Ode to Art School

The last assignment of an introductory studio art class was to respond to the question “What would you create—anything at all—if you were not limited by time, space, or resources?” For what my instructor at the time named “The Impossible Project,” each group was to draft and present a proposal for a public art project that had to “benefit the community,” and would then be given a yes or no by the “board members.” A previous group, for example, drafted a project involving a clothesline that stretched across the Atlantic Ocean to other continents: an exchange machine for interested individuals to send and receive clothes from outside their country.

The class separated into groups and threw around ideas. After a while I started talking about how the $300 billion bailed out the banks while the banks are foreclosing on homes, completely uprooting people. In the spirit of “That’s public money, the houses belong to the public now,” I proposed that we draft an enormous reclamation of foreclosed houses and/or empty buildings across Atlanta. We could draw a blueprint and devise a plan that would house people (there is no public housing in Atlanta), starting with Atlanta’s legendary largest abandoned building—City Hall East. CHE is bigger than the mall of Georgia. Plenty of people will tell you it’s “impossible” to re-prioritize social environments according to ideals.

After I laid it on the table, the rest of the group (18, 19, 20-year-olds) shuffled around and nodded. “That’s cool…” some said, trailing off. A young, particularly chafing group member defiantly asserted that those people got kicked out of their houses because “they bought houses and loans they couldn’t afford, they knew they couldn’t afford them.” She spoke with that ignorant, hollow-sounding characteristic of anyone repeating shit they heard just once. After my response, she remained completely unmoved. “Ehh, yeah…that’s just like, too political. I mean that’s like a social…project, not really art. Like what’s artistic about it? It’s political and I want to make something, more, beautiful, you know.”

So someone suggested we transform City Hall East into an art school for people in “the community” to come to.

I got up mentioning the restroom. I was gone for longer than could be excused for any bathroom break. When I got back the group notetaker leaned forward and whispered, “We’re thinking about doing something more impossible, like something in outer space maybe. Just wanted to fill you in since you’ve been gone.” Class was ending. I told her thanks but actually meant “You don’t even give a shit about people here, what the fuck are you gonna do in space?”

On my walk to the free parking space I managed to find downtown, I passed the park where the homeless come to absorb warmth while the sun’s out, their shopping carts and sleeping blankets turned into burdens during the daytime hours. I passed the biting smells of urine down Edgewood Ave, where so many houseless wanderers were too internally frozen to give a shit about people passing by.


Finally, I’m under the bridge where I park, walking on the same ground where their bodies sleep.

I hate ‘art.’ I hate these people. I’m enraged and sweating—I don’t sweat. Tears are making my eyes fuzzy and my face is burning and I’m smelling the piss on cold concrete.

If that’s not art I don’t give a shit about art. It seems poignant that somehow Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto was required reading but Benjamin, Adorno, and Marxist art historians were nowhere on the itinerary. Where a vague “benefit the community” was too watered down to probe the social implications of art, Claire Fontaine’s comment that “The painful indifference toward our feelings that characterizes any commodity doesn’t exist in a good artwork” could have intervened. Does painful indifference toward our feelings constitute bad artwork? Does something similar go for artists, as well; does indifference toward our feelings exist in a good artist?

When I had nowhere to go once, a very aged someone taught me that a way to stay warm when you have no heat in the winter is to never wash your clothes. It traps body oil and keeps in the heat.

I saw an incredible thing last week. Two lines of very poor seeming, possibly homeless black men were marching in unison down Auburn Avenue, the street where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up. Their clothes were worn and tinted with earth tones, and they were being led by another homeless drill sergeant. Frantz Fanon came to mind: “The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world…that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters.” My only thought then, and even more now, was I hope they’re doing what I hope they’re doing. TC mark


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  • Foo

    Maybe you want to be a social worker and not an artist?

    • Caitelle

      As if wanting to create art and wanting to make a positive impact on the world is mutually exclusive?

      What's with this deluded sentiment that art can't be socially and politically engaging? For me, the personal is political, and if my art isn't personal, then what is it? Gross, directionless, and devoid of meaning, if you ask me.

      • MB

        nailed it.

      • Gregory

        That's why i can never get into most minimalist art

  • http://kaitembird.wordpress.com/ Kait Em Bird

    “Life has been your art.” Oscar Wilde

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    This sounds familiar.

  • dip

    This wasn't funny

  • sidebar

    Great piece– Raising awareness of social issues such as homelessness is what elevates art beyond a thing of beauty. And there are many people in the ATL who need their awareness raised. Good luck, don't forget to post whatever big thing you end up doing (fuck the sheeple in class)

  • http://twitter.com/kaaarrriiii Kari Paul

    our generation is probably the most apathetic yet…

  • Krystle Brown

    I, too, go to art school. This kind of attitude is indicative of people not really taking in what they learn from classes and thus from the world around them. School, for me, has made me more attune to the things that need to change in order for our survival as a civilization. Never lose your sense of humility, sensitivity, and compassion for your fellow man. Your classmates are showing that they refuse to learn, reject the notions of humanity and if they keep this attitude, will churn out the same shit the art-world seems to glorify (i.e over-intellectualized, emotionless and shallow IMAGES, not art). Don't succumb to that.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

      Oh, so like every artist who shows in galleries and museums?

    • soulunsold

      Also, never take yourself and things too seriously. That never ends well.

      • Krystle Brown

        aww really? But that's whats art is allll about! ;)

        Just trying to give a fellow artist some encouragement

  • The-max

    I agree with the ignorant, hollow-sounding girl: seems like you deliberately misinterpreted the assignment in order to demonstrate that you were a more authentic art student. It comes across as a bit hypocritical when you get mad at people for “repeating shit they just heard once” then go on to deploy these precocious lil references to Claire Fontaine and Franzt Fanon.

    • Caitelle

      “It comes across as a bit hypocritical when you get mad at people for 'repeating shit they just heard once' then go on to deploy these precocious lil references to Claire Fontaine and Franzt Fanon.”

      Um, I think there is a significant difference between regurgitating dribble disseminated by apologists for the richest and most powerful people in society and referencing works that reinforce one's own original ideas and experiences.

      And what is this 'authentic art student' accusation about? That doesn't even make sense. It has no real bearing over the ideas set forth in this article. Seriously, what.

  • angiephone

    Just wait till the student loans start to kick in. Default debt collectors will really mobilize your activist tendencies. I'd love to see some art about that.

    • nomnomnom

      were're all in the same boat. get off your high horse

      • Hotmail

        lol we're definitely not

        <3 my engineering degree

  • http://profiles.google.com/cowashee Colleen Farrell

    For our senior thesis, a girl in my class (at art school) befriended a homeless prostitute. She spent a lot of time with her, giving her food and rides. She took her photo and wrote down her stories and made a gorgeous book.

    It was beautiful and crazy and heartbreaking. What an eye opener.

    The rest of our projects seemed pretty worthless after hers, since hers actually made a difference where we live.

  • soulunsold

    A compromised could've been reached. Don't expect people to be passionate about the same things that you are.

    Art used to be solely for selfish self-expression, not social function.

  • sloppysoup

    ugh art school. fuck me gently with a chainsaw.

  • scooter

    Atlanta does have public housing “serving approximately 50,000 people”…


    • LK

      February 27, 2011: “In downtown Atlanta, a building came down Sunday, and with it three-quarters of a century of public housing policy came to an end.

      The Atlanta Housing Authority on Sunday imploded Roosevelt House, former public housing for senior citizens and disabled residents. With that and another building, the nation’s first city to try public housing projects now completes a 16-year effort to tear most of them down.”









      Public housing projects have been torn down, some have been replaced by mixed-income buildings (which do not nearly house everyone in the aforementioned demolished projects), and some residents receive vouchers. Not all affected residents receive vouchers, not all landlords take the vouchers, and moreover—-your home is destroyed but in place, you are offered a piece of paper? Be wary of a wikipedia article whose references are the actual organizations and agencies defined (or pawns thereof); it's like a United States Federal Government wikipedia entry written with information from USA.gov.

      Careful, lest your own sources lead to the trails of evidence that disprove you.

      • LK

        (Or, even better, whitehouse.gov)

      • Greg

        JMK: The same aspects and same starting points apply for me. Art, in our case, can combine and generate and mobilize other aspects of resistance. All I care about is resistance. I’m not doing art for the sake of art. I don’t believe in art for the sake of art. I think art can generate and motivate and combine and create a universal, liberated discourse. This is my concern about art. On the other side there is the therapeutic level, and the therapeutic level is not to heal. This is very important if you can point it out — it’s not to heal anybody from his violence. It’s to create an awareness they can use in the right way. Not against themselves. (via Interview with the late Juliano Mer-Khamis: “We are freedom fighters” | The Electronic Intifada)

      • Billie Hays

        Way to go!

  • Dirty Capitalist

    Perhaps I'll be flamed for it, but I have a question:

    If you are so concerned about social issues, then why are you in art school?

    If it were really your passion to do something about these problem's you go to school to get a degree that teaches you about the problems and how to help deal with them like social work. Or if you were even more concerned about it, then you'd major in something lucrative like engineering or, gasp, business and then work you ass off to get money to donate to help solve the problems.

    But alas, its much easier to make up some performance art bullshit that will “make people aware” (i.e. grant them access to your enlightened perspective of the world) of these issues. You don't think the CEO's who step over the homeless people sleeping on the front step of their building aren't aware of it already? The best way to help is to actually buckle down and do something, not to spend your time trying to get other people to do the dirty work for you…

    • Tsunamisky

      Ew, this comment is pretty gross.

    • dirty thoughtfulness

      i'll take the bait.

      you are a dumb shit. ok, that's not very constructive.

      all i mean is, your idea is the problem this article is highlighting, that people believe that problems of humanity belong in separate quarters… HELLO INDIFFERENCE TO MY FEELINGS> I'M AN ARTIST!! did you read?

      the point is, our art, if art means anything, needs to do exactly this. if your suggestion follows, then people should only make movies that entertain, not inform or elevate the consciousness. same for books. same for everything. what if fucking food makes us rethink our priorities as human beings? what if fucking everything, dude who's name is better called 'Unthoughtful Capitalist', that we engaged helped us to reflect on how to be better to and for every one and every thing?

      in order to have that kind of fucking excellent world, every person with a conscience can't just become a social worker; and frankly that's a pretty douchey, uncritical, 2-dimensional-'I only watch CSI: MIAMI' kind of dick-faced response.

      with all due respect.

      • Dirty Capitalist

        And now you revel the real answer to the questions I posed: You aren't in art school to make a difference, you are in art school because it fits perfectly into the selfish circle jerk of moral superiority that you apparently need to survive.

        Odds are the vast majority of people who regurgitate senseless, “holier than thou”, rants like this haven't ever actually interacted with or experienced the issues they speak about let alone ever actually go out and do something about it.

        There is a reason why upper middle class and upper class people are more likely to major in the arts than a middle class or lower middle class person. They've never had to worry about any of the problems they are complaining about and therefore need to feel morally superior to alleviate the guilt of their privileged lifestyle.

        With all due respect, I'm not saying you are one of these people, but you probably are…

  • ex-atlantan

    If you are genuinely interested in this type of art practice you should look outside of Atlanta. I was born and grew up in Atlanta and have found the visual art scene there to be isolated from the international art community and university art programs to have dated references, connections and ideas about art. Look at artists like Theaster Gates and Michael Rakowitz, read Relational Aesthetics by Bourriard and whatever interests you by the Marxist theorists you've mentioned. Join Creative Time's email list or follow similar public art commission programs. Volunteer in local outreach programs to find a sincere and grounded basis for your projects to avoid romanticizing or oversimplifying the issues you want to address. Get subscriptions to national and international art magazines to stay updated on artists outside of Atlanta, many of whom are already making socially-engaged works and have been for several decades. The type of artwork you seem most interested in is happening, just look outside of Atlanta. Art can be as proactive and effective as you want, ignore commenters and your peers who say otherwise and be rigorous and pro-active about your references.

  • em

    i had days like this when i was in undergrad at a private liberal arts college, so i really feel for you. luckily, i was only half an hour away from a major city, and there were plenty of organizations where i could find folks who understood the ways in which creative and community work intersected. my best friends while i was in college ended up being people who didn't even go to my school. if your peers in art school don't speak your language, fuck 'em. get off campus and find the others who do because they're definitely out there.

  • Hbb

    Seems like your instructor set you up to fail. Who wouldn't, given a lack of budgetary constraints and the instructions to “benefit the community,” abandon art entirely for a project that actually improves people's lives?

  • artfart

    I go to art school. We have MULTIPLE groups for people who want to positively and ACTIVELY impact and change society. You can receive a Community Arts and Service Learning certificate (CASL) which puts you in classes that specifically go out into the community and combine social service with art. If your art school doesn't have a group like this in Atlanta, maybe you should stop complaining and start one yourself, or transfer to a school that does a better job of interacting with those outside of “the art world.”
    Yes, there are a lot of people in art school who are stereotypical hipster romantics who live selfishly and don't give a damn about society, but not ALL students are like that.
    Complaining about people doesn't do a damn thing.
    you want to change things and still be an artist… THEN DO IT. The whole point of art school is to do exactly what you envision as an artist. If people don't like your ideas or don't think they're artsy enough, well who gives a fuck?!! If you are truly passionate, someone will see this passion and respond to it.

    • whatever

      ewww all caps for emphasis? annoying. is that how you DISPLAY YOUR PASSION? cool.

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