School, Debt, Bohemia: on the Disciplining of Artists

This talk addresses some of the changes that have both pitched artists industry-wide into a debt-driven milieu and simultaneously worked against shared ideals of criticality and cooperative organizing; It points out, however, that these more collaborative tendencies are always latent and subject to reawakening.

I Education and Political Agency

In the early postwar period the cost of public higher education in the United States was relatively low. For me it was zero. In the 1960s I attended Brooklyn College, where tuition was free, while a state Regents Grant paid for my books. (I would not have been able to attend college otherwise, even though I lived with my parents and did not need to find the monthly rent.) At the University of California, San Diego, in the early 1970s, I received a scholarship, a stipend, and a studio, although I still had to work at a part-time job to be able to pay rent and support my son. I spent more than 35 years teaching art, not even considering joining a commercial gallery until the 90s, by which point the whole art game had changed, and it seemed that you were invisible if your art existence were not mediated by gallery representation.

But my student years were also, famously, a time of great social upheaval. In the 60s, the so-called baby boom generation, those under 25 years of age, constituted the largest bloc of Americans, and we were active and highly visible, for a number of reasons. The postwar period was marked by civil rights struggles on several fronts and with highly variable degrees of confrontation, and the 1960s saw student revolts, antiwar agitation, the rise of countercultural movements, and demands for political inclusion by a range of politically excluded groups— including not only African Americans but also women (and soon thereon what we now call LGBTQ people), Native Americans, and so on— urban uprisings, and revolts against working conditions and capitalist organization and environmental despoliation — all the things we struggle over today. These demands, and those for post-colonial liberation, spread around the world.

To aid government elites casting about for means of containment and to help develop a united policy front, in 1973 wealthy scion and banker David Rockefeller founded the Trilateral Commission. In 1975 the commission published a report, written by political scientists Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, entitled The Crisis of Democracy, On the Governability of the Democracies.[1]

Huntington writes: “Democracy will have a longer life if it has a more balanced existence.” A commentator, reviewing the book, glosses: “That is, if the general population would just relinquish more control to centralized authoritarian power.”

Huntington’s suggestions in regard to education boiled down to reining in students by making the costs of college more onerous and turning higher education into a jobs-training program. Containing the effects of pedagogic “assaults” against the “enterprise system” —that is, capitalism, the system that dared not mention its name— also figured in a lengthy secret memo to the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971, from a man named Lewis Powell.[2] Powell had many opinions about higher education, calling it the “single most dynamic source” of the enterprise system. Powell felt that “unsympathetic” faculty members might be few but are often magnetic people—stimulating teachers, writers and lecturers… with enormous influence ”far out of proportion to their numbers.”

Powell detailed at some length the attractions of these faculty members, whom he felt to be highly dangerous. His recommendation was to set up alternative systems of scholars and speakers (i.e., what we now know as think tanks), but the “priority task of business” should be “to address the campus origin of this hostility.” Using academic freedom to attack academic freedom, implant apologists for the economic and financial elite into the faculties, pressure university administrators and boards of trustees, and so on, “while monitoring textbooks and the media.” Within months, Powell was nominated to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon; on the court, Powell was considered a centrist.

The assaults on education, particularly higher education, suggested by my brief examples, served as powerful policy and propaganda aids in further undermining the precarious situation of students, providing ammunition to those who in the 1970s and 80s determined to reduce the government Pell grants (grants to low-income students) and other taxpayer-funded scholarships, helping state legislators also cut funding for poor students, as well as for state colleges and universities, attacking faculty tenure and their working hours and conditions, supporting the rise of ferociously underpaid and similarly precarious adjunct labor, messing with curricula, and of course, as Powell proposed, trying to salt social science faculties with their ideological allies and funding their research—and even trying to cancel the humanities. … STEM-o-mania anyone?

II The rise and decline of Bohemia

The romantic narrative in which artists of all stripes disassociate from their classes of origin, whether working class, middle class, or aristocratic, and join together with others of their ilk, in theater and the performing arts, musicians, painters, poets, and so forth —that is, the narrative of bohemian life, is functionally dead but lives on as myth. Bohemians, in the subtitle of Elizabeth Wilson’s book[3], are “the glamorous outcasts,” but Bohemia, whose floating island has borne many descriptions and interpretations, is now always out of reach. Born in the 19th century and named after the central European region of Bohemia but centered in Paris, Bohemia in the mid-1960s drifted across the Atlantic to New York City, the center of finance capital.

The postcards from OUR past provide a picture of the decaying but more than vaguely anarchic—or at least overlooked— spaces of lower Manhattan in New York City, where, certainly in retrospect, the arts felt themselves to thrive. In 60s New York middle-class mores, populations, and institutions were dropping with the tax rates. To mourn the artistic freedom of the 1970s New York art world is to mourn a utopia in which few if any artists aspired to lives of poverty and renunciation but simply accepted them as their social share; it is lovely to harken back to a lost Eden, but one should be aware of what it meant to arrive to the fiscal crisis-ridden, crime-ridden, infrastructure-challenged, mean streets washboarded with ruts, and pitch your existence in drafty cockroach tenements and crappy raw lofts you often had to build with your own hands, or hire some artist or student hungrier than yourself to do it, and maybe become a landlord by subletting part of your space to another artist for an inflated rent. What seems to make the 70s attractive now is in part the retrospective decrepitude of the city that so very visibly entailed the diminishing fortunes of its non-artist residents, not to mention their displacement, rank poverty, victimization, and hunger. But the experience (real or imaginary) of a floating world of shared semi-tribal hardships, breakthroughs, revelations, and understandings, of networks of affinity stitched together atop the downward pull of a sinking economy, seemed to speak of a common dedication to something poetic and liberatory.

More on bohemia later on.

III Housing problems

By the mid 1960s artists had already declared the era of low rents in the Village, the longstanding arts center, to be past: no more cheap tenements. Many moved to the Lower East Side, which became the “East Village” enclave, an imaginary domain laid over the map of the Lower East Side. Although some artists wanting more work space moved into disused manufacturing lofts, especially along the Bowery, loft living required a sizable commitment to living rough and, as I’ve suggested, engaging in or arranging for advanced handyperson activities. Artists’ housing was an idea promulgated in part by George Maciunas, a Fluxus founder-member, inspired by the model of Lithuanian agricultural cooperatives. Maciunas ran some buildings on Wooster and beyond that worked through joint finances for a few years— but then Maciunas was ejected and the buildings went their own separate ways.

When the city council adopted the whole idea of an “artist district,” it was not so obvious that this move was seen as a potential benefit by and for the elites. Some of Soho’s remaining manufactories protested, but manufacturing was leaving the area: moving to the Bronx, or the nonunion South, or offshore, or simply shutting down. Thus, it was by no means clear that artists’ moving to Soho might be driving other tenants away or that this might present a model for gentrification (a fairly new term for a fairly new phenomenon) in New York or anywhere.

It took the perspicacious sociologist Sharon Zukin to analyze SoHo’s role in recapitalizing real estate in her book Loft Living in 1982; Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendell Ryan in their essay ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’ in October magazine in 1984, pitched a similar argument directed at a more specialized readership. [4]And it took the likes of the newly launched consumerist New York magazine to popularize the idea of “loft living” by trumpeting it to the smart set uptown and in suburbia.

This and other reasons spurred a march down West Broadway by artists, led in part by Yvonne Rainer, declaring the Death of SoHo. By the mid 1970s, an artist like me couldn’t really afford to eat at Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD, which was frequented by well dressed uptown and out-of-town gallery goers.

IV The market

Part of the picture of New York in the post-AbEx era includes artists’ mid 1960s revolt against galleries and gatekeepers. Artists who were producing unsalable works or cheap multiples, doing performances not to be documented, organizing artists’ unions, making demands on museums, demanding recognition as workers, and so on. Throughout those years and the possibly exhilarating 1970s, artists were quite often doing as they pleased, as the art-making paradigm shifted away from the masterworks of genius, executed in painting and sculpture, toward art rooted in what we might call cognitive processes, as in Conceptual Art. Dealers were frustrated, trying to figure out how to sell seemingly noncommodity art, such as video or performance. Howard Wise transformed his gallery into the nonprofit Electronic Arts Intermix, helping video artists disseminate and even produce their work, but when, after the invention of home video technology in the 1980s, Leo Castelli’s still-commercial gallery tried to sell VHS tapes by or of some of his best-known US boy artists, hardly anyone was buying.

Alternative spaces, or artist-run spaces, proliferated widely in the US, Canada, and Western Europe. In the US they were often made possible by grants from the relatively new National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA. After the oil shock of 1973, US President Carter ramped up grants through CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) to include workers in these spaces, who received training while being paid by the government. When Reagan came into office, he canceled the CETA grants and turned them into state block grants, as part of the attacks on workers’ autonomy, and coincidentally, perhaps on artists’ autonomy. And then began the Culture Wars.

At around the same time, at the end of the 1970s, a small clutch of enterprising New York dealers, with European ties, determined to take back the art world. They put a shot across artists’ bows by exhibiting imported Italian and German neo-neo-Expressionist paintings, work that not only seemed to shriek FASCIST at a largely dumbstruck community of artists, but also it was huge and expensive… and composed of unique, hand-made objects, the very characteristics artists had determined to leave behind.

Thus began the new disciplining of artists … galleries had the sense to look to recruit young artists straight out of school, promising them a good return for their effort, if they would only make salable paintings. To nascent collectors they promised the chance to get in on the ground floor of a genius’s career, the IPO.

A word about the term young artist: The definition of a young artist until just about that moment was someone under forty. Work before that was considered juvenilia. Think what having one’s work not only emerging into the public, out of the studio and beyond one’s circle of friends, but also being treated worthy of elevated prices does to the whole conception of the role of art in society and the reasonable expectations of young artists— especially those just emerging from school. The content of what it meant to be an artist was completely upended.

Artists’ long-faltering, sporadic, but not inconsiderable identification with the working class was largely forgotten, and mainstream criteria of success—identifying with your collectors, or at least their bankrolls — were adopted just in time for the emergence of punk and club culture to provide an outlet for unruly excess, with large doses of cynicism and irony. But other changes were afoot.

Here come the culture wars: The 80s also brought about an assault on art funding, driven by congressmen such as the reactionary senator from North Carolina Jesse Helms, as part of the Republican assault on “liberal” (or sometimes “secular humanist”) values. In that era of identity politics, attacks centered especially on gay and lesbian performance artists but also on photography seen as blasphemous or sexually perverse. After repeated campaigns, the NEA ceased offering grants to individual artists or even to critics (the latter apparently because the arch-reactionary Hilton Kramer thought that Marxists were getting grants). The official ideology of the NEA was that artists should support their work by selling it.

  1. More on Education and Debt—and the decline of Bohemia

At present, especially under the conditions of labor in the so-called knowledge economy —where, we know we are working for free for billionaires every time we log onto social media—the cost of credentialing has risen dramatically. Higher education is now predominantly not seen as the making of a citizen well versed in the liberal arts, which constituted the hegemonic mission statement of higher education, as propounded at mid century by Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. Instead, the goal of such institutions became the production of a consumer equipped with the intellectual skills (and social routines) to get a good job and make a hell of a lot of money. Now, practically nobody questions this as the primary role of a college education.

From the late 1970s on, students were rapidly being disciplined by debt—indeed, the whole society was persuaded that credit card debt was the rational way to finance one’s desires, a pillar of neoliberalism. As Andy Ross has explained, your categorization by banks is that you are a deadbeat if you pay off your debts and a repeater, the best kind of person, if you never manage to do that. Whereas students— and certainly artists—had long understood that those without family wealth would have to live frugally, entering freshmen, and even high school students, were peppered with credit card offers, often on school premises, such as with each bookstore purchase.

The repeated attacks on working-class people’s access to education has meant that increasingly it is the children of the upper middle class who are admitted to higher education without crippling burdens, while many fewer students of color from less financially advantaged circumstances can be offered sufficient scholarships.

The number of people calling themselves artists has increased exponentially over the same period. Although we’ve seen the end of the rationale of a teaching career as a reason to get an MFA degree—as academic jobs promising security and a living wage are disappearing— artists are pulled into the Ponzi scheme of paying large for the degree to get the chance of stepping right into a gallery and a fortune at an early age, like an aspiring dot-commer. As the visibility and financial potential of celebrity artists, like that of supermodels, has hit the public eye, greater numbers of families, particularly middle-class and above, are permitting their children to study art, a career path now seen as of high status and potentially high financial reward. Any resignation to a life of poverty and frugality has disappeared —as perhaps it should. But this is not without social cost. Which brings me back to a signal cause for the collapse of bohemia, which we might just call embourgeoisement.

Bohemia as a self-defining cadre often dedicated to higher ideals related to truth, knowledge, enlightenment, and social transformation—though rarely revolution—but eschewing, if not directly attacking, bourgeois morality and materiality, has mostly disappeared. Integration with rather than alienation or separation from all other social sectors has resulted; in no small part, continuity with the rest of society has been bolstered by acceptance of mass culture and the values it encodes. Artists in large numbers want to have partners, get married, have children, live in warm and tidy circumstances, enjoy Hollywood movies and TV, follow football and the Oscars, have pricy life-event celebrations, drink martinis, send their kids to good schools, drive decent cars, be nice people, and stay healthy.

In short, the cultural ideals of the suburban middle class have so thoroughly trounced Bohemianism that we can say that lessons learned and inherited from the European avant garde have, by and large, been extirpated from the New York art world. Now, rather than artists moving to New York to escape small town, small city, or suburban culture in favor of what the Big City promises, many have brought their internalized mores and habits along with them in their quest for success and bonhomie.

Let me consider a bit more closely the inflated market conditions facing artists today. In the accelerating cycles of capital boom and bust, it is becoming difficult to find asset classes that will not implode within a few short years. Housing provided the last, and once again current, repository for the vast amounts of capital being generated around the world—and likely will lead to another bust. Art is (once again) an undercapitalized asset class that is being rapidly globalized, leading to further problems for artists. As international fairs overtake biennials in grooming a newly expanded A-list, the base of the pyramid of vastly undercompensated artists spreads dramatically to support the few celebrity artists at the top. Many artists much further down in the pyramid, hoping to become successful suppliers to the higher reaches of the art market, produce objects that reflect high production values, adopting the professional standards attaching to the high-status life of their potential customers. (Under these conditions, perhaps we should regard the so-called outsider artists, those not residing within the culture I have been describing, as having replaced the category formerly filled by the cadre of the avant garde, composed of artists who have chosen their positions of exile.)

The cost of higher education has increased over 500% in the last thirty years; a Forbes blog asserts, “Since 1981 the list price level of tuition and fees has risen sixfold while the consumer price index has only increased two-and-a-half times.”[5] If the US instituted free, universal higher education right now, estmates for its costs range between $15 and $60+ billion a year—a minuscule amount compared with, say, the military budget.[6] But privatization of the costs of higher education through individual debt has a disciplinary purpose, ensuring full-time participation in the labor market[7] —including by professional artists. Like lawyers, doctors, and accountants, most professional artists today can’t afford the Bohemian life. Paying off debt is only one reason to aspire to a life guaranteeing comfort. But the question of debt evokes once again the question of the extent to which professionalization is compatible with freedom.

VI Solidarity and political agency 

Aside from the complex question of what it means to have our work be any kind of commodity, and what kind of commodity it might be— which I suggest remains an issue—the challenge is how to situate ourselves under present conditions, in the world and the art world bubble that floats atop the globe. We might begin with a consideration of what is appealing about the image of Bohemia as our Imaginary. Bohemia, except at a few historical conjunctures, never sided with the fate, let alone the aspirations, of any other social class or stratum, and any political revolution they envisioned tended to be one we might not wish to recognize. I suggest we artists try to recreate a sense of solidarity that requires a eye more focused on social justice, help obtain fees and compensation for all artists’ work (including portions of the escalating prices during resale), and continue to organize on financial and social issues —while refusing to pretend that we can’t see the poverty, disadvantage and displacement, let alone the falling rate of compensation, of other working people around us.

Among the myriad ways to reinstitute a vision of solidarity with other underpaid, underhoused, undereducated people, one surely is to refuse to collude with those who use our position as symbolic Creative Class members to displace and supplant those with whom we would better be forming alliances.

As ever, multiple forms of organization are needed—but that, as this conference insists, is a necessary step.

[1] The report was later published as a book: Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy, Report on the Governability of the Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York: New York University Press, 1975). It’s worth noting that all the people at the top of the Carter administration—President, Vice-President, secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury — were members of the Trilateral Commission.

[2] “Confidential Memorandum: Attack of American Free Enterprise System/ DATE: August 23, 1971/
TO: Mr. Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr., Chairman, Education Committee, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
FROM: Lewis F. Powell, Jr./This memorandum is submitted at your request as a basis for the discussion on August 24 with Mr. Booth (executive vice president) and others at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The purpose is to identify the problem, and suggest possible avenues of action for further consideration.” See

[3] ‪Elizabeth Wilson, Bohemians: ‪The Glamorous Outcast (London and New York; I.B. Tauris, 2000). See also Mary Gluck, Popular Bohemia” Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge Mass.: Harvrd Unviersity Press, 2008), and César Graña, Bohemian versus Bourgeois: French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Basic Books, 1964), among others. Consider also the adoption of the term “bohemian” by social, economic, and political elites that consider themselves to be a special breed, as exemplified in the Bohemian Grove enclave (which see) in Northern California.

[4] Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989); Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendell Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” October 31 (1984). Available at fine_art.html.

[5] Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman, “Why Does College Cost So Much?” Forbes (Aug. 12, 2010),

[6] See, for example, Jordan Weissmann, “Here’s Exactly How Much the Government Would Have to Spend to Make Public College Tuition-Free,” Atlantic (Jan. 3, 2014), which looks at the costs the federal government would need to add to the amounts spent by state and local governments, heres-exactly-how-much-the-government-would-have-to-spend-to-make-public-college-tuition-free/282803/. According to a recent opinion column written by Astra Taylor, working with Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee (a project of Strike Debt, which describes itself as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street) “every public two- and four-year college and university in the United States could be made tuition-free by redirecting all current educational subsidies and tax exemptions straight to them and adding approximately $15 billion in annual spending.” Astra Taylor, “A Strike Against Student Debt,” New York Times (Feb. 27, 2015), See also Strike Debt, “How Far to Free?” (Aug. 15, 2013)

For estimates of the military budget, the totality of which is notoriously difficult to come by, see, for example, Kimberly Amadeo, “US Military Budgets: Components, Challenges, Growth; Guess How Much America Spends on Defense,” About News (Feb. 2, 2015), http://useconomy.; Mandy Smithberger, “Our $1 Trillion Natonal Security Budget: Total U.S. National Security Spending, 2015-2016,” Center for Defense Information (Feb. 3, 2015); and David Cay Johnston, “The True Cost of Military Security,” Columbia Journalism Review (Jan. 31, 2013), national_ secu. php? page=all

[7] Lenders successfully lobbied Congress to prevent people from discharging their student loans through bankruptcy, or even to refinance their loans, locking out more favorable payment terms or lower interest rates. Further, providers of student loans need not abide by the Truth in Lending Act that requires the disclosure of all future costs to borrowers. These figures are cited in a paper delivered during the Harvard Model Congress for undergraduates held in 2014 in San Francisco. See Alena Farber, “The Student Debt Crisis,” Harvard Model Congress. Available at