How NOT to Be an Arts Advocate

Richard Kessler, Dean of Mannes College of Music

Google my first and last name with the words “art education” and the first item you will find dubs me “The Joe McCarthy of Art Education.”1 Which prompts me to respond at this late date to that scurrilous blog post written in 2010. The author, Richard Kessler, then headed The Center for Arts Education—a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting K-12 arts education in New York City public schools. He is now Dean of the Mannes College of Music, one of America’s top music conservatories. And he epitomizes how not to be an arts advocate.

What had provoked Kessler to launch his ad hominem attack was my Wall Street Journal opinion piece “The Political Assault on Art Education.” Focusing with “liberal” blinkers on the political questions I raised, he conveniently ignored the work of “art” that had triggered the article: Judi Werthein’s Brinco—a piece that consisted of her distributing specially designed and equipped sneakers to Mexicans waiting to cross the U.S. border clandestinely. Not exactly what most people think of as art.

Like all too many arts advocates, Kessler defends virtually anything put forward as “art” (especially if it carries the properly “liberal” message)—regardless of its actual merit as art. In his view, “art” in general is a public good, and as such warrants public support in keeping with social justice. He had therefore objected (in an earlier post entitled “Arts Education and Social Justice”) to my account of “The Hijacking of Art Education.” In that article, as in the much  shorter Wall Street Journal piece, I argued that concerns for political issues such as social justice were eclipsing concerns for art among influential art educators.

Ignoring that crucial matter, Kessler pointed instead to the urgent need to provide “kids in urban centers . . . [with] a well rounded education that includes the arts.” As if I would deny it! Lamentably, he had not a word to say about the dubious sorts of “art” advocated by art educators I cited. Nor did he consider whether such work would in fact contribute anything of lasting value to inner-city kids, or anyone else for that matter. One artist/writer/activist I quoted, for example, applauds the widespread “‘de-skilling’ of artistic craft” that has occurred in the artworld since the 1960s. Further, he praises “conceptual art” for having entirely dispensed with the need for skill and having led, in effect, to “the total disappearance of the art object.” Kessler’s silence on such points was deafening.

Arrogance Compounded with Ignorance

In fact, Kessler’s arrogantly indiscriminate defense of any “art”—however far removed from customary standards—is grounded in ignorance, as evident in a still earlier post, “My Dinner with Merce and its Connection to Cultural Policy.” In it, he urged that “great artists” such as avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham be federally funded, as generously as possible, freely enabling them “to create, to experiment, to fail, to succeed.” Moreover, he lauded John Cage, Cunningham’s lifelong partner and collaborator, as among the “great, great composers” Merce had worked with. Such a judgment issuing from the future Dean of the Mannes College of Music is more than a little disconcerting. Considering that Cage’s most famous/infamous piece, 4′33″ [video/audio], entirely dispenses with musical tones in favor of ambient noise, it was the deliberate antithesis of music.

In a comment, I argued:

If avant-gardists such as Merce Cunningham and John Cage were indeed national “artistic treasures,” they should have been able to attract generous private support. The problem is that their work (unlike that of choreographer Mark Morris, for example) has never been able to appeal to a wider audience than artworld insiders. Forcing the public to foot the bill for their “experiments” is a deplorable idea. By their own admission, such experiments amounted to anti-art (that is why the public has rejected it). For evidence, see the analysis of their work and what they said about it in What Art Is (pages 220-29)—which I co-authored. The relevant pages can be viewed at Google Books:

Needless to say, it is unlikely that Kessler had the intellectual curiosity to follow that link. Instead he posted this smug rejoinder, regarding Mark Morris:

I think that Mark would laugh pretty hard being presented as a mainstream counterbalance to Merce Cunningham. Apparently, Ms. Kahmi [sic], you’ve never heard Mark speak and most likely know little about his work.

Au contraire, Mr. Kessler. Here is what I had written five years earlier in “Mark Morris—a Postmodern Traditionalist” (Aristos, December 2005), after hearing Morris speak at Barnard College:

Unlike postmodernist choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Morris (who speaks of being “smitten by music” at an early age) understands that music–true music–is the essential foundation of dance.

In contrast, I should add here, Cunningham was notorious for choreographing his “dance” pieces without music and only joining them to a musical score (often not very musical) at the time of performance. The result was, in his own words (cited in What Art Is), a “non-relationship.”

As I further reported on Morris’s talk at Barnard:

Most provocative, given his own early reputation as a rebel, was what he had to say about the avant-garde. Asked for his view of Cunningham’s work, for example, he cryptically answered that he “respects and appreciates the fact that he’s done it,” then paused and pointedly added: “That doesn’t necessarily mean I like it.”

Thus Morris and Cunningham represent what I referred to as “wholly antithetical views of dance.” That fact was made even clearer by Morris’s subsequent remarks on the contemporary dance world. As I reported, he said

he rarely attends “downtown” (i.e., avant-garde) dance programs, even those by friends. “I’m not of the Last Wave Generation that says if it lasts all night and you can’t understand it, it’s great,” he declared. . . . Nor is he interested in watching “really crappy, politically motivated work. . . . If it works as propaganda, it doesn’t work as art.” Most telling was the advice he then offered to his audience, made up largely of students and faculty associated with the [Barnard College] dance program. They would do well, he said emphatically, to read (or re-read) Arlene Croce’s controversial 1994 New Yorker article [“Discussing the Undiscussable”] on Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here and to “think about it carefully.” (Croce had refused to see and review Still/Here, arguing that its use of videotapes of workshops with terminally ill patients was beyond the pale of art and therefore outside her purview as a dance critic.) For those who might not yet have gotten his point about such work, Morris added: “Just ’cause you mean it, doesn’t mean it’s good.”

I concluded: “Artists in every discipline could learn from him.” So could arts advocates like Richard Kessler.


  1. As of October 2019, that item has dropped to page 3 of Google’s search results.