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One afternoon, eager to see what the hype was about, I drove out to Art Center College of Design.
'' The schools have taught a generation of artists how to make art without laboring in their studios. You just assemble found objects into an installation, say the word 'gender' and you're done.'' Like the creative writing programs that became ensconced in universities in the 70's and spawned a generation of ''workshop'' novelists, the fine-art schools have fostered their own conceptually driven style. This year, only 1 out of every 32 applicants was accepted, which makes U. By contrast, Harvard Business School accepts 1 out of every 10 applicants.'' We've never had so many applications,'' says Mary Kelly, a well-known feminist artist who is chairwoman of the art department at U. '' What students don't understand is that having an M. I figured my night at the Warner Building would be an occasion for long, impassioned conversations about developments in recent art.
Its invasion of the art world has been abetted by the commercial galleries, where an obsession with novelty and art-as-investment makes every recent graduate a potentially hot property. It didn't quite turn out that way, though I did hear about a Viennese dealer who had made the rounds that afternoon. '' I sold them all.'' In the hallway, I tried to engage a mustachioed student, but to little avail.
His '' Shooting Piece'' required a friend to fire a bullet into his left arm from a distance of 15 feet. A Master of Fine Arts degree has become an essential credential.
Perhaps that's why, when we recently met at the University of California at Los Angeles, I found it hard to imagine him patiently sitting through faculty meetings. You wait long enough and even the most outrageous rebels end up grading papers and sharing career tips with students. A skinny art student paused to tell him that she had just been interviewed by a local news program about campus crime. Or so one might think, judging from the success of graduate art departments, where applications are at a record high. boom has not been accompanied by a growth in the amount of first-rate art being created in this country.
Young artists today have something in common with doctors and lawyers: they need to be academically certified.
'' When, I wondered, did cutting-edge art become a lesson you learn at school?
To call an artist ''academic'' was to insult his work, implying that it was unimaginative, rote, banal.
Virtually all the great modernists, from Cezanne on down, felt undisguised contempt for the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the mighty Paris institution where students began by copying plaster casts, progressed to the life class to study the (male) nude and, with few exceptions, emerged as proficient, B-minus painters of scenes culled from history or mythology.
In the 70's, California Institute of the Arts, which was founded by Walt Disney amid the orange groves of Valencia, became a finishing school for the New York art world.
(Eric Fischl, David Salle and Ross Bleckner are among its grads.) Other prominent schools include Otis College of Art and Design, the University of California at Irvine and, as you hear wherever you go, Art Center College of Design, the latest academy of the millisecond.