Permission to Fail

BOOK CLUB article>> Barry Schwabsky’s “Permission to Fail”
Please read (and contribute your own) responses to the article in the comments of this post below…

The crisis of higher education is not unique to the arts, or even to the humanities. However, artists in particular sit at the crux of this broken system more (or perhaps just earlier) than most people in other fields, in part because the arts have the largest debt to asset ratio. Art programs are both the most expensive college programs and offer the least (including low to non-paying) job prospects. Through both intentional choice and utter necessity, artists are seeking (and creating) new models for how to educate themselves and each other. In the following selection of articles for our second edition of BOOK CLUB, we will explore some of the problems in art education and discuss the role that alternative forms might have moving forward.

For the first article in this BOOK CLUB we will review Barry Schwabsky’s “Permission to Fail” first published in The Nation, January 21, 2014. A new post will then be published every three weeks focused on another article. For each article, Temporary contributors will initiate a discussion through the comments in the post and anyone may continue the discussion by contributing their own comments and observations on the text.

BOOK CLUB schedule
April 14: “Permission to Fail” by Barry Schwabsky from The Nation January 21, 2014
May 5: “Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art” by Anton Vidokle from e-Flux Journal #43 March 2013
May 26: “Alternative art schools: a threat to universities?” by David Batty from The Guardian October 21, 2013

We look forward to the discussions!


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  1. Sarrita Hunn

    I find Schwabsky’s essay to be an insightful discussion of the so-called academization and professionalization of art practice, particular on the possible implications that this process has had at large, outside of academia. He states: “It might be argued that the variety of work being produced by art students reflects the pluralism of the art world (and the art market) in general, but I suspect it is more of a cause than an effect; what Rosenberg thought was the “mental and psychic fragmentation of the typical college art department” has merely blossomed into the greater incommensurability of the products of the professional art world.”

    However, he goes on to explain how the art department (or school) is uniquely positioned to encourage broad investigations that reach far beyond traditional, self-reflective, art subjects and that “What’s encouraging to a reader of Draw It With Your Eyes Closed is to see how many art teachers understand, however obscurely, that their job is to do what teachers in no other discipline are allowed to do: propagate failure.”

    and the promise this roll of ‘ignorance’ and ‘failure’ has in academia: “As long as teachers in art school are permitted a healthy degree of latitude when making assignments—as long as emancipatory teaching does not perish, to use Jacotot’s word—then within the very institution that encourages the professionalization of the artist there exists a countercurrent that keeps faith with what puts art at odds with other academic subjects.”

    and beyond: “As long as artists keep feeling the need to set themselves something like school assignments, they are in touch with their ignorance and not merely the servants of a program.”

    But even larger conclusions could be made. As I explained in the introduction to this BOOK CLUB, the crisis of higher education is not unique to the arts, or even to the humanities. In a recent KQED blog review of John Abbott’s new book “Overschooled but Undereducated: How the crisis in education is jeopardizing our adolescents.” Luba Vangelova explains, “Because disaffection with the education system reflects a much deeper societal malaise, it’s imperative that we first figure out what kind of world we really want: a world populated by responsible adults who thrive on interdependence and community, or a world of “customers” who feel dependent on products, services, and authority figures, and don’t take full responsibility for their actions? “

    “The bottom line, Abbott notes, is that the current system excels at preparing children to be dependent “customers,” so if we hope to instead create a world of responsible, community-minded adults, we need to overhaul the educational paradigm.” That means replacing our mechanical metaphor that shaped our education system dating back to the Industrial Revolution for one “found in the metaphors that characterize the dynamic, networked Information Age.” Some of Abbott’s examples include collaborative learning communities and positioning teacher as guides (more than instructors).

    Further info can be read online here:

    I was particularly interested in his notion that “Teacher-student ratios should be high in the early years, then decrease dramatically in adolescence, when “the whole community has to become a place of learning,” with mentorships, apprenticeships and other hands-on learning experiences complementing highly self-directed classroom learning.” To this end, art education may learn a bit from its own history of apprenticeships and hands-on learning – and be a form that can be a guide for others, at least when it is a place that fosters collaboration over competition and resists dependence on “products, services, and authority figures”. In other words, as long as art education has, as Schwabsky states, “a countercurrent that keeps faith with what puts art at odds…” there is still hope it may be the best starting place to overhaul the old industrial consumer driven educational paradigm.

    The question remains: Are we willing try? And even to fail?

  2. Avaviel

    I switched from engineering to art. Then I earned a BFA. I’m working on my Master’s. I plan on teaching college art because of a great desire to teach students, it’s a habit.

    Oh! And I have a great desire to teach college art because I may find a school with debt forgiveness.

  3. James McAnally

    A central contradiction in “Permission to Fail” that is particularly seen when discussed in context of the costs of art education is that one can’t explore the possibility of failure when you are paying $40,000 a year for it. Art education has been instrumentalized out of necessity because it is attached to a burden of debt that requires professionalization, networking and advancing in a particular direction. The values of art education – time and space to dedicate to one’s work that is unlikely to happen without the framework of art school; open-ended exploration in many forms at once; guidance by experienced professors and mentors; a close community of like-minded peers; even a ‘permission to fail’ (for 2 years, at least) – can’t compete with the need to professionalize in order to carve out a career in order to justify the sunk cost of class and degree. Only those able and willing to suspend the knowledge of what the degree costs and its anemic likelihood of leading to success can finally arrive at Schwabsky’s (& Ranciere’s) vision of teaching and learning the unknown. Failure, too, is a luxury good.

  4. J Gill

    The articles and the comments happily do not appeal for the elimination of institutions. They only advocate for more relevant institutions.

    Sarrita’s interest in ‘student teacher ratios’ and ‘the whole community has to become a place of learning’ seem ripe. It might seem, that teachers that work alongside students, reflect the learning (student) aspect (as well as other things) of an artist. In seeing and experiencing ‘learning’ the student finds himself on a track, one that might be described as ‘the straight and narrow’ for himself as well as the ‘road less traveled’ – authentic. Honing has begun.

    We all have had both good and bad teachers, … or were they just on different wave lengths – (the benefit of the doubt)? But when we gain some age, our judgements gain gravity and becomes more O.K. at least for us.

    To often, it seems to this observer that some are more interested ‘in becoming artists’ than in doing good work, which is hard work. Complaining isn’t the distinctive of the artist. Having some passion for art itself.

    Of course, the assumption of the student accepted to the prestigious school, is that of their very acceptance, they are more gifted/skilled etc., and thus will make it. Perhaps, … generally somewhat true (but thankfully, also many exceptions!)? And there is always the artist who does quality, acceptable work (evidence that they have been trained), that will have a market with those whose sensibilities have likewise been nurtured – where the artist perhaps provides a next step in that collectors sensibilities.

    The formation of the students/artists psych has some substance.
    Photini tells the story of a nun going to her elder saying, ‘I have fasted by eating once a week for 200 weeks. What do I still lack?’ He asked her, ‘Do you consider insults to be honor?’ She said, ‘No.’ ‘Do you consider damage to be benefit, and criticism praise?’ She said, ‘No.’ Then the elder said, ‘Go and work; you haven’t accomplished anything yet!’ A standard that who meets today?

    I do have some questions that I will want answers to as I attend classes this summer. Whether the teacher will actually answer these questions, or whether I have to provide the answers, remains to be seen. Often, my questions have more to do with a wanting to know, i.e. not a large enough issue to become the muse of the art itself, which is where most teachers want me to ‘find’ my answer. But questions can be asked outside of art. In this case, an answer relates more to an inner justification of my chosen direction – unless I see that my question NEEDS to be in the art – which an answer would help determine.

    Sorry for my poor ignorance.

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