Skunk - Why the League is going in the wrong direction.

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Markand Thakar

It was at the end of the 2007, League meetings of October and December that the writer was asked by the League's current director why he, personally at the meetings, and through SKUNK, was so unwavering in his stress on the need to involve the entire membership in the democratic process. This query was made despite the fact that the League's Constitution decrees that its officers be elected by the membership - and that each member has one vote.

Although never stated, initially the League, as a school, was open to all: regardless of age, race, religion, national origin, sex or sexual preference. It was only when applying for membership that a student's abilities as an artist was judged. However, long before 1970, when the writer became a member of the Board, this requirement had been neglected.

According to the League's Constitution the Board members are required to confirm that the applicant for League membership had the skills - of an artist. At the time, for the most part, the members of the Board had those skills, but not the membership at large: nevertheless, the writer failed in his attempt to reinstitute that requirement for membership. However, the overwhelming majority of the members (even as late as the thirty-year tween-the-wars ending in the 1970's) were serious, wannabe artists.

And, although there were septuagenarians who were then present, the League did not cater to the geriatric-generation - nor to non-students seeking cheap studio space; shrink-sent neurotics; hobbyists and dilettantes - or for those seeking low-cost student visas. Of course, even then, one could find a number of those attending the League who originally had no intention of actually becoming artists - but who ended up, much as now, putting their hearts and minds into trying to learn enough to actually become working artists.

At that time, the writer, then the Treasurer of the League and in his early forties, would have been numbered amongst the League's oldest active members. However, if forty today (wishful thinking), the writer would be numbered amongst the youngest active members in attendance.

Now then, one might ask: why on earth would SKUNK, despite the shortcomings of so many of the League's current members, wish to ensure that all members have the right to vote in the League's elections? Why not allow the current administrators, who so self-servingly claim the need for their continuing control of the League, to continue to do so? After all, in many ways, primarily in fiduciary matters, they appear to be doing an admirable job?

First off, when you have real elections, with real choices (and you don't have that now - which makes a mockery of the League's Constitution), you not only continue to attract large numbers of the knowledgeable elderly but also those younger students who are not currently involved.


Although there's no question that having attended a university can give a leg-up to anyone intending to become a working artist - in so far as it is necessary to learn the theoretical and historical aspects of the making of Fine Art - but that's not what the League is about. And, for that reason, SKUNK is in full agreement with the current administration's statement that it will continue to maintain the League's non-involvement with degree-bestowing institutions.

Although many universities offer BFA and MFA programs that provide the sort of knowledge about the visual arts that the League could never hope to match - what they don't offer wannabe working artists (whether or not they've previously attended a university) the opportunity to acquire the skills that will enable them to create a permanent, personal vision - one that doesn't require a thesis-like verbal rationalization.


One makes fun of the Times' idealist claim, "All the News that's fit to print," by parodying it as: "All the news that fits we print." But, one could do the same with the League by claiming that the student body consists of all those who can be squeezed into a class - nothing else matters. The League was never intended to be a school that offers cheap studio space for working professionals or shrink-sent neurotics; hobbyists and dilettantes - as well as a cheap way to obtain a student visa. Keeping tuition low seems to be the administration's motivation - and that's admirable. However, the League is supposed to be an art school - one expected to turn out artists capable, at the very least, of attempting to make it as Fine Art artists - and keeping it viable as such, should be the first consideration - not cramming studios with as many bodies as can be squeezed in. Today, SKUNK has been made aware that the classes are so crowded, that it's serious student-artists can not enroll in a class of their choosing. The young Jackson Pollack may never have become one of Thomas Hart Benton's best students, but he had the opportunity to be influenced by him - due to his dedication to the making of art.

There are those attending the League who have acquired good skills. However, as already noted many are non-students attending the League for its cheap studio space or else, are life-time students of one artist, doing the same thing over and over until they become modest duplicates of their instructor; it benefits no one that they remain perennial students. They should be striking out on their own - not taking up valuable studio space and competing with incoming potentially talented students for grants, scholarships and recognition. It should be kept in mind that the League is The Art Students League, which infers that real students should be in attendance. (This does not apply to the continuous presence of class monitors - who are members of the League's administration and prohibited from being members of the Board -illegally ignored in recent years.

Grants and scholarships should be limited to talented students who show the desire to go on to become artists: Fine Art Artists - with the ability to attempt to create works that might possibly expand our visual world. It's hardly necessary for the League to deliberately produce "artists" with the superficial skills that might enable them to mass produce the sort of crap being sold as the work of "Starving Artists."

And, although age certainly shouldn't be used as a reason to disqualify an individual from taking classes at the League, even in this era of great medical advances, age, as the writer is well aware, has a way of limiting an individual's creative abilities. There are lots of art classes available for those elderly who are merely dabblers. Just about every "Y" has art classes. The League should be doing what's required to persuade young wannabe artists to study at the League.


Up until the recent past, say: from the end of WWII until a few years after the Vietnam fiasco, with the exception of a handful of instructors who were hired for political or nepotistic reasons, virtually all others hired (provided they stayed out of anti-administration, disruptive, League politics) were artists with great skills - with some having a substantial degree of prominence in the art world.

Amongst the League's instructors were those artists with great skills and knowledge who never became famous: they broke no new ground; but, they furnished their students with the knowledge and skills required to be artists. They were not two-dimensional self-promoters such as the likes of a Keith Herring or a Peter Max whose works seem to delight the former purchasers of paintings on black velvet.

- If you turn right as you enter Central Park at East 72nd Street, at the north end of the pond is a bronze grouping: "Alice In Wonderland," by: Jose De Creft.

- In front of the reading room on the third floor of the main library at 42nd Street you will find numerous murals by: Edward Lanning.

- There is no mention of it in a website review of the 1948 movie: "Portrait of Jenny." But Robert Brackman, not Joseph Cotton, painted the portrait.

By and large, none of those three highly skilled and knowledgeable artists became big names in the art world, and, none of them was known to have become rich. But, they survived the depression as artists. And they were still teaching at the League when the first Nam vets arrived at the League.


Allowing for the possibility of nepotism, politics and favoritism being considered when choosing the League's teaching staff - the vast majority of instructors appear to be more than qualified to instruct at what was once known as the most important art school in America. But, eventually, it's not the instructors who make the school, but the caliber of its student body. And, although the invites to well-known, in-house and outside artists and experts to lecture at the League attracts a certain amount of noise, it does nothing to raise the caliber of the League as a truly major, teaching-of-art institution.

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