Why Debt? Why Now?

As we launch our new online publication, I would like to take a moment respond to the questions that many have put to us: why talk about debt now? Why is it important for artists and arts professionals to discuss the impact of debt and its relationship to the culture of indenture that is so deeply integrated into the world view of our profession?

The first reason for opening a debate on these matters is the urgency of the current situation. Forbes Magazine reported in February of 2014 that the total student loan balance was $1.08 trillion dollars and that 11.5% of that was 90+days delinquent or in default, which is the highest delinquency rate of all loans in the US –higher than credit cards, car loans and mortgages. Between 2005 – 2012 the average student loan debt rose 58% to an average of $27,250. By 2014, the average loan debt was nearly $30,000. Student loans are the only ones that cannot be erased by declaring bankruptcy.

These statistics refer to student loans in a general sense, but art students are particularly vulnerable to debt default because of the precariousness of the profession they have chosen and the low wages that are paid for arts related labor. Art and design schools are also disproportionately represented among the institutions of higher learning that generate the highest rate of debt. None of this grim data stops tuition from rising. To understand the special character of art student debt, however, we have take key intangibles into account. What I am referring to here are ideological factors, or the power of collective consensual hallucination — the belief that art is about and worth something more than money, that individual genius determines success and that real artists are dedicated to their métier because of a blend of love and compulsion to create. These factors make young artists particularly good candidates for assuming financial risk and for accepting exploitative labor conditions. In addition, the widespread publicity given to the staggeringly high prices of contemporary art makes what is in reality an extremely precarious profession seem like one in which money is there for the taking. Art schools do little to dispel that myth because it serves them to maintain it.

After witnessing how art and design schools position themselves as the yellow brick road to success to guarantee that they get the tuition income they depend on and rarely make information available about the long term implications of debt, I have become convinced that there is a symbiotic relationship between art market hype and art school hype, between the seductive promises of fame in both fields and the financial gamble of debt that young artists are coaxed into. That is how I came to see art students on par with of the first time home buyers whose dreams of home and lack of experience in finance makes them perfect targets for predatory loans.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Occupy activists and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s astute critiques of loan profiteering, the student debt crisis has gotten a good deal of attention from mainstream media in the past two years. But the focus has largely been on testimony from the victims – the stories of young adults crippled by debt, working numerous part time service jobs but unable to make rent; the ones who move back in with their parents and can’t leave; the ones who didn’t realize how fast the interest on the loans would accumulate, doubling and tripling what they owe. A good deal of media attention has also been bestowed on the dire conditions of adjuncts college instructors, who make up over 90 % of those who teach in art schools and art departments in this country. The 2012 class action lawsuit against the Hearst Cooperation for exploitation of interns helped to raise awareness about a practice of extracting free labor from young artists that is pervasive in the world of art. Strangely enough, the parallels that could easily be drawn among these scenarios have not been identified and addressed in depth despite obvious sympathy in the media for the plight of the aspiring young adults saddled with impossible debts and shut out of middle class life. They are all symptoms of the ways that deregulated neoliberal capitalism have eroded the standard of living of the American middle class by limiting employment opportunities, extracting any and all accumulated wealth and luring younger generations into permanent indenture.

After people ask me why I think it is important to discuss these matters now, they usually want me to provide them with a quick and pat solution to a set of very complex problems. It is almost as if the horrific nature of the student debt crisis were only bearable to them if they can see a solution on the horizon. I believe we have to move in stages. First, get beyond the level of individual testimony and troubling data, which is what the media restricts itself to. That is the goal of our publication– to bring another set of questions to the table, to offer multiple perspectives on our dilemmas, to consider ways to reflect and respond collectively. But most of all we seek to understand ourselves as another kind of artist subject. We know the clichés of the Modern era — the artist as Romantic Genius. We know the artist as madman. We know the artist as outlaw. Most of us also have had to learn about the artist as producer, thanks to Walter Benjamin. On these pages, we want to get to know the artist of the 21st century: the artist as debtor.

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