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Cutting the Bullshit
Posted By jswann On August 29, 2011 @ 5:51 pm In Feature Stories,From The Print Edition | 2 Comments
Bullshit Detectors or Art-World Darlings?
The Bruce High Quality Foundation, the New York-based anonymous artist collective founded in 2001 and comprised mostly of Cooper Union graduates, founded its own unaccredited university in 2009 and embarked on its Teach 4 Amerika tour this past spring. The goal of the tour, according to the Foundation’s website, was to “inspire and enable local art students to define the future of their own educational experience.”
The self-described “amateurs” have been referred to as “darlings of the art world” by New York Times art critic Julia Chaplin, and as “human bullshit detectors” by art critic Jerry Saltz. Whether you agree with Saltz that BHQF are bullshit detectors, or think they are merely purveyors of art-world bullshit instead, as Chaplin suggests, BHQF has still successfully commanded the gallery space of prestigious museums like the Whitney and influential shows like Art Basel Miami Beach. Last year, they were even ranked as 99th among the most powerful art world figures by ArtReview.
The Contemporary Art Student: Failure, Skepticism, and Manipulation
“Schools, whether intentionally or not, sell themselves to prospective students and their wary parents by promoting an unhelpfully heroic image of the contemporary commercially successful artist,” said BHQF via email (they don’t give interviews in person or over the phone).
BHQF, referred to collectively as the Bruces, noted that while some artists, including themselves, may find that working within the small frame of the commercial art world is a useful position, it’s “simply untenable for a contemporary art student to view that system as a measure of success. If they do, 99% of them will be failures. We’d prefer to think there are many ways of being an artist.”
Institutions that the Bruces believe are already thinking this way? Harrell Fletcher’s program at PSU and John Rubin’s program at Carnegie Mellon. “These programs still struggle to make their tuition match the moneymaking prospects of their students, but it’s a start,” said BHQF, who has defined arts education as “an education in metaphor manipulation.” But what exactly is metaphor manipulation? And why does it seem like everything the Bruces write is encoded in the kind of hyper-pretentious art-speak that they claim to reject?
When asked to break down their so-called “prolegomena” into layman’s terms, they recited a sort of proverb: “The world may be the world, but art is definitely how we see the world. That is what we mean by metaphor.” Then came the oversimplification: “Manipulation means taking agency over how we and others see the world. The fancy philosophical term for this is intentionality” (their emphasis).
Bruce High Quality Foundation University vs. School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Very much unlike SAIC, BHQFU is tuition-free. But it’s also taught on a volunteer basis, and classrooms are appropriated out of apartments, non-profits, alternative spaces, and even city parks. The Foundation has occasionally fundraised to cover the cost of classes, and when it’s been necessary, the Bruces have simply paid out of pocket to cover the materials or lesson plans that weren’t financed by Creative Time, a New York City-based organization that commissions art projects and programs, including BHQFU.
“It is unfortunate that we can’t all just have everything we want for free — that power and money are aligned in ways that are often detrimental to the public good,” the Bruces told me. “Nonetheless, the rent has to get paid. There is no clean money. So like anyone working a job or buying a sandwich, we try to measure the possible good against the possible ill. It’s especially complicated if you don’t think art is necessarily a moral activity. But that’s another matter. So we try to think of fundraising as another component of the materialist process of making art. You don’t just make an image. You make it out of something. Like paint or print, funding and its politics are among those somethings.”
Similar to SAIC, BHQFU doesn’t use a grading system, and moreover, “critique is the heart of what BHQFU does.” The Bruces take on a self-motivated philosophy that many students at SAIC would agree with: “Participants get out what they put in. To our mind, measuring the success of BHQFU participants is personal to the participants. This isn’t primary school. We aren’t preparing anyone for the world. They are preparing themselves.”
Where SAIC and BHQFU majorly diverge, however, is that while most students at SAIC create two or four years of challenging and mentally-demanding critical work in order to receive a BFA or MFA, BHQFU offer no sort of degree or certificate. “Perhaps the most important thing to avoid is a belief that a degree makes you an artist,” the Bruces told F. “It doesn’t. You don’t need an MFA to paint. Hell, you may not even need paint to paint.”
Wine, Food and Film Might Also Be Included… But Then Again, They Might Not
Although BHQFU hosts “real classes in real spaces,” the Bruces don’t like to think of it as an institution so much as an ethos.
“Anyone can start a class anywhere, anyone can have an educational experience with a work of art, with another artist. Anyone can host a meeting to research and critique ways artists are learning together and from each other. That’s what we did when we came to Chicago [during the Teach 4 Amerika tour] and it was very useful to us,” they said.
Adelheid Mers, Chair of the Arts Administration and Policy program at SAIC, had a different impression of the Bruces when they stopped in Chicago during their tour. “Compared to the much more thoughtfully presented introductions of their aims, interests and practices by Chicago groups who were present at Roots & Culture that evening,” Mers remarked via email, “BHQF seemed painfully uninformed, and not particularly interested in learning from their largely more eloquent and better educated peers.”
Having heard so many different opinions about BHQF, I wanted to attend one of their New York City-based classes to find out for myself what they were really like. When I emailed the instructor for the BHQFU Writing Group, which the website says is held every Sunday afternoon, I got a response that said: “We’re actually not in session at the moment. I will get back to you when we are.”
The other courses advertised on the BHQFU website include Drawing Extensions, The Language of Love: Intro to Italian, The Artist at Work, and XXXtreme Performance Studies. The course descriptions sound promising — The Intro to Italian course even suggests, “Wine, food and film might also be included!” However, it seems that BHQFU courses depend on when the instructor feels like teaching them, and when participants feel like attending them.
If this all sounds good to you, you might be asking yourself, how can I incorporate the ethos of the Foundation into my own debt-inducing, degree-earning education? The Bruces smugly advise you to read the William Carlos Williams poem, “A Sort of a Song
Is it bullshit? Maybe so. But at least it’s free bullshit — no loans, textbooks, or theses required.
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