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The Kids Aren’t All Right 

Is over-education killing young artists?

Thursday, Oct 27 2005
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Photo by C.R. Stecyk
In the summer of 2004, I got a call from Arty Nelson, who often writes about art for this publication. He had just attended the much-lauded “Supersonic” show. For those who aren’t familiar, “Supersonic” is a large exhibition, now in its second year, that features the work of MFA students from esteemed area programs like CalArts, Art Center, UCLA, etc. When I asked the writer how the show was, he simply said: “The kids aren’t all right.”

Having not yet seen the exhibition, I was more inclined to give the young artists the benefit of the doubt. Considering they were just finishing years of school, I wouldn’t have expected to see the most developed work in the world, but I would still have hoped for something to blow my socks off. After seeing the show, though, I had the same sinking feeling. While the overall installation was impressive and the space at Art Center in Pasadena was amazing, the work left me mostly empty and with a few exceptions seemed like nothing more than a rehash of conceptual ideas that were mined years ago. I was out of town for the 2005 show at the newly renovated L.A. Design Center, but I heard similarly dismal accounts. It made me wonder why, when we live in such a socially and politically volatile time, are these students producing stuff with little or no social relevance when they should be delivering edgy, urgent, thought-provoking work?

For the last 15 years — first as a painter, then as a gallery owner and now as an independent curator, publisher and filmmaker — I have had the good fortune of dealing almost exclusively with young, aspiring artists — artists with chips on their shoulders and fire in their hearts. I have worked with university-trained and self-taught artists. For the last two years an exhibition I co-curated, “Beautiful Losers,” has been on the American museum circuit. The show focuses on a loose-knit group of artists (Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Ryan McGinness, Thomas Campbell, etc.) who came up from the streets and, for the most part, entered the art world through the back door.

Many of the artists in “Losers” have gone from relative obscurity to international renown, and along the way I’ve witnessed all the positive and negative trappings that come with that success. I’ve seen the underground go overground and, in some cases, lose much of its original power and charm. Still though, I have a never-ending hunger for new art created by young artists. In fact, it is the energy of youth that has kept me in the art game so long. In my opinion, it has always been the job of the young artists to shake things up, to throw out old ideas and usher in a new way of thinking. I want to be a part of that.

So why was the “Supersonic” exhibition filled with such uninspired work? I’ll take a stab at trying to answer that here. I should interject that this is not meant to be a rant against any particular artist, educational institution or exhibition. I mention “Supersonic” simply because it represents a larger trend that I have noticed around the country and the world for some time now.

It has always been the function of artists to tell the narrative of our times in a way that isn’t filtered through big-media spin or the historical revisionism of academic pundits. Recent and historical precedence tell us that it should be young people, and particularly the artists among them, who are most passionately voicing this narrative. But they’re not. In fact, there is a critical lack of voice among young artists, and I believe that art schools are to blame for this crisis.

There are quite possibly more quality art schools in and around Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country. These institutions are staffed with amazing talents (Mike Kelley and John Baldessari among them). Legions of creative young people flock to our city every year to work alongside their heroes and develop their talents with hopes of making it as an artist. That’s great; an education, particularly in art history and technique, can be valuable to a young artist, and studying with your heroes can be inspiring. What happens too often in these situations, though, is that we find young artists simply emulating their instructors, rather than finding and honing their own aesthetics and points of view about the world, society, themselves.

In the beginnings of an artist’s career, the power in his or her work should lie not in their technique or knowledge of art history or theory or business acumen, but in what one has to say. Artists might as well hang up their paintbrushes before they even begin if that voice isn’t in place. Ideas and a point of view are the backbones of the artistic process. In fact, L.A. art school gurus such as Kelley and Baldessari were wild cards when they began. Their works were constantly infused with socioeconomic and political agendas that went against the art world’s status quo. In can be argued that it was the rebellious attitudes and iconoclastic positions of those artists’ first works that built their current international success. But now they are part of an art establishment that seems distant to many young people who should be getting inspired by art.

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