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The artist -- today and tomorrow

By August Heckscher / March 18, 1983



In Los Angeles recently I visited as a board member the outstanding art school, Otis-Parsons; I went through the classrooms and studios where several hundred young people were at work in various fields and disciplines. It was an impressive thing to observe this large-scale commitment to a life of creativity. In New York one rather expects to find people undertaking enterprises slightly mad by nature; but under the clear airs and amid the open spaces of the West the strangeness and wonder of this kind of education struck one forcibly. What does it mean that in the United States today mere boys and girls are coming out of high school to give themselves to this severe and esoteric training?

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There would have been a time, not too long ago, when fond parents, hearing that a son or daughter was to go to art school, would have fallen into despair. The matter would have been hushed up as a kind of family scandal. But that is no longer so. If art is not yet quite as respectable in the eyes of parents as, say , engineering or law, it is at least recognized that it may be a valid and perhaps not unrewarding way of making a living. This change in attitude says something about a deep change in the nature of our common life.

The change may be summed up, I suggest, by saying that we once paid men and women for one thing and one thing only - labor in the office, farm or factory. Other kinds of enterprise, for example nursing or counselling, were expected to be done without pay, as a religious or humanitarian contribution to society. In due course we came to consider services a legitimate kind of work. In our time more people are actually getting paid for giving services than for making things. As farms and factories become more and more automated and systematized, we are engaged now in seeing a rapid decrease in the number of jobs in those areas. There is also a blurring of our preconceptions about labor and services, as the service sector of our economy continues to redefine itself daily with greater creativity and imagination.

I wonder, therefore, whether the young people crowding our art schools have not seen a kind of vision of the future. They glimpse a time when the providing of beauty and enjoyment will be as legitimate and common a source of jobs as was once the making of objects or the supplying of services. They see people being paid not merely for work in the old sense but for creativity. We shall have passed, they might say, from living in an economy of necessity to living in an economy of delight.

Another range of ideas came to my mind as I watched the California students in their studios. Is it not possible, I asked myself, that training in the arts is better than many other kinds of training for the ordinary enterprises of life? Here is discipline, a striving for excellence, a spiritual quest for new forms and solutions. Here is joy in the work and a sense of deep satisfaction in its results. I think I would rather have an artist in charge of young people than many a specialist or professional. I would like to see an artist running a library, or perhaps even in charge of a subway system!

In Paris, as I write, a conference of artists, writers and intellectuals has been held under the high auspices of the French government. The President of the Republic opened the discussions and the Minister of Culture shaped their course. There the very sensible suggestion was made that since economists had failed notably to solve the economic problems of our time, artists should be given a try. War is too serious to be left to the generals: then why is the organization of the economy not too serious to be put in the hands of men who think only in narrow, specialized terms?

Meanwhile in Los Angeles and in other cities students fresh out of high school are giving four precious years of their lives to work at their easels, in the welding shops, at their drawing boards. Most of them, no doubt, would disdain such ideas as I have been suggesting. For them, the possibility exists every day of creating a perfect form, of tracking down an unattainable beauty.