Hard Truths: Can an Art Professor Tell His Students They Suck Without Sucking Himself?

With a world in crisis and an art market spinning out of control, ace art-world consultants Chen & Lampert deliver hard truths in response to questions sent by Art in America readers from far and wide.

I’m a new adjunct professor doing studio critique at an art school, and the program director informed us that we cannot tell students their work is bad. We can only be positive. This has been very difficult because our program happens to have an inordinate number of lazy artists making entirely mediocre work. I feel it’s my job to tell them their work sucks because that’s what I get paid for, and the world needs fewer bad artists. Can I speak my mind? Or is that just mean?

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A new adjunct with big ideas about how things should work—yikes, so sorry. You are catching on fast to what the other part-time faculty you’ll never meet already know but will not divulge unless they are tipsy: the majority of students at your art school would be better served studying pool-cleaning at junior college. Also, in case it’s not entirely obvious, your program director is a power-starved urchin who bends over backward to pamper the deadweights who pay full tuition. How do we know this? We’ve been adjunct teachers ourselves.

A good critique helps answer a lot of the lingering questions that artists avoid asking in their neurotic self-interrogations. The only way for artists to gain perspective is to have people look at their art and relay what it is—and, more important, is not—doing for them. Getting a negative or even lukewarm critique can be positive, because it helps make visible what artists aren’t seeing. It also confirms problems that they hope others won’t notice. Even though critiques are subjective, if more than one person points out the same issue during a studio visit, there’s reason to suspect they might be identifying glaring and hopefully addressable flaws.

But adjunct or not, a faculty member telling a student that they blow is bad teaching. Whiplash-inducing critiques can be dished out only by visiting artists who serve as fleet-footed hatchet people ready to voice the unspeakable sentiments that faculty have been repressing all year. That being said, coddling subpar artists is how we perpetuate inferior arts programs and an awful art ecosystem. Teachers should rightfully expect rigor, conceptual clarity, technical skills, genuine ideas, and true effort from their students. Don’t bite your tongue if you have something constructive, insightful, or even contrary to say. But do make sure it doesn’t burst out in a brute-force way that makes the lame-o kid you’re teaching go running to their check-wielding parents. If that happens, your program director will make you pay the price for your student’s bad art.

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I moved to New York City after getting my bachelor’s degree to become a full-time artist. Then the pandemic happened. I’m working two part-time jobs and getting burned out from being in vibey group shows where most of the artists are already on the gallery circuit. It feels as if the only way to advance my career is to meet the right people at a good MFA program, but looking at the websites of the prominent schools where I’d want to go, I don’t see any faculty who I want to study with enough to pay $80,000. Is going to grad school worth it at all at this point?

We just advised a teacher to tell crappy students that their art is bogus, so whaddya imagine we’re going to say about sliding into grad school only for the sake of networking? You’re smart to realize that $80,000 is a significant chunk of trust fund money to blow on social contacts. You’re probably better off being a valued ketamine hookup at the group-show opening than a sitting duck at an all-school critique with teachers who aren’t accomplished enough for your liking. Besides, if you keep on lingering as a fun-loving scenester, there’s a strong chance you’ll eventually be mistaken for an MFA graduate anyway. This is the budget-savers’ tip that they don’t teach in art school. 

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Source: artnews.com

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