The Razor’s Edge

Razor's edge by Tim Allen

Razor’s Edge by Tim Allen. Available for purchase from

My social media universe lit up over the weekend with the news of the entire first year Art MFA class leaving University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design half way through their two-year program. A day or two later, all but one of the graduating class boycotted graduation. There were 7 students in the first year class of what is described as a “selective” program at a private university where annual base tuition (before fees) topped $47,500 this year.

In their open letter, the first year class cited changes to funding packages promised at recruitment, changes to faculty (including one high-level resignation), and changes to curriculum. The coverage of the students’ departure and editorializing around it, although not the letter itself, explicitly or implicitly blames the school’s (and perhaps the field’s) embrace of a “structural overhaul that valorizes neo-liberal corporate clichés.” An anonymous Roski faculty member defines the problem this way to Hyperallergic, “It’s an economic vision of austerity and neo-liberalism that is one-sided and short term, and does not take in to account the symbolic value of programs in the humanities.”

This is the razor’s edge on which I walk as an arts entrepreneurship educator. On one side of the razor an artist risks being dragged into the abyss of exclusively financial motivation — fueled by student debt — to make work that is inauthentic, derivative, uninteresting, or just plain bad (think Thomas Kinkade). But on the other side of the razor is the very opposite of austerity: abundance. I don’t mean financial abundance, but abundance of spirit and creativity that can be supported by (arts) entrepreneurial action. Arts entrepreneurship educators and higher ed administrators listen up: we can avoid USC’s tragedy not by teaching artists to make money from their art but rather the mirror image, teaching them to make art from the money art generates. Money is the tail, not the head, of entrepreneurial arts practice.

As arts entrepreneurship education continues to advance and grow in universities, faculty and students must navigate this razor’s edge without cutting their feet (or their spirit). Consider that entrepreneurial action by artists makes them the principal in their own career rather than the agent of a third-party producing structure over which the artist may have no control. To not provide students with an education that includes the skills and knowledges needed to navigate the creative economy does young artists a disservice. To provide an education that includes only the skills and knowledges needed to navigate the creative economy does them an even more egregious disservice, one that potentially diminishes the quantity and quality of the art that becomes our shared culture.

The Cherusker, from Albion Europe

The Cherusker, from Albion Europe

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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3 Responses to The Razor’s Edge

  1. Linda — I have to confess that I’m not certain what you’re trying to tell me. Can you clarify or elaborate?

    • lindaessig says:

      Scott – There seems to be a fine line between 1) preparing an artist to transition from university to professional life and 2) acceding to a neo-liberal market-based economic structure that historically has not supported artists.

      • I see. Yes, that razor’s edge is difficult for me as well. I am deeply opposed to the neo-liberal market-based economic structure; I also am opposed to artists being reliant on the wealthy (through foundation grants) in order to live a creative life. I guess that is what leads to my attempt to find a business model that exists OUTSIDE the current NFP model, one that provides maximum freedom and maximum connectedness. A tightrope indeed.

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