Monday, April 4, 2011
The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s Teach 4 Amerika – An Arts Administrator’s Perspective
Last week I saw the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s Teach 4 Amerika at Tyler School, and their presentation has unsettled me since. Philadelphia was only the second stop on their breakneck, month-long tour of art schools across the United States in a repurposed limousine/school bus. The tour is aimed squarely at people with BFAs or MFAs (or those who are currently pursuing them) and art school faculty. As an Arts Administration graduate student, I was undoubtedly in the minority of those present. But the BHQF presenter called out arts administrators, particularly those who run art schools, and I feel a response is appropriate.
I first became aware of the Bruce High Quality Foundation last year when their piece We Like America and America Likes Us was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial. The work consisted of a Joseph Beuys-referencing (or was it Ghostbusters-referencing?) Cadillac Miller-Meteor ambulance, with a video rear-projected onto the windows. The video stitches together iconic film footage, viral online clips, and snippets of news and popular culture, over which a narrator speaks. The piece nails the melancholy and longing of Millennials whose contemporary reality is that we live in an America which was forged through hardship by the Greatest Generation and then laid to waste by the Boomers.
The Teach 4 Amerika presentation is really no different in its tone. The crew at BHQF are very clever, almost too clever, in their manipulation of appropriated media and pairing image with message. A recurring motif is the use of clips from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to illustrate the absurdity of the present art school ecosystem. The narrative is built around the story of an archetypal girl who is pursuing her BFA at MICA. You see, BHQF have a bone to pick with the business and economics of art and art schools. It is hard to begrudge them that the commercial art world has its unseemly practices. It is also fact that almost no one who graduates with a fine arts degree will achieve gallery representation, let alone sales robust enough to support a living. But for they would have it, it’s ars gratia artis or nothing. Art is a vocation, a higher calling—a point that I can agree upon—but one which is sullied once money becomes involved; art and business are at polar ends of the spectrum.
BHQF takes exception with the National Endowment for the Arts, picking on its leader Rocco Landesman (an easy target), and its current tagline “Art Works,” i.e. the concept that art can be a generator for local economies. In this city, such a claim is tantamount to blasphemy. Alas, there was no one from the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, or the Arts & Business Council to go toe to toe with them. At the least, their bone of contention with the economic argument for the value of the arts is appallingly naïve. It is the most formidable tool that those in the arts have against naysayers, particularly elected officials who fundamentally disagree that public money should be used in support of the arts. It is but one part of an arsenal that encompasses and can work hand in hand with arguing for the intrinsic value of the arts, not its mortal enemy.
The tour amounts to little more than preaching to the converted, pandering to manifest frustration about feeling saddled with debilitating student loans to earn an art diploma that will not lead to a sustainable job that can employ the skills learned while obtaining said diploma. BHQF poses many questions but offers no solutions, other than that they have founded BHQFU, a do-it-yourself “university” for people who want to take part in a creative community (they also reject the accreditation system for art schools as another micro-economy that only looks out for its own monetary interest).
Teach 4 Amerika is hipster venting, styled as earnest exploration of critical issues. If it is all a put on, a grand work of performance, BHQF is bamboozling susceptible minds. If they are for real, and represent a truism about the future leaders of our arts communities, all of us are in trouble.