Chris Burden began his career with a literal bang. His ''Shooting Piece'' required a friend to fire a bullet into his left arm from a distance of 15 feet. Perhaps that's why, when we recently met at the University of California at Los Angeles, I found it hard to imagine him patiently sitting through faculty meetings. Time does strange things. You wait long enough and even the most outrageous rebels end up grading papers and sharing career tips with students.
Back in the 1970's, Burden was a legendary wild man, a conceptual artist who bled for his work -- he spent five days jammed into a small metal locker, rolled on broken glass and crucified himself on the roof of a Volkswagen, with nails driven through his palms. But that was then. Now he's 53, a tenured professor of art, with an annual salary of $102,000 and a package of benefits provided by the state of California. ''People think collectors support artists,'' he tells me. ''But it's universities that support artists.''
It was a shining afternoon, and the air was fragrant with the scent of eucalyptus trees. Burden is a heavyset man with a fringe of brown bangs, and he was dressed haphazardly in an orange button-down shirt and beige shorts. As we strolled the U.C.L.A. campus, students waved hello. A skinny art student paused to tell him that she had just been interviewed by a local news program about campus crime. ''Did you get the tape?'' Burden asked. ''Get the tape from the TV station. Use it in your work!''
When, I wondered, did cutting-edge art become a lesson you learn at school? Young artists today have something in common with doctors and lawyers: they need to be academically certified. A Master of Fine Arts degree has become an essential credential. Or so one might think, judging from the success of graduate art departments, where applications are at a record high.The proverbial romantic artist, struggling alone in a studio and trying to make sense of lived experience, has given way to an alternate model: the university artist, who treats art as a homework assignment.
This spring, some 2,000 aspiring Rembrandts received Master of Fine Arts degrees, an estimate based on figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, in Washington. That figure does not include students of commercial art and design, who will receive another 500 M.F.A. degrees, nor students of creative writing, filmmaking, acting, music and dance. There's no official tally of students enrolled in M.F.A. programs, but in 1996, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the U.S. Department of Education, more master's degrees were conferred in the visual and performing arts -- a total of 10,280 degrees -- than in English (8,000), biology (6,000) or math (4,000).
Does this mean that we're in the midst of a cultural flowering, a bright new renaissance? Hardly. In the visual arts, at least, the M.F.A. boom has not been accompanied by a growth in the amount of first-rate art being created in this country. In fact many critics feel that art schools are directly responsible for a decline in the quality of art. ''When I go to the New York galleries, all I see is art-school art,'' says Barbara Rose, the art historian. ''The art is either feminist or deconstructionist, and basically it looks like homework, because what is homework but learning how to follow the teacher's rules?''