly unattractive bar once described by a guy who sucked his teeth when women walked by and stared at his drink when they didn’t as ‘like jellyfish-insides’. It sits in a staged Chinatown that is amusement-park-ish without any qualifiable amusements, and is to the traditional educational institution perhaps what General Tso’s chicken is to the Hunan gourmet.

An index of its components – its location, its frantic laconicness, its amorphous curriculum, its absence of tuition and teaching salaries, lack of academic accreditation and agenda – might convince you it’s either a hoax or out to hammer the question: ‘How do you form a school that provokes the idea of a school?’ But msa^ isn’t parodic; it’s just free. And, being free, the big joke is that you get what you pay for. (The minor joke is that you pay for what you get.) Which, reworded by an art magazine, might come out more Socratically as: what is the ‘value’ of a free education? Who really benefits? Who pays? And how do we account for the old adage ‘nothing comes for free’ and an avalanche of other questions too corpulent for us to honestly deal with appropriately here?

The school has the same ratio of flabby-to-toned parts and joyless-albatrosses-to-prize-winning-heifers as any school ever seems to, and keeping score or reviewing it on those lines brings with it all the consciousness of a dust ball. So instead, this is an abbreviated account of what it felt like. An ‘even-keeled programme comparable to the California University’ is how msa^ describes its curricular reach. Each week is divided into 80–120-minute blocks of philosophy, art history, science and general studies (a guest lecture series that ranged from a Google Street View designer to an advertiser who specializes in product placement). Including myself, there were 12 students: a third native Angelenos, a third New Yorkers, an Italian, two Londoners and a girl from Seattle. (Seattle is natively foreign, and in the LA/NYC binaries of the US art world much more exotic than either London or Turin, being outside the professional blast radius of contemporary art’s cultural arbitrations and monopolizing names.) We didn’t make art. We didn’t critique it. We didn’t write papers or take exams, and we didn’t get scores or degrees for doing it.

Although we were in a bar, what msa^ felt like was an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Not only because of the room’s handsomeness, the carousel of the first day’s introductions, the oval of folding chairs coming to a soft point where the teacher sat and the ‘conversational practice’, but because both programmes have unusual relationships to money. aa, like msa^, costs nada, and works off a gift economy that depends on voluntary staffing – the Emersonian stirring up of the insides and the concomitant kind of generosity that is rare with businesses, even ones selling knowledge.

The analogy starts to wobble when you address the intentions of each programme. aa is prescriptive and has a stepped ‘programme of recovery’ that ends in a 12th step of gratitude: recovered alcoholics help other alcoholics when called upon to do so. Simply put, it’s a system of conversion and you either sober up or you don’t. But determining what it is exactly that people are hoping to receive at art school, especially one that is without degrees or an ever-tightening ideology, is really hard to put your finger on. The projected gain or value for msa^ students seems unaccountably individual and much more interoceptive and metaphysical than a more straightforwardly vocational course.

It’s not that msa^ has nothing to teach or has no ‘worth’, but rather that there is no specific thing that an art student needs to learn. There is no longer a particular toolkit that must be taught in order for art to be made. The question, ‘Well now that they’re here, what the hell do we dilate them with?’ is one that has any half-conscious art educator going semi-nuts. ‘Vicious cycle’ doesn’t even begin to describe how two-way this anxiety is; it makes both schools and students anxious. The flabbier parts of the course teach you the exact dimensions of the privileged liberal art haunt (what the hell am I/we doing here?). The toned parts, on the other hand, remind you that it doesn’t really matter.

In The Gift (1983) cultural critic Lewis Hyde argues that: ‘aa probably wouldn’t be as effective, in fact, if the programme was delivered through the machinery of the market, not because its lessons would have to change, but because the spirit behind them would be different.’ msa^ is unimaginable with a price tag, not because paying would pollute its Utopian spirit, but because it would push it out of its anomalous cultural location and into competition with other programmes. To introduce money would skew both student’s and the school’s expectations that msa^ actually operate like a school and not a lyceum or a 21st-century art salon. There is a tendency for off-the-grid art school programmes to become as much the subject as the student. If you set up the signifiers and create the illusion of a school, and enough people buy into it, are you creating the effect of a school?

How might we begin to run a cost/benefit analysis on the value of free education? Educational accounting is usually complex because it requires you measure things in both ‘worth’ and ‘value’. As Hyde puts it, ‘worth’ refers to ‘those things we prize and yet say “you can’t put a price on”. We derive value on the other hand, from the comparison of one thing with another.’ In his 2008 Lapham’s Quarterly pre-amble on education, Lewis Lapham writes: ‘To conceive of an education as a commodity (as if it were a polo pony or an Armani suit) is to construe the idea of democracy as the freedom of a market instead of a freedom of the mind […] Unless we stop telling ourselves that America is best understood as the sum of its gross domestic product, we stand little chance of re-imagining our history or reengineering our schools.’

The moment for me, where the value of msa^ really came through, was in Philosophy Class. It was run by a couple of teachers who were like Beavis and Butthead with PhDs. They covered a millennia of philosophical tobacco-chewing in a public debate free of the tweedy condescension that clip art philosophy profs are known for. It wasn’t a rehearsal of platitudes or a dry-cleaned agenda. It did what good classes do: it forced the teachers to re-evaluate something on the spot, and asked the student to send blood to the parts of their brain they don’t normally send blood to. All of which is to say that these lectures are where we get closest to the etymological foundation of ‘school’ (from the Greek ‘schole’ – a place in which leisure is performed) and to the redundant epiphany that while pedagogy might be a place to noodle on the possibilities of educational reformation, it might also just be a place to idle. This is the dramatic bail-out for the continued existence of a philosophy class and an art school: they aren’t really for anything. Their use lies in introspective withdrawal, whether you withdraw on the bus, or on an Athenian staircase, or in the backroom of a bar with jellyfish-insides.

Snowden Snowden is a writer at large in New York, USA.

Issue 134

First published in Issue 134

October 2010

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