What’s wrong with ‘professionalization’?

dunlops-cornwall-spetember-2007-007-men-in-suitsLurking 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 This may help explain why so much of the work on view comes with art historical references and borrowings, tweaks on tweaks on tweaks so intricate and numerous as to defy listing.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.

3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with ‘professionalization’?”

  1. Natalie Heinich in her magisterial study, The Glory of Van Gogh: An Anthropology of Admiration, catalogued some traits of our enduring romantic attitudes about art, among them: “abnormality is no longer valued as an exception, but as the rule” and “degeneration in the present proved [the artist’s] future greatness.”

    The “myth of exceptionalism” that Van Gogh embodied for the popular imagination brought in its tow other attributes expected of art works and artists in the modern era: the reverence for the unfinished work, the iconic value of a promising young life and career tragically interrupted, and most importantly, the “motif of incomprehension”: the central sacralizing element of being misunderstood and rejected by mainstream society.

    It is clear that the MFA-credentialed artists of our day have long ago broken with the Van Goghian mythology. When they do evoke it, it comes across as a publicity stunt and an anachronism.

    Professionalism is a counterpoint to romanticism. It is an altogether more honest attitude, given the realities of the present day, when artists–certainly the kind that appear in Venice–are socially accepted and commercially rewarded.

    While it is easy to lambast contemporary artists for their new professional demeanor–including a certain predictability that accompanies creative practices that are more seamlessly integrated into a widely accepted cultural paradigm–one wonders if the authors engaged in such criticism would have artists return to a world of disease, destitution, and dismembered ears.

  2. Christian Viveros-Faune writes:

    “What’s wrong with professionalization?” in the visual arts, Jonathan asks. My answer is nearly everything.

    Because nothing happens in a vacuum, in our present art world professionalization largely means—much as it has for U.S.-based lit. programs since the 1970s—basically the “instutionalization of anti-institutionality.” Just as the marriage of poststructuralism and the invasion of academe by the baby-boomer generation produced political correctness and decades of right thinking by a neutered liberal establishment, many MFA programs (not to mention the far more pernicious curatorial programs) often promote less a canon of critical ideas than an effective art world catechism. That, in a nutshell, is the definition of orthodoxy, and orthodoxy is the enemy of critical thinking. The problem with MFA and PhD programs is not that newly minted artists with graduate degrees are receiving two or more years to develop their heads and hands (Who’s against that?), but that they rarely get a chance to think beyond the art world consensus that sucks the air out of most programs of advanced study. Artists, and everyone in their mileu—and that includes the entire daisy chain, from critics to dealers—unlike politicians, should beware consensus. Wherever it appears an idea has died and is in the gutless throes of decomposition. Cotter and Kimmelman, whom I rarely agree with, are right insofar as they point to early responses to a generalized crisis of imagination that are, in the main, retread, self-referential, and bloodless. Van Gogh and his ear don’t even enter into it. It’s just that, every decade or so, art schools along with everyone else get a jolt from beyond our dear old art world. When the dust settles, it’s no surprise that very, very little retains its original luster—or, more to the point, looks original. When that happens, professionalism is the last place to go looking for an alternative.

  3. Pedro Reis writes:

    I’m a self-taught artist and I’m not afraid of saying so (if I had the opportunity, I would definitely enroll in a MFA or PhD degree, so I’m not defending my “class,” only thinking about the issue). The question about professionalization has a clear answer: “There’s nothing wrong with professionalization.” But there are questions about the context where artistic labor is exchanged – the art market.

    Can the market contain hundreds or maybe thousands of artists “produced” in the whole world, every year? If artists develop their work under a speech completely absorbed from art schools, which I think is valuable, wouldn’t that create a “gap” with the public? Might people who are not part of the art world feel alienated from the artistic worries and questions? Won’t that increase the disparities in “rewards and reputation” among artists?

    I believe a distinction between “professionalization” and “academization” has to be made. Given current artistic practices, the two concepts seem hard to distinguish.

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