Flavorwire Exclusive: A Lesson on Art School by Chris Kraus

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The work of Chris Kraus — the American novelist, critic or fictocritic, professor of film, filmmaker, and editor — is irreducible to a single mode of artistic output. Nevertheless, in recent years, Kraus has been known more in her capacity as “the art world’s favorite fiction writer,” or, as Kate Zambreno put it, as a writer who “radicalized a vernacular criticism that involves the self” and “[is] influential in re-innovating the idea of the nonfiction novel.” In whatever mode, Kraus draws fearlessly from her life as an artist. In the below short excerpt, taken from Phaidon’s new Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life , Kraus does the same, effortlessly combining biography and criticism to deliver a sui generis lesson on art school. Included at the bottom is Kraus’ selection of reading, viewing, and other assignments for would-be students.

X

Throughout my twenties I lived in New York and never once thought about applying to art school. Art school, at the time, seemed to be for people who weren’t really intending to become artists. I knew all the artists. I even studied with some. But the tuition – sometimes paid for with money, more often intangibly – never passed through an institution. I paid with a loyalty that was often betrayed. But this is normal.

My real education took place in my apartment. Convinced that to be an artist I’d need lots of free time, I did occasional temp work supplemented by low-level scams and some topless dancing. This gave me lots of free time, but at the time, I didn’t know what to do with it. Sometimes I slept twelve hours a day. I remember looking in the mirror at my too-rested face and realizing the hardest thing I’d have to learn was how to make my own programme, how to inhabit unstructured time without getting lost in it. I don’t know if you learn this in grad school.

When, in my late twenties, I began living with a tenured professor at Columbia University, the question of art school, or other graduate school, became tabled. His grad students became my close friends. Before leaving New Zealand, in my late teens I’d unsuccessfully applied to Columbia’s graduate programme in journalism. In the end, I attended the school by osmosis.

It’s only at times when I want to escape from my life that I regret not going to art school.

The bios of writers whose careers I envy usually contain the names of the prestigious MFA programmes they attended. If I’d gone to the right MFA programme, I’d have an agent! I wouldn’t be virtually self-published by Semiotexte, the independent press where I’m a co-editor. My writing would be reviewed in serious, adult publications. But in order for these things to happen, I’d have had to write different writing.

As it is, my writing is read mostly within the art world – a field in which virtually everyone attends an MFA programme. And I try not to criticize this. Perhaps for the better, grad school has taken the place of my generation’s aimless experience.

I’ve noticed a trend among students in certain liberal arts undergrad schools to move to New York or Berlin or LA after Grinnell or Reed College or Swarthmore. Not applying to grad school or art school is very neo-old school. And this is exciting. What will be even more exciting is if the cultural life of these cities approaches a point where alumni of less elite schools can embrace the same mixture of deep disillusion and confidence.

Art and commerce have always been two sides of the same coin and to oppose them would be false. Instead, I want to talk about a shift that has taken place during the past ten years in how art objects reach the market, how they’re defined and how we read them.

The professionalization of art production – congruent with specialization in other postcapitalist industries – has meant that the only art that will ever reach the market now is art that’s produced by graduates of art schools. The life of the artist matters very little. What life? The lives of successful younger artists are practically identical. There’s very little margin in the contemporary art world for fucking up, accidents or unforeseen surprises. In the business world, lapses in employment history automatically eliminate middle managers, IT specialists and lawyers from the fast track. Similarly, the successful artist goes to college after high school, gets an undergraduate degree and then enrolls in a high-profile MFA studio art programme. Upon completing this degree, the artist gets a gallery and sets up a studio.

Equal opportunity for white and Asian artists of both genders has ushered in a massive uniformity. It’s best, of course, for the artist to be heterosexual and better to be monogamously settled in a couple. This guards against messy leaks of subjectivity that might compromise the work and throw it back into the realm of the ‘abject’, which, as we all supposedly agree, was a 1980s excess that has long since been discredited. If imagery of a sexual subculture is to be deployed, as in the work of Art Center graduate Dean Sameshima, it’s important that any undercurrents of desire be cooled off and distanced by conflating homoerotic porn with the consumer-beauty-porn of fashion ads. Through this conflation, the viewer is led into that most desired state of neo-corporate neo-Conceptualism: the empty space of ambiguity, which is completely different from the messy space of contradiction. ‘Ambiguity’, wrote Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, seeing it all two hundred years ago, ‘is the kingdom of the night’.

ASSIGNED READING, VIEWING AND DRINKING

READING:

Certainty of Hopelessness. 2013. http://www.certaintyofhopelessness.com.

Chris Glazek’s and Sean Monahan’s brilliant and devastating pamphlet about student debt (think twice before you assume it).

VIEWING:

– Novaczek, Ruth, dir. The New World. 2013. Film

London-based artist and film-maker Ruth Novaczek’s painful and sweet half-hour film evokes the twentieth century as an emotional universe. Warning: contains cigarette smoking.

– Olmi, Ermanno, dir. Il Posto. Titanus, 1961. Film

Ermanno Olmi’s beautiful, implacably realist and poetic narrative documentary about the death of the countryside and young people who, after high school, do not attend art school but seek employment.

– Ruiz, Bernardo, dir. Reportero. Quiet Pictures, 2012. Film

Bernardo Ruiz’s chilling documentary about the Mexicali-based reporter Sergio Haro, and his heroic work reporting on political corruption and the narco-wars for the Tijuana newsweekly, Zeta.

DRINKING:

– Beer by Butcher’s Tears. http://butchers-tears.com

Butcher’s Tears, an artist-run but wholly professional brewery, is interesting both for the artisanal quality of its beer and its entrepreneurial nature. Butcher’s Tears was founded by recent art-school graduate Felicia von Zweigbruck, who also runs Lost Property, a West Amsterdam alternative gallery.