Dan Clowes, detail from Art School Confidential
Like the canary in the coal mine, there’s much that can be learned from careful observation of design school culture today. In education, students can easily be grouped into one of two categories: the Sentient
and the Bag of Meat
. The Bag of Meat
, dead from the neck up leads Thoreau's "life of quiet desperation" and is the embodiment of consumerist attitudes towards learning. The Bag of Meat
is deceptively quick with an excuse, stupefyingly slow with an answer, and terminally late to accept responsibility for the content and the character of their education. Life is filled with Bags of Meat
. And though, by my estimation, and corroborated by the musings of Thoreau and Nietzsche, they comprise the vast majority of students, they are not our concern.
It is the Sentient
student with whom we are concerned.
In most cases, design education takes place within the larger context of this thing called “art school.” Art school culture is a unique subculture within American education. In Art School Confidential,
Dan Clowes claims to “blow the lid off a million-dollar racket” whereby Clowes carefully exposes art school as a cabal of snake oil salesmen, has-beens and hirsute poseurs. Well, I’m calling bullshit.
Just as the smash hit films, Superbad
and She’s Out of My League
, resonate deeply in American culture because they portray a re-balanced universe of pathetic couch-squatting, disempowered male losers  who magically win the affection of overachieving super-females, Art School Confidential
resonates deeply with all of those sleep-walking Bags of Meat
, who see any knowledge beyond their immediate intellectual grasp as illegitimate. Art School Confidential
is a mirror that legitimizes ones’ intellectual, spiritual and physical laziness. Like the law of gravity, there are simple immutable physical laws that govern the universe.  Chief among these laws is: knowledge is power
. This simple inescapable truth undergirds what Sentient
students in real art schools are working so hard to achieve. These students strive to achieve agency and real power through knowledge. Knowledge begets power. Power begets a higher level of self-determination. Self-determination begets a better life.
It’s in Design School, a sub-category of art school, where we can observe a persistent and all pervasive angst among the Sentient
. This anxiety extends from graduate school at its highest level down through the ranks of the undergraduate journeyman. In simple terms, Sentient
students are deeply concerned with the seemingly irreconcilable tension between doing meaningful work and the apparent mind (and soul) squashing concerns of the commercial world. This refrain among the Sentient
is in deep contrast to the caterwauling Bags of Meat
 who are obsessed with their G.P.A. or their potential “starting salary.” Just as Benjamin Barber
suggests that fundamentalist Islam and unrestrained capitalism are locked in a dialectal death spiral, the Sentient
student erroneously perceives meaning and money to be similarly at odds. This is a false dichotomy. The fact is, meaning has absolutely nothing to do with money.
Dan Clowes, detail from Art School Confidential
Clowes outlines two potential career paths for the art school kid. With this kind of pathetic attitude, what would you expect? It would seem far more productive to throw down with Busta Rhymes, “There never was a plan B.” Or to assimilate the kind of gangster-grind work ethic of 50 Cent. Come on kid, I’m gunna make something of myself “or die trying.” Clowes and Judd Apatow’s
toxic ideology would have you believe that merit, meaning and success (yes, success) are the result of luck and the ability to talk a big game. Of course, verbal skills may be important, but I would posit the opposite. Merit, meaning and success are the result of the hustle, skill, knowledge, sweat and heart.
Jonah Hill (left) and 50 Cent (right)
The Heart of the Matter
Draw a conceptual line through art school, trace it down through design school, and then extend it out into life. The real issue, the heart of the matter, is all about “bliss.” Joseph Campbell’s
much maligned and misinterpreted concept extrapolated from the Upanishads
Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great
spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the
brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: sat-chit-ananda.
The word "Sat" means being. "Chit" means consciousness. "Ananda" means
bliss or rapture. I thought, "I don't know whether my consciousness is
proper consciousness or not; I don't know whether what I know of my being
is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me
hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my
being." I think it worked.
The real issue regarding life and work is the struggle. The struggle to transcend our own limitations. The arrow through the heart of the matter is the desire to achieve higher consciousness, greater power and meaning in life and work. This happens not through the anti-intellectualism, entitlement, sloth and the general existential malaise
that pervades our culture. Disaffection, ennui and nihilism are for the weak. The pathetic characters populating Clowes' art school landscape, and those they appeal to, are Thoreau’s great mass of men who “lead lives of quite desperation.” Campbell’s "bliss" is the eternal sunshine piercing the fog of this torpor. Bliss is the pathway that the Sentient
struggles to remain on. Bliss, that feeling of being deeply at home in something, denies external pressure. It denies duty and expectation in favor of knowledge of self. It should have been a critical component of Abraham Maslow’s
hierarchy of needs. It is in fact, the primary mechanism enabling and leading to self actualization. It is akin to the Jesuit notion of magis
, Latin for “the more.” Bliss enables and engenders magis
.  In its simplest terms the concerns of everyday life appear to be at odds with Bliss and with self-actualization.  Yet this simply reflects a failure of imagination.
Apatow and Clowes are but two of a nearly infinite wellspring of sources, seducing the populace with the promise of short-cuts.They are pied pipers leading others down the primrose path of victimhood, they encourage the viewer to distrust fancy book learning and sweat equity. Go ahead park your ass on the couch all day and smoke some weed, somehow you’ll score a hot-chick with a great job. Oh, and if you don’t make it as a designer, blame your school: after all, those fancy polysyllabic words in those books were a con game anyway. Good luck with that and let me know how it works out.
Oh, by the way, next time you see Mr. Clowes do me a favor, and ask him how he likes working at the art supply store.