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Peter Schjeldahl, Art Critic for The New Yorker
Posted: February 13, 1999

Why Artists Make the Worst Students
Peter Schjeldahl, 1998

Editor's Note: Peter's speech at a conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists was brought to my attention by one of our readers when it was transcribed and published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/27/98. What Peter says about artists is true of most talented and gifted people as students, and his insights offer an instructive perspective for the collaborative knowledge development and learning environment.

I teach an art seminar for seniors at Harvard. One peculiarity of my own education is that I barely have any. I'm one of those '60s dropouts you read about, and I never took an art course in my life. This background made me incredibly nervous about teaching, but it has gone all right.

I'm fascinated by the problem of teaching artists in college, because, What is an artist? An artist, in my experience, is a man or woman of unusual talent and peculiar, highly individual sensibility, with an independent and probably contrarian mind, driven by mysterious passions for which another word is neurosis. In getting from point A to point B, the neurotic goes via point Q. It's in that roundabout that people are either completely crippled and hopeless in life, or highly creative.

The artist is a strange being. I think it's safe to say that a real artist is conscious of having a personal singularity that is partly a blessing and partly a curse. An artist enjoys and suffers from isolation. As solitude, isolation can nurture. It can also destroy.

Artists are people who are subject to irrational convictions of the sacred. Baudelaire said that an artist is a child who has acquired adult capacities and discipline. Art education should help build those capacities and that discipline without messing over the child. By child, I do not mean childish behavior -- I mean the irrational conviction of the sacred.

Everything that would begin to make somebody a good student would tend to make him or her a poor artist, and vice versa. I'm well aware of this as a problem -- particularly at Harvard, because at Harvard, the students are, by definition, the best in the world. That's who they select. It's certainly a luxury for teaching. The students can actually all write, which is astounding. One of my fellow teachers there once said, "It's amazing, these kids. You can throw the stick as far as you want to in the swamp, and they'll bring it back every time." But along with that comes a cageyness and an all-too-ready ability to beguile teachers.

I have what I call a "gang theory" of education. All gangs are formed by individuals who, for one reason or another, are misfits, wander to the margin by themselves, discover each other, discover other people like themselves. They bond together. If all they have in common is that alienation, they're a very dangerous group of kids. But if they have some aspiration in common, they can be intensely creative. In a way, everybody does this growing up. Every age group is a cohort -- particularly in our culture, which is intensely generational. When we grow up, we tend to trust only those who share our exact historic and cultural period, who watch the same television shows with the same attitudes. Childhood, for everyone, is more than formative. It's a trove of spiritual material for a lifetime. But this is especially true of artists.

Gang members are extremely competitive, but not with each other. They pool their resources, their information, their knowledge, and attack the world. Teams work this way, too, but I like the concept of the gang because, with art, there has to be an element of condoned anarchy. You can't measure creative development by criteria that are like crisply executed football plays. Coaching a gang, it seems to me, one must concede the role of judging individual worth to the group.

In a gang -- of art students, say -- everybody knows without saying who is the best. It's very primitive, very hierarchical, in the way wild animals are hierarchical. Everyone knows who's best, who's second best. There's a lot of doubt about who's third best, because everybody else thinks they're third best. Except for one person who is absolutely hopeless. This person, as a mascot and scapegoat, is cherished by everyone.

The problem is: How do you nurture a gang in academe? I don't think academia should take much responsibility for this. A college education is, and should be, people wanting typical careers in the structure of the world. Education must not distort itself in service to the tiny minority of narcissistic and ungrateful misfits who are, or might be, artists.

What I want to know from students, and I ask them right away, is, What do you want? I don't care what it is. I want to help you get it. If you don't know what you want, that's normal at your age. And I will feel your pain -- up to a point. But if you don't know what you want past a certain point, then we're just chattering, we're wasting the taxpayers' or your parents' money. This is fine. It happens all the time. But it's depressing.

My aim is to help kids realize that they're artists already, or that maybe they don't really want to do it, which is more than fine. They've saved themselves a lot of grief, and they can get on with their lives. I tell them that I'm not interested in educating their minds, I'm interested in sophisticating them, which is different. Sophistication is knowledge that's acquired in the course of having a purpose. You know why you want the information at the moment that you put your hand on it. You're not just storing it up for a rainy day.

And what are you learning about in my seminar? You're learning about the course of art, the course of society, the course of the world, the course of your life. You are joining a conversation. You do not prepare to join a conversation. You come up to the edge of it and listen and kind of get the beat, then you jump in. And maybe if you jump in too soon, everyone's going to give you a look and you'll slink off and come back later. It's to get this conversation going among a group of people, when they're students -- that's what I'd like to be able to do. It's a very messy process.

Aspects of sophistication. Love and style. Spirituality and street smarts. Why do you need street smarts? Shrewdness? Toughness? It's to protect something soft that is going to be in danger if it's exposed at the wrong time and place. It's to protect a soul. But to protect your soul, you have to have one to start with. There's nothing that can be done about that in a seminar.

The role of the teacher in gang theory is to throw red meat through the bars of their cage. My particular expertise is savviness about the New York art world, so that's what I share. With another teacher, it would be something else. There's nothing innately relevant or innately irrelevant to an artist. If their minds and spirits can't put the stuff in order, then they're not artists. Very often the flashiest, most seemingly talented person turns out to be not an artist at all, and some hopeless klutz ends up being Jackson Pollock.

A lot of education is like teaching marching; I try to make it more like dancing. Education is this funny thing. You deal for several years with organized information, and then you go out into the world and you never see any of that ever again. There's no more organized information. I'm trying to establish within my seminars disorganized information, which students can start practicing their moves on.

Peter Schjeldahl, Art Critic for The New Yorker
Peter has said that he will respond to any questions for him that get posted below.

Would you like to offer some thoughts or add to the dialog? Responses of general interest may be posted below. Send your comment to . IMPORTANT: Make sure the subject line of your message contains: Comment on Guest Speaker 2/99.
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From:, Date: Sun, 14 Feb 1999
Rick, the article on "Why artists make the worst students" caught my eye, perhaps because I've struggled and loved one - my artist wife - for the last 36 or so years. Peter is right on. Cordially, Jim Hayes at SPIRC, Pittsburgh.

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From: (David O'Brien), Date: Tue, 9 Nov 1999 12:41:07 -0500 (EST)
Loved the article! I am writing my dissertation at the moment (at Glasgow School of Art, Scotland) and my tutor 'demands' that I reference all the people I cite. Could you please let me know your year of birth, so I can get it all sorted. I really appreciate this. I would be happy to e-mail you a copy of my essay as a way of saying thanks.
Best wishes, David O'Brien

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