Friday, December 9, 2016


As any artist will tell you, art is a tough way to make a living. Even if you are fortunate enough to meet with a modest degree of success, it doesn’t always last and you are soon back to living on a spouse’s salary.  Unless you have family money  (and that kills creativity faster than anything), most artists I have known eventually give up and take a course in computer programming. But then, you can always teach art, and, if you really want to die as an artist, that’s the quickest way to do it. I’ve known too many artists who have destroyed their careers and their talent by accepting the security of an academic position.

Graphic designer, Bob Callahan used the magic of Photoshop to team up
with deceased artist, Ben Shahn.

I am currently reading a terrific book,  “The Shape of Content”, a collection of talks that Ben Shahn, gave at Harvard in the mid 1950s. My friend, the graphic designer Bob Callahan who adores Shahn’s work gave it to me for Xmas. Shahn speaks, not as an academic trying to intellectualize art (usually unintelligible gibberish), but as a working artist who genuinely understands what goes into the process. He says (beautifully) what I have long believed, that a teaching position at a university, a goal sought by many artists, is his kiss of death. Shahn points to many well-known artist friends of his who never produced anything of value once they achieved the sought-after safety of an academic position.

Diner Scene    Oil on Canvas    72"x48"
Why does this happen? I spent twenty-two years teaching art history at the University of Connecticut campus, managing to avoid studio art for twenty of those years. At least, when you teach art history, you spend your time looking at the work of the greatest of the great; it’s like going to a museum three days a week. When you teach studio art, your days are spent looking at student crap (to put it kindly) and you find your judgment about what is good or not good irretrievably compromised.

In my early twenties, I was friendly with a painter who had attained considerable (and well deserved) success in the 1970s New York gallery scene. His work was an interesting combination of OP and POP Art. He showed in top Madison Avenue galleries and was on his way to a major career when he “chickened out” and accepted a position teaching studio art, first at Yale and then at University of California, Berkeley. Not bad huh? But that was the end of him as a significant artist . He lost the opportunity to become a major player in the art world; his work became repetitive. During the years he was teaching, there was little growth or development. I got to know him again after he retired and came back to this area (with a substantial pension) hoping to pick up his art career where it left off.  But it never happened, he became ill and died not too long after. While his work is currently experiencing a minor revival, he never achieved the major artist status that should have been his. The students, he confessed, sucked him dry, “bit into his leg and held on” was the way he put it. In his 30 years of teaching studio art at some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, he told me he had only encountered two or three who were worthy of his time.

I recently spoke to another artist friend who at one time was in the processing of developing a major career as a printmaker. It all stopped when she was hired to teach at SUNY Purchase. She never produced anything worthwhile of her own during decades of teaching. Other colleagues of hers, who also had significant success as artists until they started teaching, met the same fate. Death at the hands of Tenure.

An artist cannot look at student work day after day without losing his or her “eye” for quality.  One’s judgment as to what is “good” becomes distorted by always having to look at beginners’ feeble efforts. Plus, the politics of the University, the administrative responsibilities, power struggles, problem students etc. suck out even more  energy. What looked like a secure way to make a living has drained the creative person dry.

 So, the moral of my story is: If you want to be an artist, wait on tables dig ditches,  do anything, but don’t teach studio art in academia.

1 comment:

  1. Well I certainly think your work deserves to be in museums Rene! Wall space is dear, and disposable income has disappeared for most people. Those who have very large homes and space enough for work of your (and my) size seem to have the means and interest in purchasing only what they are led to believe is "investment grade" art. I think the only thing to do is to raise our prices (again) to appeal to a higher caliber of clientele. Peace, and Happy Holidays Rene!