Monday, January 30, 2012

Why college is expensive

Cartoon: John Fewings
Nothing I’d heard about the spiraling cost of higher education (127% from 1980 to 2000) made sense until a friend, whose daughter is in journalism school, told me she was studying statistics at American colleges and universities and found an enormous increase in administrative jobs with salaries much higher than those of faculty, whose numbers are declining—including the small, private liberal arts college where I used to teach (administrative salaries over $100,000, faculty salaries considerably less). Then today, when I was catching up on old New Yorkers—print version, in the bathtub, the biggest downside of digital readers being that they’re not yet waterproof—I found this letter to the editor (December 19 & 26, 2011):

James Surowiecki, in his commentary on student-loan debt, does not identify an important source of growth in college costs (The Financial Page, November 21st). Coincident with only a modest increase in enrollment in the past decade is the meteoric rise of a professional university administrative class. One study found that between 1993 and 2007, while enrollment at universities increased by fifteen per cent, the number of administrators per hundred students grew by thirty-nine per cent. This vast layer of university administrators has changed the composition and culture of the American university. Increasingly, they are private-sector outsiders who are more willing to undermine the missions of research and teaching in order to preserve the bottom line. A notably egregious case is the recent shuttering of the theatre department and several language programs at cash-strapped SUNY Albany under the leadership of its president, George Philip, a former investment-fund manager. Bubble or no, universities are building an expensive management structure around an academic core that’s becoming more and more hollow. Any effort to reduce college costs must restore leaner administrations, representative of the faculty and staff who carry out the institutions mission.

Ryan Walker
Lexington, Ky.

Walker’s source is no doubt the Aol News/HuffPost article, by Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute, which provided this graphic:

This article about Obama’s plan to control college debt states that student debt now exceeds credit card debt. Very little I’ve read, however, mentions administrative “bloat” as a contributing factor. Student debt reduces the opportunities for entrepreneurship and hobbles the economy, while the narrowing of college choices makes for stunted cultural, scientific and intellectual growth. How this can be controlled, I have no idea, but it’s time we got on it.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What's youth got to do with it?

Louise Bourgeois, Fugue, 2003
Screenprint, 30 cm x 42 cm

On a Facebook friend’s wall the other day:
I have erased a black cloud eating my stomach with an unknown weight. I am young, 34, but I am not young within the context of New York. The black cloud is from the perception of myself I feel from others. There is this, what I would, call "petit bourgeois" view of success that runs through the art world. A false belief art is a career that can be measured by degrees of success that correspond to age. I have been around art long enough to know in reality most artists do nothing until their thirties or later. But I face day to day the idea I am too old.
My comment: “If this even crosses your mind, it indicates that you're looking outside yourself for validation. The best art is made by people who don't care what others think.”
Even though he’s part of the OWS movement that’s causing such great change so quickly, he’s stuck in the assumption that the art world and its values are always going to stay the same. Again, we can’t predict! The only thing we know for sure about the future is that it will be different. And isn’t that fun? Wouldn’t it be boring if it stayed the same, if we knew exactly what was going to happen? Therefore, since the art world has been predicated for two or three decades on the coming of The Next Big Thing, a concept that has everything to do with money and speculation, perhaps once we get off our current financial merry-go-round, it will come to reflect more meaningful values.
I recently saw the first one-person show in NY of another artist, who happens to be around the same age. He is tense with ambition; his desire and extreme need are palpable, evident in his every word and gesture—and it would seem that he’s done everything right. A deft marriage of painting and sculpture, the work is competently executed around a concept that comes off as smart and cool when described in a press release. Not too big, not too small, perfect for people who want contemporary art on their walls that’s not threatening, it lacks only one ingredient: soul. 
I know people in the art world who, while not particularly talented, attractive, smart, or even nice, have “made it” through sheer persistence. I could also point out some who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, whose ideas merged with those of an important exhibition or Whitney Biennial, which set them on a path for life. Unfortunately, it is not a meritocracy. But then there are those, like Louise Bourgeois, whose work was of such value that it couldn’t be ignored, regardless of her age, gender, and prickly personality.
For true success to happen, an artist has to make art that’s not only exceptional, but is a reflection of the needs and desires of his time. The first is more or less in our control; the second, as adroitly described in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, is not. The reason you can’t pay heed to what others are thinking, doing, or making, is that they’re stuck in the present, while you’re creating art for the future.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 20 years, when our FB friend has reached the ripe old age of 54, everyone will be wanting art that enhances their lives, takes them to a higher place, the kind of work that, in most cases, only a mature artist can do. And he’ll be the right person for the right moment, glad he didn’t burn out at 34.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Emerson and enthusiasm

Kenneth Noland, 1961.
Synthetic polymer paint on unprimed canvas.
Museum of Modern Art, New York

After talking about people becoming curmudgeons and losing their edge, my intention today was to write a post about how to keep one’s edge—that is, if we knew what that term really meant. For me, it’s about keeping one foot ahead of myself, keeping my life and work alive and growing, staying excited about everything I’m doing. In the manner of self-help books, I started a list of things one could do toward that end. But first I went to the gym (for me, staying in good physical condition is number one) where, on the white board, was a quote:

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm Ralph Waldo Emerson

A great way to start things off, I thought, and being enthusiastic about Emerson, I wanted to read more. The Internet, however, is awash with unattributed quotes: we know so-and-so said something, or is said to have said something, but where? It’s as if all we’re interested in is finding some cute quote with which to kick off a commencement address (or a blog post). Although it was posted thousands of times, only one site, Wikiquote, listed the source, the essay, Circles (full text here), which I double-checked by opening up the complete Essays on my iPad (a free download, BTW) and typing “enthusiasm” into the search function.

But enough of my research methods. Really what we’re talking about is personal progress, and in our culture we tend to see all progress, personal or otherwise as linear—the idea of doing better and better, of topping our last effort.  Emerson’s idea is more gentle and expansive, i.e. circular. Some excerpts:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn. There is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning: that there is always another dawn risen….there are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile.

The new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet…New arts destroy the old…. 

Every thing looks permanent until it’s secret is known.…
(Hopefully this is true of the corporate regime, which hasn't changed--it's the same as it was last year--but since September is now seen in an entirely new light.)

There is not a piece of science but its flank may be turned tomorrow; there is not any literary reputation, not the so-called names of fame, that may not be revised and condemned.

Fear not the new generalization. Does the fact look crass and material, threatening to degrade thy theory of spirit?  Resist it not; it goes to refine and raise thy theory of matter just as much.

Whew! So much for Damien Hirst and his silly spot paintings: may they represent the flaming-out of art world materialism.  Sometimes things have to reach their nadir before being reborn. As Peter Schjeldahl put it so beautifully, “Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth.”

So when we go into the studio, or wherever, we can take comfort in this :

Our moods do not believe in each other. Today I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thoughts, the same power of expression tomorrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world: but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall

Emerson was famous in his lifetime, but while he was writing it, did he know that his words would still have resonance 200 years later? In a blog post?

And as far as keeping your edge:

The difference between talents and character is adroitness to keep the old and trodden round, and power and courage to make a new road to new and better goals.

The lesson in all of this is, go for whatever turns you on because you can’t second-guess the culture. Notice that predictions no longer work—not that they ever did, but we believed in the illusion. Probably the biggest change in the last ten years is that everyone knows that we know nothing about the future. Under these circumstances, all we can do is do whatever it is we do with the greatest enthusiasm—and hope for the best.

* * *

Another Emerson quote about enthusiasm, often mistakenly linked with the other, from a source I was unable to track down:

Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your mind. Put your whole soul to it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic,
 be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

2012 continued...

In the catalogue in my previous post of the changing fashions of the last ten years, I forgot a major trend that’s now also happily receded: massive handbags decorated with straps, buckles, chains and other assorted hardware that made women look like lopsided pack animals. See? Things are getting better!

Apropos of that post, I just watched Woody Allen’s charming “Midnight in Paris” in which Gauguin (clearly suffering from what I shall dub Curmudgeon Syndrome), complains that the younger generation is boring, has no imagination, and everyone wants to live in an earlier and more exciting era. Where have we heard that before?

[The idea of being able to visit an earlier time period is appealing only until you realize that everyone is SMOKING. Blech!]

The Curmudgeon Syndrome is given the treatment it deserves in this genius song by what is arguably the greatest band to come out of the supposed cultural wasteland of the ‘00s: “I’m Losing my Edge” by LCD Soundsystem (take that, Kurt Anderson!). If you don’t already know it by heart, listen to it here. It’s required.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2012: Out with the .....? and in with the .....?

Okay, I’m back, after a couple of weeks of luxuriating in unprecedented SoCal warmth, house-sitting at friends’ Spanish villa in Altadena, commuting to kundalini yoga classes every day at Golden Bridge in Hollywood, hanging out with family—and taking a necessary break from thinking.

But then my friend, Larry, and I got to talking about music, as we have over the years, and I was surprised to hear him say that music is in a lull, and there’s been nothing new since Radiohead. Really? Meanwhile I’m finding that there are so many new and interesting sounds out there I can hardly keep track of them.  I love that I can stream KCRW’s Eclectic 24 all day long and enjoy almost everything (except Tom Waits; what do people see in him?). I’m always writing down the names of bands I’m going to explore in more depth on Spotify, but I never get around to it because the next day there’s a whole new list.

Larry put forth his theory “that the generation associated with 9/11 are a little traumatized and didn't invent very much (now they are 28 to 36-year-olds)” and hopes the "occupy generation will come up with something provocative and new.”

Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire are pretty exciting to my ears, but Larry doesn’t like them. MGMT? He says they sound like the Stones, ca. 1979. Huh? They may have written a tribute to the Stones, but they also wrote one (their only annoying song) to Brian Eno. Far from being “stunned” their music is celebratory to the point that their last album is entitled, “Congratulations!” And what about Lady Gaga? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Larry referred to an article in the current Vanity Fair,You Say You Want a Devolution” by Kurt Anderson, whose thesis is that, “as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.”  To Kurt, cars look the same, clothes look the same, and music sounds the same as it did in 1992. (A similar argument is put forth in Simon Reynolds’ book, Retromania).

As far as cars go, it’s unfair to expect innovation from an industry that’s been simply struggling to stay alive. In fashion, even if the disappearance of showy designer labels were the only change, the world is better for it. I, for one, am delighted that leggings finally returned. We still wear jeans, but they’re tighter—a lot tighter. Along with being squished like sausages into their “jeggings,” women are teetering around on cartoon-like high heels (no one said we have to like what the younger generation is wearing, remember?) Oh, and how about this? More facial hair for men and less pubic hair for women (is there a connection? I’ll try not to make something of it). Then there’s the plaid fad, come and (hopefully) gone, and in footwear a proliferation of boots—high, higher, short, and (except for Uggs), pointy and pointier—flip-flops and (eek!) Crocs. In the past ten years waistbands dropped to the point of exposing the tops of thongs and worse, but have mercifully inched upward. We have global warming to thank for the fact that there’s a lot less clothing in general, and with so much more exposed skin, tattoos and piercing are now mainstream.

Regarding music, I put the question to son Matt, a culture critic by profession, who commented that just as it’s hard to buy a bad bottle of wine these days, music in general is of such high quality that the A bands might not stand out as much from the B bands as they once did. He reminded me of the junk music that proliferated on the airwaves in the 70’s—an entire genre of “soft rock” that is, thank God, pretty much done for. Larry is complaining about Bon Iver and The National, not Rod Stewart and Tom Jones—and even he will no doubt admit that teen throbs Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are more listenable than the Osmonds and the Carpenters ever were.

Lady Gaga is hardly “stunned,” nor is she simply a clone of Madonna (Anderson calls it an “Immaterial Difference,” which is cute but not accurate). In fact the very same issue of Vanity Fair has a cover story on Gaga with a pull quote that states, “As ‘Jo Calderone’ at the V.M.A.s, she instantly made every female star who had pink hair or wore a contraption on her head look dated.” Stuck in their need to make disparaging pronouncements about the younger generation (just like our parents!—it’s a stage of  human development that, while undocumented, is as predictable as the Terrible Twos) it’s possible that Boomers simply can’t see the distinctions. While the “provocative and new” characterized the revolutionary times we grew up in, they may not be the qualities this revolution requires. My theory (I’m at that age; we have to have them!) is that there’s a time for innovation and a time for development, and we’re in the latter stage—it’s just that our hunger for the new has kept us from exploring it.

Further, how actually “new” was our beloved rock ‘n roll? Someone old and hip in the 50s could have easily dismissed Elvis’s music as a fusion of existing music: rockabilly and R & B. What made it “provocative” was the fact that he was white. And the Stones and the Beatles would have been nowhere without Elvis—they could have been seen as clones in the beginning, when their provocativeness had more to do with being British with funny haircuts.

“Newness” in 50s and 60s may have been more about a culture gap, which is now closed.

In making his case for stasis, Anderson also notes that Frank Gehry was the major architectural influence in 2002 and still is in 2012. So what? We had Frank Lloyd Wright from 1895 to 1959 and we’re not finished with him yet.

Therefore, it may be that Occupy Wall Street, rather than copying, is building on the peace movements of the 60s, Gaga is building on the Madonna precedent as MGMT is building on a synthesis of the Stones, Eno, the Beatles, Bowie and Pink Floyd (to whom I think they owe the most) without sounding like any one of them….

Which brings us to contemporary art, which truly sucks (at least that in most museums and commercial galleries). Unlike architecture and music, it really is devolving. Instead of building on the old ideas, current art is getting watered down to the point that it has little pulse left, with artists reinventing the wheel left and right. I believe, however, that the cause is situational rather than generational. Where Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden of MGMT could sit in their Wesleyan University dorm rooms in the mid-00s, sharing the music they liked, listening to it over and over, picking it apart, their BFA counterparts were relegated to looking at projected images or reproductions in books or on the Web. How many had actually seen a Rauschenberg combine? And even if they did, what about the ones that came before and after it? How many art students now know that Eleanor Antin preceded Cindy Sherman, or that Lucas Samaras has already done everything they (the students) are trying to do? How many have experienced an actual installation by Olafur Eliasson or attended Marina Abramovic’s piece at MoMA or have seen Christian Marclay’s The Clock? That’s why museum retrospectives, like MoMA’s de Kooning show (closing 1/9) are so important, but becoming fewer and fewer as belts are being tightened; it’s so much less expensive to clear the Guggenheim for Tino Sehgal than it is to borrow, insure and ship invaluable works.

Former art movements evolved out of direct contact: social situations that built on other social situations, younger artists reacting—in person—to the artists and art of previous generations. Now they're responding to information rather than the immediate visual experience a true understanding of art requires. Also galleries and museums, by their very nature, cannot react to the times because they’re planning at least a year, if not years, in advance.

That’s why we shouldn’t be looking to galleries and museums for the new but to the streets. Street Art is currently the most exciting and relevant visual art because it’s generated in a social situation and must survive in the moment, which is unique to NOW. One example:

Meanwhile, if you want true inspiration in fashion, look to the kindergarten crowd, set free because liberal parents no longer feel the need to pick out their children's clothes—and unlike earlier generations, kids so far seem to have no desire to conform to any but their own sensibilities. I wish you could've seen the little girl at the airport in high, polka-dot rubber boots, shocking pink tutu, and long-sleeved striped T-shirt, her curly hair topped by a giant bow. And here’s my little friend, Lucinda, who, every time I see her, is wearing yet another imaginative combo. All is not lost.

*Thanks to Roberto Juarez and Nikolas Freberg for their input.