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The BHQF, in Bushwick

A small article by Roberta Smith from the New York Times shed some light on the ongoing and ever morphing state of fine arts education. She begins her piece with the now famous quote from Barnett Newman—“Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds.” And given where things have gone since Newman made that comment so many years ago, Smith posits that now he might say, ‘An artist without a graduate degree is like a fish without a bicycle.’”

Here’s Smith’s overview of where things stand in the world of academic art in 2009:

The professionalization and academicization of the art world has been lamented for some years, but lately they have become epidemic. The recent inflated art market has created the illusion that being an artist is a financially viable calling. Meanwhile art schools and universities — which often provide tenure (safe haven) for artists who may be taken seriously nowhere else — expanded to accommodate the rising number of art students and are now thoroughly invested in keeping these numbers high.

In this context the growing interest among art schools and universities (mostly abroad so far) in offering a Ph.D. in art makes the blood run cold. It also seems like rank, even cynical commercial opportunism. It’s too soon to tell, but I’d like to think that the economic downturn is doing serious damage to this trend and maybe even put budding artists off graduate school entirely.

Her article goes on to highlight the work of a group called the Bruce High Quality Foundation. This unaccredited, free art school or collective (it isn’t clear exactly what it is) was started by “The Bruces,” a group that has chosen to remain unnamed and anonymous. The conventional wisdom is that they are a band of mostly male artists who studied together at Cooper Union with Hans Haacke.

The latest undertaking: The formation of the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, an entity being invented in real time, through collaboration and a “best idea wins” approach.

I loved the hearty hope I felt in the way Smith framed this undertaking: “Like any small group with a good idea, they benefit from the fact that the art world is in many ways one of the least regulated occupational spheres on the planet. As a result it is unusually susceptible, on a local level, to being altered and improved by the actions of a few good men or women.”

Here’s more of what the Bruces have to offer:

The Bruces’ new direction was indicated last July when four of the group’s members gave a lecture-performance…Although accompanied by a series of amusingly pertinent or impertinent slides, the lecture was entirely serious. It diagrammed the links among contemporary art, the market and the art schools producing M.F.A.’s who are burdened by debt but largely naïve about the workings of the art world. It ended with the question: “How can we imagine a sustainable alternative to professionalized art education?”

Bruce High Quality Foundation University is one such imagining. Whether it becomes “the thing itself” remains to be seen, but even as “the idea of the thing” it strikes a blow where one is seriously needed, against the big business of art schools. The university’s first course, which is meeting weekly, is titled Bring Your Own University (B.Y.O.U.). In other words, all those present will “design and implement the administrative policy and curriculum.” Whatever happens, this latest move by the Bruce High Quality Foundation adds inspirational heft to its motto: “Professional problems. Amateur solutions.”

Great motto!