I’m in the middle without any plans. I’m a boy and I’m a man. I’m eighteen. And I don’t know what I want. – Alice Cooper
In 2013, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud broke a record, selling for $142 million. Bacon’s path through the art world is considered unusual. He had only about two years’ worth of any kind of formal education. And, his production was largely funded by his work in interior design and, well, let’s say lifestyle choices.
In Part 1 of Who Is The Cross Disciplinary Artist?, we named some popular categories and labels used to help corral today’s artist. In Part 2, let’s take a look at one of the popular factors for disqualifying the “seriousness” of an artist and her work.
Artist Disqualifier: Lack of Formal Arts Education
For years, one path has been most promoted as resulting in a financially successful career as an artist: The formal arts education. An MFA is considered “safest.” It gets the necessary attention from the necessary players: curators, gallerists, and art buyers. However, as the Bacon example above proves, not every great artist or auction record breaker requires that education.
Come on. Francis Bacon is an anomaly. He was born in 1909 into extraordinary times in Europe. And, anyway, not everyone becomes Francis Bacon.
Fair enough. But, consider this: The contemporary art establishment as it stands now does not allow for Francis Bacon. The lip service it pays in championing the cause of diversity rings hollow. Any kind of real diversity would include diversity of experience.
The dirty little secret is that the formal arts education path can be a good one – when you attend the right schools. And, just what those right schools are is up for debate. As a culture, when we require the supposed best and brightest to follow roughly the same academic path and are then even more selective from a subset of that larger group . . . does it result in real diversity? No. Just the opposite.
The unintended – or, perhaps intended – consequence of the contemporary art machine is that we generate artists who have proved themselves simply in playing by societal rules. Sure, they may break art world rules by incorporating an animated .gif or a defiantly placed penis somewhere in the composition, but is that all that art is supposed to do for people?
If the same machine were applied in the technology world, there would be no Silicon Valley as we know it. There would be no Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Michael Dell. No Facebook. Maybe a Google. But, no Twitter. The diverse viewpoints and life experiences that exist outside the funnel would neither be heard nor championed. As a result, innovation would be stifled.
The Big Picture
The debate on the value of formal education isn’t actually the most important point here. The takeaway for the collective arts community is a larger one. Artists, community arts organizations, and gallerists that routinely bemoan the lack of interest by the unwashed public should dig deeper:
Is contemporary art uninteresting and irrelevant to so many people because the accepted path to become an artist makes it so?
Updated March 17, 2016.