A Crisis in Making

November 23rd, 2010 § 2 comments

“No one said you were an artist, you said you were an artist. You chose this, so no whining!”

I never know when it is productive to begin looking back on something, usually an event specific to myself (a death, a move, or a change as big as a death or move), to analyze it. In the past I never gave these events a chance to settle in before I started cracking away at them, trying to understand what they meant and how they had changed me even before they had; my own curiosity, especially about myself, often gets the best of me. I have since learned to let things rest, and to give myself the time needed to reconsider the recent past. Two years out of grad school and I’m slowly gearing up to embark on my analysis of education, institutions, and what role institutions should play in education. I’m planning to edit a book on the subject, but I’m not there yet. Instead, I am stuck in a no mans land between the world of academia that I somewhat recently left, and the art world (the commodification of art) that I apparently hope to enter. It’s a zone filled by recent grads, fresh new players, and hopeful gamers. There should be a term for your first few years out of school, for the crisis of faith we go through while floundering in deep waters, a term that gives you the sense that you are not alone. I’m going to call it the “post-grad school crisis.”

I didn’t move to New York City, fresh out of school, with many expectations other than those I’d always had: I’ll work and I’ll make work. Graduate school subconsciously changes your expectations, however, as it’s the final push, the last place of “comfort” before you are expected to become a working artist, and a successful one. The transition reminds me of turning eighteen, when you become an adult by default rather than maturity, and where nothing changes but the expectations around you. It’s only after you have been proclaimed a “grownup” that you begin the awkward process of actually becoming one. An MFA is not a degree that proves what you have learned, or even that you have learned anything at all, it’s not like a doctorate in a more academic discipline. Instead, it functions as a final certificate of validation. This certificate changes how you approach your practice, to use a hated term; my generation accepts the word practice as practically as we accept our debt. We are a group of overly educated, though we feel under educated, “lonesome wanters,” to borrow a term from the critic Peter Schjeldahl.

The post-grad school crisis begins when you temporarily turn your back on the institutions for which you have been suitably trained, MFA programs produce teachers (perhaps by necessity) and not working artists, and try to enter into the social network of the art world in the hope of becoming what we all planned to be once: artists. It’s hard for anyone to enter the hierarchical network, but I would argue it’s hardest for artists. It wouldn’t exist without us, but somehow we have the most difficult time getting in. Following the grad school practice of locking yourself away behind studio walls to make work feels like the longest way possible to be found, even if it’s for our work that we ultimately want to be noticed. I read a fascinating quote in the latest Art in America that describes the social network of the art world:

The social structure that connects artists no longer resembles a secret revolutionary cell, where each member must be vetted and constantly risks expulsion. Today it is more like a nightclub, where admission depends on a doorman with a guest list in hand and an eye for mediagenic personalities. Entry depends less on one’s art than on the context in which it appears, on your place in the social network.

My crisis didn’t begin with writing instead of making, but it seems to be culminating with it. I’m happy to be writing and interviewing, to be voicing to my ideas about art and artists, asking the questions I think are important, and I enjoy the perks. Writing, however, takes my focus away from making work and places it on looking at artwork and talking about artwork. In fact, it keeps me aware of and engaged with everything but the making of it. I sometimes get the sense, though I try to avoid intentionally convoluted and indulgent rhetoric, that I have become one of those artists who talks instead of makes. Substitute “art writer” for gallery assistant, personal secretary, artist’s assistant, employee of an art foundation, or teacher, and you have almost every recent grad I know. Distraction leads to frustration, but we feel like these jobs are necessary distractions because they promise to get us where we eventually think we want to go, even if they really won’t. A friend pointed out to me, “art school gives us an almost Catholic sense of guilt over not producing work. The mantra there is make work, make work, make work.” Losing a firm grip on your identity as an artist lies at the core of this post-grad school crisis, and it sometimes feels like you are supposed to stop being an artist in order to become one. It’s only those of us who balk at this contradiction, who are deeply suspicious of the compromises we see ourselves making, who enter into this crisis at all, and I wonder if acceptance eventually leads to artistic resignation.

I was comforted to learn that the critic Peter Schjeldahl began writing art criticism as a way to support himself as a poet, though I am less comforted by the fact that he eventually stopped writing poetry in favor of being an art critic. Giving up your identity as a maker to peruse other possibilities is not necessarily a problem, but giving it up altogether is the great fear. It’s what you might give up on the road into the industry that flusters me. My critic friend also said, with a great deal of truth, “I think for a lot of us it’s disillusioning to get to NYC and see what a business and hustle it is. The drive of collectors seems like it works through artists, rather than the artist’s ideas.” The catalyst for my crisis came after having a lively conversation with a friend of a friend, a printmaker turned gallery assistant. We had a good talk about some artists we had both recently seen, and it was not until days later that a certain sentiment she expressed floated back into my mind and stuck uncomfortably in my artistic conscience. “I don’t make artwork anymore,” she said brightly, “but that’s alright, I’m better at this.”

Staying the course seems to require having a bit of faith in yourself, not rushing, and most importantly, changing the terms. For example, I can accept doubling as a critic if it keeps me involved and provides an entrance into some aspect of the social network I need, but I will not accept a place in that network at the expense of no longer being an artist. All this is grossly premature, but it’s still important. Getting over the grad student habit of self-aggrandizing is perhaps the first lesson we all learn when we realize that no one, absolutely no one, yet cares about our work. It’s important to know, to consider early on, what you want out of the art world, we are prone to taking anything we can get, and what you might be willing to do, or give up, to get it. In a lecture Schjeldahl gave last night to a class of MFA art criticism students and the public, he said, “you can’t play a hand of cards that history hasn’t dealt,” meaning the art world is what it is.

One thing about this crisis is certain: it’s not new. The details of it have changed as the role of education and institutions have changed, but the essential problems are perhaps the essential problems all contemporary artists have faced. Articulating on the subway the other night some of the issues raised here, a middle-aged musician passenger chimed in because he could not help overhearing a conversation he knew well. The solution to this crisis is a subjective one, as each of us decides what is most important and what can be left behind. You can judge other artist’s decisions, but it won’t change the fact that you still have your own to make. This crisis has taught me one thing for now, which is that I must be in a role of contribution. What little power my generation feels like has now is actually a massive amount of power in the future. Whether we like it or not we are the new voice, and we will be listened to, almost by default. There is no point in giving up, as we are just getting started, and as long as I am contributing and not just upholding the status quo, that’s good enough for now. In moments of confusion, make a distinction.” Schjeldahl also let us in on a little secret during his lecture. “For everyone who wants to be somebody, and we all want to be somebody,” he said talking about his early days writing criticism, “being a nobody is the real golden time.”

§ 2 Responses to A Crisis in Making"

  • Mark Lane says:

    The grappling an artists has when leaving school to establish one’s self is almost insurmountable. If you think about the amount of artists being turned out on a yearly baisis from the most presitigious graduate schools just in the United States the numbers are mind boggling. What is even more alarming is how few of them actually are still making art at all five years later. Never mind sucess, I’m talking about practicing at all. I’m not sure if this says something about the character of those who would be artists, the quality of those schools, or the closed system the MFA has created for itself, but it begs the question: Why is art so impossibly watered down these days. Surely there would be an annual influx of eager talent with some vibrant edge. The flawed system that young artists are flung into has become the very thing that the wished to avoid when chosing to become an artist in the first place. Organized like a law firm stuffed full of its own self importance, the art world of today is a more akin to the arena of office politics than the creative vision of existence most imagine. One need not attend graduate school to gleen that much. The article above is an excellent portrait of how thinking outside of the box can grant you access to otherwise perputually closing doors. Sad though, it has to be about who you are connected to rather than being about those who are connected being interested in the quality of what your doing.

  • MAEHYMN says:

    Thank you thank you so much for this. A year out from my MFA, working three jobs, two of which keep me in that network at the expense of having zero time to make any work and this crisis has been hard to articulate. Thank you for doing it for me. I’ve been sharing this around like mad!

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