Monday, August 26, 2013

Quote: Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman
(photo by
Monica Simoes)
"At first we [she and Jim Hubbard, at the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, which they co-founded in 1987, the same year as ACT UP started] showed artists who were experimental. That is to say, they experimented. "Experimental" meant that each artist singularly tried out their own eccentric idea, their own imaginative way, and then they looked at each others' discoveries. They learned how to be artists by making art, talking about art, looking at art, being with artists. Whether or not one went to graduate school was irrelevant (and still is) to whether or ont one was really an artist. But at some point around the height of AIDS/gentrification this shifted. Those true experimenters who needed to earn a living in the rapidly shifting gentrification economy were channeled by inflation into teaching jobs. The increasing number of MFA programs became the only way that artists could earn a living beyond waitressing or copyediting at night at law firms. MFA programs became workfare for writers, as rents skyrocketed, as arts funding--already so elite as to be culturally damaging--was practically eliminated. It was like the role of the artist in society had devolved from WPA to NEA to MFA. Their students started producing inside a now established genre called "experimental". It wasn't actually any longer experimental, but it was a fixed set of derivative paradigms, invented by their teachers--many of whom did not have MFAs." (p. 102)


"Of course now that the noose has tightened even further, civilian artists are systematically excluded from teaching, as having an MFA [or Ph.D., for poets] has become mandatory for hiring. Being a product of MFA acculturation is now more important in determining who will influence students than what that person has achieved artistically. So, the frame of information and impulse becomes even more narrow and irrelevant and its product even more banal." (p. 103)


"Despite the fact that these programs are homogenizing and corrupting and bad for the culture, I feel that when I am advising working-class or poor students with talent, I have to insist that they go to them. There is simply no other way of getting into the system. As damaging as these programs are when they codify or elevate ruling-class perspectives and middlebrow practitioners, they become the only hope for outsiders to have a chance to be let in. It's a conundrum. Hopefully a talented person can emerge from these programs without a highly distorted sense of their own importance, and if they come originally from the margins this is more likely. But as far as I can see, MFA programs have done nothing to break down the barrier that full-character plays with authorial universes (not performance art, vaudeville, or stand-up) and authentic lesbian protagonists face in the theatrical marketplace. So although they do help certain minority voices who have had the support and sophistication to access and survive the system, overall they reinforce the dominant cultural voice, the clubbiness and repetition and most importantly, the group mentality that is, itself, counterindicated for art making." (p. 108)

-- Copyright © Sarah Schulman, from The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, pp. 102-3. All rights reserved.

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