With a world in crisis and an art market spiraling out of control, art world consultants Chen & Lampert deliver hard truths in response to questions sent by Art in America readers everywhere.
I’m a new adjunct professor doing studio criticism at an art school, and the program director has informed us that we can’t tell students their work is bad. We can only be positive. This has been very difficult because our program happens to have an inordinate number of lazy artists who do a very poor job. I think it’s my job to tell them their work sucks because that’s what I get paid for and the world needs fewer bad artists. Can I say what I think? Or is it just mean?
A new deputy with big ideas for how things should work – yuck, really sorry. You quickly realize what other part-time teachers you’ll never meet already know but won’t divulge unless they’re tipsy: the majority of students at your art school would be better served studying pool cleaning to college. Plus, in case it’s not entirely obvious, your program director is a power-hungry brat who bends over backwards to pamper the deadweights who pay full tuition. How do we know? We ourselves have been assistant teachers.
Good criticism helps answer many of the lingering questions that artists avoid asking in their neurotic self-questions. The only way for artists to step back is to get people to look at their art and tell what it is – and, more importantly, is. not— do for them. Getting a negative or even lukewarm review can be positive, as it helps make visible what artists don’t see. It also confirms issues that they hope others won’t notice. Even though reviews are subjective, if more than one person reports the same problem during a studio visit, there’s reason to suspect that they might identify glaring and hopefully fixable flaws.
But adjunct or not, a faculty member telling a student they’re blowing is bad teaching. Whiplash-inducing criticism can only be doled out by guest artists who serve as light-footed hatchets ready to express the untold feelings professors have suppressed all year. That being said, pampering inferior artists is how we perpetuate inferior arts programs and a terrible artistic ecosystem. Teachers should rightly expect rigor, conceptual clarity, technical skill, authentic ideas, and genuine effort from their students. Don’t bite your tongue if you have something constructive, insightful, or even contrary to say. But make sure he doesn’t burst out in a brutal way that would make the lame kid you’re teaching run to his check-wielding parents. If this happens, your program director will make you pay the price for your student’s poor art.
I moved to New York after graduating from high school to become a full-time artist. Then the pandemic arrived. I have two part-time jobs and am exhausted from being in vibey group shows where most artists are already on the gallery circuit. I feel like the only way to advance my career is to meet the right people in a good MFA program, but looking at the websites of the top schools I would like to go to, I don’t see any professors that I want to study with enough to pay $80,000. Is graduate school worth it at this point?
We just advised a teacher to tell shitty students their art is fake, so what are we going to say about going to college just for networking? You’re smart to realize that $80,000 is a big chunk of trust fund money to blow on social contacts. You’d probably be better off being an appreciated ketamine addict at the opening of the group show than a sitting duck at a whole school review with teachers who aren’t accomplished enough at your taste. Plus, if you keep lingering as a fun-loving decorator, chances are you’ll end up being mistaken for an MFA grad anyway. It’s the budget savers’ advice that they don’t teach in art schools.
Your questions for Chen & Lampert can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org