Archive for the Failure of arts education Category

A Statement by Jeanne Finley: 

My graduate seminar at CCA is a fail. While on sabbatical and leave for the past two years, I developed a seminar that would focus on the cultural construction of failure identities both historically and contemporarily; the failures of graduate student’s work created and shown publically during the seminar; and a further public reflection and celebration of those failures through the forum of Michael Fallons Art Failure website.

The Failure seminar filled on the first day of registration and quickly a long waitlist developed for the class. FAIL. On the first day I walked into the classroom and over twenty people were fighting for a place in the seminar. FAIL. I opened my computer and patched it into the projector. FAIL. I went around the room and asked the student’s department affiliation within the fine arts department. FAIL. I am a professor in the media arts area and have always had classes populated with about seventy-five percent media arts students. FAIL. Things had changed at CCA during my leave. FAIL. None of the students in the classroom were media arts students. FAIL. Most of them were painters. FAIL. The projector would not see the power-point presentation I had prepared. FAIL. I struggled with the technology. FAIL. Students went to the AV center to try to fix the problem. FAIL. Some of them never came back. FAIL. I told the students that most of the work I came prepared to show was media arts based work. FAIL. I gave up on power-point and presented from individual files. FAIL. I showed some things off U-tube. FAIL. I heard a student ask under their breath, “Did she just do a search on failure on u-tube?” FAIL. I showed a work of my own that was a failure in my own eyes although successful publicly. FAIL. I showed a work of mine that is a success for me although curators have been uninterested in it. FAIL. At last it was break. FAIL. Students began telling me they were dropping the seminar. FAIL. Students began saying that the description of the seminar didn’t match what was happening that first day. FAIL. By the end of the day almost everyone dropped the seminar. FAIL. Almost everyone on the waitlist left too. FAIL. I have never felt so devastated in all my years of being a professor. FAIL. Five students in total remained in the class. SUCCESS.

The intimacy of the seminar and the commitment by the students to both the seminar topic and their own work resulted in a remarkable class. We took an overnight field trip hosted by social practice artist, Gregory Gavin. Richard Olsen brought us to his high school art classroom and Tina Takamoto gave a talk on her work. The process of creating a seminar from a focused group of students through the first day’s failure was not something I would necessarily wish to repeat, but I am grateful that that it happened this semester as the seminar would never have succeeded in the way it did if we hadn’t first failed.

An article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, published in the wake of Brandeis University’s sell-off of the Rose Art Museum, details the effect the bad economy is having on campus support of art programs.

Without Change, Campus Arts Programs Could Risk Their Survival

By Brad Wolverton

Buried in the recent news about big endowment losses and the steps colleges are taking to weather the economic crisis is an emerging pattern: Culture, it would seem, is expendable.

First came Brandeis University’s decision to close its art museum and sell off more than 6,000 works in its collection. Then Miami University, in Ohio, and Texas Tech moved to sell or shutter their radio stations. Now Utah State University may stop its academic press.

Even Bowdoin College, a longtime supporter of the arts, which completed a $20-million renovation of its art museum in 2007, recently said it may dump its big-band jazz ensemble.

Some of that may just be skimming the fat. But faced with increasing costs and shrinking government support, more institutions may do what was once unthinkable: cut entire academic programs.

That prospect hung over a group of college presidents gathered here last week for the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Mary Pat Seurkamp, president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, summed up the mood this way: “Some people are saying, ‘We know our mission and we love the liberal arts. But you don’t have to have all of them.’”

The recession is intensifying administrators’ scrutiny of underperforming majors, leading to tough questions: Are those majors helping to drive enrollment and revenue? Do they have a vocal or wealthy constituency? If not, maybe they should go.

“It’s a bad stew,” says Harriet Zuckerman, a senior vice president at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, one of the biggest supporters of the arts and humanities on campuses. “These are episodic symptoms of what is likely to become a more serious problem.”

As the economic downturn has deepened, colleges have demonstrated a swiftness for shedding programs whose goals have not been aligned with core missions.

Art experts say that may help explain the fall of the Rose Art Museum, at Brandeis….

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


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.

Here’s a study in contrasts that reveals something about the extreme conditions facing the arts and arts organizations these days.

In Minnesota, where governmental arts funding has been flat for the past six years or so, and other forms of support are slowly shrinking (such that most arts organizations that I’m aware of are having financial problems; some severe), lobbyists and advocates have hit on a novel (and controversial) way to prop up the state’s struggling arts orgs: A new constitutional amendment to levy a new sales tax. And even stranger, they’re doing it in partnership with environmental protection advocates.

“This November, the things we treasure here in Minnesota are on the ballot,” said Ken Martin, director of the Vote Yes Minnesota campaign, a coalition of 200 environmental, conservation, outdoors and arts organizations. “This [amendment] will protect our waters, land and way of life. If we don’t act now to protect these great natural and cultural resources, they will be lost forever.”

The theme of the campaign is “Protect the Minnesota you love.” …

“This state is on a directional course that is no longer acceptable,” he said. “We have to convince people that voting for this amendment is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the legacy that we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.”

The estimated financial impact on each Minnesota family (because of the 3/8 percent increase in the state sales tax) is estimated at $56 per year. A number of prominent Minnesota figures and politicians have already endorsed the measure, which goes to vote in November.

At the same time, in Arizona, a bill intended to protect arts education from looming budget cuts (along with PE classes), was vetoed last week.

The governor [Janet Napolitano] noted that course cuts already are typically decided upon by local school boards during public meetings. …

Napolitano also called the measure “an empty promise” because it offered no additional state funding to help school districts provide programs teaching the arts, vocational education and PE.

[Bill sponsor Rep. Mark] Anderson countered that the bill had “broad, bipartisan support,” and said its intent was simply to send a message to school districts contemplating course reductions.

An article called “Failure Makes a Comeback,” which recently appeared in the Western Washington University student newspaper, describes an exhibition of work, at the Viking Union Gallery, by seniors at the school who have all but resigned themselves to lives of artistic failure.

The show’s title–”F’ It”–is perhaps revealing of a prevailing attitude among young artists today.  The story explains that the show, organized by Western students Heidi Norgaard and Abby Wilson, is dedicated to “abandoned, damaged, or altogether failed artwork submissions” from the school’s students.

“We wanted to do a show where an artist put their heart and soul into [a piece of artwork], and it just didn’t turn out how they planned,” Wilson said. “They just had to say fuck it”…

To emphasize this approach, the coordinators requested a written description of what went wrong with the piece with each submission. They said the effect of seeing a failed piece of art next to the story of its demise adds depth to the exhibit.

The idea was inspired by a fiber-art major, who had started countless art projects that began as exciting concepts but ended up as big disappointments. “But that’s the process you have to go through,” she said. “Ninety percent of the projects artists make are really crappy. The other 10 percent are what you see in galleries… I’m tired of being mad about having shitty art, and I decided to start being happy about the mistakes I make.”

“People put too much emphasis on grades and getting things right the first time,” Norgaard said. “If every college was open to failure, we could learn a lot more.”

A recent story by Scott Russell called Setting standards, cutting funding for arts education that appeared in the online news aggregator Twin Cities Daily Planet reports that once-vaunted local arts education standards are currently being threatened. 

For many Minnesota art students, the author writes, “arts seem to be a thinning palette.”

This is because while Minnesota state standards in education focus on the value of art in the curriculum, the actual requirements for art, starting this year (and perhaps due to the No Child Left Behind laws) in a student’s education are minimal: only one art credit is needed to graduate from Minnesota high schools.

“Unlike reading, math and science,” Russell writes, “there is no high-stakes state arts test. Each district sets its own measure of art success. If students pass the art class that could be enough to meet the graduation requirement. That means arts can get the brush-off in the budget process, as schools focus resources on reading and math where success is measured by highly publicized, quantitative test scores.”

This means that statewide, according to Michael Hiatt, director of professional development and research at the Perpich Center for Arts Education, in “traditional schools” art teachers are “getting stretched to cover more and more students.” “It is more of a case of the haves and have nots,” in arts education, he said. “The gap is widening.”

Mary Schaefle, executive director of the Minnesota Music Educators Association, studies equity in arts education. From 2000-2006, she found, the number of “public school students dropped 1.5 percent” while the number of “public school music teachers dropped more than 11 percent”–indicating a drop-off in quantity of music lessons provided. In addition, the story sites the replacement, over this time period, of regular school arts instruction with more supplementary guest artist programs. “Obviously it saves some schools some money,” said one such instructor, “rather than hire a full-time teacher.”

One high school art teacher suggested that currently in Minnesota arts funding is “hit and miss, depending on what district you happen to be in, what part of the state you happen to live in, what the resources happen to be at any given moment.” The results, predictably, are a decline in talent levels among kids as they move through the education system, an ongoing deterioration in equipment and facilities for the arts in schools, and a resulting deterioration of interest among students in these subject areas.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.”
–Theodore Sturgeon

“The art schools… you get young kids doing the most vile and meaningless crap. I think they believe every bit of it.”
–Leonard Baskin

“That’s the reality of rock ’n’ roll: Just about every band is absolute shit. Listen to any disco compilation or punk retrospective. Listen to 98 percent of the ska bands that emerged in the mid-1990s (or most of the originals, for that matter). The overwhelming majority of what you’ll hear will be wretched. And it generally seems that fans know this, even though they might not feel comfortable admitting it. Few people listen to entire albums, even when they’re released by their so-called favorite band.”
–Chuck Klosterman

And then there’s this:


21 big blocks of crap in the current exhibition, “This Entrance is Strictly Prohibited,” by Santiago Sierra at the Lisson Gallery in London.

According to a recent story in The Observer, British theatre director Sir Richard Eyre says schools in Britain are failing to inspire the next generation of arts appreciators. Sound familiar?

Eyre, who led the National Theatre in England for 10 years, has warned that a condition of cultural apartheid has been “denying millions of people access to high culture.” Such a chasm, said Eyre, and the resulting lack of appreciation among schoolchildren for theatre, art, and classical music means a deterioration of support for the arts.

Eyre explained: “My fears are that you enlarge the divisions in society between those for whom the arts are a part of life and people who think it is impossibly obscure and incomprehensible…”Part of the job of education must be to enfranchise those people who feel disbarred from the arts.”

Should this blog instead be the International Chronicle of Artistic Failure?

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.”