John Miller
What to Believe?
Mike Kelley
Educational Complex, 1995

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848


While we may be very far from the mid-nineteenth century, so too are we far from the undisrupted world of only months ago. Today, with so many art schools and other institutions struggling to survive, this observation from Marx and Engels seems eerily prophetic. For this reason, I would like to reconsider Mike Kelley’s artwork Educational Complex (1995) vis-à-vis the current global pandemic and its implications for the neoliberal order, especially because this work raises such fundamental questions about teaching art.

In 1988 Kelley’s installation From My Institution to Yours initiated a strand of institutional critique that would run throughout the rest of his oeuvre. This inquiry crystallizes in Educational Complex (1995), a set of foam-core architectural models that represent the seven schools where he studied plus his family’s home. Kelley’s analysis departs from orthodox forms of institutional critique in that it never proposes to reform the existing system, reverting instead to uncanny displacements of it. Kelley claimed to have reconstructed all the various buildings represented in the work from memory, designating all of the rooms he could not remember as sites where he had been sexually abused. Together, the models function primarily as a frame. Absence, both physical and mental, is their ‘content’. Kelley’s purported inability to recall these sites as supposed proof of abuse is facetious, but the feint satirises the apparatus function of education – and apparatuses in general. An apparatus maps out a subject position prior to the individual. Kelley claimed that others indentified him as a sexual abuse victim. Though a form of mummery, this claim symbolically filled a place that the educational apparatus had laid out for him.

Educational Complex working drawings
Mike Kelley Educational Complex (Detail), 1995, acrylic, latex, foam core, fibreglass, wood

Kelley received his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1978. In Educational Complex, this school looms largest over all the others. From its inception, CalArts decisively broke with preceding models of art education whereby students copied their teachers. Here, no one taught skills. No one told students what they should do. Instead, teachers charged them with creating a discourse of their own. In short, they confronted students with the seemingly liberating proposition of ‘being themselves’. Howard Singerman, in his study of MFA programs, described his training like this:

Although I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture, I do not have the traditional skills of the sculptors…. [W]e learned to think, not inside a material tradition, but rather about it, along its frame. The problem of being an artist occupied the centre.1

John Baldessari’s approach, which set the tone for CalArts, exemplified this sensibility. In classes, he said very little. He considered art school to be ‘a place where art might happen’ [italics mine]. If someone asked whether they should stay in school, he would advise them to leave if they thought they would be better off. One of his early, pre-CalArts exercises was to ‘imitate John Baldessari’. This assignment mocks the supposed mastery of the instructor. Baldessari was nonetheless direct and effective, in the long run enabling Kelley to produce art on terms that were entirely his own. Much of Kelley’s work drew off his working-class background. Paradoxically, the ‘abuse’ he refers to in Educational Complex alludes, in real life, to his professional success. The status he acquired as an artist transformed who he was and ultimately overshadowed his working-class roots. 

The demand for students to invent themselves as artists ostensibly confronted them with the truth of their being. In this, they faced a kind of blankness that was freeing yet laden with personal responsibility. John Cage’s art and music established a model for such a possibility for self-realisation. In a 1951 experiment at Harvard University’s anechoic chamber, a soundproof environment, Cage sought complete silence. Technically, the exercise failed because, despite the acoustic insulation, he could still hear his heartbeat and the blood coursing through his circulatory system. Even so, the experience sensitised him to the boundaries of his consciousness and his perceptions. Also significant is Cage’s 1952 composition, 4’33”, where David Tudor took to the stage of the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, to periodically open and close the keyboard lid of a grand piano, then walk off. Here, the lack of conventional music redirected the audience’s attention to what else was unfolding around them, including all the sounds that the concert hall was supposed to mute. Emphasis shifted from the nominal performance to its framework and reception. In both the experiment and the composition, by removing the expected, Cage found revelations.


Central to CalArts pedagogy, as filtered through John Cage to Allan Kaprow and, ultimately, John Baldessari, was the influence of Zen Buddhism. The Japanese writer and translator D.T. Suzuki had introduced the Beat poets to Zen, and its artistic impact in the United States grew from there. Cagean aleatory techniques prefigure the chance procedures Baldessari used in many of his photographs, but his teaching was even more ‘Zennish’ and understated. Aiming to bring his students to see ‘the true nature of things’, Baldessari adopted a posture of non-teaching.

At CalArts, for a student to realise they were already an artist served as the only requirement for becoming one. The school forced its students to face their subjectivity within a simulated void, namely one that reduced instruction to the preconditions of identity formation. Yet, to do this took money. At the outset and for many years later, a steady stream of funds from the Walt Disney Corporation made this incubation process possible. When Disney cut back support in 1977, the school, threatened with bankruptcy, had to rely more on tuition and funds from other sources.

To a certain extent, art education approximates to a Ponzi scheme. Artists teach students, who in turn become artists who teach even more students. If the base of this pyramid shrinks too much, the structure collapses. The ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic make it clear how delusional the premise of perpetual expansion can be. In the Anthropocene, the most significant impact on global ecology comes from our modes of production and consumption. These have created the preconditions for super-viruses like the one that now plagues us, and include a livestock industry that mass produces meat on a scale that invites infection, ongoing extinctions that threaten biodiversity and global air travel. All are factors that create and spread new diseases. In turn, safety measures such as social distancing and quarantining, designed to check the contagion, have jeopardised art schools economically by disrupting their programs. With enrolment forecast to drop by 10-30%, they face deep and abrupt cuts, and some are threatened with closure.2

In the late 1970s, when Kelley attended CalArts, the art market and the art world per se were much smaller than now. For better or worse, the goal of becoming an artist was less a profession than a vocation. Few art students ever expected to show their work in galleries, much less to live off sales of their art. With the 1980s came a big boom for artists, galleries, museums and the market, followed by mushrooming art fairs and biennials. At the same time, tuition at American art schools, colleges, and universities blew up as well. This trajectory, and the expectations attached to it, became the norm. That is, until the pandemic upended everything. Why should we continue to assume that expansion is the rule and contraction the exception? And how should we key our aspirations to a world with limits?

Of course, the fragility of art schools in relation to the market is not unique. The value of many other seemingly concrete things, such as money or gold, also finds its basis in belief structures. Withdraw belief and value disappears. This tenuous aspect of social reality intrigued Kelley precisely because it suggests that what you believe can change your world. At its core, this insight is ideological. Kelley equated belief structures with the process of projection.

Kelley’s interest in projection, on the one hand, jibes with Immanuel Kant’s theory of a priori judgment, in which knowledge, because the ‘thing-in-itself’ is unknowable rests largely with the individual subjectivity of the observer. On the other, Kelley understood projection as a path to the Surrealist imaginary, where dreams and reality might trade places. This understanding led him to explore implausible types of projection, such as ufology (the study of UFOs), electronic voice phenomenon (hearing voices in recordings of silence – complete with Cagean overtones), and conspiracy theory. After Educational Complex, Kelley even produced a series titled Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction (2000). Here, he used old high school yearbook photos of various school plays and performances as a springboard for carnivalesque re-imaginings that ridiculed such normative rituals. Kelley identified his extracurricular extravaganzas as the ‘contents’ of Educational Complex’s unremembered rooms. But these so-called contents, if they exist at all, are ghostlike.

Mike Kelley Educational Complex (Detail), 1995, acrylic, latex, foam core, fibreglass, wood

As a belief structure, the social sphere fundamentally shapes our understanding of what is real and what people and things can be. Here, the role of art and artists is especially malleable. Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in their treatise, The Social Construction of Reality, consider how the social sphere inflects individual subjectivity. Their explanation can be readily applied to CalArts pedagogy, especially in terms of how it recreated the fundamental processes of socialisation and self-identification as a means of instruction:

…the self is a reflected entity, reflecting the attitudes first taken by significant others toward it; the individual becomes what he is addressed as by his significant others….

The child learns that he is what he is called. Every name implies a nomenclature, which in turn implies a designated social location. To be given an identity involves being assigned a specific place in the world. As this identity is subjectively appropriated by the child…, so is the world to which this identity points. Subjective appropriation of identity and subjective appropriation of the social world are merely different aspects of the same process of internalization…3

Conversely, Berger and Luckmann contend that institutions originate as improvised ways of doing things that, if effective, harden into reified entities through repetition. Yet, when the efficacy of any institution diminishes, it loses its solidity. Kelley’s Educational Complex harbours the prospect of the art school’s disappearance in every unremembered room. In the title, the term ‘complex’ suggests something like an aggregate that builds up over time. Here, each additional school, with its barren lecture halls and empty corridors, appears as an encrustation or perhaps a husk. Seemingly absent are the possibilities they still might hold.


Mike Kelley Educational Complex (Detail), 1995, acrylic, latex, foam core, fibreglass, wood
  • 1. Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, p.4.
  • 2. Dian Schaffhauser, ‘Report: 5 Enrolment Scenarios for Fall 2020’, Campus Technology, available att (last accessed on 1 June, 2020).
  • 3. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, New York: Open Road Media, 2011, Amazon Kindle edition, Kindle location 2301–2323.