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November 16, 2002

American High Culture IV: The Role of Universities


In my previous posting on “high” culture, I discussed how real estate developers have often used the prestige associated with performing art centers to advance their own business interests, often to the detriment of the art institutions the centers ostensibly serve. Well, if I’m going to survey “friends” of the arts with ulterior motives, I guess I have to mention higher education as well.

Prior to World War Two, visual and performing artists were trained either in specialized schools, apprenticed with masters or studied with private tutors. After the passage of the G.I. Bill, however, colleges and universities swiftly glommed on to the arts. Whole departments devoted to creative writing, visual arts, music, drama or dance sprung up, offering new degrees such as the M.F.A., with doctorates coming rapidly after.

The extent of university programs in the arts grew at an extraordinary rate. In 1948, only 105 colleges and universities even gave courses in dance—and then mostly in the physical education department. Twenty years later, 110 colleges and universities offered a major in dance, 22 had dance departments, 42 offered an M.A. degree in dance, and 6 were prepared to hand out Ph.Ds in dance. In 1960, some five thousand American college students were majoring in theater; a mere seven years later, there were 18,000. And this growth rate continued past the Sixties. In 1971, American universities handed out roughly 30,000 bachelor degrees in the visual and performing arts; by 2000, the annual production had doubled. During the roughly 30 years between 1971 and 2000, over seven hundred thousand Americans graduated with degrees in the visual and performing arts. Obviously, only a fraction of these people ever found employment in the arts, but I doubt that ever counted a great deal with the mandarins of higher education. ("Hey, if the tuition checks clear, what's the problem?")

Given that “academic art” is a term of contempt in modernist art history, how has the movement of art training into a university setting affected the quality of art production? According to Alice Goldfarb Marquis, one 1970 survey of artists who took creative sabbaticals at the MacDowell Colony in New England revealed:

…the MacDowell composers complained of over-intellectualized music and of faculties “too cramped, too cozy, too ingrown.” No one wanted to criticize anyone else because that would hurt the department. Many university-based composers were writing only for each other, said some, while others resented “cliquishness and faddism.” Writers who were MacDowell alumni were similarly disenchanted with academe. The campus atmosphere, said on, “encouraged too many academics to imagine they were artists.” Painters were even more disillusioned. Moving art from professional schools to campuses, said one, “made the art student a dilettante and killed the apprentice system.”

The eminent art critic Robert Hughes discussed the impact of university art training on the quality of art production in his 1980 book “The Shock of the New”:

Every five years, the art schools of America alone produced as many graduates as there were people in Florence in the last quarter of the fifteenth century…The grand illusion of American culture, that creativity is necessarily good for you and that contact with works of art is morally improving, had created the right condition for a glut of art schools in the 1950s. In the sixties there was a glut of students, and in the seventies a glut of teachers, since the art-education system has in effect created a proletariat of artists, a pool of unemployable talent for which society could find no use except as trainers of more pupils. These conditions of turnover were not, to put it mildly, favourable to either the upkeep of standards or the constant secretion of adrenalin.

Moreover, another clear consequence of the academicization of the arts has been in the ever-increasing role of theory in art production. This has been accompanied by a peculiar decrease in the clarity of art-theoretical writing, which can stylistically only be described as “academic.” As Robert Hughes comments:

The obscurity of most conceptual art was made even more impenetrable by the jargon in which it was swathed. “Supposing,” began one piece in Art-Language, a conceptual journal of the seventies, “that one of the quasi-syntactic individuals is a member of the appropriate ontologically provisional set—in a historical way, not just in an a priori way (i.e., is historical); then a concatenation of the nominal individual and the ontological set in Theories of Ethics (according to the ‘definition.’).”

Of course, the universities have another role to play in the cultural universe, as the creators of educated audiences for the arts. NEA arts audience surveys over the period 1982-92 found that arts education was the strongest predictor of almost all types of arts participation. That is, those with the most arts education were also the highest consumers and creators of various forms of visual art, music, drama, dance, or literature. Other predictors of arts participation historically included general education and income; indeed, this correlation was so strong that tracking these factors should allow one to roughly predict the size of the arts audience. Given America’s rising affluence and ever-increasing numbers of college educated individuals, we should be in the midst of a “high” culture boom, right? Wrong.

Ominously for “high” culture, there has an overall decline in adult arts participation for those born after World War II. The baby boomers have been an unpleasant surprise for the arts. Although far more highly educated than earlier generations, they have not kept up in terms of active participation in the “high” arts. According to the NEA audience surveys, classical music, opera, stage musicals, and live theater all spent the 1970s and the 1980s watching their audiences age; they were all dependent for paying customers on the generations born prior to 1945. Ballet held its own in terms of audience demographic. Only art museums saw an increase in participation from younger audiences. From what can be inferred from scattered data available on the web, the situation does not seem to have improved over the past decade.

Apparently, even as inculcator of interest in the arts, our universities have been rather lacking…although, if most of you will simply cast your memory back to those glorious required arts appreciation courses, it may not be too hard to see where the problem lies.



P.S. This account owes a great deal to Alice Goldfarb Marquis' book, "Art Lessons."

posted by Friedrich at November 16, 2002


Some more light reading, eh?

Thanks for the info, all of it necessary to understand the state of art today.

Another book you might enjoy is Lynne Munson's "Exhibitionism," a series of snapshots of the current-day art establishment at work: Harvard's Art History Department; early days at the NEA, stuff like that. Munson's a conservative, but she's frank about her bias, and from what I could tell her facts are well nailed down.

Posted by: Michael on November 17, 2002 10:29 AM

As I forget who once said to me, in order to make the case that the NEA (and the universities) have done American art any good, you'd have to look at the art. Before: Hudson River School, Melville, Stieglitz, etc etc. Since: Conceptual and installation art.

A rigged list, admittedly. But the principle holds: has American art gotten better since the government and the schools took charge of it? I can't imagine anyone claiming that it has.

Posted by: Michael on November 17, 2002 10:35 AM

Michael, are you seriously saying that the Hudson River School is better than Conceptualism? The former is a derivative and parochial set of painters taken seriously by almost nobody outside the NE of the US and who have shown their lasting influence precisely nowhere. The latter is the single most influential and important art movement of the post-war era (even if one can trace its development back at least as far as Duchamp), has influenced pretty much all contemporary art-making around the globe, and spawned everything interesting we've seen in the visual arts of late, from Dusseldorf photgraphers to Young British Artists.

Do you really think that Thomas Cole would win a Celebrity Smack-down against Robert Irwin? The latter, just for starters, could easily lay claim to having a genuinely American vision, as opposed to simply taking Netherlandish lanscape painting, blowing it up a bit in size, and painting medium-sized mountains instead of fields with cows.

Which is not to denigrate the local and folk art you liked so much in Santa Fe. That, too, is genuinely American, with a certain amount of becoming innocence mixed in with the cynical commercialism.

And I find it fascinating that of classical music, live theatre, opera, stage musicals, and fine art, only fine art has managed to keep its audience. Could that be because only fine art is still developing in interesting ways? That people throng to a Gerhard Richter retrospective because they're interested in seeing something new and challenging? Opera, on the other hand, has gone precisely nowhere in the past 50 years, and the overwhelming majority of operas staged in this country date from the 19th Century. Look at musicals: the most popular are the ones, like Julie Taymor's Lion King, which are inventive, and take the medium somewhere new. And even in opera, something genuinely new and exciting can cause a huge buzz even in a city as conservative (at least in terms of its tast in art) as San Francisco. San Francoise D'Assise sold out there, despite being 5 hours of semi-oratorio written in French in 1983.

American degree programmes let would-be artists develop their work in an atmosphere where originality is praised, rather than punished -- as it would be in Santa Fe, say, your avatar of Pure America. Government funding has been good for the arts in America ever since the days of the WPA, and all through the years when the CIA was bankrolling Jackson Pollock et al. Is there a lot of overly academic work out there? Of course. But New York isn't only the center of the institutional art world, it's also the center of the commercial art world. US art schools are capable of turning out artists who are both inventive and genuinely popular: think Richard Serra. (OK, he wasn't always popular with the masses, but he is now.) But the great thing is that these artists get taken seriously worldwide now, which is more than you can say about your beloved Hudson River School.

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 17, 2002 12:38 PM

I think Felix is on to something here. How about we organize a celebrity smack-down between Robert Irwin and some artist of the Hudson River School? Although, I suspect that looking closely at the two might well reveal more fundamental similarities (e.g., interest in light and its impact on psychological states of mind)than differences.

Posted by: Friedrich Blowhard on November 17, 2002 4:32 PM

I would have said the same thing 10 years ago about the Hudson River School but they are looking very good these days and I know alot of artists who feel the same.Conceptualism may have run its coarse it sure looks that way in NYC.

Posted by: Peter Reginato on November 17, 2002 7:48 PM

Hi Felix

Glad to hear you enjoy conceptual art and think it’s important. I'm a little perplexed by the vehemence of your case against the Hudson River School. But tastes will be tastes.

But, no, I wasn’t suggesting any one-to-one comparisons. I was relaying an argument someone has made, which is this: to be able to prove that the NEA has been a good thing, supporters need to demonstrate that American art since the NEA began has been in better shape than it was in before the NEA was created. Ie., line up what we had before on one side, and what we’ve had since on the other. Compare, contrast, and reach a conclusion.

As for your other points …

I may be more wary than you are of looking to Europe for validation of much of anything American. OK, I think it's crazy to look to Europe for validation of anything American.

I’m not sure why you would think that the popularity of the Gerhard Richter show (which I enjoyed too) tells us much about the NEA.

I think you’ll find, if you look at the figures, that the reason attendance at Fine Arts events has grown has had nothing to do with installation and conceptual shows at Dia or Site Santa Fe. It has had to do with the ingenuity of museum directors in marketing blockbuster shows on themes like Egypt, and the Impressionists.

I find the argument that the NEA has been, if anything, bad for American art pretty compelling, though my main beef with the impact of the NEA is that it has contributed to the politicization of the arts, and has helped hand the direction of the arts over to a class of administrators and bureaucrats. It turns the arts into a welfare client, which isn't something that I think has been healthy for the arts.

But the arts are hard to quantify, and I’m sure the opposite argument can be made too. Want to take a swing at it?

Thanks for dropping by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 18, 2002 12:56 PM

No, you're not going to get a defense of the NEA from me. I know far too little about it, and others I'm sure would do a much better job. I would assert that US art in the era of government funding is better than US art before.

As for your argument that the NEA is bad because it meant the politicization of the arts, well, I'm sympathetic, but on the other hands the arts only came out strengthened after the Helms/Mapplethorpe and Giuliani/Ofili debacles. Also, all art is political, I think.

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 18, 2002 5:46 PM

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