Much virtual ink has been spilled of late about how an excess of money has “spoiled” the art world, but the discussion has been focused on the dubious effects of wealth, the dominance of art fairs over biennials, and the power of collectors and dealers over critics and curators. The corrupting influence of money and market power on higher art education is rarely touched upon in these conversations. The politics of charging vulnerable young people six figures as an entry fee into a milieu that cannot sustain most of them deserves greater scrutiny. A degree that was originally conceived as preparation for teaching, whose expansion throughout the country in the 1970s created a subsidized sector for non-commercial artists, has been reformulated at the high end to function as a pricey gateway to the art world. There has been a good deal of chatter about what art school should be and whether one can really be taught to create art, and some of the more brazen members of the art world have claimed of late that they are creating anti-universities and anti-art schools outside of these institutions. But how much longer should we endure our own version of a subprime loan crisis before we consider how art schools seduce relatively inexperienced consumers into borrowing huge sums for degrees by trafficking the same myths about art and the art market that they purport to “deconstruct” in required lecture classes?
College tuition in the U.S. has increased over 1000 percent since 1978 when I entered university—and even then my widowed immigrant workaholic mom refused to pay for advanced art studies, saying that I would end up unemployed and drinking cappuccino on the Lower East Side. Thanks to her resolve, I struck out on my own to find ways to learn for free or for barter—I worked for other artists without pay, followed them to shows and parties, wrote about art for downtown rags instead of writing papers, and ghost wrote other peoples’ artist’s statements until I figured out what my own was. I didn’t have a huge debt to pay off and my flat in Williamsburg was really cheap in the ‘80s so I didn’t need a full time job and enjoyed lots of free time. My life felt like a series of independent studies as I traded teachers for multigenerational friendships. Nowadays, art students pay over $40,000 per year for curricula that features internships (so they pay to work), museum and gallery visits (so they pay for otherwise free docent lectures), studio visits from high profile curators who visit professional artists for free, and tutelage from adjuncts who rave about the importance of art while the meager pay they receive for professing doesn’t allow for many visits to Lower East Side cafés. Does anyone ask where the money is going?
M.F.A.s are notoriously costly, difficult to subsidize, and—considering how few graduates achieve financial security through the practice of art after graduation—they are a very risky investment. As programs have proliferated and tuitions have skyrocketed, desire and demand has been manufactured with increasing intensity to compensate for the risk. The well-oiled art world dream machine is conveniently available to achieve this. Glossy magazines and cable TV parade images of a tight knit band of “successful” young artistes before legions of wannabes. In the face of tighter loan markets and decreased middle class buying power, art schools capitalize on the globalization of contemporary art, by expanding into foreign markets and funneling greater numbers of well-heeled foreigners into their classrooms. Desirable applicants are wooed with promises of instant success—don’t worry, an old boss of mine used to whisper in their ears to secure those tuition deposits—you will be selling so much work out of your studio at school you’ll pay that loan off before you get out! Most schools have no evidence to back such claims and their admissions practices are enshrouded in secrecy—admissions statistics serve as measurement of a degree’s desirability. For those who cannot list superstar alums as proof of their value, the institutional claim that a given program can produce professional artists who can talk like an e-flux announcement serves as the perfect cover for the frenzied worldwide pursuit of education consumers who will pay for the high risk adventure.
COCO FUSCO is an interdisciplinary artist and writer based in New York and a recipient of a 2012 U.S.A. Artists Fellowship.