PRINT March 1984


Donald Kuspit has taught art history at numerous schools in the United States and Germany. In partial preparation for this article, he discussed the issues presented in it with his students at SUNY at Stony Brook, and at other schools where he has lectured.

ART STUDENTS TEND TO SEE themselves as exceptions to the social rule: they don’t have to conform, they can avoid, as one said to me, “the constraints and responsibilities of the 9 to 5 world.” They see themselves as the superior amoral minority in the moral majority, the free spirits among the inferior slaves. They aspire to the tired Nietzschean myth of elitist nonconformity—of avoiding a dreary fate worse than death, the living death of everyday life; at the same time, they are unconsciously—as well as not so unconsciously—conformist. Their different drummer marches a well-traveled route to a familiar tourist attraction. They want success, on their own, unique terms—as everyone does. They want the rewards, tangible and intangible. As one wrote, they want “money, glamor/fame, parties/openings”—in that order; that is, from the commonplace to the exclusive. They have no more sense of self than other people concerned to “make their mark.”

Indeed, many students do nothing but make, in a great hurry, “original” marks. Others, equally impatient to “find themselves,” make little manipulations of big media images—star images, a parasitism they expect will make them stars. For all their idealism they are searching for a marketable identity, something the capitalist public will find of intense and immediate interest—will experience as “genuine,” as genuine as its maker. They innocently market their sincerity, thinking that the system and their belief in themselves can come together. It is this that gives them, as one said, the “confidence” that they are “extraordinary.” They are the willing victims of their self-contradiction, which they expect the world to heal. Why shouldn’t it? For it teaches that to be appropriated is to be individualized—to be rewarded is to be recognized for one’s difference, the most consumable of commodities.

How these expectations affect art students’ art is not as unclear as might be supposed. One student put it well: he was “perfecting” his “signature.” Clearly his identity was not yet, and not likely to be, in crisis. To perfect a premature signature: this is a common desire in the mature art world. It is the reason that world prematurely wizens so many would-be artists, and arrests the development of many more. Yet there is a heroic streak to it: the desire to be a “genius,” to so change the order of things that it will never again be the same. This radicalization of difference into transcendence is the psychic place where the myths of conformity and nonconformity come together seamlessly. The transcendent role accorded difference in immature artists never quite dissipates in mature ones, for it is tied to the correlate myths of self-generation and of the radical independence and freedom of art. But older artists know that the castle in the air may be Kafkaesque, that their self-esteem may not be appreciated by others. It is only when they experience and survive this realization that they can begin to develop.

The excessive self-love of the immature is necessary in a crowd. John Bernard Myers writes that “more than 200,000 ‘artists’ compete with one another in New York”; in that situation, they really shouldn’t love their neighbors as themselves. To be art students in the face of such odds requires a surplus of idealism—an exaggerated idealism, which, when it dawns on them that glory may be out of reach (even now, when glory is a bankrupt idea, available at a discount), permits them to fall back on the glory of the artist’s “life-style,” with its mythical freedom. Idealism, then, is a virtue in art students, for it helps them over the pitfalls of a career, and above all over the inevitable isolation one feels in the art world, for all its (superficial) other-directedness. But the idealism of today’s art students seems to carry with it no sense of painful sacrifice, no sense of Goethean renunciation. It is simply a way of maintaining a holding pattern until they get “the breaks.” It is an announcement of their availability rather than of their transcendental commitment, with the isolation that brings. If the world identifies art students as idealistic, their idealism then implies no renunciation, only the fine-tuning of the self to the world’s own ambitiousness. Theirs is a realistic idealism, with no hint of suffering for a “higher purpose.” It is beyond cynicism; it is finally the willingness to play the game, on whatever terms. Student idealism signals the channeling of social rebelliousness into artistic conformity. These days that may indeed make one into art royalty, with both property and critical reputation. To conform artistically—to create a signature as rapidly as possible—may be to invest in a future with concrete benefits and spiritual fringe benefits.

All this is still a sign of art-student innocence, for it is politically naive, politically unconcrete. Both the expectation of radical individuality and that of conservative success are romantic superstitions. The idealism of the students, which preaches eventual dominance, is tempered by the realism of their instructors, which preaches finding one’s own niche. The pursuit of power gives way to holding one’s own. The best part of student expectation is the expectation of hard work and concrete, usable knowledge. Art is not presupposed as an answer, but becomes a question. When it becomes the question that creates a self, true apprenticeship begins; the future is conceived, even if never to be delivered in an expected form. The most touching aspect of the art student’s horizon is belief in the absolute value of art—the excitement of faith in a god that has not yet disappointed. Art has been connected with the promise of happiness, an indirectly eudaemonic activity, and art students show this promise fulfilled in their happiness at the elementary givenness of art. But this unquestioning happiness, this sense of the inevitable value of art, makes art students no more than Luftmenschen, living on air, even at their most determined and most hardworking. For they understand neither the incompleteness and inexactness of their project to be artists, nor the significance of the codes by which they are trying to realize themselves.

There are two shadow sides to art students’ existence: the dubious practicality of being an artist, for all the willingness to inwardly serve society; and their theoretical inadequacy about the nature of art, for all their idealism about its special necessity. At the moment, the latter seems more pressing than the former, for insecurity has increasingly become a general condition of bourgeois existence. The more “speculative” capitalism becomes, the more bourgeois life as a whole approximates the artist’s condition as it is generally conceived—one reason the artist is readily assimilable in the bourgeois world today (and perhaps, even at his or her most serious, can do no more than remind it of its inadequacy, which it itself experiences in the form of insecurity, anxiety, overlaid by an ideology of seductiveness). Before giving themselves to art, art students should study Plato’s argument against it as a socially disruptive appeal to all that is irrational in the soul, fostering ignorance and immorality—disintegration of the self. To ask themselves, “Why make art?,” and to try to answer this question without myth-making, is to begin to achieve the self-consciousness necessary to sustain development as an artist. Only by trying to be autonomous with respect to art will they experience the real possibility of making art.

Art schools take art for granted, but art students shouldn’t. They should understand that being an artist is about being a certain kind of subject, not just about making certain kinds of objects. Part of the art student’s self-education is to test art against reality; the acceptance that it is important in itself may be a beginning position but is hardly a demonstration of its possible significance in the life-world. Today, that must be reconceived, in ever more uncertain terms. Harold Rosenberg’s sense of the anxiety of the art object seems more important than ever. The art school’s first responsibility is to the selfhood of art students, not to the art they might make. The proliferating self-help courses in how to market oneself do not generate the kind of self at stake. It may be that the best thing an art school can do is teach the zealous, idealistic art student to have no expectations of art, not even the expectation that creating art objects will automatically create a critically conscious self. This is not a mechanically stoic strategy, but the purest form of self-preservation, a principle art students tend to forget despite their idealistic manipulations of and accommodations to the system.

Donald Kuspit