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  • Diane Thodos

How Neoliberal Economics Impacted Art Education

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

New Art Examiner Vol 32 #3 Jan/Feb 2018

Examining the extent to which Neoliberal economics and its ideology have infected every corner of life and thought can be an overwhelming task. It is as though the “elephant in the room” has suddenly swallowed us, imparting a sense of amnesia that we ever were separate beings from the elephant that is digesting us. What is Neoliberal economic ideology as the term is used today? It is the belief in the dominance of the private sector (think: transnational corporations) through austerity, privatization and deregulation at the expense of government protection and funding for public sector good: social programs like health care, social security, welfare, civil rights, infrastructure, public parks and the like.

In the past 40 years, this ideology has taken hold of our government, democratic institutions and has been an unconditional success. How does this all relate to my topic of art education? When I began art school, I became a critical witness to the slow-motion transformation of art education, along with the practices of museums, galleries, curators, collectors and dealers. This shift resulted in an ever-greater emphasis on monetary values. I began to see the humanistic basis of art instruction displaced by the monetization of art. Today, prices for art paid at auction are the absolute arbiter of an artwork’s value.

When I began my education back in 1980, figurative art was still a vibrant part of the art scene and the Neo-expressionism was starting to make its debut. Learning to paint and draw from life were established requirements. A student could venture into video art, conceptualism or installation, but these were not emphasized over the necessity of learning skills and being left free to intuitively discover and explore a full range of techniques and aesthetic possibilities: drawing and painting from life, printmaking in etching, lithography, woodblock, silkscreen, sculpting in wax, wood and metal among many others. I also took glass blowing and minored in computer graphics.

John Dewey’s Art As Experience was required reading, stressing how art was connected to one’s way of life. “In the development of the expressive act, the emotion operates like a magnet drawing to itself appropriate material.” For Dewey, the self, emotion, and its material manifestation through technical skill was the central focus.

My education was transformed by the New York intellect and art critic, Donald Kuspit. He became my teacher while I was enrolled and worked for the School of Visual Arts from 1987-92. Kuspit had been a student of the Philosopher Theodore Adorno of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, famous for his critique of the culture industry: how popular culture mimicked the way standardized factory goods were used to manipulate mass society. Kitsch culture created false consciousness by manipulating and distorting real human needs. The intellectual depth of Kuspit’s critical and dialectical perception, his critical consciousness made him the most significant interpretive voice in the art world of his time. One need only read his New Art Examiner articles from the 1980’s and 90’s. Five years in his class prepared me to understand and interpret the shocks and changes that were to happen to the art world over the next several decades, and develop my own critical consciousness in the process.

I learned to keep a skeptical outlook on the claims that art made, and to test those claims to see if they stood up or fell apart under scrutiny. Kuspit and I reconnected after my Ideological Warfare letter to the editor appeared in the New Art Examiner in September 1999. Our discussions resulted in a series of interviews on the changing nature of the art world and the culture at large. You can read them at category/donaldkuspitinterview/.

Armed with a sense of Dewey’s philosophy, an appreciation for skill and Kuspit’s teachings, I began to perceive changes happening in the 1990’s. I noticed many graduates from my alma mater, Carnegie-Mellon University, stopped painting and drawing, focusing on video art, minimalism and installation instead. In their graduation catalogs the presence of technology and readymade objects abounded while drawings, paintings, and sculpture dwindled.

When I began writing art criticism for the New Art Examiner in the mid 1990’s, I witnessed the same thing happening to art in museum exhibits and galleries. My Ideological Warfare letter described how the mainstream art world - and art education in particular - was ideologically oriented towards being “anti-art, anti-aesthetic, anti-subjective, and anti-tradition.” As an art critic I could not ignore how Artforum magazine ditched the critical standards it had once held in the 1970’s and 80’s to become a tool for the promotion of the trendiest art being packaged for the auction houses. In the pages of the art journal, October, I read writings based on the ideas of post-structuralist

theoreticians like Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, applied as a sort of mangled rhetoric, used to justify the existence of the conceptual “art object” and favoring the approaches of Warhol and Duchamp as the most successful models. What I term the “intellectual acrobatics“ of post-structuralist theory often appeared in art critiques during the culture wars of the 1980’s and 90’s. I heard stories of how painters in the Whitney Museum of Art Study Program were severely rebuked for painting with expressive brush marks, which signified collusion with “white male domination.” Paint could only be used correctly if it was used theoretically, in an ironic, conceptual or self-denying fashion.

Clearly conceptualism and postmodern ideology had worked to de-skill the art object and detach it from its human content and relation to life. I saw how this “emptying out” paved the way for neoliberal market values to fill the void, dictating which art would become popular in higher education programs.

I noticed an escalation in the auction prices of newly-minted young artists with very short exhibition histories. What had once taken artists like De Kooning decades to achieve happened practically overnight. Hot art became a speculative commodity that needed to be quickly produced according to market demand. Traditional ways of making art did not fit the new market model: subjectivity was too messy and inconsistent to be streamlined for market sale. Art that demanded skill did not fit the fast production schedule. Career success inherently favored the de-skilled art forms of minimalism, pop art and conceptualism.

In true neoliberal fashion, the art market system demanded that the artist be detached from their humanity and skill mastery if they were to become a participant in the new way the system was run.

The enticements of dealers and curators in museums and galleries who supported art that "got with the program" were too great to ignore. The organic link between creativity and skill was ruptured. Now art school education reflected the values of this market-driven, neoliberal, state of affairs.

I made a study of the School of the Art Institute’s faculty in 2010 and discovered that, out of 90 teachers, only 20 had work that demonstrated some developed skill level (often with an Imagist emphasis) with only 6 reflecting the ability of being able to draw anatomically from life. The remaining 80% of the faculty worked in the deskilled range of art movements: pop, conceptualism, and minimalism. The majority of faculty trended towards the theoretical deconstruction of the art object - a phenomenon which prepared the way for artmaking dictated by commercial and market success.

Consciously or not, students were trained to be intuitively self-censoring against choosing skilled ways of self expression early in the art learning process. Why not appropriate a picture of a nude rather than learning to draw one? Why not put a bunch of bricks or wood beams on the ground like the minimalist artist, Carl Andre, rather than actually trying to sculpt in clay or carve in wood? It was much easier to go with a ready-made, de-skilled strategy as long as you had a clever intellectual argument handy when critique time came around.

Democratic diversity in discourse and artmaking was replaced by the power of money. Today, the whims of a tiny cabal of billionaires and multi-millionaires determine who will be the winners in a highly competitive market system. Think of Murakami, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons setting up factories that mass produce art commodities to appease the commercial appetites of their extraordinarily wealthy patrons. The social history of art’s engagement with a public audience has become irrelevant. Why bother about public opinion or developing an audience when all the power for success is supplied by a small group of insiders? I have heard accounts of museum curators visiting the trendiest art schools to hand pick graduating art student “winners” right out of their programs, young artists readymade for institutional promotion with a hopeful hedge on generating financial returns at auction.

All parts of the mainstream art world—from art fairs to auction houses, from museums to galleries, from art education to art magazines and media—reinforce the inertia of the whole system.

Power resists change and the greater its consolidation, the harder it is to transform. Art school education fell in line with the market’s gravitational pull. There also has been a loss of connoisseurship, the neglect of art historical context and the pressure to revise the writing of art history to reflect the profit driven needs of the market. I think of Orwell’s famous observation as it applies to the misuses of historical revisionism: “He who controls the present controls the past, he who controls the past controls the future.“

Another art school scandal is the cost. What were costs like when I was an art student compared to now? In those pre-neoliberal economic times antitrust regulations were strong and there were few billionaires and far fewer monopolies than exist today. Political power was still concentrated in a substantial middle class that kept unions and government regulations strong.

In 1980, the entire cost of my college tuition was $9,000 a year and the government paid 25% of that cost, reducing it to $6,700. After graduating my rent was $160 a month and with a part- time job, so I was able to get by with enough time to paint. Today [in 2018] tuition at SAIC was $46, 500 a year. The sad truth is that, after graduating, only 5% of art students at most land a job in the art world - very poor results considering the high price of the degree. With that kind of burden, how can any art student feel free to question the content of their curricula? All other values pale before the money question and many a worthy talent is turned away at the door of opportunity if the high cost cannot be paid.

The monetization of education has made students prisoners of the system. The federal subsidies that used to support higher education have reverted to corporate giveaways and tax cuts for the wealthiest, making the cost 4 to 6 times higher in real terms than in 1980. Debt bondage is a great deterrent to freedom - curtailing a student's capacity to critique the basis of how they are taught and and how the outrageous costs they will be burdened with for decades afterward.

That is the bitter reality. Like our contemporary society, art education today reflects the economic inequality of our neoliberal times: less democratically grounded in terms of the openness of the system and freedom of choice, and more authoritarian in terms of all other values being subsumed to those of money.

In the 1850s, Karl Marx made many insightful observations about what he saw happening in the British textile mills of Manchester, England at the beginning of the industrial revolution. In his famous 3-volume study, Capital, his theory of alienation describes the psychological transformation of farmers and crafts people after they were forced off their land and into factories. Large debt burdens were placed on them due to escalating rent and land values combined with low wages. Workers became dramatically estranged from the creative and human aspects of their lives as a result of conforming mechanistically to outside demands. Former craftsmen became deskilled by performing repetitious tasks over and over again. They became deprived of the right to conceive of themselves as having agency over their own actions, an extremely relevant observation in our current age of neoliberal economic globalization. What is the value of an art education that imprisons students with outrageous debt burdens, esteems the production of deskilled objects, and sacrifices the creative self to the dictates of market demands?

In addition Marx observed that all other human values—those of community, caring, creativity, and dignity—were jettisoned as worthless before the power of the profit motive. The art world was once the place where individuals and groups cultivated a strong sense of their creative agency and autonomy. This strength allowed them to express existential truths about the world they lived in. With the market-driven co-optation of our educational and institutional art systems, the question remains - will that creative space ever exist again?

Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, Illinois. She is the recipient of a Pollock- Krasner Grant in 2002 and has exhibited at the Kouros Gallery in New York City. She is represented by the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City and Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago. For more information visit

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