Archive for the Entitlement in art and education Category

The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America was recently contacted by Jeanne C. Finley, a professor of art at the California College of the Arts, with the idea that we here at Art-Failure HQ should collaborate with her students in a class she is teaching called Failure.

Failure is, according to the course prospectus, “a graduate critique seminar [that] celebrates work that fails. Despite the overwhelming pressure to publicly present works that are highly successful, much of the work completed in graduate school falls short of that ambition…. We take as our premise that there is no such thing as a mistake and that all failures lead to innovation. Students in this seminar will work to create artworks that succeed, but will present their work from the vantage point of its failures, thus shifting the focus of the critique from defense of the work, to the celebration of the process of creation.”

Finley presents a series of questions for students to focus on in the course: “What can these failed works teach the artists that create them? How do these failures lead to the creation of the unexpected and the delightful? Is it possible for the artist and their community to approach the failed work with excitement and desire for more? Why is it that some of the most interesting artists create the most seriously flawed, yet utterly brilliant work that defies categorization?”

Over the course of the semester, students will read weekly selections and show their works. At the end of the semester, each student will be involved in a public presentation of works that “fail.” Also—of particular interest to readers of CAFA—students will each write an analysis of these works, and these writings will appear here, on this website, before the end of the semester.

I can’t wait to see what these students have to say!

In the meantime, we will be posting bits and snippets from the various reading selections that Professor Finley has assigned to her students through the semester. To start, below is a bit of a poem that was included in the course syllabus.

To Those Who’ve Fail’d

By Walt Whitman

1819-1892

To those who’ve fail’d, in aspiration vast,
To unnam’d soldiers fallen in front on the lead,
To calm, devoted engineers–to over-ardent travelers–to pilots on
their ships,
To many a lofty song and picture without recognition–I’d rear
laurel-cover’d monument,
High, high above the rest–To all cut off before their time,
Possess’d by some strange spirit of fire,
Quench’d by an early death.

There is a serious problem with our model for arts education, and indeed for education in general. By focusing on “esteem building”—rather than, say, achievement—we are doing a great disservice to generations of burgeoning young artists, who emerge into adulthood naturally expecting the world to love whatever they make. At the same time, these self-regarding young people have never learned empathy for and appreciation for others’ work, leaving a world with exploding numbers of artists (300+ % increase since the 1970s) and a declining audience for art in real numbers over the same period.

Compounding the problem is the fact that students are getting this message—that everything they do and make is golden—even as a recent study by the Center on Education Policy indicates that school time spent in art classes has decreased by nearly half since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. This is mainly because NCLB focuses so intensely on the teaching of measurable skills—arguably a necessity, since achievement in reading and math has continually declined over the past 40 years or so. The result, however, is schools are forced by this to siphon time away from other non-tested subjects such as music, art, and dance.

Now that we’ve been teaching “self-esteem” for more than 25 years, the main problem seems to be that even as measurable skills decrease, students’ self-regard for their own skills and their own worth has actually increased. This disconnect is driving a generation of poor achievers who are irrationally proud of what they do. This leaves policy-makers, and critics like me, somewhat at a loss, or as Sandy Kress, Bush’s former education adviser, put it, while it’d be nice to give students  “a broad education,… it’s hard to study art history if you can’t read well.”

Australian libertarian commentator Eric Fry, on his website The Daily Reckoning, recently compared the Fed’s recent bailout of reckless mortgage loan speculators to how American educators have taken to coddling burgeoning young art students.

“…Modern American-style capitalism is more like ‘arts and crafts’ time in one of Manhattan’s pricey nursery schools. Every coddled kiddy’s ‘artistic’ creation – no matter how inept or ghastly it may be – elicits praise from the nursery school instructors. Indeed, every grunt elicits praise…and every boo-boo finds a Band-aid.”

This is revealing in two ways. First, that the cushy manner of the American education system, and the entitlement culture it engenders, is becoming increasingly known around the world. Second, that this entitlement culture may not only be a factor in American art and education, but it may have become entrenched far and wide, in the money system, the federal government, and the supposedly “free” economic market.