General 5-14-2007

Where Do Artists Come From?: Arts Education and What Happens Next

Michael Fallon writes about the conundrum of being an artist in America, where we love art but hate artists.

Michael Fallon

THERE’S A BIG MONEY QUESTION LEFT ON THE TABLE after one has processed the absurdities of modern Americans’ relationship to art, which they love, and artists, whom they hate: What to do with adult artists who find themselves living and working in an environment hostile to the profession they have chosen? Does the culture have any responsibility at all to worry about eventually providing for those who start an artistic education; should we even care what happens to artists after they emerge from their educations? These are difficult questions in a country so supposedly beholden to the by-your-bootstraps pay-your-own-way ethos as we are.

The current received wisdom today about young emerging artists in America is that we leave them to the whims of the market. This is a simple and easily repeatable idea that, on its surface, causes little stress on policy-makers or funders or, perhaps more important, brittle taxpayers who have been taught not to relish the idea that their money could be used to support art making. Of course, trying to reconcile such art market laissez-faire with the inequities such attitudes create is—as I’ll discuss below—a complex brain-twister. Moreover, what completely compounds this confusion is the illogical fact that even as Americans view grown, working artists with disdain or, at best, ambivalence, large numbers of Americans who toil away at dreary but lucrative desk jobs harbor deep fantasies of escaping to a life of creative expression. It doesn’t take a sophisticated data analyst to see that, due to these paradoxical attitudes, someday very soon America’s art studios and galleries—the places where artists focus their energies—will be overloaded, if they’re not already, with big swirling drips of frustration and disappointment.

But to return to the original line of inquiry: Why do so many people want to become artists when becoming an artist is so unrewarding, at least in terms of making a living? Is it possible that people don’t realize the pain they’ll face? Or do young artist hopefuls discount the potential struggles—akin to how smokers ignore the risks of smoking—because there’s some other, more intangible draw to the practice?

In his recent book Hello I’m Special, author Hal Niedzviecki chronicled a contemporary search for an “elusive feeling of specialness,” finding it so all-pervasive that he dubbed it the “new conformity.” “Anyone can become what they want to be,” he quoted a wishful sixteen-year-old Brooke, in a chapter on the Toronto auditions for Canadian Idol, the Canadian version of the Idol TV reality show franchise that began in the UK, as Pop Idol, in 2001 and has since spread to 38 countries around the world. On the same weekend last fall that the Minnesota Youth Symphonies held its first rehearsals in Saint Paul of more than 350 kids, between 5,000 (the local newspaper’s count) and 10,000 (the claim of TV show producers) people of all ages showed up at the Target Center in Minneapolis to audition for the sixth season of American Idol. Whatever the actual numbers, streets were blocked off most of the day, as judges plodded through a long succession of two-minute mini-auditions. And despite the requisite meat-market quality of the affair, the hopefuls were jubilant enough that there were reports of spontaneous singing—of Prince songs and other ditties—among the gathered crowds.

When the Minneapolis auditions for American Idol air on the first day of the new season in the bleakest part of this past January, the first contestant, Jessica Rhodes, a makeup artist at the Mall of America, is thrilled that her musical idol, Jewel, will be a celebrity judge. “This means the world to me,” Jessica beams to the cameras, “and I really hope I make it… I just want this so bad.” In fact, American Idol seems represent the height of achievement to most of the auditioners. A sixteen-year-old Wisconsin girl named Denise, who says she was born a “crack baby,” proclaims: “I’m the first person in my family to make something of myself,” just for appearing on the program. Perla, a former homeless person from Columbia, says, just before she performs a Shakira ditty, “I’m the American dream. I sincerely believe that.” Brenda, a largish woman doing a schtick inspired by Bert Lahr, the cowardly lion from Wizard of Oz, is unfazed when a bemused judge asked if she honestly thinks she can win. “Of course I think I can win,” she says, “because there’s no one in the waiting room or who’s ever been on the show who’s like me. I’m unique.”

Being considered unique is fast becoming one of the highest goals for individuals overwhelmed by this modern world. More and more, creative expression is no longer considered a working process (i.e., a job) that requires time to refine and perfect, but it is seen as a means to achieve a more fulfilled self-image as a unique individual.

Of course, an individual’s desire for “creative specialness” is not, in itself, a shame. After all, who would fault Joe Litigator for imagining he would make a kick-ass rock star if only given the spotlight, and Jane Accountant for a secret desire to be a hot young screenwriter? If such fantasies are what get them through long indictment hearings and the overbearing rush of tax season and any amount of tedium that keeps the wheels of the world turning, then let the fantasies fly. And so they are flying. According to a recent report from the Institute for Innovation in Social Policy at Vassar College called “Arts, Culture, and the Social Health of the Nation, 2005,” nearly three-quarters of adult Americans reported that they regularly engage in creative work of some sort, either as a hobby, semi-professionally, or professionally.

None of these facts, by themselves, are problematic; in fact, under perfect conditions a growing interest in creativity could be very beneficial to the culture and to the arts. If these dreamy dabblers let themselves dabble and did not expect much more from their dabbling, they might make a good audience for professional artists; they might encourage their children to study art and therefore better achieve their personal potential, and they might support the arts either directly through donations or indirectly through purchases of supplies and patronage at related events or support organizations. Instead, however, it appears most of these dabblers harbor unrealistic expectations for their creative dabblings. The above IISP survey further revealed that 63 percent of adults in this country said they wish they had more chances to do creative work—in other words, they seem to view the arts as a viable career option—and this is true even as participation in arts events among adults has been declining systemically over the past five years.

It’s likely, then, that the nation’s paradoxical attitude about the arts—love art / loathe artists—may be nothing more than envy of professional artists, who are perceived as competitors rather than as exemplars. That is, Americans may not like artists because they’re jealous of them.

WHAT’S MOST UNFORTUNATE IS THAT OUR COUNTRY’S PARADOXICAL ATTITUDES ABOUT ART—i.e., the coupling of a wishful attitude about creativity and a resentment of creative people—has coincided with a constant rise in the numbers of people seeking formal artistic educations. Whereas the population itself increased only by 35% between 1971 and 2000, studies have shown that the number of people claiming to be artists reportedly increased by 300% over this time. Statistics also show art schools and programs continue to churn many more artists than the market can sustain—upwards of 2,500-3,000 MFA graduates each year.

Predictably, the vast majority of these emerging artists seem caught off-guard when they can’t find meaningful ways to sustain themselves in their field of study after school—neither a paying audience nor a regular support job. Andrea, a recent painting MFA graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, nodded somberly when I mentioned to her that statistics show that 90 percent of all visual artists earn less than $10,000 per year on their art, and 75 percent of them earn less than $5,000. “I’m right in there,” she said. “I sold about $5,000 worth of paintings last year. And that was about a year’s worth of work.” When asked how much MCAD helped prepare her for a working career as a professional artist, she was silent. “One of the instructors showed us how to put together a grant application,” she said finally. “We had to beg her for the information, and I think she felt sorry for us… I can’t think of too many other examples where I got such information.”

MCAD, like most art schools and programs, does very little to prepare its graduates for the realities of the modern marketplace—providing almost no classes at any level on arts marketing, law and contracts for artists, budgeting or finance, taxes for artists, strategic planning, or any other practical business skills. The only somewhat business-oriented training of any kind that the vast majority of artists get in school is called “professional practices.” This course is usually taught by an adjunct gallery professional, who knows very little first-hand about artistic practice and who covers such simple topics as how to put together a portfolio, how to photograph your work, how to approach gallery professionals when you want to have a show, and how to do other tasks only superficially related to success as a working artist. This is the equivalent of having a class in law school on how to use a yellow highlighter pen.

Recently, I visited the campus studios of graduate art students at the University of Minnesota to conduct critiques of students’ works, and I heard much the same story. Their art department gives them scant practical professional training, other than the typical professional practices course, to take with them after they graduate. In one young artist’s studio, when I asked some simple marketing questions (“Who do you think is going to buy this work? How do you plan to reach your potential audience?”) about her paintings—mid-sized acrylics on canvases with blocky abstract shapes and words in a made-up language that likely would find market competition from tens of thousands of like-minded painters—she had no answer, and her peers were silent. When I asked directly if anyone ever thought of such questions, some time passed before one of them chimed in: “I think there’s a strong anti-marketing sentiment around here, and maybe in the art world. Like marketing is seen as antithetical to the making of and thinking about art.” Then I asked if this attitude of opposition to marketing and business was a necessary part of art education, or if it might not be better for young artists to be more open to such questions from the get-go, especially if they’re eager to make a career out of art. I couldn’t tell whether or not the students were merely humoring me when they seemed to agree.

I know, as perhaps many of you do, what most of these students are banking on to sustain their artistic careers. They want to win the lottery. By this I don’t mean the literal lottery of PowerBall or MegaMillions or whatever random state-run tax on the hopeless, but rather the principle of cultural economics that describes the conditions of the art market as a winner-take-all lottery. Meaning, the rewards for being noticed and celebrated as an artist—of making it in the big New York art market, for example; or of winning a trip to the American Idol finals—are so seemingly great that there is a continue pool of people, both talented and un-, willing to risk the odds to enter the contest.

And, it seems, the artistic winner-take-all lottery grows ever more appealing these days. While I have been pondering, this past autumn and winter, the issues related to why a person decides to take on the artist’s mantle, numerous art critics and observers have commented of late on the wild-and-wooly nature of the current art market and the great rewards within reach of an artist who is able to “make it” today. In December, Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker called the current art market an “art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins.” In mid-January, Holland Cotter in the New York Times called contemporary art “largely a promotional scam perpetuated by—in no particular order of blame—museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam.”

Two days later, Jerry Saltz described, in eloquently jarring terms, what he thought of the art market: “A private consumer vortex of dreams, a cash-addled image-addicted drug that makes consumers prowl art capitals for the next paradigm shift… a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight… an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”

At the end of January, Charlie Finch on explained that the art market’s arbitariness “disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.” And he said such distortions in turn “affect the traditional ways we think about the art market.” And Jed Perl, one day later, in an article about money in the art world subtitled “How the Art World Lost Its Mind,” bemoaned the “insane art commerce of our day” and proclaimed “the essential problem in the art world today is that in almost every area, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to the programs of our greatest museums, there is an obsession with appealing to the largest imaginable audience. And in practice this means always operating as if painting and sculpture were a dimension of popular culture.” He explained that when we see artists “whose careers are barely a decade old dominating the auction rooms, with their work selling for millions of dollars, we are being told that a widespread consensus can crystallize in a moment—and this is a pop culture idea.”

BACK ON THE PREMIERE OF THE SIXTH SEASON OF AMERICAN IDOL, within five minutes it becomes clear that this program and its various cousins have become a main conduit for the millions of Americans who dream of becoming somebody noteworthy. It also quickly becomes apparent that very few people are noteworthy, that most of the tens of thousands people who audition are simply not talented or compelling. By definition, of course, only a few people can be designated the “best” and worthy of the stardom that American Idol can endow—indeed, the show by design takes only 100 of the myriad auditioners to the next phase in Los Angeles—but this does not discourage the multitudes from trying. In fact, the very great odds, and the resulting frenzy of attention, seem to be precisely what makes the American Idol competition attractive to the ever-growing numbers of the wishful.

On the January premiere of Idol, although Jessica Rhodes has copied the intonations of one of Jewel’s songs, and although she keeps a passable tune throughout the audition, her voice turns out to be slightly flat and thin and unremarkable. Randy, one of the judges, stops her halfway through her song. “We’re sorry,” he says, “but we’re trying to find the best, and you were far away from it.” Jewel agrees. “It’s going to take a little work,” she says softly, seemingly hesitant to crush this young woman who worships her.

Yet Jessica is crushed. “Are you kidding me?” She gasps, and begins crying and pleading before leaving the judging room. Out in the waiting room among her family, Jessica breaks down into sobs. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry. I thought I was ready, and they said I’m not even a good singer.” Her sobs turn to moans, and she double-clutches as family members grab at her. “This is unreal! I can’t believe it!”

The truth is, Jessica might have done well as a singer in a community theater somewhere in suburban Minnesota. Such a life should be, for the vast majority of us with middling talent, enough of a creative life. It should suffice to practice art not to gain riches and fame, but, as Kurt Vonnegut once suggested, to “make your soul grow.” However, for some reason, simple soul growth through the arts no longer interests most Americans. Art is becoming a means to achieve something that people think they lack in life.

Whereas Jessica might have had some success growing her soul by singing at work, to her children, perhaps on a community stage, instead, as with so many dreamers who get their first taste of disappointment, or who become aware of how much hard work it is to become the best in their field, who realize they’ll probably never win the lottery, she’s unlikely ever to attempt singing in public again, and likely to be embittered every time she is reminded that she can’t sing as well as the professionals. Meanwhile, the audience for arts events put on by dedicated practitioners—both at the professional and community level, in fact at all but the highest, most hyped and marketed level—dwindles as a result of this bitterness.

After Jessica recovers a bit, she becomes resigned and distant to the cameras trained on her face. “I guess that’s it,” she says. “I gave it my all, but I guess that’s it.”

Statistics referenced above provided by Urban Institute, Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists (2003), and Rand Research in the Arts, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts (2004).