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We Don’t Need No Education…Well, Maybe a Little

The University of California at Santa Cruz announces a PhD in Visual Studies Program

Visual artists today are virtually committed to a pay-to-play system, in which their merits are recognized only after they’ve had their hand stamped at an expensive master’s program. But last week, after coming across the above announcement, I did some web research and discovered an alarming trend of new PhD programs in the visual arts.

 Certainly anyone has the right to set up an academic department and erect legitimacy checkpoints in whatever field they want, but in art, especially in an age of pluralism and relativism, it seems particularly problematic to introduce a degree derived from a research-based curriculum. Given the explosion of MFAs over the last three decades, the upping of the ante for professional bona fides should have seemed inevitable, once again reminding us that if anything becomes important enough, no matter how abstract, someone will try to gain from its regulation.

Interestingly, I dug up the following article from a future edition of The New York Times, which seems to corroborate my fears,

As a relatively young reporter, it’s difficult for me to remember life before the art of conversation became The Art of Conversation, an international industry worth one hundred billion dollars. It’s also hard to believe that once upon a time the world’s best conversationalists were luminaries from other fields: Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron.

As a child I grew up in a world of laissez-faire verbal exchange, where, sadly, the playground taught me about social interaction, and as a result I got a late start in the proper way to engage in civilized discourse. For the conversationalists of my generation, this was fairly common, reminding us how far conversation has come in only a few decades. In hindsight, exchanges from the past seem unimaginably vulgar and ignoble, but we should remember humans didn’t always wear clothes made overseas and eat take-out Pan Asian cuisine for every meal. We once cooked our own food, loomed our own cloth, and birthed our children outdoors under pagan moons. And we described any interpersonal communication—be it a back-and-forth at a Carl’s Jr. in Fresno or a sanctioned tournament in New York—as a “conversation.” We now know that all talk isn’t created equal, just like, say, not all art is created equal. Few people ever consider that there was a time before the Great War when most visual artists didn’t even get an academic degree in their discipline. They roamed downtown New York in gangs like Visigoths in the Dark Ages until someone cleaned them up and put them in museums. That was only a few years after doctors recognized that tiny pathogens and not supernatural spirits gave us influenza. We’re not as far from an uncivilized past as we’d sometimes like to believe, and this should humble us as we consider the state of affairs at the 25th Annual Symposium for the Conversational Arts in New York City this week.

A palpable sense of unease hovered over the symposium, where progressives were doing their best to initiate an effective discussion about creating a post-graduate certificate in Conversational Legitimacy, while more conservative interests insisted that conversation doesn’t need another expensive toll road en route to expertise. From the way the events unfolded, it was clear that the symposium would mark a watershed moment in the short history of sanctioned conversation, ensuring its future as an oozing wound to be picked at by competing interests.

The event began innocuously enough, with what was to be a non-partisan keynote address by Barry Braithwaite, Professor of Segues and Transitions at Columbia University. No sooner did Dr. Braithwaite welcome the attendees than he launched into a pitch for a post-post-graduate degree. Immediately, a member of the panel of experts assembled onstage took umbrage and fired back, asking Dr. Braithwaite if he would personally loan students the money to go back to school. A recent graduate from Syracuse University sarcastically (and loudly) interjected that academia should start awarding degrees in “making love” and get the whole thing over with. The chatter spilled from the panel into the auditorium, eventually engulfing the entire Javitz-Bloomberg Center. The standing-room-only crowd, including some of the nation’s most distinguished and generally well-heeled conversationalists and rhetoricians, was quite civil despite the hostility seething beneath the surface. One man, who had entered the symposium through a back door, evidently without proper conversation credentials, was dragged out by security after gruffly shouting, “Down with legitimacy, I don’t need no certificate to talk to no one.” Of course, he’s right (despite his use of a double-negative), but it seems that you do need a certificate if you wanted to be recognized by anyone other than security at this weekend’s symposium.

According to many conservatives, there is no need to require additional research and praxis to become a legitimate talker; no need to widen the buffer between lazy schoolyard vernacular and cultivated, erudite conversation. For them, seven years of class, studio and practicum is more than adequate. Progressives, however, believe a simple post-graduate degree does little to recognize the gulf that separates true magicians of talk like Braithwaite from those products of porous and promiscuous graduate programs in places like the Ohio Valley. One professor of eyebrow movement and body language theory at Rutgers told me, “If Braithwaite and the class of students whose theses I just signed are now holding the same degree, there’s a problem. Braithwaite’s a titan, and in my opinion there’s no way he should be walking around as a peer with the boors who received an M.C.A. from Penn State. It’s simply unreasonable.”

It is indeed hard to consider Brahmans like Braithwaite, Jeevers, Draper, or Clinton as equals of the underemployed post-graduate serving them single malt scotches at the hotel bar. And for many it seems clear that it is time to make such validity official. As enrollments skyrocket, however, one wonders if even a Doctorate in Conversation will mean anything in the years to come. If academia keeps piling on degrees, how long will society continue to recognize and admire those who carry them? Sweaty Frollert, an administrator from Carnegie Mellon’s distinguished Conversational Theory Department, contends that the market will have to sort it out. A program like Carnegie’s or Cornell’s—a perennial contributor to conversational exchange events and the training ground for many of our most highly touted conversationalists—has no incentive to restructure as they watch their application rates increase. The push for reform will be from the bottom, Frollert contends, while adding that “where” (one’s degree is from) will continue to be far more important than “what” (one’s degree is in). But even as talk of reform simmers, he maintains that the individuals facing the most hostility would be the ones walking down the street with no conversation credentials whatsoever. “This is an industry,” Frollert insists, “and like it or not, it has been a powerful force in shaping the social structures that guide our society’s behavior.” He adds that if you expect to talk to anyone in the future and want them to take you seriously and not laugh at you, you’ll consider enrolling in some form of a conversational theory class, “even if it’s only an undergraduate level course.”

How this quarrel will decisively shake out probably won’t be known for years, but if you are one of the two million carriers of a master’s degree in conversational arts, you might want to take out the Sunday paper this August and start looking for back-to-school supplies.

—Bob Breakfastnook
The New York Times


Shane McAdams


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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