HELEN MOLESWORTH: We’ve convened today to talk about the current crises at USC and Cooper, both of which are symptoms of larger problems facing the entire concept of art education in this country. And for many schools today, Black Mountain College remains a key model for art education after World War II.
In the face of this crisis, Black Mountain is even more relevant to the current situation than one might think: It was a program born of extraordinary optimism, but it was also born of dissent, born of a firing of tenured faculty, born of a group of teachers and students deciding that they needed to own the means of production themselves and create an institution in which there were no trustees or board of regents, so they could collectively control the college. It had an extraordinary efflorescence and was a wellspring of the American avant-garde; the curriculum at BMC influenced many of the practices that define contemporary studio and liberal-arts programs—group critiques, collaboration, interdisciplinarity. It also failed beautifully and wonderfully and spectacularly at its end: It was short-lived, running only from 1933 to 1957.
Which leads me to the most basic and perhaps the most unanswerable question: Why now? Why are extremely successful, renowned arts-education departments on both coasts under attack in the way that they are at Cooper and USC? Are they—and Black Mountain—anomalies, experiments that could never last? Or are they victims of some of the nastiest tactics of our neoliberal new economy?
CHARLIE WHITE: I believe that the small group of faculty who transformed the graduate program at USC understood it as a new direction, a new scope and form, for an MFA studio program. But looking at it today, what becomes clear is that, yes, it was actually just a brief experiment by a handful of artists attempting to reinterpret an underwhelming graduate platform.
FRANCES STARK: I don’t really see what we were doing as radically experimental. It was an experiment within USC, but we—a group including Charlie, David Bunn, Sharon Lockhart, and Jud Fine, who brought me and Andrea Zittel on board there—were functioning in a way that was similar to the models around us, namely, the broad spectrum of MFA programs for which LA is well known.
CHARLIE WHITE: Yes—what became an experiment was not the pedagogical model, but our goal of having sixteen fully funded students, establishing a majority female core faculty, and offering a faculty-to-student ratio of 1:3. It was this structure, both financial and cultural, that was carving out new territory and creating a new experience for our students.
FRANCES STARK: And we had a core faculty structure, as we called it, that came about in a very organic way. Because we had intellectual intimacy and an understanding and respect for our shared goals, we were actually able to govern ourselves and create conditions that allowed the students to thrive. That is what the university administrators became hostile toward.
A. L. STEINER: The program collapsed under the current administration’s dismissal of that vision and that autonomy. The seven students left the program when the dean made the fateful decision to rescind their funding and curricular offers. By the end of the spring semester, Roski’s administration sent the MFA program into free fall, with no director, no core faculty, and significant changes to the coursework and mission—curricular dysfunction.
JORY RABINOVITZ: That’s what’s so shocking about Cooper. What was taken away from the school was its very own founding charter: free education.
Peter Cooper had achieved incredible upward mobility as an illiterate industrialist. Not having had a formal education himself, he developed the idea of a school that would be free to all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or sex. And this was during the time of slavery, the verge of the Civil War. He fought for the rights of women, African Americans, Native Americans, the labor movement, but I think it’s important to point out that he was also fixated on monetary policy and economic regulation, with the purpose of fending off oligarchy and ensuring that the rich couldn’t manipulate markets. He knew that economic freedoms would be exploited to strip human freedoms. This is why it’s so critical to understand that the “free” in his vision of free education meant both gratis and liber. Free education affords a type of autonomy, not only financial but psychological. It allows pedagogy from a debtless standpoint. This was vital to how I made art and learned about art at Cooper, and it’s stayed embedded in my practice and in how I engage the market.
So after this founding charter was eviscerated and the new $20,400 tuition was marketed as 50 percent off “normal” tuition, it became hard not to believe that something more insidious than incompetence or ignorance had seeped into Cooper Union, something that Cooper himself had fought against his whole life.
HELEN MOLESWORTH: But why should an education at this level be free?
CHARLIE WHITE: Well, Cooper Union and our small graduate program have one important trait in common: selectivity. Acceptance to Cooper Union is very difficult, because the school can set the bar extremely high for its incoming class due to its quality and funding, and at USC, when we were operating in full form, we were selecting just eight incoming students from a pool of more than four hundred applicants. That level of selectivity is the beginning of a faculty’s relationships with their students—students that, in both of these cases, were not needed for revenue.
HELEN MOLESWORTH: So you’re saying that a revenue-free situation actually protects meritocracy.
CHARLIE WHITE: Absolutely.