Despite rigorous course study and advanced degrees, art school graduates often find it difficult to support themsleves. The scant prospects for compensation, commensurate with time invested in creating artwork, is a reality of which most students are blithely unaware. Adobe Stock photo

The art scam

Or, confessions of a studio school 'Theory Guy'

By Chad C. Mulligan II


For some time now I’ve been entertaining the thought of writing a book called “Mugged.” It would be the kind of thing the radical British publisher Zero Books might put out, a volume about how left-wing critical theory in the art world, and particularly in art education, has ultimately become a massive con for young artists from working class backgrounds – or otherwise less financially, culturally, sexually, ethnically or hereditarily privileged than the neo-Edwardian norm – who have been negligently misguided by the progressive, democratic, anti-colonial, anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, queer, anti-phobic and, even, sometimes still – gasp! – revolutionary rhetoric that dominates the discourses of the contemporary art world, and makes up pretty much all the political substance of material taught as “theory”courses in contemporary art schools.

And I should know. For many years, I was the “Theory Guy” at a well-known London art school, propagating revolutionary Marxist, feminist, pro-situ (look it up), post-structuralist and post-colonial theory for a living! Though they no longer get into art schools, anyway, such people were, in the past, rather inclined to actually take all this emancipatory stuff quite seriously. Then, as the years pass, they start to realize that their teachers, and their academic colleagues, are actually quite well-heeled, own homes, send their kids to private schools and are more than happy to give talks about the aesthetics of resistance at Frieze Art Fair, while the only people left able to make art – “socially engaged”or otherwise – after the age of 35, are those with wealthy parents, who have helped them buy a flat in Prenzlauer Berg, Peckham, or wherever the latest wave of hipster-driven gentrification is happening, have wealthy spouses (who probably work in banking or real estate) or who never gave a shit about all that “theory stuff” anyway.

Why all these radical, world-changing and person-transforming philosophies ended up finding a home in art schools is a very interesting story in itself. Certainly, they made a lot more sense in the 1960s and ’70s, and still kicked ass in the ’80s and early ’90s. But things really started to shift after that, most dramatically in the post 9/11, war-on-everything noughties, the decade whose most significant contribution to worldwide revolutionary social transformation was the advent of Web 2.0 and the blanket cultural dominance of global (anti)social media.

Having taught post-everything critical theory since the early 1990s, by the ’0-whatevers it was becoming increasingly obvious that what critical theory actually did for contemporary art was to protect it from any real, socially meaningful criticism. It was like a kind of theoretical “INNOCULATION!,” as my zombie-Communist comrade Andrew Cooper used to shout at brainy discussions about things like “complicity and contingency” in hip, independent project spaces (aka “not” art galleries). This increasingly unsettling thought came to a head during the student protests that followed in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, when, along with my more militantly-minded student friends and colleagues, we began occupying art schools, galleries and museums, staging impromptu teach-ins and performance actions against the most glaringly negligent of the contemporary art world’s blatantly bread-headed institutions, in an attempt to draw attention to the inevitably exclusionary social effects of rising student fees.

When the established organs of the London art world caught on to what was happening, protest pedagogy and alternative educational forums started popping up in galleries from Shoreditch to the South Bank, and the university began inviting us in to do seminars about “Art, Politics and Education” as a way to deliver much needed content to our incrementally teaching-malnourished and debt-burdened art students.

Read the rest of this story in the Winter 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

An alleged North Korean propaganda video that offers a Smörgåsbord of leftist political tropes, similar to the ones the author had been teaching his art students. It was later revealed that the film was created by a pair of New Zealand filmmakers.

YouTube video

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