Lurking within recent commentaries on ‘the big group shows’ one finds no uncertain antipathy to the idea of ‘professionalization’ in the visual arts. Most of the time, this gets written up as back-handed swat at art schools and the credentials they offer, the MFA and, now increasingly, the PhD. Holland Cotter did it in that same piece on ‘generations’ I mentioned last week. Here’s the offending passage:
A scan of the catalog’s biographies confirms that, almost without exception, the artists in the show are products of art schools, as often as not intensely professionalized, canon-driven environments. This may help explain why so much of the work on view comes with art historical references and borrowings, tweaks on tweaks on tweaks so intricate and numerous as to defy listing.
And Michael Kimmelman can’t resist a similar swipe in his recent and rather sonambulant review of the Venice Biennale:
If any show can be said to reflect a larger state of affairs in art now, this one suggests a somewhat dull, deflated contemporary art world, professionalized to a fault, in search of a fresh consensus. It has prompted the predictable cooing from wishful insiders, burbling vaguely about new found introspection and gravity.
What, I have to ask, is wrong with professionalization? What are we really criticizing when we deride the graduates of MFA and PhD programs for nothing more than simply having done what one would expect them to do, which is to go and learn about the enterprise in which they are interested? I suspect that lurking behind such statements lies a romanticized and outmoded notion of the artistic subject—which is to say, of the kind of subjectivity (autodidactic, at odds with decorum and the status quo, sometimes tortured, often difficult, always independent—i.e. an ideal of bourgeois bohemianism) that continues to cling to the definition of the “artist” today like some itchy fungus.
No doubt some answers are to be found in James Elkins’ recent editorial enterprise, Artists With PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art (New Academia Press, 2009). I have not read this collection of essays and examples of artists’ PhD theses, but I imagine it will be necessary if we want to get at the difference (if we allow that there is one) between ‘professionalization’ and ‘academicization’.
To turn back to charges of ‘professionalism’, what is the merit of it to begin with? Is the ‘amateur’ really, demonstrably, more favorable than the pro? Isn’t the former simply another iteration of our own lurking romanticism? (Or worse, is it of a piece with the rampant and poisonous anti-elitism that we witness nearly everywhere today?) I hesitate here to make a comparison to the sciences. Professionalization in such fields as biology and physics may have resulted in certain institutional inefficiencies, in misguided research programs and even, in some instances, in a kind of sanctioned alienation from ‘reality’. But no one is calling for a wholesale return to the days of ‘tabletop science’, when experimentation could be characterized as ‘gentleman’s tinkering’. The era of big science, of the Large Hadron Collider and the Hubble Space Telescope, has wrought a reality that the amateur tinkerer could only dream of. Perhaps the rise of the PhD will usher in its own era of ‘big art’ (and I’m not thinking of Jeff Koons here), one of a scale and an ambition of which we can as yet only dream.