MFA’d to Get Paid

Education and the Art Market

by by Elias Pitegoff

illustration by by Alex Ronan

In October 2012, gerhard richter’s painting “Abstraktes Bild 809-4” sold for $34 million. The sale earned the painting the superlative “most expensive artwork by a living artist.” The painting’s price sparked controversy in the art world, namely the critique that its monetary value reflected something outside of its artistic quality or relevance. As Blake Gopnick points out in an article from The Daily Beast, “The giant Richter smear that sold on Friday [Abstraktes Bild 809- 4] came 30 years after the photo-based paintings that made him matter as an artist, and it could be mistaken for splashy décor.” If any of Richter’s works are worth $34 million, it should not have been this one. The collectors and their agents sitting in the Christie’s auction that day seemed to be bidding not on how much they valued the work in itself, but rather on the prestige of owning the “most expensive artwork by a living artist” status-symbol.

The “Abstraktes Bild 809-4” auction sale is the latest milestone in the artwork as investment paradigm. It typifies the extreme lengths to which the wealthy are willing to go to own valuable art. The net value of the global art market has more than doubled since 2003, according to TEFAF 2013 Art Market Report. The painting (and any commodifiable form of artwork) has reached new heights in its function as currency in a capitalist economy. Such economic growth is cause for a reevaluation of how the art market works, what type of work it promotes, and how it effects the creation of a new canon of artistic work.

Living artists like Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter sell single works for tens of millions of dollars. As Roberta Smith of the New York Times shrewdly points out, “the recent in- flated art market has created the illusion that being an artist is a financially viable calling.” While a small percentage of artists like Koons and Richter demonstrate the increased potential for artistic fame and fortune, they do not indicate an increase in financial potential spread evenly across the art world. The reality is that art sales are highly concentrated in the high-end art market. As prominent New York private collector and financier, James R. Hedges IV, noted in the New York Times, “The art world feels like the private equity market of the ’80s and the hedge funds of the ’90s.”

As Dave Hickey, art-critic/academic/behemoth art au- thority, pointed out in an article in the Guardian, art-collec- tors care less and less about anything but the monetary value of a piece: “It used to be that if you [an art-collector] stood in front of a painting you didn’t understand, you’d have some obligation to guess... Now you wouldn’t look at it. You ask a consultant.” The result is an inversion in the sense of value that an artwork holds in the eyes of art collectors. Collectors want to invest in work that will do well in auction. Where art that can be sold was once seen as valuable because it was good, it is increasingly seen as good because it is valuable.


The financial growth of the art market has also contrib- uted to a boost in enrollment at art schools and graduate programs. In the same New York Times article, Roberta Smith claims that because art schools and MFA programs have “ex- panded to accommodate the rising number of art students...” “[they] are now thoroughly invested in keeping these numbers high.” Smith’s claim gets at one of the biggest problems with arts education today: academic art schools and MFA programs are predicated on a false pretense--that paying hundreds of thousands for art school is an economically fruitful invest- ment. Certainly there are some students who would attend art school regardless of whether they ever made back a cent of the tuition they (or their parents) paid, but instead of risking losing the enrollment, art schools have changed their curriculum to be more career-oriented. The professionalization of art schools alone is not necessarily problematic. People need a source of income—why not give “artistic” people the skills to find employment where they can apply some element of their artistic ability? 


What minor league teams are to major league scouts, MFA programs are to art investors. Irving Sandler, 87-year-old New York art-authority and author of the influential book The Triumph of American Painting, is quoted in the Village Voice article “How Uptown Money Kills Downtown Art” as saying, “Collectors have had an insidious effect on young artists. They move into graduate schools and offer these kids ridiculous amounts of money. The result is that even art students focus on what sells and continue to produce that kind of work, rather than experiment, which is what they ought to do.” Irving makes the claim that art as investment diverts valuable artistic discourse in MFA programs. The art as investment paradigm turns MFA programs into a breeding grounds for artworks creatively stifled by the desires of investors.

Art school’s relationship to the consumer-market was highlighted when Dave Hickey made a public spectacle of abandoning the art world. “It’s nasty and stupid... I quit,” he wrote in the aforementioned piece in the Guardian last year. He pointed to the way art students seem more focused on self-promotion rather than artistic creation: “When I asked students at Yale what they planned to do, they all say move to Brooklyn – not make the greatest art ever.”

One institution attempting to fill the void left by pre-pro- fessional art programs is the Bruce High Quality Foundation University. The Bruce High Quality Foundation University is the pedagogical vision operated by the Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF), a Brooklyn-based art collective. The BHQF is a (semi-) anonymous group, composed of five to eight members, most of whom are Cooper Union graduates. Its mission, according to its website, is to “invest the experi- ence of public space with wonder, to resurrect art history from the bowels of despair, and to impregnate the institutions of art with the joy of man’s desiring.”


Since 2004, the group has used satirical antics to react to over-hyped art spectacles and conventions of the New York City art scene. For example, the Bruces (as they are commonly referred to), pulled a miniature replica of one of Christo’s vinyl orange “gates” (a public sculpture on display in Central Park in 2005) around New York’s waterways in a small motor boat. The display, which they called “The Gate: Not the Idea of the Thing but the Thing Itself,” was an explicit reaction to and diminutive recapitulation of the Christo public sculpture and Robert Smithson’s 2005 “Floating Island”— a posthu- mously realized piece, in which a barge pulled a miniature replica of Central Park around the island of Manhattan. The Bruces’ piece reduced both the size and cost of the other two works. Moreover, by remaining anonymous the Bruces reduced the media’s capacity to make them into recognizable celebrities like Christo and Smithson. The BHQF website explains, “The foundation members were somewhat stunned by the attention that the project received. In large part the attention came simply because of a photograph taken by one man in the twenty-somethingth floor of an office building in DuMBo, and the image took on a life of its own.” The Bruces make a clear effort to direct the public’s attention to the way the media effects art spectacle. Their piece offered its audience a comment on the public’s need to generate media spectacle out of art spectacle. Their anonymity is a calculated hindrance—meant both to block the celebrity-making mechanisms of the media and also to draw our attention to that mechanism.



In addition to their satirical public spectacles, the Bruces have taken on the task of running an alternative pedagogical art institution. Since 2009, the Bruces have lead the Bruce High Quality Foundation University—“ a learning experi- ment where artists work together to manifest creative, produc- tive, resistant, useless, and demanding interactions between art and the world» according to their website. The BHQFU is, in part, an attempt to separate arts education from practices that cater to the pecuniary interests (i.e. catering to investors, professionalizing art curriculum). They are obstinate in their intention not to allow money or celebrity to divert discourse about artworks. Their stance: just because artworks can be evaluated based on their monetary value does not mean that they are inseparable from their significance as potentially lucrative commodities. As one Bruce told the Independent: “Artworks are also potentially useful as ironing boards, yet we seem to have no trouble rendering them separable from household utilities.”

In accordance with their non-monetary stance, all of their classes are offered free of charge. Classes are open to anyone willing to participate, meaning there are no pre-requi- sites. Further separating itself from the conventions of art aca- demia, the school’s curriculum is developed by the students. This DIY mentality has led to an eclectic course catalogue ranging from “Advanced Drawing” to “You Watching Me Googling You,” none of which explicitly cater to professional or career applicability. Their unconventional methods are not an attempt at, “reforming the higher education,” as one Bruce told the Independent, but rather “starting from scratch”. In creating a community of artists that fosters artist-led educa- tion initiatives outside of prestige-mongering art academia, the University appears to be safeguarded against the effects of cherry-picking art-investors.

Despite its lofty goals, the B.H.Q.F.U. is not completely immune to the need and consequent effects of art-investment. While the University aspires to be accessible to everyone re- gardless of his or her ability to pay, such a model is financially unsustainable. One way it has tried to cope with this financial quandary is by taking steps toward becoming a 501(c)(3) non- profit organization. Until this nonprofit status materializes, the university depends on the support it can find in the art world. This Spring the Bruces will host a fundraising dinner with high-end art collectors in the West Village. Practically speaking, the dinner makes complete sense: the school needs money. Art collectors have money. Its very existence depends on the funds of the art-collectors, whose influence on MFA programs it attempts to subvert. This tension was apparent in 2010, when the Bruces hosted the satirical “Brucennial” on the same night as the Whitney Biennial, which included a piece by the Bruce High Quality Foundation. The Brucen- nial demonstrates an apparent contradiction in their touted anonymity. The anonymity of each member veiled by the collective name “Bruce” has garnered a celebrity-status of its own. This paradox has left many critics skeptical. That there is a growing imperative for alternatives to expensive, academic art programs is widely accepted, but are the Bruces changing the art education system from within or performing that which they claim to satirize?

ELIAS PITEGOFF ’15 has left many critics skeptical.