Excellence and Pluralism

by Howard Singerman
Date Published: June 6, 2011

This article originally appeared in Emergences: Journal for the Study of Media & Composite Cultures, Volume 12, Number 1, 2002.

UCLA Art Department Faculty, 1999. Pictured, from left: Henry Hopkins, Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden, James Welling, Barbara Kruger, Mary Kelley, John Baldessari, Nancy Rubins, Charles Ray, Lari Pittman. Photo: George Lange.

UCLA Art Department Faculty, 1999. Pictured, from left: Henry Hopkins, Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden, James Welling, Barbara Kruger, Mary Kelley, John Baldessari, Nancy Rubins, Charles Ray, Lari Pittman. Photo: George Lange.

My university’s chief operating officer talks these days about the school’s ‘product lines.’ It is, he argues, a useful way to think about what the university does, because it now operates on the scale of the modern corporation and it has to answer to clients, constituents, and taxpayer shareholders. As a major state university, mine has five product lines: teaching, research, health care, service to the state and to businesses and organizations (teacher certification, for example, or consulting), and entertainment. This last category includes not only the university’s 19 different intercollegiate sports teams and their marketing paraphernalia, but also its concerts, theater productions, poetry readings, and art exhibitions. It’s not clear, though, that the university’s studio art department has caught up with the producer’s role, or whether the product it imagines is the same as our vice president’s. An undergraduate major housed alongside a graduate art history program, the studio here is devoted, at least on paper, in its departmental reviews and modest public relations, to the project of teaching art as a liberal art, in relation to language and history and the historical métiers of painting, sculpture, and printmaking. There is some small mention of community outreach, and little question, since it’s not a graduate program, of benchmarking or national ranking (or at least not until recently when it began to raise money and profile for a new building). Rather, the project of studio art at the University of Virginia has been something very much like Bildung or the old ideal of general education; its imaginary product is the well-rounded citizen and humanist.

I’ve drawn this a little baldly, but I’d like the voice of the university’s chief operating officer and that of the studio program to represent two competing visions of the university, a difference I would like to plot with Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins as the difference between the university of culture and the university of excellence. The university of culture, modeled as and after the 19th-century German university as it was imagined by Schiller and Humboldt, takes the ideal of a shared national culture as its referent and the citizen and the nation as its goal. Schiller’s ‘aesthetic education,’ Humboldt’s ‘organic unity’; these would situate aesthetic experience, precisely as a cultural and enculturating practice, at the university’s center. Drawn together in the ideal of culture, the university’s coherence and its common goal mirrored the state’s, and its divisions were structured by the order of knowledge itself. ‘Reason … provides the ratio for all the disciplines; it is their organizing principle,’ and along the university’s hallways, the department was the bureaucratic image of the discipline.1Even as it became the research university, the wissenschaftliche university, the university of culture took its possibilities and its knowledge from the past or nature construed as a past, as implanted with that which would be discovered in the future, as it was plumbed along or within the boundaries of the discipline for its central questions and meanings.

The university of excellence in Readings’s construction — and in stark contrast — is the university without a coherent content, without a referent: ‘The University of Excellence is the simulacrum of the idea of a University’:

The appeal to excellence marks the fact that there is no longer any idea of the University, or rather that the idea has now lost all content. As a non-referential unit of value entirely internal to the system, excellence marks nothing more than the moment of technology’s self-reflection. All the system requires is for activity to take place, and the empty notion of excellence refers to nothing other than the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information.2


Here the student to be formed has been replaced by the client to be served, whether those customers are students, state legislators, or US News and World Report. Judgment rests with the satisfactions of individual arenas of consumers and constituents, with rankings and polls and customer satisfaction, as well as with accountability and accounting. Here, knowledge is new, or rather it must be cast as new, in the name of ‘information’ and along the model of science not as Wissenschaft but as technological progress. It’s a model that strikes the arts and humanities harder than it does the sciences, since it is less easy to write press releases on recent scholarly research in, say, Spanish literature, or in one’s own studio, than in might be in nuclear medico-imaging. No longer effectively structured by the conjunction of the department and the discipline, nor policed by its hierarchies, Readings’s university of excellence is more open to the interdisciplinary or postdisciplinary, to cultural and visual studies, perhaps, or the various area studies, where budget and faculty lines are held by the dean or the provost rather than the department. The question raised by this issue of Emergences is what this university looks like now; my particular task is to address how art looks in such a university: it looks like a picture in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine.

In the summer of 1999 the New York Times Magazine published a photograph of just some of the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles’s (UCLA’s) art department, arrayed along a whitewashed wall. It’s a remarkable line up of artists: John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger, Paul McCarthy, Charles Ray, Nancy Rubins, James Welling, all clad in black, save Charlie Ray’s fleece pull-over and a couple of pairs of blue jeans, book-ended by the khaki of Henry Hopkin’s slacks and Lari Pittman’s jacket. There’s much that could be said about the image, and about ‘How to Succeed in Art,’ the article by Deborah Solomon that it illustrates. In the opening decades of the 20th century art schools were decried for their failures and their uselessness: ‘in no other profession is there such a woful [sic] waste of the raw material of human life as exists in certain phases of art education’3; what Solomon decries is UCLA’s success, its excellence: ‘Visiting the campus is like attending an opening of the Whitney Biennial.’4Even before the article’s appearance and the hirings of James Welling, John Baldessari, and Barbara Kruger (who has since been hired away to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD)), the school was ranked in the top 10 graduate programs in sculpture and photography, and in the top 12 overall, by US News; according to Solomon’s article, it’s harder to get into than the Harvard Business School. These are just the sort of measures that define excellence in Readings’s reading, markers of bureaucratic success that are purely relational and administrative, unhinged from the idea of the university or any specific disciplinary content, even, one could argue, from art as a coherent project. Clearly, there is much to be noticed in the picture beyond the fashion sense of those posed.5Still, it may be worth it to start with these fashions since if a photograph had been taken of UCLA’s art faculty in 1953, they would have been clad not in black but in white lab coats, and had it been taken in 1927, the year the UCLA was named and ground broken for its move to Westwood, the image would have looked different yet again. All 14 members of the original department were women, as were the great majority of their students; they would most likely have been wearing dresses. In this fashion change a number of histories can be told, I think, about how art was imagined at UCLA and more broadly in the new university.

Old History

While a number of the original faculty exhibited as artists — prints, watercolors, paintings in oil — it is not at all clear that a picture of them would have constituted an art world, or even where an art world might have been for them or for any college art teacher or student in 1927. The project of the department at UCLA was not to train artists, to make and then to project artists onto a scene or into a world; it was distinctly more pragmatic: like most college- and university-based art departments in the United States, the department at UCLA began as a teacher training program for the primary and secondary grades. In 1919, the year the University of California Southern Branch absorbed the faculty and facilities of the old Los Angeles State Normal School, two-thirds of the nation’s campus-based art programs offered a ‘normal’ or school arts course or specialized entirely in teacher training; across the next three decades, some 70% or more of the nation’s art students were women training for classroom. Even after the establishment of a four-year liberal arts degree and the general College of Letters and Sciences in 1924, UCLA’s courses in art remained firmly within the Teachers College. When, in 1930, its own four-year major was introduced, its courses — from art appreciation, to bookbinding, to costume design and freehand drawing — led to the degree of Bachelor of Education in secondary education; minors were available in kindergarten and elementary teaching and in home economics.

Like many art programs in the United States in the 1910s and 1920s, and like other studio art programs across the LA basin in those years, at Otis and Chouinard, the UCLA program was strongly influenced by the anti-Beaux Arts, craft- and design-based teaching of Arthur Wesley Dow, the most important art educator of his day.6While all of UCLA’s core faculty had studied with Dow, at Columbia Teachers College or in his studio at Ipswich, and all held the rank of assistant or associate professor, they and their students might easily have felt implicated by the charges leveled against art teaching in the state colleges by the Association of American Colleges in 1927, charges that linked the localness of the school classroom and the college studio to the gender of its students and teachers, and to craft:

…the opportunist’s sensitiveness seizes for the college certain elements [of art] which are convenient for public school education and in return for which certificates, fees, large enrollments, and some sense of progress may be available. The state universities and teachers’ colleges offer such preparation; someone living in town may have the technique, or a teacher in the department of home economics or music who has taken some art courses lacks a full schedule. Such background … produces practical work in basketry, china painting, stenciling, leather … [That] this is contrary to the theories of the college and makes relatively slow process [is] indicated by the status of the teachers: of 126 persons, eighty-seven are women, eighty-four have no college degree, and about sixty are instructors in rank.7

For the mostly eastern liberal arts colleges that the Association of American Colleges represented, the femininity of the ‘practical’ art and art education faculty was both cause and proof of its standing in the college.

The issue of gender, the problem of the ‘woman art student’ and teacher, was a source of considerable stress from the first moments of art in the college and university; it drove the definitions and transformations of art and artist, and of the scope and project — even the names — of the arts on campus. In 1908, Dow had pronounced the goal of programs such as those at UCLA: ‘the true purpose of art education is the education of the whole people for appreciation… This appreciation leads a certain number to produce actual works of art, greater or lesser, — perhaps a temple, perhaps only a cup — but it leads the majority to desire finer form and more harmony of tone and color in surroundings and things for daily use.’8By the turn of the 1930s, appreciation and ‘art in everyday life,’ along with the art teacher, and the consumer who desired fine forms and harmonies, were clearly gendered terms and roles. By 1939, UCLA’s department of art had been moved out of the Teachers College into a newly organized and perhaps more productivist, if still not yet fully professionalized (or masculinized), College of Applied Arts, where it was joined to programs in home economics, mechanic arts, music, physical education, and the preprofessional degree in nursing. A decade later, the major track in ‘appreciation and history of art’ was renamed ‘history and application of art,’ and in 1953, the year artist and art historian Gibson Danes was hired as full professor and appointed chair of the department, ‘history and practice.’ Danes was only the third hire to full professor in the department, after the art historian Karl With and the art educator George James Cox, the first man on the art department faculty and a longtime colleague of Dow’s and his successor at Columbia, who was appointed as full professor in 1932. UCLA would not hire a woman directly to the rank of full professor until 1997, with the arrival of Mary Kelly; only one of the women who began the department would reach the rank of full professor: Louise Sooy, in 1952, two years before her retirement.

Trained as a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to complete a PhD in art history at Yale in the late 1940s, Danes had called for a reformation of art training in the university in the pages of the College Art Journal in 1943, writing then from the University of Texas. Against the figure of the modern artist ‘carrying on an artificial and marginal existence in a world that has changed,’ an artist whose ‘single objective’ was to produce ‘something for Fifty-seventh Street, the Carnegie or Corcoran show,’ Danes offered the possibility of the artist as an architect, a builder, ‘ministering to the basic needs of the people … solving problems from the requirements of the region and the needs of the client.’9Artificial and marginal, Danes’s modern artist was implicitly effeminate, marked and marred by his situation and his classmates in the university; in contrast, he insisted, ‘artists in the Renaissance were men, craftsmen … Every institution offering professional training for the artist should realize the gravity of its responsibility, instead of ignoring the place of the artist in the world today.’10It was Danes’s faculty in the early 1950s that would have worn white lab coats, modeling a new ‘professional appearance in keeping with the expanded training of artists.’11David F. Jackey, the dean of the College of Applied Arts who hired Danes as chair, offered an expanded version of Danes’s stuttering, prosthetic ‘men, craftsmen’ as he described a new sort of art teacher and set out a new set of goals for the school: ‘The art teacher has to develop an ability to see himself and the whole field of art in broad social perspective. His concern must be with what art can do for MAN — who is the real focal point of all education. He must feel as well as know the importance of artistic experience, and then discover functional methods to make the classroom a creative laboratory.’12Jackey’s pronouncement perhaps descends from Dow’s ‘education of the whole people,’ but there is a retooling, a modernizing taking place in the reach of the dean’s statement, in the ‘whole field’ and the ‘broad social,’ the ‘functional’ and the ‘laboratory.’ And given the hiring practices of the College of Applied Arts, Jackey’s capitalized MAN should probably not be taken as a synonym for the ‘whole people’: between 1940 and 1960, the life of the College of Applied Arts, 58 men were hired as instructors or ladder faculty to 24 women, a trend that would continue and even accelerate into the 1980s. Training teachers would remain part of the department’s ‘great responsibility to the state, especially during [a] period of rapidly expanding population,’ Jackey admitted, but increasingly for both him and Danes the stress would be on production and on producing artists.

At stake in this redressing was not only the place and gender of art in the university, but also, and quite particularly, the university’s place within a system of education: Danes’s lab-coated, problem-solving artists offered a prospect for university-based art teaching other than the classroom teacher. In 1935 California’s normal colleges at Chico, Fresno, Humboldt, San Diego, San Jose, and Santa Barbara were renamed California State colleges and — against the protests of the regents of the University of California — granted the right to admit students not sworn to teaching and to offer a Bachelor of Arts in at least some of the liberal arts, those applicable to secondary teaching. With the founding of the system’s largest campuses at Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Sacramento just after the end of World War II, not only had the job of training teachers for the state been taken over almost exclusively by the California State College system; so too had a good deal of the undergraduate teaching — along with a significant portion of the University of California’s political clout. In 1955, for the first time since before the founding of UCLA, enrollments at the Cal States exceeded that of the two UCs and four new campuses opened in 1957. From the end of the war on, its presidents pushed for a greater role in general undergraduate education as well as the right to grant degrees in the professions and at the Master of Arts (MA) level; it is ‘a startling fact,’ remarked a UC professor surveyed by regent Robert Sproul, ‘that only a very small number of students graduating from the state colleges each June go into teaching. The state colleges are aiming rather to become liberal colleges, and eventually want to confer the MA degree.’13A 1947 law, again opposed by the UC regents, officially gave the state colleges some of what they wanted: ‘courses appropriate for a general or liberal education and for responsible citizenship … vocational training in such fields as business, industry, public services, homemaking, and social service,’14but reserved the right to grant the MA, and to pursue research, and the doctorate to the UCs.

The project for administrators such as Jackey and Danes — and perhaps the purpose of the College of Applied Arts — was not only to separate art and the artist from the art teacher, but also to inoculate the university and university education against art, or at least against its classroom craft. At higher levels, the College of Applied Arts, which was formed from the leftovers of the old Teachers College, might have been an expedient way to separate education and the College of Education as a site for graduate level study and research from the training of classroom teachers, as well as from art and home economics. Engineering was rescued from the College of Applied Arts — and the name mechanical arts — in 1945, with the founding of the College of Engineering, but it would take until 1960 for art practice to reach that position, when the College of Applied Arts, or at least some of what was left within it, was finally reformed as the College of Fine Arts. However belated, the reorganization and rechristening were institutionally bound to happen; the applied arts were, after all, the province of the Cal States, as were increasingly the services of credentialing and certifying. As the 1948 Survey Commission report put it, ‘the state colleges have developed into institutions responsive to the educational problems and demands of the areas they serve. Although the student body of the state college will contain students from outside the local area, and although training will be offered which has general as well as local appeal, a state college is primarily concerned with the area or region it serves.’15Danes’s masculine protest and his professionalized goals were intended to distance his new school from the old art teacher and the Teachers College, but while his call for the artist ‘solving problems from the requirements of the region and the needs of the client’ might have made sense at the University of Texas in the middle of World War II, and clearly it struck a chord with Dean Jackey in the early 1950s, it would be too close — too local and too proximate — to the project of the new state colleges to fit the modern, and increasingly national, university that the University of California imagined itself to be, precisely in political difference from the Cal States. Danes’s problem in 1944 was with ‘Fifty-seventh Street, the Carnegie or Corcoran show’; by 1960 they would be the solution.16


Danes left UCLA for Yale in 1958, where he succeeded Joseph Albers. He was replaced by Lester Longman, whose appointment, like Danes’s, signaled a significant shift in what art might mean, where it might fit in the university. A Princeton-trained renaissance art historian, Longman was in many respects responsible for the national success of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree; hired by the University of Iowa in 1936, he built the program in Iowa City into the nation’s largest art department, and the largest producer of MFAs in the years after World War II. His graduates included, among many others, Miriam Schapiro and Paul Brach, who would help to found the graduate programs at UCSD and Cal Arts. Like Danes, Longman assumed that the university had a role in training artists, maybe the primary role. He published a quite influential and controversial essay in the College Art Journal in 1945, entitled ‘Why Not Educate Artists in College?’ But the artist he offered was quite different than Danes’s. Rather than the technician, the craftsman–professional that Danes would produce, Longman imagined a university scholar, schooled, as one commentator put it in the 1940s, in the ‘anthropomorphic drama common to all phases of the humanistic tradition.’17Longman’s university artist was a professional not on the model of the architect but of the professor of the academic humanities — and crucially one devoted to research, to production and publication, the humanities in the new university. Appropriately, he oversaw the realignment of art at UCLA from a College of Applied Arts aligned with home economics, mechanical arts, and physical education, to a College of Fine Arts that included art, art history, music, and theater. Announcing the new college, Franklin Murphy, UCLA’s chancellor, promised a ‘truly professional education of the highest quality for the creative and performing artist on the one hand, and the historian and critic of the arts on the other.’18The MFA in studio was introduced at UCLA in 1966.

At UCLA Longman was controversial not for his model of the MFA artist or his call to train artists in the university, but for his conservative and very public opposition to contemporary practice. Not long after his arrival he published a letter in the New York Times and a long article in the first issue of Artforum decrying the emptiness of an already old Abstract Expressionism as well as such recent practitioners as Robert Rauschenberg and Yves Klein. Like Danes, again, Longman wanted to protect the university artist from the market and the gallery. But by the opening years of the 1960s it was clear to some members of his faculty (and to those at UC Berkeley who responded to Longman’s letter with their own letter to the Times) that such work was precisely where their professional field was, a knowledge they could teach, a place they could work. In fact, Longman had once imagined much the same thing; in 1946 he wrote to the New York art critic Emily Genauer of his hope to institute at Iowa ‘experimental work on a more advanced level so that we may contribute new ideas to the field of art as freely as New York or Paris … In the sciences it is generally expected that the universities will be in the vanguard of experimentation. I want to be the first to do this in the field of art.’19One could imagine the ‘experimental work’ Longman wrote of to be heir to the Bauhaus’ experiments, to its laboratory work in vision, but given the sites of the existing laboratories, in Paris and New York, it is, I would argue, the art world, the field of contemporary practice, that becomes the university art department’s research object, whether or not that was what he intended. It is this vision, this project — far from Iowa City or Westwood, precisely ‘delocalized,’ to borrow a word that the educational theorist Walter Metzger coined at the end of the 1960s to describe the research university that emerged after World War II20— that emerges triumphant after 1960, despite Longman’s own attempts to stop it. The year Longman was hired at UCLA, Robert Kaufmann founded Forum Gallery in New York to exhibit work from the university graduate departments; reviewing the work of UC Berkeley students at Forum in 1954, Hilton Kramer remarked on a ‘knowledgability of current abstract idioms [that] is breathtaking.’21In America, it seems, the building of an art world required not only New York but also the universities, a place — or rather an organization of places, of communities — that New York could be aspired to from, that could circulate its magazines and journals, and its visiting artists. The painter Ray Parker, one of Longman’s MFA students at Iowa, noted just this relationship early on, in 1953, although his geometry is by now odd and off: ‘In short, students and teachers believe in an art-world; artists don’t. It is supposed that artists and teachers are active in this art-world. Students aren’t. Students and artists are motivated by desire; teachers may enjoy the rewards of their profession.’22

By the end of the 1960s the project of the art department in the university — and where it hoped to situate both its faculty and its students — was coming into focus. While Eric Larrabee, a provost at the State University of New York, Buffalo, could still at least rhetorically pose an old university question, ‘What is the artistic analogue to research?’ and worry over the professionalizing tendencies of the modern university — ‘The guidance offered students, and the machinery of regulations with which they must cope, offers them every encouragement to direct themselves toward narrow, utilitarian goals, and away from the pattern of humanistic “general education” in which the arts were at least tolerated’ — he was quite clear that universities were where professional training in the arts belonged: ‘the plague of amateurism is widespread … We need trained people. Universities are where people are trained. QED.’23  On the new University of California campuses at Irvine, San Diego, and Santa Barbara, the questions of professionalism and artistic research were answered most strongly by statements of who was not a professional, of what research, or rather artistic practice, could no longer include. Like UCLA five decades earlier, UC Santa Barbara began as a teachers’ college, given to the UC system against its will just after World War II. A 1967 report on its art department reads as though it were written in response to Lura Beam’s 1927 report of the Association of American Colleges, on teachers’ colleges, their faculty of local women, and their handicrafts:

By 1959 crafts had disappeared entirely and the present program of majors in painting, sculpture, printmaking, and art history had superseded emphasis on teacher training… [By 1963] the faculty increased to 18, all but one a professional artist or art historian. In spring 1965 …the regents approved a new MFA program in studio subjects.24

A report that same year on the new program at the University of California at Irvine, a program with no house to clean, no earlier incarnation, completes the trajectory:

Early in the academic planning, fine arts were separated from the humanities and established as a separate division including the departments of art, drama, music, and dance … The division departed from the usual university fine arts program by emphasizing professional commitment, studio and performance centered. The objectives are to provide a superior liberal education for the creative and performing artist, as well as studio and workshop experiences for the non-major. To carry out this commitment a faculty was recruited with high qualifications as professional performers and artists.25

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles from New York at the end of the1970s, the art critic Peter Frank suggested that the central difference between New York’s art scene and southern California’s was the ‘presence of a widespread college and university system’ that had ‘rushed in where galleries and museums have feared to tread.’ UC Irvine, he noted, was ‘cited by many as the single most outstanding and influential art school among those that have fed the current generations of southern California artists.’ The language Frank used to describe the role of the schools, and the art and the practices they allowed, echoes not so much studio talk (or some older version of art world patois) but the language and project of the high university: ‘The schools, both private and public, have proved remarkably receptive to the creation of whole new formats, new divisions in their curricula, devoted to essentially experimental art research.’26The project of art is the promise of the university — to advance knowledge, to further the disciplinary field and its questions.

An older, established department entrusted and encrusted with métier-based undergraduate teaching, UCLA wasn’t included in Peter Frank’s 1979 short list of the most experimental schools, Cal Arts, and the UCs at San Diego and Irvine. As it happens, a 1977 departmental review had already compared the UCLA program and its faculty with Irvine, and the program at UC Davis, and found it lacking. While the review committee praised the UCLA faculty’s teaching and commitment — ‘there seems to be no question that the PSGA [painting, sculpture, graphic arts] faculty as a group take their responsibilities as teachers with the greatest seriousness’ — it was no longer clear how those should count:

To the extent that the quality of the faculty is to be judged from its reputation outside the university, the matter takes on a different light … Traditional scholarly departments, after all, are not exempt from this kind of criterion, based on the quality of journals and university presses that sponsor their publications and of the critical reception their books encounter … the criterion established by important gallery and museum exhibitions (one-man or group) cannot be entirely dismissed; and by this criterion the UCLA ladder faculty is not comparable to, say, that of Irvine or Davis.27

Conducted out of chronological turn and at a higher level than originally planned, the university’s review of the department of art was in part a response by the administration to the resignation of Richard Diebenkorn, the department’s failed attempt to establish a national reputation. Diebenkorn had been, quite calculatedly, a star hire; his appointment in 1966 coincided with the opening of the new Dickson Art Center, and was announced by the chancellor himself. Hired over the heads of the department by William Melnitz, the founding dean of the school of fine arts, and Frederick Wight, who succeeded Longman as chair, Diebenkorn requested the absolute minimum of committee assignments and administrative work, relief from scheduled undergraduate teaching, and to be allowed to teach graduates almost exclusively. Under collegial pressure, he didn’t press the privileges he had negotiated with the dean’s and chancellor’s offices until the early 1970s, and resigned in 1973 over the department’s animosity and mistrust; as the departmental review put it, ‘the regular faculty [do] not treat …unusual distinction with particular generosity.’ Still, ‘however laudable its motives, the administration can be charged with inadequate consultation in a recent matter involving an appointment with the result that the PSGA faculty did not know the special terms of the appointment and both the individual involved and his colleagues were victims of a failure of communication.’28

Despite that nod toward civility and shared responsibility, the review was particularly harsh on the senior studio faculty, which was, by 1977, quite top heavy: 10 of the 11 total ‘ladder’ faculty were full professors; half of them had been hired by Gibson Danes. Its concerns throughout were with the image of the UCLA department and its faculty to the art world in Los Angeles and nationally: ‘There is a widespread feeling in the art community that the senior faculty [are] hostile or indifferent to movements of the past 30 years and they are confidently waiting for the day when the clock will be turned back.’ The older faculty consciously ignore ‘recent developments in art, such as video and performance art, public art, minimal art, conceptual art, etc., and … the graduate students look to them [the department’s ‘temporary appointments’] more than to the senior staff to provide a fresh current of ideas. The philosophy of the tenure group is, as one observer put it, “expressive” rather than “analytical.”’29The departmental report’s list of what the senior faculty cannot teach is a curiously naive one; it’s not in chronological order, it mixes genres, media, and historical styles or movements. But the fact that these movements and developments must be spoken to, that the university and its faculty must somehow address it, clearly posits the art world as its research object, or at the very least, the present in which it should operate. (It also suggests that the university cannot refuse on the basis of content; its ideological debts are to the ideas of progress and time and a certain version of the enlightenment as professionalized self-awareness.) These are researches, part of what the UCLA faculty would themselves soon label ‘new forms and concepts.’ The nontenured, visiting faculty, which would soon include Chris Burden, who was hired as a visiting lecturer in 1978, might not have looked like university scientists, but the report’s distinction between the ‘expressive’ philosophy of the older faculty and the younger faculty’s ‘analytical’ approach might have read with particular effect for the department’s outside faculty reviewers. The difference between an older expressionism tied to the 1950s and the caricature of the artist unable to speak or unwilling to define, and the minimal or conceptual artist whose work, as Michael Fried put it, occupies a position that can be put into words, is a difference that was linked early on the project of art as university research. ‘Can there be any doubt that training in the University has contributed to the cool, impersonal wave in the art of the sixties?’ asked Harold Rosenberg in 1970. ‘In the classroom … it is normal to formulate consciously what one is doing and to be able to explain it to others.’30

It’s difficult to imagine any longer a case against ‘national recognition’ or ‘visibility’ or the teaching of the newest names and practices, but if this discussion of the weight and measure of the research university in the art department seems like so much ancient history, it is still possible to see its traces in maps of Los Angeles, or of the art world it projects internationally. Recently, Michael Ovitz’s Los Angeles-based Creative Artists Agency announced a scholarship plan for promising and ambitious seniors graduating from the Los Angeles Unified School District in the following way:

We set out to identify great work being created in Los Angeles by graduates and current students of Los Angeles-area art colleges. No one had paid sufficient homage to the role Southern California art schools had played in the growth of Los Angeles into an international art center. So we resolved to use CAA’s [Creative Artists Agency’s] headquarters in Beverly Hills to showcase a collection of work by emerging artists and teachers associated with those schools … These scholarships will commence for the upcoming 2000–2001 school year at the University of California at Los Angeles, Art Center College of Design, California Institute of the Arts, the University of California at Irvine and Otis College of Art and Design.

As laudable as the scholarship program is, its announcement is quite telling; it offers a remarkably clear map of the art world and where it is not. There are, for the record, currently 11 MFA programs from Santa Barbara to San Diego; 17 schools that offer a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Fine Arts degree; and 21 area community colleges that offer associate degrees in studio. Among the programs not targeted by the Creative Artists Agency scholarships — nor, one supposes, responsible for projecting Los Angeles internationally — are southern California’s two largest MFA programs, at Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton. Cal State Los Angeles offers the MFA, as well, and it and Long Beach have the area’s only remaining art education programs. Success in the Creative Artists Agency’s statement has a specific meaning; it doesn’t include those art schools that train teachers for Los Angeles Unified, nor does it include returning to the neighborhood to teach or make work. That would be too local, and local has, I’ve argued, long been a troubling word — a code word — in the discourse that surrounds the professional training of artists. The Creative Artists Agency’s scholarships are pointed toward a more visible target — visibility, perhaps — and the high research university and the professionalized art school, whose practices and purviews are national, even international, rather than local and particular. Bounded not by locale but by a field of visibility that spreads internationally, as it links scholars and researchers and curators and critics and artists, the research university art department situates its project and its products just where the Creative Artists Agency writers have pointed when they write of those art schools that have projected Los Angeles art internationally, made Los Angeles into an international center. As Kandinsky pronounced from the Bauhaus in 1926 — and already fully within the language of the research university — ‘without any exaggeration it may be suggested that any broadly based science of art must have an international character.’31


I have perhaps gone a long way around to make the case that the art world has become the research object of the art department of the high university, and that it has been for some time. I could have used a remark from Longman’s student Ray Parker, writing around the time Gibson Danes was hired at UCLA, about the art world, and about the way names work within it. ‘Schools can teach all about art,’ he wrote in the College Art Journal in 1953, but ‘art escapes the formulation of standards and methods … [it] matches neither preparation nor expectation.’32This is a commonplace, but also a particular historical marker; rather than meaning craft skills, art becomes over and over again across the 19th and 20th centuries the very name of what cannot be taught, what is not knowledge. In its place Parker offers the new university art departments an alternative knowledge, a discipline that can be taught and learned; in lieu of art, ‘the art-world can be understood and taught as a subject.’ But, he warned, ‘the art-world idea, taken for granted in schools, inflates the value of the artist as a figure.’33That was Diebenkorn’s problem at UCLA: he was a figure; but Parker’s point is well taken since it is just such figures that are the content of teaching, the knowledge that needs to be transmitted. Figures, or I would want to say, names are the currency of the art world — what is current about you, especially if you are a curator or a critic, is your list of names. And for some time now names have been what we teach in art schools, they are what is passed back and forth in the crit or studio visit; they are what we talk about to each other, what we explain, judge, continue, teach.

It seems to me worth noting — to use an example I have used before — that the ‘teasers’ on the front covers of Art in America or (since March of 1997) Artforum are short lists of names, most often only surnames: ‘Whitman, Kandinsky, Heizer, Jonas, Whiteread’ read the cover of the July 1995 Art in America. In contrast the September 1995 issue of American Artist, a magazine for which the MFA is not required, led with ‘Interior & Landscapes in Oil,’ ‘Getting the Most from Gouache,’ and “‘Painting” with Fabric.34Artists (as opposed quite specifically to art understood as any particular separable skill or technique) are both the subject and the object of graduate teaching, they are both what is taught, and who is taught to — the object of the art school is to make artists, to make more artists. When I used this example in Art Subjects, I understood that it pointed toward a professional field, a field of practice where proper names occupied positions, but I also imagined it pointed to history and a historicized practice, a thickened or deep field. I used a combination, admittedly odd, of Pierre Bourdieu and Thierry de Duve, to make this point, to both situate a field and to thicken it: ‘In the present stage of the artistic field there is no room for naivety,’ I quoted Bourdieu. ‘Never has the very structure of the field been present so practically in every act of production.’35The strong work of art understands and recasts that field, de Duve suggested; it is, he wrote, ‘an “interpretant,” filled with all the historical meanings of the field of conditions in which the fact of its existence resonates.’36Bourdieu turns out to be righter than de Duve, but unfortunately naivety works now too. The field of names is increasingly thin and its teaching a mode of amnesia rather than history.

An acquaintance of mine, an artist and critic and now an administrator, told me of an assignment he gave to his first-year MFA students. He asked them to go to the library and seek out an art magazine from the month and year they were born, write down the names of 25 artists from the advertisements and reviews and to bring them back to the seminar. One could take this as an opening, I suppose, a generous, and perhaps fruitful, way of opening up a more closely focused history than that of the standard undergraduate survey, of offering more images and approaches, more material to be worked on and with, something beyond the names of artists and artworks they already knew. As it happens, this wasn’t quite what its author intended. His project wasn’t one of affirmative history — a making fuller of the past; his intention was rather more negative and critical: to disenchant the present, to put his students on warning that most of them 20 years out would be, at best, a name in an advertisement in a very old art magazine. The present always seems full, as much as two or three monthly art magazines can hold, a present of possibilities; the past that the assignment points back to is always closing, always dwindling. History in this sense always has a point, a kind of vanishing point. It’s very probably true, but it’s not clear to me — and I didn’t think to ask how or whether he cushions that blow — what to do with that information, that prognostication. Three choices come to mind as I think about it from a distance; I’d be curious what his students came up with. Quitting seems an obvious choice, as does insisting that this lesson is meant for someone else in the class, someone less talented, less good, less ambitious or aggressive. The third choice might be to take the assignment and its lesson almost as innocently as I had done, as a chance to figure out how and where one is an artist. How, or even whether, those artists whose names were unknown continue to make work, to have exhibitions, to be artists? It raises perhaps the question of living as an artist, of a daily life, maybe of what Gerhardt Richter called the ‘daily practice of painting.’

Whichever choice one takes — whether one imagines its point is to make it clear to art students that the art world is where they work, and indeed what they work with, or to disabuse them of its enchantments — the lesson quite clearly points toward and works to delimit and reproduce the art world that is named on the covers of art magazines and visible in the photograph in the New York Times Magazine, an art world strung together as and by a system of names. The art world is, as Ray Parker noted some pages ago, a curious place; it’s easy enough to say that it is fictional, imaginary, that it runs on belief. But that doesn’t make it empty nor can one imagine any longer that artists don’t believe in it. As a network of discourse and institutions, an accretion of beliefs, a field of positions, an amalgam of historical effects, it is fully ideological in that it orders and effects real relations, it hovers above and around them, determining, forecasting. It seems fully adequate, after all, it includes the names and work you already know, those names you can call to mind, can compare yourself to, have an opinion about, someone or something you need to learn and teach. Indeed, teaching it and learning it are crucial, how it is transmitted, how it is continued. Students are, once again, both its most important product and its target audience, its believers. One could say, to use a little psychoanalytic theory, a theory that might suggest the sort of geometry of desire, aggressivity, and misrecognition that Parker attempted to plot, that the art world is always as Freud described the unconscious, ein andere Schauplatz —that other show place or the place of the Other’s show.

If the art world is in some sense always elsewhere, that does not mean that its boundaries, its inclusions and exclusions are not felt. Michael Ovitz’s map might be one quite material, palpable version of how its borders are drawn, but its effects are felt on both sides of the divide; faculty at Cal State Long Beach have to know and teach the names that figure in the New York Times Magazine. Indeed, the vast majority of art schools are situated curiously in relation to those boundaries, at once at the border and across it. There is a sense in which most art schools are too local to be fully held inside the art world; they are where the art world is seen from, where its borders are first mapped as though from the outside. Students learn how to be artists, how to act and talk and even live like an artist, if they’re lucky, from their teachers. At the same time, students in a curious and insistently ambitious way — in both those ways — continually look over the heads of their teachers: because their teachers are here, they are precisely not there, in that other scene, or most of them are not. Students spend a lot of time imagining the space where they won’t be teachers, where they won’t be in the Midwest — at the University of Iowa perhaps, where Ray Parker got his MFA in 1947 before moving to New York. Parker noticed just this only a couple of years out from Iowa that ‘teachers demonstrate how they participate in the art world, or discuss how others do it … The teacher distinguishes himself from the student by the authority with which he acts as a part of the art-world.’37I felt something similar in the halls at Cal Arts some three decades later, but it seemed more aggressive, more present. A lot of animosity can be held in Parker’s or, in the difference between demonstrating how one participates, and discussing how others do. At Cal Arts, I wrote, ‘the faculty ranges from involved to detached and bitter, and their proportionate influence over students is hinged to their careers outside.’ Those careers, or the stock they represent, ‘leave their traces on student sign up sheets and advancement committees.’38

Parker’s description early on, and even mine from the late 1980s, suggests a space between the school and the art world, a buffer or barrier whose form might be spatial — the distance of Texas or Illinois or the Cal State system — or temporal, the ‘five years behind the times’ time-lag that schools were given, or lambasted for, not long ago. For students at UCLA when the New York Times Magazine article came out, or Andrew Hultkrans’s Artforum piece, the distance between the art world and the art school had evaporated almost completely; one was mapped directly over the other: ‘I feel like the walls are transparent here. I feel lucky that there’s a lot of buzz and I hope good things will come to me.’39The stories of curators and dealers at final reviews and in the studio halls at UCLA or Art Center are both legendary and true. The art world makes its presence felt in the schools not only as desire, as ambition and possibility and knowledge, but also economically and temporally, as a demand. This was in part the story that Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA’s) exhibition ‘Public Offerings’ was intended to tell; it argued not only the increased role and profile of the school as a networking or switching station in an increasingly globalized art world, but also the increased parade and performance of the market in the school. Perhaps art schools have replaced art movements, as the photographer Collier Shorr remarked at a panel at Artists Space not long ago.40But if they have begun to work as movements have, as interpretive categories of likeness and enclosure, ways of seeing together, what is joined and held together is not work by ‘style’ — ‘a promise in every work of art’ and the record of its ‘confrontation with tradition… the hope that it will be reconciled thus with the idea of true generality’41— but careers by institutions or, if that seems too harsh, by administrations. In that replacement what art schools have displaced is a kind of discipline, a project of history or a projection of the historical; legitimation now is left directly to the market, to being grabbed up precisely when, as one UCLA student remarked in the pages of Artforum, ‘we’re not all going to get grabbed.’42

Visiting at Colorado Boulder in 1955, Rothko complained in a letter back to New York, the students ‘want me to teach them how to paint abstract expressionism.’43However suspect the Colorado students’ demand, or maybe Rothko’s letter, it’s not clear now that any proper name — John Currin, Ann Hamilton, Matthew Barney, Renee Greene, Rikrit Tiravanija, Inka Essenhigh, Jason Rhoades: the list is both sheerly metonymical and potentially endless; Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden, James Welling, Barbara Kruger, Mary Kelly, John Baldessari, Nancy Rubins, Charles Ray, Lari Pittman — can fill the name of a movement or style, be absorbed or buffered by it, or its claims for historical priority. There is, in this list of names, or beyond it, no middle term of movement or medium or project, of something that can be felt to matter or count between individual interest and its administration; it’s in that empty space that October has issued its recent, post-Friedian calls for a return to the medium, and that Stephen Melville has attempted to spread the category ‘painting’ as a discipline of theory over a broad array of disparate practices, to make them thinkable and even necessary together, in order to suggest that there is something shared after school and before gallery affiliation. In the line-up of names, and along the whitewashed wall of the New York Times Magazine image, though, theory and medium no longer function; Mary Kelly’s value is not critical or theoretico-historical (the ‘hero of knowledge,’ as Lyotard would say). What is important and functional there is not the content of her work and her commitments, but her ‘national visibility,’ how well her name fits with, and compares to, others: ‘Most of all,’ Bill Readings reminds us, ‘excellence serves as the unit of currency within a closed field,’44a field without reference, a field with only professionals and only peers.

Perhaps I’m just describing the same tired old thing, the broad breakdown of the grand legitimating narratives of modernism, or, more locally, what Alan Sondheim called ‘post-movement art’ in 1977 and, not long after, most people called ‘pluralism.’ Hal Foster once argued that pluralism in the 1980s art world was marked by ‘two important indices. One is an art market confident in contemporary art as an investment …The other index is the profusion of art schools.45The market’s involved acquisitiveness needs an array of styles and names, and the far-flung schools, too ‘numerous and isolate,’ in Foster’s words, to hold together a narrative of the most important art of the recent past, of a shared artistic stake, cannot help but provide it. It’s interesting how well his description of the alignment of an increasingly involved and consolidated art market with a broad profusion of art schools and, in them, of individualizing and idiosyncratic practices matches Readings’s university of excellence. It may be that they are only standard images of dissolution, of breakdown, but they read together quite nicely: ‘Excellence responds very well to the needs of technological capitalism in the production and processing of information, in that it allows for the increasing integration of all activities into a generalized market, while permitting a large degree of flexibility and innovation at the local level.’46The narrative projects offered by a historically construed medium and the questions structured by a disciplinary and departmentalized knowledge were ways of imagining a site and a stake between individual practice and its administration (and behind that, capital); that space, at least in the present, seems simply gone.

And I cannot decide how to think about that, about whether or not — to pose this with all the idiocy that I feel — cultural pluralism and the university of excellence stand for. The story I’ve just recounted need not have been cast as a jeremiad; it could have been written as the opening out of difference and the emergence of other voices in a space without insides and outsides, without the exclusionary coercions of disciplinary consensus or aesthetic mainstream. Pluralism and excellence might name the temporary openings, the alliances and possibilities of interdisciplinary and critical and cultural studies, or the opportunity to make one’s own work, and to allow and value the work of Others in a field marked out not by coercive consensus or narratives of progress, but by contestation and circulation. But I keep coming back to the intensification of capital within that field, the presence and arbitrariness of the market written in the individuating and mystifying terms of valuation: the art world’s reinscription of beauty, the university’s excellence. In the art world, or at least in its academic wing, there are stakes, both intellectual and professional, in arguing against pluralism, against the dissolution of medium and its historical or theoretical purchase: we would like to be able to speak and publish critically, to imagine that art practice can, through its intentionality and self-knowledge, open out onto historical forces and shifts beyond fashion. Maybe. The best I can muster now is to think of pluralism and excellence as Walter Benjamin did of film: ‘its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.’47

My thanks to Katie Mondloch for her help researching the UCLA archives and to Sande Cohen for his invitation and comments.
Howard Singerman is the author of Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University (1999) and the forthcoming Art History, After Sherrie Levine, both from the University of California Press. He has contributed essays to numerous exhibition catalogues, among them the retrospective surveys of Chris Burden, Mike Kelley, and Allen Ruppersberg. His essays and criticism have appeared in a number of journals and magazines including Artforum, October, Oxford Art Journal, and Parkett.  He is currently associate professor of art and art history at the University of Virginia.