Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century) edited by Steven Henry Madoff

Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century) edited by Steven Henry Madoff, Steven Henry Madoff. The MIT Press. Paperback, 268 pages. $29.
The cover of Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century)

What is art education and what should it do? The essays that Steven Henry Madoff has assembled in Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century) explore this often-controversial question and attempt to determine how to educate people to become professional artists. Madoff is the Senior Critic at Yale University's School of Art. Art School emerges from symposia that he conducted over a five-year period. Thirty prominent artists and educators contributed essays that assess, approve, and in some cases decry the purposes and pedagogy of contemporary formal art studies.

Like contemporary art itself, the essays here take on different, sometimes nonlinear forms, including a Q&A between artists Tania Bruguerra and Marina Abramovic; a letter by the Canadian artist Ken Lum detailing his personal biography and his anxieties about Madoff’s project; and a somewhat smug set of satirical reflections by architect Charles Renfro, which aim to undermine institutions "emperor's new clothes" institutions that teach courses in "slippery pedagogy, slippery architecture," and "from white walls to no walls." Liam Gillick, David Brooks, Mary Simpson, and others contribute a free-form list of slogans describing a hypothetical school that promises: "There will be an attack on pragmatism.” And: "This will remain an incomplete project."

What follows those interesting but loosely woven mottos are twelve actual responses to a questionnaire, designed by critic Brian Sholis, about the long-term effects of education on artists' work and careers. Participants include Ann Hamilton, Fred Wilson, Dana Schutz, and Mike Kelley, and their answers are clear and thoughtful. They muse about how art schools ought to be structured, the relationships they were encouraged to develop with the communities surrounding their own schools, and the benefits they received there, such as invaluable friends, creative encouragement, and the license to experiment and the opportunity to simply produce work away from market pressures.

In contrast, L.A. filmmaker Pierro Golia engages an aspect of the art school that the other sections ignore. "Its easy to see how students don't go to school to learn but rather to receive the stamp that says 'I'm an artist,'" he writes. "And if you pay $40,000 a year to go to school, you really expect that stamp to get you in to a lot of places." His essay urges us to re-evaluate the intangible and arguably unteachable benefits that his fellow respondents say their formal study conferred upon them.

Finally, it falls to British artist Matthew Higgs to underscore a common sentiment voiced by his colleagues with a straight-forward and persuasive summation. "My art education certainly wasn't perfect or even ideal, but it did—for all its faults—allow me enough space and time to figure some things out, thoughts that I'm still wrestling with to this day." No one here says whether or not you can actually teach art, but Higgs’s simple assessment expresses what an art school can, and sometimes does, offer the aspiring artists within its embrace.

Ana Finel Honigman is an art and fashion critic based in Berlin.