Some thoughts on the meaning of success for an artist, Or, The art school and its former customers

Today I receive from a former student one of the many exhibition notices I get, for a group show, including other former students. It’s a phenomenon rarely discussed: faculty who teach over a long period of time track the careers of their former students over years, not all of them but those who stay in their memory and on their screen, and among these not just the few who make it big, possibly bigger than the teacher–in fact often those former students never even keep you in the loop, because they are doing so well and most likely feel their teachers had no role in their success, and perhaps quite rightly so, and they may even erase their education from their bio notes–but from the ones who two, three, and more significantly five or ten years on, continue, getting their work into galleries, organizing group exhibitions with some of their fellow artists/former classmates, their immediate cohort.

You can see the patterns of friendship and allegiance and ideology, you can see the struggle to just get a show in the city you live in much less the global arena that the rhetoric claims we are training them for. As an artist I know how hard that struggle is just to continue to make work and try to get yourself out there and create a discourse around yourself in the face of jobs done to survive and in the face of waves of new fresh MFAs and in the face of the sheer difficulty of continuing and defining oneself, and growing. If you continue at all, if you continue to grow as an artist, that is, you remain alive within thought, maintaining a belief in your work that is inflected with self-criticality and willingness to expose yourself to challenge, you have achieved a measure of success, though not success as it is presented in the media as defined by monetary value nor necessarily success according to dominant values in art academia at any given moment and place.

Educational institutions often don’t show enough interest in many of their former students’ accomplishments, particularly if they are of this journeyman nature rather than of the spectacular framed by the market and selected elite art institutions. The individual teacher who has had a human relation to the individual student and who has at best invested some of her own life energy into someone else, has a different relation to the former student than the institution which moves on to what can only be best described as both new future product, but also current customers who are by definition fungible. Faculty who teach a long time in sense have deeper institutional memory than the institution itself and what their memory holds may even be inconvenient: the institution is always reconstituting itself as being up to the latest date, that is both the genuine desire, the rhetoric, and the marketing ploy. It seeks to, it promises to prepare the student for what it sees as the future that the student will live in, which is of course an important goal, particularly when education is increasingly generating enormous student debt, but inevitably the institution’s concept of the future is based on ideologies that are themselves date-stamped in one past or another. Only rarely is there a fortuitous near synchrony between the ideology and the school–we mark those in history, the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, Yale, NSCAD, CalArts, among these, each at specific moments in time even if the institution continued to exist past that moment of cultural synchrony.  When the institution asserts that its goal is to shape the artist /citizen of the future, it may call on new ideologies that it feels necessitate the erasure of the old ones so it is inconvenient if long time faculty know that former students who are successful according to the terms of the new ideology in fact emerged from instruction in the old, discredited regime.

This is part of what I think of when I receive the email announcements from one former student or another, from last year or two decades ago. When I posted a version of this text on Facebook a couple of days ago most people took it as an appreciation of the teacher / student relation, and of the struggle just to continue to be an artist and thus a questioning of  what definitions of success are for the artist. But that very questioning is embedded within the experience gained over a lifetime of being an artist who teaches in institutions of higher learning in the arts and how that very experience is considered by the institutions.

Teaching is also a very human interaction so that for better or worse, patterns of favoritism based on aesthetic, political, and philosophical ideology, but also on the simple relations of affinity and friendship persist through time, past graduation, favoring some students over others depending on the regime in place.

However the lack of connection between student and educational institution is also a mutual thing: many MFAs programs do have websites for former students to send in notices of exhibitions but most former students don’t use them. Nevertheless the institution is more likely to be indifferent to markers of the every day survival of the every day artist, rather than to the star turn which will reflect best on the institution.

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