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An Artist, a Leader, and a Dean Were on a Boat…


As of next September, Emory College is closing its Visual Arts Department. Dean Robin Forman wrote a letter dated September 14, 2012 communicating this to the faculty. The news recently hit Facebook via an Art and Education announcement of March 2014. I don’t know what exactly happened in the intervening two years, but the consequences of the retrenchment are far reaching.

The dean’s letter is more interesting in what it implies than helpful in what it says. Forman is happy to underline the importance of the study of human health, quantitative theory, race, contemporary China, and the impact of digital media. He also mentions that the school currently has too many programs, with many of them stretched to the limit financially. (In 2011, Emory’s endowment was $5.4 billion, which was the sixteenth largest endowment among American universities that year. So it’s not clear what financially stretched means, exactly.) Later, the letter insists that the decisions are academic, not financial. The planned cuts go beyond visual arts; they also include the departments of educational studies, journalism, and physical education. In addition, admissions to graduate programs in Spanish, economics, and the Institute of Liberal Arts will be suspended. According to Forman, these decisions are necessary for Emory to “maintain its place as one of the top liberal universities in the nation.” Probably more important, the cuts and reallocations will also help “train the leaders of the century to come.”

I’m not a strong believer in art departments or art schools. Maybe Emory’s example is a good moment to examine their relevance. It’s not clear yet if Emory’s decision foreshadows the future of academia in the US, or if it’s just a passing fad. Either way, these developments at Emory raise crucial questions: What function do art schools fulfill? Do we really need them? In a lecture back in 2007, I referred to the institutional teaching of art as a fraud. I made the point that during my thirty-five years of teaching, I probably taught about five thousand students. These students financed my salary. Maybe about five hundred of them hoped to “make it” in the gallery circuit. Possibly twenty among these succeeded. That means that the other 480 hoped to make a living from teaching. Each one of them would in turn require another five thousand students to ensure their salaries. In only one generation, then, the needed student base went up to 2,400,000—and that was only considering my students, nobody else’s. No wonder this system is collapsing. In e-flux journal, Anton Vidokle used the term “pyramid scheme” to describe the system of art education, based on the fact that an MFA degree doesn’t even ensure employment to begin with.

Looking at the issue from the point of view of fraud, Emory’s move to retrench visual arts could be interpreted as a step towards honesty and a perceptive reading of the market situation. The big flaw in the dean’s letter is that this point isn’t touched upon. We may therefore assume that guilt for past deception and false advertising did not play a role in the school’s decision. I’m not particularly interested in Emory, but since it’s rated number twenty in the U.S. News and World Report’s college ranking and charges $44,008 in tuition and fees ($8?), we should give its behavior some weight. It may be the canary in the coalmine.

Read the full article here.