Editor’s Note: We received the following “Dear Universe” letter in our inbox and we are publishing it here with the author’s permission.

Dear Universe,

I don’t pretend I have figured out what art is, and with the same non-existing deception, in addition to my rebellion against the intellectual arrogance that plagues some of my fellow students, I admit not to really care. Even though something inside of me twists and shouts “Liar!” Well, maybe if I tell myself I don’t care enough times I will start believing it.

It’s a bit idiotic to endure three years of a Masters in Fine Arts degree not even knowing the exact definition of the subject in which you are becoming a master. Every other major/career carries the strength of their title in the definition of the work you will be doing and the desired outcome of such scholastic endeavor. For example, you go to medical school to become a doctor, to treat and cure people’s physical and sometimes mental ailments. You go to law school to become a lawyer, to argue before a judge and a jury — assuming the defendant is as bad as it’s claimed and set him behind bars — or to let him loose to either have his own conscience sink him into despair or have his villainy boast on the error Miss Justice, blind fold and all, have committed. OKAY, I acknowledge even such professions have their gray shades of “what, what?” But, not in the same philosophical way art does. Because the only people that agree on what art is are the people who have no idea what art is, and Thomas K[inkade] collectors.

The lack of clarity surrounding the word lead me to discover the disconnect that exists between the “real world” and the art world. In the “real world” people go to the Louvre on their way to the Eifel Tower and tear a little when they see the “Mona Lisa” for the first time, then jerk away darting right pass “Liberty Leading the People” when someone mentions fresh baguettes are coming out of the oven of the bakery around the corner. With such a cultural experience engraved in their souls, bless their hearts, they are now experts on what art is. Consequently, as they walk into places such as the Whitney Museum (which they only ventured in because they heard cultured people go there) wearing overpriced t-shirts featuring the green lady on Liberty Island, they utter indignant whispers “This is not art!” or “My five year old could have painted that!” as de Kooning turns in his grave and Rirkrit Tiravanija starts twitching somewhere not far. Such eloquent art criticism fills my ego with terror and the realization, I’m doomed.

Then, I look at my own art show in front of the dean’s office, a mangled mess of objects and ideas giving out passive aggressive vibes, and I think, “What the hell am I going to do when I graduate?” And the practical “me” starts to worry, and hear the voices in my head from the old lady in the farmers’ market, my brother-in-law, and many others, “What are you going to do with art?” This echoes in my mind and it’s followed by the image of frowning faces showing sincere concern or arrogant pity. With fickle conviction, if such thing is possible, I decide I will go back to my studio and start making art under the “real-world’s” definition of it. I will make pretty objects that will charm and appeal to the viewer’s emotions, cover them with bliss, beauty and the pretense life is a wonderful fairy tale full of color, light and fluffy kittens and then they will rip their wallets open and shower me with the fruits of their labors in exchange for an object with the power to take them out of their miserable lives for two seconds without any thought required, free of any self-inquisitive pain. Spoon-fed by corn and cheese people will be able to sustain a thoughtless life, and as of myself, after obtaining financial security and the praise and love of a crowd of “looky loos,” I‘ll only wish to die by lack of self-respect and shame. How wonderful!

Or, I could kill the crafter within me by chopping my finger off and shouting to the heavens “Objects are evil!” And make art worth displaying in the art world. In such realm the very question “what is art?” is a monstrous stigma, and to let your lips voice such words only proves you are as ignorant as a door knob and as stupid as an ostrich. It’s a land common folk do not tread and if you dare say “This is not art” you will be immediately booted out, followed by the copy of the latest Nicholas Sparks novel you carry under your armpit in case you get bored. But I dare say under artistic death penalty, art there is Business. And these are a few art appraising questions artists should keep in mind: Who do you know? (If they’re not VIP, don’t even mention them.) Which blog, magazine, newspapers have written about you? Do you wear purple pointy shoes at your show openings or smoke long thin cigarettes? Most important of all questions — Did it rain at your debut in Chelsea? (Some of the info and opinions were gathered in the book Seven Days In the Art World, read and discussed in the Business Practices class)

Yes, I’m generalizing, perhaps among the lemmings that plunge into burning their millions on whatever the “experts” say is “it” exists an alternative dimension where different kind of art lovers dwell, the ones who appreciate art with their hearts and minds, not merely with their eyes or wallets. But, where are they? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the Gagosians hired Greenbergians to beat them all to death.

In this noodle salad, of rotten cheese and fancy martini olives, I drown in the chaos of my own biases and assumptions mixed with reality. I want to kick and shout, but here’s what I do instead, I wake up in the morning, skip breakfast, put my red lipstick on and go to my studio. I get my ancient white MacBook (I make sure I put a textbook between my lap and the computer, or it burns my left leg right above the knee), go online check my email, then delete the 23 unread junk emails that in a bizarre way make me feel popular and loved by their sheer number. Then I check my Facebook to know what fun things my friends are doing this summer that I’m not, because I’m supposed to be making art. Then, I type an “n” in the navigation bar that magically fills in the rest of the link; I click on a reality TV show, the kind that people have to survive in the jungle by eating maggots and snakes. When I’m done I turn off the lights and lock the door.

With lots of cynicism,

An Art Student in Training to Sell Her Soul or Wait Tables (aka Camila Nagata)

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

15 replies on “From the Inbox: Dear Universe, I don’t pretend to have figured out what art is …”

  1. As much as I love academia, this is one of the reasons why I don’t think I’ll ever get an MFA. I don’t expect to make enough money as an artist (or at any of the other jobs I do to support myself as an artist) to pay off the debt I would incur in grad school.

    Thinking about the art world, money, “success,” and the disconnect between the “real” world and the art world paralyzes me. It’s easier for me to make work (and enjoy the process) when I detach and remove all expectations from what I’m doing.

    I don’t care if the work gets shown, sells, or if anyone likes it. I don’t care anymore if I never recoup the cost of studio space and materials. I don’t want to spend years, or a lifetime, waiting for an establishment whose values I am directly opposed to to validate me. I want to be able to make the work because I love doing it, because it’s meaningful to me, not because I am waiting and hoping to be discovered. When I’m finally able to do that, that’s when I think I’ll be making my best work. Good luck to you, Camila.

  2. Another difference between the MFA and other professional degrees is those degrees have a subject. One can become a pediatrician without spending two or three years mining themselves – their race, gender, orientation, nationality, or favorite Continental philosopher – as requisite preparation for the job. It hardly matters. For the MFA, one is required not much more than that relentless self-interrogation, followed by scheduled white room confessions before people paid to suggest ever more ways to keep interrogating yourself as others watch and wait their turn. If you haven’t transformed yourself into a consumable cocktail for Chelsea by the time you graduate, you’re screwed, forced to do a job anyone else could do for an employer uninterested in what you did with Zizek quotes and pink spray paint last year.

  3. Well said, Camila, that was an awesome jam. Take care of that soul, girlfriend! I dropped out of art school waay back so I’d have no debt and more time for art, but I landed in some demoralizing debt anyway. That’s all I know, I hope it helps some. Good luck. Btw, I’m a pretty good nanny in case you know anyone pregnant in Milwaukee. And screw breakfast, I totally agree.

  4. This piece voices the very sort of cancerous self-doubt that any artist working under modern light must grapple with. We want our work to be worthy, and we want to be worthy of our work. Operating with integrity and a commitment to aesthetic is a guarantee to generate compelling honest work, but has never guaranteed a paycheck.

    It is a very careful line to walk between using the subtle suggestions and manipulations of art to get the audiences’ attention, if only just long enough to spring on them some idea or truth, versus using those same tools to empty their pockets. Some buyers will not purchase excellent art if it is cheap, seeing the abstract dollar sign as a concrete statement of value. Art objects priced so high as to exclude a large audience become nothing more than colorful whispers in the estates of the wealthy. Striking the balance between art and income seems such a fragile thing, so easily corrupted.

    I wish that I had a simple, clean answer to drag up from the muddied conversation but all I can offer in good conscience is this: focus on your art first and last, that is the only aspect that you can fully control. All else is mutable.

    1. Sophistry is not art. Art is a language, one must learn first, takes decades to understand and feel, to build that automatic shit detector by surrounding oneself only with the best of all time, and not the latest fashion of lies.

      Great creative art, that lives and lasts is wisdom, One must first know something, have something worthwhile to say of ALL humanity, and build a visual language through which to say it.
      Artistes dont matter. Art does.

  5. Poor deluded child. First off, very few artists have ever graduated from an art academy, those who did took years to get the pablum out of their systems. You cant buy being an artist like the degree you hold, its irrelevant. Its standardized mediocrity for hacks.

    Like all truths, the purpose of art is simple, if complicated(art is the visual language of resolving supposed opposites, which are truly but of Mans limited comprehension and puny brains)

    Look at art throughout the ages, from its very beginnings, as Modern art did to rid itself of accumulated crap and diversions, dead end evolutionary branches twisted into decadence, the same stage we are in today. Creative art is a part of human culture, not culture itself. It serves a purpose, a role, We have a job to do, and have failed miserably in our self absorbed hubris, our grandiose worship of the individual over Humanity. Art is NOT selfish expression, it is expressIVE of who WE are. Art is never I, it is always Us. The better you accomplish this, the more powerful the work. It will last, because it evolves, adds a link one at a time as we learn more about Our world and ourselves, upon the foundation of the truths that came before. But of ALL of us, not just white privileged Europeans and Americans. And their token toys. As contempt art is all about therapy, games and toys. And now effete fashion to entertain at parties
    Art is of mind, body and soul. Philosophy, science and theology. It defines who WE are, humanity. It explores Our world, where we live. And reaches for what we call God, Purpose and Meaning in life. As one.
    See, that isnt so hard. But you will never learn this in the sterilized confines of the academic white cube. It is our here, alive, of Us. Creative art,vs the fine art of giving the rich, nouveau and old, what they want to feel better about themselves, is the visual language as music is aural. The Coltranes and Miles Davis’ are the Picassos and Matisses of visual art, you first have to have something to SAY.

    You are talking Beatles, adolescent lullabies, Philip Glass, posturing pseudo intellectualism, and Kenny Gs, warbling showy idiocies. Thats not art, its the LCD of entertainment and effete fashion for the wealthy and thsoe who want to separate themselves from everyone else. A lie.

    Creative art is the Highest COMMON Denominator.
    Now, was that so difficult?

  6. Stop whining! The struggle called “what is art?” is art. MAKE, damnit! If you don’t like the richey rich patrons of the vogue art world or the painters of light or happy trees, then make your own art. We have a bunch of young MFAs out there. You don’t have to make lattes. You could revolutionize a new art world. You could move into the drying up small towns full of empty buildings and build communities and economies. You are supposed to be creative. That doesn’t stop at the edge of the canvas. Their are creative ways to live.

    If you want to be a waiter at some trendy bistro in a big city and gallery creep and hear good music, that’s awesome. Do it. Do it well. Savour it. See where it takes you. But, stop whining. Few people get the chance to consider what art is. And, if you don’t want to be a waiter. There are a million other things you can do. Don’t get caught up in this BS that you have to hop on the economic treadmill and live at a higher material standard than your parents. You don’t have to do that. You are not a failure if you don’t. You are only a failure if you don’t try to do something.

    MAKE, damit! MAKE it extraordinary! If your professors don’t get that, they aren’t worth their salt. Jump through the hoops. Get your paper. Moon them on the way out the door. It is a great big world. You don’t have to reduce the entirety of the world to a 200 sq ft. loft in Chelsea. There are places that you could buy a whole building for what you spend in rent for a year.


    1. Good response, but be a part of Our world, not apart from it. Art is NOT selfishness, it is not about any one individuals tender feelings. It is triggering that which we all share, seeking Our Highest Common denominator.
      And while that piece of paper will get you in the door, it guarantees nothing. The artscene is so insular and arrogant now they wont even consider anyone without a degree, while all the great art of the world was made by those who were intelligent and passionate enough not to waste their time and money doing so. Many attended, then bailed at the standardized mediocrity. Its an industry, and has nothing to do with meaningful art.

    2. Some great stuff in there, Chazz. I’d only add (for what unsolicited comment board advice is worth … heh … it doesn’t take much to make it rain, let’s say) something about the “jump through the hoops” part. Personally, I’m not comfortable saying whether it is worth sticking it out or cutting losses. Both can be a smart bet, it depends on the situation. Depends what one wants to do with that piece of paper and why they want it/what it means to them, I suppose. It may have ‘bankable’ value or not. Education is fantastic and all over the place, of course — even for free. Money (ugh) is in fewer places.

      But as long as the check clears, mooning them — real or figurative cheeks — on the way out the door is really unlikely to raise eyebrows, rattle cages, or offer a whole lot of satisfaction.

      Next Day EDIT: “Whining” seems harsh, though. I think that term is overused, it reminds me of so much political discourse that turns pissy these days. There has to be a place for thoughtful honest complaints w/ the status quo too.

  7. There seems to be strong lack of empathy in the responses so far but I for one think I understand where you are at…you have developed a conscientiousness towards the perceived bullshit in the art world at large…you have realized who the art world is for and the frustration that comes with it. The masses, the general community as much as one would like to reach out to them and share the gifts of a strong knowledge of contemporary art and share with them what is considered to be an exclusive appreciation is met with a lack of understanding, a lack of comprehension and more importantly an indifference towards a lack of understanding.
    That kind of general attitude leaves the world of art to the select few who actually thrive on it, the fraction of the 1% maintain the art world, shape it and control it to suit their needs.
    What is art? A clinical definition exists– it is simply a physical manifestation of creativity..subjective as hell and becoming more so with each passing decade.
    The trendier the art world becomes via corporate sponsorship while at first may appear to be a superfluous marketing trend can ultimately be the key to bringing the art world into the realm of the masses at the expense of watering down the integrity and exclusivity of the upper eschelon of art.
    By questioning art you are able to expand upon concepts and misconceptions in defining it, you can question who actually appreciates it and who if anyone actually benefits from it..there was a time when art was not a commodity.


    Luckily I just blogged the answer to your question (and illustrated it with Lisa Simpson, no less): here is the definition of art: http://cianapullen.blogspot.com/2012/07/what-is-art.html

    Unfortunately I have no idea what you should do once you graduate.

    As for the whole academia vs. “common man” conundrum, just know that the entire division is completely artificial, and that it will eventually change– though probably not in your lifetime. Just imagine this: thirty generations from now you’re dead and your art doesn’t make sense to anyone because the entire high/low dynamic has shifted massively. Now imagine this: none of the relevant art people alive right now get your work because you’re working completely outside of our current notions of what art is and should be. Which scenario makes you sadder? Ok, now make sure that one doesn’t happen.

    Best of luck to you– and I promise, these concerns will look much different when you’re older. There’s a time to freak out and have an identity crisis, and that time will pass.

    1. ^Good stuff^

      And I dont mean to blather until the sun burns out (it will) to Camila here, but ‘schoolin’ never really ends anyway. When you leave the building, you just keep doing it to yourself. If art schools kept students for 20+ years (bad idea, artists would probably come out all smelling even more the same), the ATF agents would start sniffing around the property. That whole teacher/student thing is unhealthy if it drags on too long. Not everyone’s gonna understand either way – at school,at the family reunion, wherever – no worries. Well, there’s some real ones, but try not to let them swallow you. Just do your thing and do it with all you got, like plenty have already said.

  9. I’m pretty sure medicine and law have a long history of extremely complex philosophical discourse, including questions about the scope, definition and valence of the entire enterprise.

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