With a world in crisis and an art market spinning out of control, seasoned creative consultants bring hard truths to our readers.
Right before the fall semester, I was offered a last minute, low paying adjunct teaching gig. I said yes, and now I’m feeling triggered. I’ve spent the last eight years shuttling between adjunct jobs while struggling to maintain an art practice and meaningful life. I’m 37, have student debt, and live with four roommates. I have no health insurance, no gallery, and no time to make art. My teaching evaluations are always great, yet I still can’t land anything more than a semester gig. I retch thinking about applying to another tenure track position in some faraway place where I would never want to live. I’m not sure that I have a real question here…I’m just in a bad place.
We absolutely feel you, as do tens of thousands of forlorn adjuncts whose situations are all too similar. The life cycle of an adjunct teacher is strewn with pathos and bathos. New MFA grads will always be psyched to have any teaching job no matter the pay or commute. Embittered or complacent mid-career artists teach for years without ever learning their students’ names. Blue chip artists hunting for fresh ideas only teach for sport, or to find/harass new assistants. Dead artists can’t teach anymore, but their old syllabi continue to be pilfered by whomever inherited their class.
You once saw teaching as an ideal, virtuous profession that provided plenty of free time for art making. Eight years later, you cannot unsee the reality of things: sleeping students, lonely office hours, jammed photocopiers, and soulcrushing listserv spam. Adding insult to injury, a public Google spreadsheet initiated by historian Erin Bartram reveals that a whopping majority of adjuncts are paid much less than five thousand dollars per course.
When shorthanded schools contact adjuncts at the eleventh hour it implies that the sole qualification for teaching is a warm body that will take attendance and submit grades. You are brimming with talent, but at the end of the day they call you because you’ll work cheap. Part of your reluctance to say no is that you want to be wanted, yet aren’t you in some ways paying for that attention by giving away your labor at a substantial personal loss? We believe that you and all adjuncts are worth much more. What sort of systemic change would arise if fed-up adjuncts everywhere all started rejecting shitty teaching offers? Now, that’s a question we’d love to have answered. . .
Even though I don’t personally see it, I’m what those art activists call a “white hetero cis male” abstract painter. My work is actually about how pigments and solvents record the effects of gravity, time, and chance operations on unprimed canvas. I’ve had a strong career run, although lately it feels like curators are giving me the cold shoulder. Worse yet, my primary gallery didn’t take my new work to Art Basel last June. Some people would say I’m privileged, but it feels like I’m being put out to pasture. How can I turn this around?
High modernists believed canvas to be the essential support of painting, however recent art historians have found it was actually caucasity—the invisible platform that has foisted Crocs, White Claw and mandatory brunch on our general population. Your formalist paintings demonstrate a virtuosic balance between mark-making and erasure, but they have bupkis to do with today’s complex cultural conversations. Given that temporality is a primary component of your art, you should realize that time changes everything. If it didn’t, we would still be skanking to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones or, shudder, rollerblading in public. Getting benched hurts, but when you stop blaming other artists and societal shifts for your stalled career you can start learning how to sustain yourself in a world that has moved on from you. With a fresh perspective and renewed practice you may one day be the geriatric white curiosity on the roster of a hot Tribeca gallery. Or, you could always consider adjunct teaching.
This article appears under the title “Hard Truths: Academic Adrift” in the December 2019 issue, p. 28.