Artists Anonymous: The Irresistible Earnestness of the Bruce High Quality Foundation

If there is one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, when instead we should become as victims burning at the stake, signaling each other through the flames.

-Antonin Artaud

The art world isn't a very pretty place -- like Hollywood, and Wall Street, and Olive Garden, most of us hate what it asks us to compromise: success, dignity, relevance, cognitive reasoning. But at its heart is a passion for ideas and utopia and beauty that claimed us somewhere between a boyhood crush on Warhol and our fully-fledged adult obsession with Barthes. And sometimes, when all the portfolio critiques and misunderstanding parents and sixth-floor studio walk-ups and proliferating starchitects get to us, we just want to know that someone else out there understands us, and feels our pain.

Anonymous NYC artist collective Bruce High Quality Foundation has capitalized -- or at least labored -- on just this feeling. Last Tuesday night, in the basement lecture hall of the Cooper Union School in New York City, one of the Bruces (as they are known individually) gave a lecture to about two hundred friends and fans in which he channeled the immense momentum of the BHQF community into a story about a single artist alone in her studio. In this story, Emma Hastings, our protagonist, is pondering what it means to be an artist and get an art degree and keep making meaningful work. In this story, Emma Hastings doesn't need another art class, or better grades, or a higher degree... she just needs "someone to talk to."

Delivered in front of a rowdy, Reagan-masked Bruce pumping promotional t-shirts into the crowd as the NYU pep band enthused musically, the lecture was part of a pep rally kicking off the group's cross-country Teach 4 Amerika arts education tour. The gimmick of some borrowed high school gymnasium kitsch faded into the background of what was a formal inauguration of the Bruce's campaign for a new arts education country-wide, something with which they have been experimenting in their own practice. In 2009, the BHQF set up a website and a building in Tribeca and invited artsy people to come and teach classes on any theme of their choosing, and other (or maybe the same) artsy people to come and take those classes. And thus was born the Bruce High Quality Foundation University -- a free, unaccredited MFA program whose classes are now heftily frequented by overgrown semiotics students and stunted cultural influencers alike. Now, having tucked away some real-life experience "administering" arts education, the BHQF has set off to visit real art schools and departments in nine cities across the country, arriving in a stretch limousine painted to look like a school bus, planning to plead with students to throw off the bonds of the broken, over-enrolled, over-priced, demoralized National Arts Education system and imagine, like they did, a better way.

All this institutional preaching may sound a little self-important for kids who got (art-world) famous off of pranks. To begin at the beginning, and for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with them, the truth of the Bruce has always come heavily cloaked, nearly to the point of being obscured, in the most severe and cutting irony. The five members of the Bruce High Quality Foundation are known equally meaninglessly as the official arbiters of the estate of late, fictional "social sculptor" Bruce High Quality, who apparently died of unspecified causes on 9/11/01. Formed in 2004 when they sent a giant foam head to audition for Jeffrey Deitch's reality show "Art Star," the group has since carried out its open-edition "Public Sculpture Attack," in which Bruces hurl themselves against public works of art around the city. They hire actors to give their public appearances; they baked a model New York into a pizza.

The hot boy band / artist collective has been charting extremely well over the past few years, probably because the art world is so cynical that it can't get enough of artists that don't tolerate bullshit like art and the art world. But if art these days is like a teenager -- sarcastic, ungrateful, and existentially conflicted -- staging anti-art stunts as your art no longer makes you radical in what is now a competitive and often vacuous theater of ironic one-upping. Rob Pruitt's work involves inducing collectors to kneel in galleries to sniff cocaine. Dan Colen laughs to himself every time his assistant paints "Blow me" onto a Disney screenshot which will go for $300k. We've seen this movie before -- it was called Exit Through the Gift Shop.

And certainly the BHQF is not without its critics, who find this kind of carrying on tired, arrogant, shallow, or simply immature. One detractor at a competing art event the same evening thought the Bruces "a little boring for always capitalizing on how cool college students think they are." But the irony of any criticism directed their way is that they are really only interested in sustaining their inherently conflicted love affair with art, no matter how perilous the path to its actualization. The Bruces' stated material is Art History ("as much a material as wood or plaster"); their greatest work the University and other alternative-art initiatives such as the Brucennial and Bruceforma. For the Bruce, "the most radical gesture of art is its own existence," and so their radical practice is a hardcore drug trip meant, basically, to keep the party going. To complain about whether or not the work is any good is to miss the point of their practice completely; they aren't perfect, and they don't expect you to be. In fact, that's why they started an art school, even though they think art schools are dumb. The group's Teflon-grade critical resistance centers somewhere between their acknowledgment that the best they can offer are "amateur solutions to professional problems," that they can't answer any questions but they still think it's okay to keep asking, and their insistence that, anyway, they called blanket bullshit first -- on themselves and the entirety of their own art practice included -- so tough luck trying to get any credit that way.

As sentimental as it sounds, the BHQF's most valuable offering is a community that admits, unabashedly, its love for art, and recommits itself to art daily despite all of the competition, all of the insecurity, all of the perversion, and without needing to prove its right to be there. They create this support group not only through their formal initiatives, but by being who they say they are, and who they want to reach. Taste aside, we can't argue that they love art (and America) -- and so do we. Far from being obnoxious or elitist for their popularity (an oft-made incorrect assumption, which is one of the chief reasons they draw defensive skepticism), the democracy of their University and the generosity of each of them personally are ceaselessly and surprisingly sincere -- none of this would work if they weren't. Deep down, the BHQF are like the Biggest Losers of the art world -- we laugh and cry along with them because, however much we say we'd rather be watching Fassbinder films, they seem to be fighting for something worth fighting for. And we identify.

As the collective's more earnest efforts to develop their program begin to outnumber their short-lived performative gestures, the so-called amateur solutions they offer to "professional problems" seem to be taking hold. Having closed in December due to loss of lease, there are rumors that the second incarnation of the University will reopen in a much bigger space, with the support of an unnamed blue-chip backer. The Teach 4 Amerika tour, sponsored by not-for-profit heavy-hitter Creative Time, is the beginning of a much wider, more programmatic discussion with the institutions and constituents across the country that shape the art world. In other words, where one may have laughed at them (or even with them) before, it's probably time to start taking the Bruces a bit more seriously. At the end of the lecture on Tuesday night, we come full circle, back to Emma Hastings, who, once again alone in her studio, just needs someone to talk to. And, like the announcement of a new suicide hotline, when the letters BHQFU come into focus on the screen behind, this time, it's no fucking joke.