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?''
In truth, it has been three decades since contemporary art acquired the look of the seminar room. While art schools have flourished since the 16th century, it was only in the 1960's that they became lodged in universities -- and critical theory was elevated above craftsmanship. Whereas once students attended life classes and learned skills by drawing from a model (''We will begin by drawing, we will go on drawing and then we will continue to draw,'' Ingres famously instructed his charges), today they sit in paint-free classrooms devising strategies for subverting the patriarchal order. In their studios, they diligently fabricate cutting-edge art: videos, performances and room-size ''installations'' intended as an exercise in cultural critique.
Oddly enough, the academic vogue for French post-structuralism has turned out to be an efficient recipe for American-style success. ''Do you know anyone who has three or four years to spend on a work of art these days?'' asks Peter Plagens, the art critic for Newsweek and a painter himself. ''The schools have taught a generation of artists how to make art without laboring in their studios. It's all about intellectual strategy. You just assemble found objects into an installation, say the word 'gender' and you're done.''
Like the creative writing programs that became ensconced in universities in the 70's and spawned a generation of ''workshop'' novelists, the fine-art schools have fostered their own conceptually driven style. Its invasion of the art world has been abetted by the commercial galleries, where an obsession with novelty and art-as-investment makes every recent graduate a potentially hot property. Many of the students at U.C.L.A. have already exhibited their work in New York or Los Angeles, and it is not unusual to find dealers trolling the school's halls in search of the next 20-something sensation.
''These dealers are like 16th-century Dutch traders,'' says Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. ''They're ubiquitous.'' He is currently organizing an exhibition called ''The Art School and the Avant-Garde in the 1990's,'' the first museum show to track the influence that schools have had on contemporary art.
U.C.L.A. is frequently described as the power art school of the late 90's; visiting the campus is like attending an opening of the Whitney Biennial. In addition to Burden, the first of the crop to be hired, you spot Charles Ray and Barbara Kruger, Nancy Rubins and Paul McCarthy, Lari Pittman and John Baldessari, a 68-year-old conceptual artist with flowing white hair and a matching beard. ''The way to get a good art school,'' he tells me with gentle irony, ''is to hire interesting faculty. Then they attract good students and the students teach themselves.''
Getting in isn't easy. This year, only 1 out of every 32 applicants was accepted, which makes U.C.L.A.'s graduate art department more competitive than such East Coast rivals as the Yale University School of Art (which accepted 1 out of every 15 applicants) or the Rhode Island School of Design (1 out of 8 got in). By contrast, Harvard Business School accepts 1 out of every 10 applicants.
''We've never had so many applications,'' says Mary Kelly, a well-known feminist artist who is chairwoman of the art department at U.C.L.A. She made her name with ''Post-Partum Document,'' a chronicle of motherhood that included her son's stained diapers displayed in Plexiglas boxes -- a symbol of his passage into a ''phallocentric'' culture. ''Theory can make you a better artist,'' she told me one afternoon in her office, where she was cheerfully finalizing the details of a symposium called ''Image Trauma.'' As I left, she handed me a stack of essays by Jacques Lacan and other favorites, not missing the chance to snag a potential convert.
Can you teach someone to be an artist? Paul McCarthy, an art star specializing in gross-out installations with humping, grunting figures, pondered the question over lunch at the U.C.L.A. faculty club. ''You can't teach someone to be a Michelangelo,'' he said, ''but you can't teach someone to be an Einstein either. It bothers me that people think that physics can be taught but that art can't be.'' He took a bite of his vegetarian burger and added confidently, ''I think we teach students to think better.''
To be sure, not every teacher sees critical theory as the path to perfect enlightenment. The sculptor Nancy Rubins, who is married to Chris Burden and is known for her baroque assemblages of airplane parts and other choice detritus, wishes more emphasis were placed on art history. ''My problem is that I have students who know the latest French theory, but they've never heard of Brancusi,'' she said. ''What students don't understand is that having an M.F.A. means nothing. You have to make yourself an artist. I've known a lot of geniuses who went by the wayside. You have to last through time.''
Wise words, but one wonders how much they count in an age when art students are fixated on exhibiting their work the moment they get out of school, or sooner. One evening, I drove out to the Warner Building, the ramshackle warehouse in Culver City where grad students spend their three years at school working independently in their studios and meeting their professors for ''crits,'' or critiques. I figured my night at the Warner Building would be an occasion for long, impassioned conversations about developments in recent art. It didn't quite turn out that way, though I did hear about a Viennese dealer who had made the rounds that afternoon.
Stopping into the studio of Sandeep Mukherjee, an Indian student with an elegantly shaved head, I found him at work on an interesting drawing based on photographs. Could I see a finished drawing? ''No,'' he replied flatly. ''I sold them all.''
In the hallway, I tried to engage a mustachioed student, but to little avail. ''I don't want my name in your article,'' he said, explaining that he recently had a one-man show at the Steffany Martz Gallery, in Manhattan, and ''it would hurt my reputation if people knew I was a student.''
Someone else pointed out that you can't damage your reputation if you don't have one. Delia Brown, who paints pictures of herself dressed in campy ancien regime costumes, giggled, and said on behalf of everyone, ''We each nurture the delusion that we'll be the one artist to make it.''
Are academies good or are academies bad? For much of this century, the question elicited the same vehement answer. Academies, the argument went, were anathema to creativity. To call an artist ''academic'' was to insult his work, implying that it was unimaginative, rote, banal. Virtually all the great modernists, from Cezanne on down, felt undisguised contempt for the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the mighty Paris institution where students began by copying plaster casts, progressed to the life class to study the (male) nude and, with few exceptions, emerged as proficient, B-minus painters of scenes culled from history or mythology.
While modern art began as an assault on the academy, post-modern art might be described as a return to the academy. Instead of the old academy of rules, now we have the Academy of Cool, schools that treat avant-garde rebellion as a learned occupation. One can trace the situation to Marcel Duchamp, the modern-art maverick who penciled a mustache on the ''Mona Lisa'' and invented the tradition of art-as-idea. But it makes more sense to trace the rise of American art academies to, of all things, an act of Congress: the passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944, which sent a wave of World War II veterans off to school, art school included. University art departments quickly expanded. American artists who might once have studied at quaintly bohemian, craft-intensive schools like the Art Students League (as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko did) or Black Mountain College (as Robert Rauschenberg did) or the Hans Hofmann School of Art in Greenwich Village began enrolling at universities instead. By the 60's, Yale had emerged as the leading American art academy; its alums included Chuck Close, Brice Marden, Richard Serra, Jennifer Bartlett and Robert Mangold, making it seem as if every hip artist in New York was obligated to have an Ivy League degree.
By the early 70's, craftsmanship had become passe and, as the critic Arthur Danto has observed, ''Art had turned into philosophy.'' Yet not all philosophies are the same. Conceptualism and minimalism raised brainy questions about art and visual perception, while students today favor art about nonart issues. Blame Derrida and his fellow French theorists, whose invasion of academia fostered a fashion for deconstructing language in the 70's, patriarchy in the 80's and gender in the 90's. A generation of art students read Baudrillard, thrilled to his notion that the world of real things has been replaced by ''simulacra'' (or mere images) and made art recycled from earlier art to prove the point. If you can't create, appropriate.
That could be the motto of just about any graduate art program in America, which doesn't mean that the schools are interchangeable. California artists are fond of disparaging not only Yale (''I've met Yale students and going to Yale is the highlight of their career,'' says Chris Burden), but also the entire Northeastern art-school scene. Unlike Manhattan, where an artist can be part of a community just by walking down a street in SoHo, the L.A. art scene, like the city itself, has no geographic center. And schools have traditionally filled the vacuum. While California artists know they've made it when they're offered a teaching job, New York artists know they've made it when they quit their teaching jobs.
''In New York, you just don't get teachers who have large careers,'' says the artist Barbara Kruger, who is famed for her screaming, red-and-black critiques of power. ''A lot of the schools in New York hire people part time for 25 cents a semester.''
Although Kruger teaches at U.C.L.A., she stressed that the school's prominence shouldn't be seen as unshakable. The California school scene is a changeable kingdom where migrating bands of artist-teachers can cause an academy to rise or fall suddenly. In the 70's, California Institute of the Arts, which was founded by Walt Disney amid the orange groves of Valencia, became a finishing school for the New York art world. (Eric Fischl, David Salle and Ross Bleckner are among its grads.) Other prominent schools include Otis College of Art and Design, the University of California at Irvine and, as you hear wherever you go, Art Center College of Design, the latest academy of the millisecond.
One afternoon, eager to see what the hype was about, I drove out to Art Center College of Design. Set in the hills of Pasadena, with a view of the Rose Bowl, it occupies a sleek, black-glass building that looks like an industrial laboratory. In design circles, the college is known as ''the car school,'' deservedly so. It's renowned for its transportation department, and many of its graduates hold jobs dreaming up new vehicles for G.M. or Volvo or Mercedes.
It was only 20-odd years ago that the school decided to start an M.F.A. program in art, one that has nothing to do with cars. The faculty now includes a striking number of well-known artists -- like Mike Kelley, the 44-year-old superstar known for his assemblages of sad-eyed teddy bears, the painter Stephen Prina and the video artist Diana Thater. The program's chairman is Richard Hertz, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, and who gave me a copy of his novel when we met. ''You don't need to read it from beginning to end,'' he suggested helpfully. ''You can just jump around. It's nonlinear. It's like life.''
Art Center is often described as the polar opposite of U.C.L.A., perhaps because it feels less like a place to network than to theorize your way to nirvana. Classes are held around the clock; to listen in is to know that the students have read dense pages of Julia Kristeva and view their sexuality as ''a social construct.''
When, exactly, did art-worldlings get so verbal? I posed the question to Mike Kelley. ''You can't not have theory,'' he said heatedly. ''I have no tolerance for the idea that artists are idiot savants who make their art by going into a room and squeezing their soul out. That's Hollywood's version of art! Artists need theory. They need to learn. And we're not going back to learn from plaster casts. We're not going back to white-boy versions of art history.''
It was around 7 in the evening, and we were sitting in a dimly lighted hall in the Del Mar Building. Several ''crits'' were in session, and I wondered which one to visit. ''Go see Kudzma,'' Kelley advised. ''He's very entertaining.''
David Kudzma's studio was jammed with a dozen of his classmates. The room could pass for a teeny-bopper's bedroom; it's plastered from floor to ceiling with poster-size photographs of what I thought were modish girls until I realized they weren't girls at all but digitally altered images of Kudzma in drag. Slipping a homemade video into a VCR, he told the class, ''It's about the feminine as landscape.''
''But is the femme sensibility supposed to be parodic?'' a classmate asked.
''That's the nature of carnival,'' Kudzma replied. ''I'm just trying to get it right.''
No sooner had he uttered those words than a riot broke out, with everyone yelling and the teacher screaming, ''You think there's such a thing as right?''
Kudzma shrugged. ''I do,'' he said calmly. ''I guess I have modernist hang-ups.''
A few doors down, the studio of Danica Bergagnini was bathed in lustrous shadows. As she sat at a table tinkering with her latest video, she talked engagingly about her upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish family. Once, as a teen-ager, she started a fire in a toilet in order to photograph it, as her mother ran into the room yelling, ''We don't have fire insurance.''
Noticing her wedding ring, I asked her what her husband does. ''Oh,'' she explained, looking at the ring, ''it's a symbol of being married to myself. I'm married to my art.''
''It's a happy relationship,'' boomed a voice from the hall.
I don't think that young artists today are any less sincere than artists were 50 years ago, or 500 years ago, but they are facing a historically unique situation. At a time when the art scene is market-driven, when galleries are obsessed with finding the next hot name and the schools are producing far more artists than the system can possibly absorb, the pressure to make trendy work may be greater than ever. As Mike Kelley says, ''The rise of the 80's art star changed everything, and changed it for the worse.''
At the moment, there is no shortage of interesting new art, but that is not the same thing as important art, art that promises to last. One wonders whether the new-genre art favored in the 90's, the videos and installations, will ever be able to compete with the epic achievements of this century, the oil-on-canvas masterpieces done by modernists who may have mocked academic values but who made sure they knew how to draw. Running into John Baldessari later that week, I asked him whether he thought video art would ever produce a Picasso or a de Kooning. ''Video won't happen,'' he said, ''until artists use it the way they use a pencil.''
By then I was back at U.C.L.A., preparing to leave for the airport. I asked James Welling, the photographer and teacher, for directions. He took my notebook and, with a black marker, drew a map that made it look easy. Just take Venice to Sepulveda and you're there.
As he walked off, a lanky student gazed at the map in silence, as if it contained a hidden message, as if it constituted a work of art.
''You should save that,'' he said with a chuckle. ''I'm sure it's worth some money.''