In search of passionate art students

8 minute read
175 van gogh
The young and the cautious:
In search of passionate art students


I’m standing in the middle of one of the side galleries of a local student art show. If I simply remained fixed there and then rotate 360 degrees, I can see about 15 different works. I’ve already scrutinized each piece up close, carefully, looking at the media, the composition, the technique, even the title.

But the close examination hasn’t revealed what’s bothering me about this show of paintings by graduating students. So I’m standing at a distance now, looking at all the works collectively. There are strange paintings of distorted figures, some tortured self-portraits, bleak landscapes and other canvases revealing typical art student angst. It’s clear that many of these students possess strong technique: They really know how to work with color and line, how to use oils and acrylics.

So, what’s missing? I leave the show feeling perplexed. After all, I taught drawing and painting to students for a number of years, and now I’m a professor of philosophy at an arts university. You would think this combination would allow me to both perceive and articulate what’s going on here. I keep pondering… and almost run into a painting instructor from my own institution; he’s walking down the street toward me.

“Coming from the show?” he says, gesturing towards the gallery.

“Yes.” I don’t know what to say, and I don’t want to say anything negative, so I flip it to him. “Did you like this year’s works?”

This instructor, a diplomatic and thoughtful man, pauses and thinks, stroking his beard before speaking.

“You know,” he says, “this year’s work is probably a little stronger than last year’s. But I feel that something’s missing still, and has been for a number of years now. The work that these students do… well, they are pieces that the students think are what art students are supposed to be doing. They’ve ‘detached’ themselves somehow. Their work doesn’t show themselves, their passion …”

This is it exactly. And for the next several weeks, I think about how that conservatism and lack of passion manifests itself, even in the students’ most tortured works.

Now, this instructor is an old 1960s radical, and I’m a couple of decades younger and a bit less liberal. But we’ve both perceived that something is amiss in this world of youthful art. Where does this lack of passion— this “flat affect,” as they say in psychology— come from?

On one level, it’s fear. Students are afraid to stand out, afraid of criticism too. Like young people everywhere, art students want to “fit in.” But the conformity in this case is too severe. And you would think that art students would somehow be different from other undergraduates. Aren’t art students supposed to be rebels?.

The preppie as today’s radical

Apparently our whole culture of conformity has grown so strong that it has seeped into what was supposed to be a bastion of individuality: the art school. This conformity comes, in part, from commercial media. A friend of mine who works in advertising told me that very few ads these days are about buying a product — they’re about buying a lifestyle, and consumers are made to feel that if they don’t buy the same product that everyone else buys, then they’ll be social outsiders. Even radical dress forms, like nose rings and tattoos, have become homogenized and part of the “buying in” process. In my philosophy classes, the few truly radical thinkers these days have been the students who dress like they’re straight out of prep school — it’s a kind of weird, retro radicalism.

But the desire to conform comes from a reaction to parents as well. My students have parents who were at university in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the heyday of hippiedom. Their parents’ stories of free love and drugs have actually driven them to conservatism. I remind them that youth is just about the only time one can rebel, and that they’re losing that opportunity every day. Curiously, the drug of choice on campus these days is alcohol — a depressant, and certainly not a substance that could be said to be “mind-expanding” in any way whatsoever.

Museum attendance may be high, but…

These students are also afraid about the very act of making art. The creation of art in our society has been considered a marginal occupation for quite some time, but these students live in a period when people quite openly question the value of art at all. Free-market capitalism is the rule of the day, and art seems to create no apparent value. Beth A. Twiss-Garrity, director of the MA in Museum Communication program at The University of the Arts, remarked to me the other day that she constantly must explain to people that, yes, museum attendance is at an all-time high these days, but that doesn’t mean more people are enjoying or recognizing the value of art. People go to museums, contends, simply because they feel it’s the thing to do — it’s a social activity, not an intellectual or artistic one.

Our real attitude towards the artistic process is revealed by the fact that actual funding for the arts — grants for artists, support for art venues of various kinds, and art programs in schools — has suffered serious setbacks in recent years. The current annual appropriation to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), for example, is some $50 million below the 1992 level. In February of this year, the Bush administration released its 2007 fiscal year budget proposal: It included no new funding for the NEA, and eliminated all funding for the “Arts in Education” program run by the U.S. Department of Education.

But more to the point, art students are constantly bombarded with the message — even within an arts university like mine — that they will live and work on the periphery of society. Students absorb jokes that performing arts grads will become waiters, that painters will all be rustling up lattes at Starbucks, and that multimedia students soon will be indoctrinated into the Disney stable. Even at this year’s graduation, one of the speakers commented that “We’re not graduating Senators and Congressmen here…”

I won’t discuss here how art schools could fight the virulent anti-artistic (and anti-intellectual) trends in today’s society. For our purposes in this essay, we’ve just got to realize that these negative messages penetrate students’ heads and contribute to their passivity, fatalism and lack of passion in their work.

Disneyland vs. the real thing

After graduation this year, I began to reflect that the lack of passion in student work comes from another subtler source as well. There is something more subtle going on here. In Simulacra and Simulation, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard talks about fakery at two levels. First, there’s simulation — the copy of something, which distorts the original. Then, there’s the simulacrum — a copy without the original, because the original has long been forgotten.

Baudrillard uses the example of Disneyland, a place that is completely “fantastic,” that has been separated for so long from its original that it is a complete simulacrum. When one looks at Mickey Mouse, one hardly thinks of the actual farm mouse that Walt Disney himself saw and drew as his original cartoon figure. People who visit the Disney empire mistake the “Venice” there for the real thing — since most of them will never experience the real thing. The substitute or copy comes to replace the original, and becomes some kind of odd “original” of its own, without history, meaning, or clear identity.

Our students have grown up in a world of both simulations and simulacra. They have been exposed to the illusion of “reality TV” and the notion that a credit card means that you actually have money. One could almost say that these are not art students but simulacra of art students: carrying out the rituals of wearing tattered black clothing, submitting to body piercings and tattoos, and painting those tortured scenes on canvas — but without the accompanying original, genuine passion.

But the painting professor spoke, too, of “detachment.” Why are these students detached? People become detached when they are afraid.

Echoes of World War I’s “lost generation”

After World War I, European society suffered a certain kind of existential angst. So many young people had died, so much damage had been inflicted on the cities and towns of France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Russia. Many people retreated into the comfortable worlds of hedonism, spiritualism and fascism. Fear pushed people into conformity and fantasy. Today's art students are trying to create art in a world filled with images of burning office towers, ranting terrorists, and young men and women of their same age suited up for deadly battle in desert camouflage.

How can one be original, creative, or dynamic in a society that is all about doing what everybody else is doing? And how can one be passionate and feel a lust for life in a world where death and violence appear on the TV every day? No wonder that our art students — the very youths who should be the vanguard of rebellious thinking and radical creative acts — are so afraid. But what is really terrifying is this loss of youthful passion. If we lack that, then who's going to build the future?

Benjamin B. Olshin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and the director of the Center for the Creative Economy. He has taught history, history of science, fine arts and design, and existential and Chinese philosophy various institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. He can be reached at [email protected].

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