On the Cultural Value Debate

Image: BFAMFAPhD contribution by Caroline Woolard, plexiglass and hardware, 2012-present

Artists  Report Back is often dismissed by deans, faculty members, and artists alike as a “vocational” argument. They say that by comparing rising tuition with future work (where we compare $120,000 on art degrees with the reality that nationally only 10% of arts grads make their primary earnings as artists), we reproduce the familiar rhetoric of economic justification in our contemporary cultural value debate, what Belfiore has articulated as value arising from measurable impact (often economic impact) rather than from the value of art as a public good.[1] We at BFAMFAPhD agree that economic justification is not the best way to determine the value of the arts in society, or of an arts education. For us, the value of the arts, and of an arts education, is self-evident. And so we seek to understand and raise awareness about the political economies of the arts to add to a debate about how we can work together to intelligently reform the sector that we value so much.

If you all believe, as we imagine you do, that art allows us to reflect upon the world, that art is a public good, and that artists are lifelong learners and active civic agents then you likely desire artistic expressions by people of every class, race, sexuality, age, ability, and gender expression. Audre Lorde writes so beautifully about how the arts can be a place to share “revelatory distillations of experience” and how the arts have the power to foster understanding and empathy.[2] We can say that every arts graduate we know, regardless of their debt burden, tells us that they couldn’t imagine going to school for anything else. Why is this?

Perhaps they want to be supported in an endeavor that is often discouraged by the adults around them. Art is supposed to be a place where difference is accepted and even embraced. Art is a way to make meaning of the labor that we claim for ourselves. We should recognize and honor the deep commitment to the arts and the desire to make art that arts students carry, often propelling them as young people to an arts degree despite an awareness of crippling debt. We should note that most 18-year-olds also have no way to comprehend the impact of indebtedness on their future. We should remember that many young people in low income families never get the opportunity to receive a loan or to attend an art class, for that matter.

Some deep and terrifying reminders: As we all know, our nation is in a student debt crisis. We need not tell you that student debt is over 1.2 trillion dollars, or that average debt levels for all graduating seniors with student loans rose 25% in four years from 2008-2012. At BFAMFAPhD, we see the project of affordable access to higher education, particularly in the arts, which boomed with the GI Bill initially, as under threat. Entire fine arts and liberal arts programs are being cut from higher education, and tenured faculty are finding themselves without jobs (see U. Michigan and U. Southern Maine as examples).[3]

Holland Cotter wrote in 2009 that it’s “day job time in the arts again”, reminding us that Pollock was a busboy that Henry Darger was a janitor.[4] The difference between an arts graduate or aspiring artist today and these artists, is that Pollock and Darger did not have $29k in debt for BFAs and more in loans for MFAs. Nor were they facing rent burdens of $1200 a month. Pollock was in fact supported by the Works Progress Administration, he was paid by our government in a workforce development program that valued the arts.

We call ourselves BFAMFAPhD and continue to ask “what is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees” because our educational system is being systematically defunded, dismantled and corporatized as we speak. We focus on arts education because we are artists. We believe that artists, arts graduates, arts administrators, and arts faculty must organize because we are most impacted by the rising costs of arts education. We believe that educating our population is the least expensive way to create a democratic society, and that an arts education is essential to this project. We believe that education is a human right. When the 1.2 trillion dollar student debt bubble bursts, will the government bailout indebted students, as they previously bailed out banks? We fear that they won’t. What will we do in this next crisis?

You can read Artists Report Back here.

[1] Belfiore, Elenora. “Impact, Value and Bad Economics: Making Sense of the Problem of Value in the Arts and Humanities.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education. Vol. 14. Number 1. Print.

[2] Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg: Crossing Press. 1984. Print.

[3] Korn, Melissa. “Maine’s State Colleges Hit the Skids.” The Wall Street Journal. 6 January 2015. Web. 19 February 2015.

[4] Cotter, Holland. “The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art! The New York Times, 12 February 2009. Web. 12 February 2015.

Citation for this article: Woolard, Caroline and Jahoda, Susan. “On the Cultural Value Debate.” 2015 College Art Association Annual Conference. Hilton Hotel, New York City. 13 February 2015.

This text is based on a transcript from the first five minutes of a speech that BFAMFAPhD core members Caroline Woolard and Susan Jahoda wrote and that core member Blair Murphy edited. It was delivered by Caroline Woolard for a Public Art Dialog with Tom Finkelpearl and Paul Ramirez Jonas which occurred on February, Friday the 13th at the College Art Association’s 2015 annual conference.