When Art Is Life, but All Life Is Work

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

WEN ZHUANG: Are you currently teaching? I realize the school year has come to a close somewhat. But I wonder, if you are, how you’ve found the adjustment. If you aren’t, are there things you’ve noticed about the so-called “Zoom University”? It’s attracted largely critics, but also some hopeful supporters.

LEIGH CLAIRE LA BERGE: I’m on a research grant this semester, so I’m not teaching. For me, personally, it has not been a radical change. I certainly have done online teaching before. This question about the “Zoom University” I talk about in my article “The Market Correction in the Humanities.” This is sort of distinct from the book, but it’s been my impression that — to use a sort of financial metaphor — universities, particularly private, particularly smaller schools, they’re overleveraged, right? They’re not secure financially. They rely on the federal government to indebt a huge number of students to be able to function. I wrote that piece 10 months ago, last August. The idea that universities would encounter something that would cause mass closings seemed very likely. I had no idea that what would happen would be a global viral pandemic. That was the furthest thing from my mind. Certainly a financial shock of the kind that we saw in 2007 and 2008 with the global credit crisis could do that. This seems to have engendered something very similar, even if its origins are very different.

Because of how these dormant issues against higher education, especially art education, have been dredged up due to this pandemic, I was most curious about the first and second chapters of your book. Could you reframe the ideas — about the art student as laborer and the art institution — in the context of right now?

I can see why you would be drawn to those chapters. So, I think it’s a scary moment for education; I think particularly for liberal arts and art schools. That said, I think we were already in a scary moment for them. Not to be too sanguine about it. I do think the model of private education that requires a huge amount of student debt is one that needs to be really questioned and rendered obsolete. The reason I start chapter one of my book with the organizing students were doing in the 1970s is to highlight how we might think of “studentdom” completely separately. Rather than something one purchases, it’s something that one works for and gets paid for. I mean, it’s still the model in parts of the world — parts of Mexico, parts of Europe — you get paid to get an undergraduate education. It’s considered a form of labor, there’s no tuition. To me, that’s a much more equitable model, a much more sustainable model. Will this crisis lead to that? I don’t know, but I think it’s important to point out that history.

. . . .

Yes, I was curious about the two examples you use in your book, in chapter two, when you speak about art institutions, the art practices of Caroline Woolard and Renzo Martens. Do you see these “new institutions” brought about by artists like Woolard and Martens as having the potential to be replacements for the institutions we abide by today?

I would almost combine that question with your last, on if these platforms are becoming art institutions. I think the question of building new art institutions as art works, what Caroline and Renzo are trying to do, is more distinct than just building a new institution. With that said, I know that those two artists in particular are very interested in transforming art education and the way art education is taught. They are rightly very skeptical of the model of the MFA, or maybe even the BFA. When you go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt in a professional credential in a tradition that doesn’t necessarily need to be credentialed. I mean, the main point of that credential is to go back and teach in universities, and there are no jobs there. It could be a very interesting moment to look at what kind of artist-run institutions perhaps rise out of this moment to challenge a sort of MFA dominance. I wouldn’t presume to say that they can, or what form they would take, but the work of these artists has amazing organizing potential, in terms of infrastructures and working with artists. How would that be received? Would people engage with that? Would people flock to that? Is there a critical mass willing to turn away from the MFA? I think that’s going to be the really interesting question to come out of this panic. I think we thought there would be in 2007 and 2008, and that was not the case. In fact, since 2008, we’ve seen a continued proliferation of new MFA programs. We’ll see.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG doesn’t agree with some of the statements included in the OP, but he heartily supports the idea that college expenses have grown far too large and students graduating with hundreds of thousand dollars in student loan debt are at risk for impaired “take-home pay” – gross income less income tax deductions less college loan payments – for a large proportion of their working life.

And, as the OP suggests, as lesser-known colleges ape the behavior and costs of prominent colleges and universities, the net lifetime dollar value of a degree – net-income less total college costs, including loans and interest payments – becomes smaller and smaller.

PG is aware that the benefits of a college education go beyond the purely monetary, but that’s an idea that is built upon a model that assumes upper-class resources and lifestyles of entering and exiting students. The non-monetary benefits of a college education are, in PG’s impecuniously humble opinion, a luxury good, like fine china or original art on the walls — desirable and nice to have if you can afford them.

In the United States, if one wishes to practice law, she/he must usually graduate from a 4-year college or university, then attend law school for three additional years.

PG had a great time as an undergraduate, but very little of what he learned during that four years has contributed to his success as an attorney. PG was fortunate to receive large scholarships during his undergraduate years, but was still paying for student loans many years into his law practice.

In retrospect, although it would have required a stretch, PG suspects he could have gone straight from high school to law school and managed to pass all his courses. One year as an undergraduate would have made the transition to law school easier, but four years as an undergraduate were really not necessary. PG believes that he would have been just as good at his profession with a much-shortened undergraduate experience.

As a side note, law schools are relatively recent inventions. For most of the history of the United States, a person who wanted to become a lawyer did so by apprenticing in the office of a practicing attorney for a period of time. As PG understands the historical practice, a formal education might have been helpful, but was not required under the apprenticeship model. Abraham Lincoln is often cited as an example of an outstanding practicing attorney who never attended law school.

Indeed, per Wikipedia, Lincoln, who grew up on the American frontier was essentially self-educated. Historians estimate that Lincoln’s attendance at organized schools of any kind totaled about twelve months. He was, however, an avid reader.

PG doesn’t recommend the Lincoln educational path for anyone but a bonafide genius, however.

For all its pretenses of liberal open-mindedness, the post-high-school educational establishment in the United States is really quite rigid and obsessively focused on credentials. Conveniently, these institutions have what amounts to a monopoly on granting those credentials.

Exceptions to the lock-step bachelors degree before masters/professional education norm are so rare as to be meaningless. An uncredentialed Abraham Lincoln would not stand a ghost of a chance of becoming an attorney in the United States of the 21st century.

4 thoughts on “When Art Is Life, but All Life Is Work”

  1. I live in the state of Virginia (USA), which allows one to “read” for the Bar without having to attend a law school. Appropriate, considering that this is what Thomas Jefferson did here. However, one must spend 3 years under a Supervising Attorney. Basically, apprenticing. I gave it a half-hour of thought and moved on to more pleasant thoughts.

    • Some professions do still require an “apprenticeship” – although most don’t call it that explicitly.

      Which is why I will accord rather more attention to the professional opinions of an independent practicing lawyer, a medical doctor past their residency, a certified public accountant – than to many people with a PhD.

      • In Engineering there is an old saying: “College teaches you the profession, the job teaches you the trade.” The former gives you the tools and mindset and the latter the experience to deal with the real world.
        No amount of book learning can teach the specifics of running, say, a refinery; just the underlying principles needed before you can begin to run one.

        Most jobs require experience to be able to claim proficiency, usually in direct proportion to the utility of the profession. In fact, too strong an academic background is contrainducated for many jobs. You do not hire a PhD to run an operations dept. You might for *some* R&D, if it’s generic enough. That is why there is such a strong demand for Engineering Bachelors graduates that few hang around for the PhD. It’s also why headhunters exist; companies will pay extra for pre-existing, relevant experience to save the time and cost of training critical personnel.

        Out in the real world the degree is just the start. It’s the experience that matters in the end.

  2. In Mexico, you go straight to the Faculty of Law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) from preparatoria (roughly equivalent to the last three years of high school) – and are titled Licenciado/a (lit. ‘licensed’, but still an honorific in a country where not many get to the college level). If you go instead to the Faculty of Engineering, you will be ‘Ingeniero/a’ for the rest of your life. Even Medical school is college level.

    In the States you get nothing except BS from college. Because so many go further.

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