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Mat Gleason

DROWNING IN DIPLOMAS

ask any gallerist,
the Post-MFA era is upon us


Photo: Shana Nys Dambrot


Well the future for me is already a thing of the past

There was a sea change in the Los Angeles art world. I think it was when MOCA put on their Superflat exhibition and dorky Japanese Anime drawings sucked art collector wallets dry. The Masters Degree in Fine Art was left at the door.

In hindsight, we can see that it has been left behind, in the dust, a blip in the rearview mirror, a relic of the Clinton '90s. We used to be so impressed with our precious parchments, but didn't you hear? You could have saved your money, you don't need one of those pieces of paper. If the clubhouse is open to lousy renderings of Speed Racer cartoons, your piece of paper is pretty much worthless. But not to blame (or credit) Anime. The large number of graduates from our venerated schools hasn't increased the overall quality of art anywhere one iota. And the whole art world is talking behind the back of academia.

"Oh, so you went to such-and-such MFA program, you must be loaded with debt. . ." Every gallery has a horror story about the needy artist scrambling to pay back student loans. Not worth the trouble in these tight economic times. And they don't bring in any collectors to the gallery. These grad schools push anti-market theory so far that "art collector" becomes synonymous with "crutch" and is scorned; on the other hand these MFAs wheel and deal and sell their souls, if ineptly, to “show.” Kids, it isn't really like that. What it is like is that your professors are jealous of anyone's success. When they scorn the marketplace, they are actually rationalizing their utter failure.

"Oh, you didn't take out student loans? Well, the other means of support you are so smug about signals to everybody that you have ridiculously high expectations that cannot be fulfilled." What art dealer wants a prima donna headache when the stock market is throbbing enough? On top of which their nouveau-riche chums pretend to be collectors so poorly it is laughable.

"Oh, you got your degree at a public college; remind me why I am talking to you. . ." The elite are circling their wagons, kiddies.

You may as well get a Political Science degree, the secret about what goes on at your art schools leaked out long ago. You see kids, the galleries talk. They regularly turn over artists who cannot deliver one of the big three: Sales, Buzz, Reviews. Art galleries intuitively understand meritocracy in a way that the tin ear of the academy has never picked up. They note who gets reviewed in the L.A. Times and in the New York art glossies, and they keep score on the graduation rates out of the local academies. Listen, the dirty secret (that L.A. art MFA programs are diploma mills) isn't a secret at all. Los Angeles galleries all know that the graduate school cannot be quantifiably applied to any level of excellence when everyone passes. And when you look at the tuition, you'll understand the deep desire for these schools to keep in every kid, artist or not. So when your graduate school passes everyone, the awful artists, the non-ironic flower painters, the twits who can quote Derrida but not Henry James, the unbathed Mike Kelley wannabes, galleries understand.

True, there was a time when graduate schools were the pipeline into the commercial gallery sphere. No more. The days of Paul McCarthy recommending Jason Rhoades to his New York dealer David Zwirner have drowned in the sheer stakes of it all, in the glut of students your teachers deal with and their natural envy of any artist, especially a former student, more successful than them. Galleries have wizened to the fact that the artists in their stables who are teachers are more interested in using a gallery as a host for parasitic colleagues than in bringing aboard the best and brightest students.

Of course, it is in the best interest of the artist who teaches to do so. Using art world connections to accentuate an academic resume and accelerate an academic career is as incentive. Becoming an art teacher at a graduate school is much more of a prestige career moment than getting a solo show. Los Angeles is an industry town; not Hollywood, academia--the diploma industry.

The Los Angeles art graduate schools, to their credit, do a few things very well. They have raised the standards for community college teachers so high that, in my opinion, the art department of any given community college in Los Angeles is likely to be as beneficial to its students as any undergraduate program. This upsidedown happy coincidence is due exclusively to the teachers in these schools. The local graduate schools attract very motivated artists, give them access to world class facilities and let the cauldron simmer with very little stirring. This is all good and often leads to very interesting times.

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in


But a graduate school style appeared on the scene long ago. The teachers at the school hold on to their positions quite firmly. They stagnate as motivators of students and soon, it has, in their eyes, all been done. But the theory focuses on the evils of the jaded marketplace, the ignorant culture at large. The spotlight is never reflective. If it were, the faculty would die in its glare. And the galleries have grown weary of the academy's self-loathing reliance on art styles that are on a seeming soup-of-the-day rotation. Same soup, different cocky twentysomething making it.

The graduate schools see the writing on the wall. Some are renting gallery spaces for a month at Bergamot Station and elsewhere to showcase their graduateís work. Kids, don't try this at home, it is a fatal way to enter the market. Once a gallery rents an artist space, that artist has been given a distinct advantage that is actually almost always a death sentence. You have the length of the show to sell that artwork or you are dead in that gallerist's eyes. You paid to play. Now play the game. I'm not in favor of parents throwing children into swimming pools to teach them how to swim. And since these exhibits are timed with students graduating, your teachers aren't jumping in any pool to save and resuscitate a prematurely drowning career.

Some of the graduate schools are creating stealth "hip" galleries. While they can smugly concoct a parade of rationalizations about mimicry of market strategies, these academy galleries are insidiously the ultimate pay to play. After you have paid your $40,000+ tuition, you get to show in a poorly lit "alternative" space. Funny how the critics of the market do capitalism so much better. Mask evil with the pomp and circumstance of cap and gown glory, handshake, goodbye, letter in the mail demanding payment on student loans.

The fog is so thick that you can't even spy the land
What good are you anyway, if you can't stand up to some old businessman?


Of course, there are avenues other than exhibiting at commercial galleries open to artists with MFA degrees. From artist-run co-ops to nonprofit exhibition venues, commercial galleries have many dopplegangers willing to show artists fresh out of school and in the clutches of student loan hell. Ironically, almost every type of non-market exhibition space was originally created as an alternative to a system that only showed MFAs. With more exhibition spaces, though, the last 30 years have seen a rise in MFAs. It’s pure market capitalism those socialist-spewing professors engage in. And at the expense of the marginalized and otherwise unseen artists!

But the galleries see it all. While Graduate Schools are guided by a market need for artists who want to teach or feel superior to artists with talent indistinguishable from their own, commercial galleries are guided by that invisible hand of the marketplace--that of the consumer, the art collector. The galleries in Los Angeles seem to be waking up to the actual difference that a graduate degree yields them in terms of sales, buzz and reviews. There is no difference, and galleries are increasingly fed up with the baggage any recent graduate is likely to bring to a gallery. Too many of you have strolled from out of the ivory tower, and your classmate cliques with sneers and/or slide packets show up at the opening receptions demanding exhibitions and more wine. They never buy the art. The only critics who look at your show are hoping to hop on the academic gravy train as well.

Gallerists see it all, swap stories, and what seems a slow trend forming is actually a consensus arrived at by patterns repeated as anecdotes. Academia in Los Angeles art disguises itself as a highway to success when it is really a cul-de-sac shakedown. The galleries can see a dead-end street on a map a mile away and not make the turn. Why the hell more aspiring artists cannot see this as well boggles my mind.



Italicized verses are from Bob Dylan's Love And Theft, © 2001.



Mat Gleason is the publisher of Coagula Art Journal. He can be seen along with Agnes Martin, Dave Hickey, Richard Tuttle, Amy Adler, John Baldessari and others in the 1-hr. art world documentary "Art City; Simplicity" directed by Chris Maybach, available on VHS and DVD from Twelve Films of Los Angeles at (888) ART-CITY