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Schools for Leisure

“The current crop of graduates from art schools are brilliant and creative, but will they ever be the artists that they imagine they can be?”

So said a successful, middle-aged artist I talked with several weeks ago. His definition of success meant that his commissions make it possible for him to contribute more than half the income needed to support his family of five. Since he is European, healthcare and the education of his children are not calculated into household expenses. To pay for these benefits his taxes may be high by US standards, but he sees no reason to complain.

His success didn’t fall into his lap. He had to work a “day job” in corporate design studios for over twenty years. He built his portfolio in evenings and weekends, while self-financing his materials, travel and publicity. Eventually, part by luck and part by persistence, he managed to quit full-time employment recently.

His skepticism that the current generation of art students will ever achieve his status is based on a simple market analysis: too many artists chasing too few entry level positions in the design and art fields. The young graduates, out of necessity, opt for any temporary assignment and, if lucky, wind up in steady but dead-end employment. Under these circumstances they never encounter the necessary professional contacts needed for their work to be recognized. In fact, they are so drained by the tedium of securing an income that they have little time to do any creative work to show anyone.

The more cynical among us may not have much sympathy for young artists. They should know what marginal lives they are choosing and disabuse themselves of the belief that they are the artists the world is waiting for. However, aside from what we may think of individual life choices, the situation of artists, though possibly a manifestation of extreme idealism (or naïveté), resembles the futility of finding suitable employment for more labor-market-savvy young adults.

The business class, on the other hand, fumes that there are jobs available but no suitable personnel to take them. Those manufacturers who most often voice frustration with the labor market are not noted for offering either higher wages, or on-the-job training, to attract the workforce they lament is not available.

Behind this dubious quest to up-skill the workforce lies the assumption that good jobs simply require better training. And to provide the workforce they want bosses rather have the public subsidize the acquisition of marketable skills. Co-conspiring with these foiled “job creators” are those who benefit most from government or foundation funds to establish training programs – the administrators of community colleges or, worse, the executives of private educational institutions.

I don’t want to totally dismiss this as bunkum, because I know a few cases where early training in a specific field proved to be financially rewarding. I also know of Ph.D.s in STEM fields who are precariously employed. Not to mention all the college graduates driving for UBER, or pushing caffeine at Starbucks, or both!

A recent example of training-for-good-jobs premise was expressed in California as the reason to boost state funds for community colleges. Governor Brown, again assuming the role of the visionary politician, approved a new state-operated online community college that will retrain technologically unemployed workers to acquire marketable skills.

“I want people to be able to open their own imaginations whether they are 15 or 50. Now (students) have a real opportunity to not only learn but to get a certificate and get skills to earn more money, advance and pursue their dreams,” Brown told the state community college board after signing legislation for the online college.

Along with this “innovative” program, more money has been allocated to community colleges with the stipulation that they must demonstrate that they are providing training for jobs.

This mania for “jobs, jobs, jobs”, like the hysteria over “Growing the Economy,” cuts across the political spectrum. Some progressives Democrats and “independents” like Bernie Sanders, seek to capture the flag on this issue and indulge in the supreme folly of advocating for a government-funded job guarantee program.

All this hype for more jobs seems totally oblivious to the fact that most new employment is in areas of low skills at exploitive wages with no future. And this has been the case for decades. Employment opportunities do exist in technical fields, however, it is an illusion that there is a mass of jobs – forget “good” jobs – waiting for eager graduates to fill. Robots require technicians to keep them running, of course, yet technological “advances” scuttle many more jobs than they create.

The work culture has an armlock on society. The prospect of unemployment strikes fear in all for good reasons, at the same time, hatred of work has reached epidemic proportions. (Gallup World Poll, 2017) This conundrum, an inherently political one, sends politicians who, to avoid discussing life beyond work, stick their heads so deeply in the sand that only their butts are visible.

Unfortunately, a few Silicon Valley billionaires, while they share the same compulsion as politicians, that is, they adhere to their self-interest like gum to shoes, do have a clearer view of the future. And to address it – a half-assed plan. They correctly see a jobless future and the futility of a patchwork of so-called welfare (surveillance) programs that provide miserable jobs for battalions of social “benefits” police. And lastly, they anticipate civil unrest that will disrupt their business plans, not to mention their stock valuations. Their vision of a peaceful consumerist society entails implementing a skewed, neoliberal version of basic income paid for by eliminating the welfare state and replacing it with a supermarket of insurance services. A sort of Obamacare for all things. This is not the basic income Europeans advocate, which assumes expanded welfare programs – an incomprehensible concept for many Americans.

I have a modest proposal, a first phase reform, that recognizes the phobia of a workless life and addresses it with ludic practitioners to alleviate the obsession to work. So, instead of schools dedicated to filling the labor market with poor souls desperately seeking skilled employment in one facet of manufacturing, or healthcare or, god forbid, high tech, our educational institutions should become schools for leisure.

To be realistic and to avoid confrontation with university administrators, we need to subvert the soft underbelly of educational enterprises. Art schools, those underfunded appendices of corporate universities, are ideally suited to initiate a curriculum of leisure. Do we need to recall that in the 60s British musicians, who upturned society, were art schools students? And aren’t art school faculty and students utterly bored with their standard course of studies and desperately receptive to new wave movements that, repeatedly, lead nowhere?

Further, leisure studies are already taught in the arts curriculum, but under old world perspectives. Troglodytic notions of art as an isolated, individualized, practice divorced from social imperatives need to brushed aside. Art departments need to decamp the corporate universities and seek out sites for experimentation.

Art can be liberated from solipsistic endeavors (a form of internalize servitude) by instigating collective manifestations – free festivals of all kinds. These would not be the commodity driven festivals that increasingly eclipse the traditional local celebrations, like county fairs. The goal would be to approximate, and supersede the medieval celebrations that occupied more than a third of the annual calendar, before the rise of capitalism. Or like the pageants of the French Revolution that visited provincial towns, these festivals will be joyful and instructive, and most importantly, universal. Didn’t somebody say art must be made by all?

Financing this innovative program should fall upon the rapacious oligarchs of Silicon Valley, those pursuers of singularity who waste their time and money with petty basic income experiments when they could directly affect consumer society. Of all people, venture capitalists should recognize that leisure studies provide the certain avenue for expanding consumerism. And after all, in one narrow sector, isn’t gaming proof of concept? Financing art schools should be a slam-dunk investment proposition.

The subversive intent of this proposed leisure school curriculum, however, won’t become apparent immediately, but in a few years – as carnivals crisscross the land, as Second Line Parades sprout-up in Maine and Oregon, as the SF Mime Troupe freely replicates in the revived townships of formerly flyover states – the revolutionary momentum will be unstoppable.

Festivals could be the wedge to crack open sclerotic imaginations and release a joy to live reborn after years of drudgistic indoctrination. We should anticipate that the exodus from Amazon warehouses will only be surpassed by Uber drivers everywhere abandoning their metal coffins on city streets. Slowly, but methodically, with this program can we not envision neo-Fourierism taking root and Passionate Attraction covering the land?

More articles by:

Bernard Marszalek, editor of The Right to be Lazy (AK PRESS) can be reached at info@ztangi.org He was a member of a worker cooperative for seventeen years. Essays at http://ztangi.org.

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