Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Little Savages

Detail from Orchid Hunters (1935) by Eugene Francis Savage. Savage favored a palette of greenish hues, a feature his students went to great lengths to emulate

A century ago, art and design juries often favored the same participants, year after year, a corruption of power that was anything but fair. Especially when jurors favored applicants made in their own image.

Eugene Savage, an American muralist who was a professor of painting at Yale School of Art in the 1920s, served on the jury for the American Academy in Rome for a number of years — (as did Ezra Winter, who was also a muralist and like Savage, was a fellow at the Academy in 1915). Described as "bristle-lipped" by Time Magazine, Savage managed to successfully admit so many Yale School of Art hopefuls that they became known as "The Little Savages", and not only because they were Elis. It turns out that those who were most successful were the ones who most dutifully aped their master's style.

In the interests of full disclosure, I received my MFA from Yale School of Art and have been on the faculty there for well over a decade, and last spring, I was the Henry Wolf resident in graphic design at the Academy. In addition to our differences in gender and generation, suffice it to say that Savage's experience and mine could not have been more different.

Those of us who sit on juries and are even, on occasion, the fortunate beneficiaries of jury-elected awards, do so with the full knowledge that we share in a time-honored tradition of fairness, but clearly, this has not always been the case. Stories like Savage's read as especially vexing if you stop and think about what a simple thing like term limits can do to ensure fairness. How strange it is today to think that Savage's proteges were rewarded for their impeccable plagiarisms, or that Savage was praised for his part in encouraging such unforgivable behavior. There is a great deal to be said about the implicit ethical wrongs here, especially because leading by example — and by conjecture, learning by imitation – has always played such a precarious role in the creative classroom. The complicity on both sides is equally troubling: what kind of teacher would reward copycat performance, and what kind of student would engage in it?

Comments [5]

What about contemporary examples of the same phenomenon with your colleagues at Yale? Gregory Crewdson comes to mind.


I write this using a pseudonym to avoid any negative consequence for pending grant/prize applications I have in the pile... I am sure you avoid including any contemporary examples for similar professional reasons. There are quite a few :Little Savages" running around today, from the lock that the Iowa Writer's Workshop has on poetry prizes, to the solo gallery shows of recently minted Yale MFA's.
Yale Savage

Further research reveals something even more interesting, but no less questionable: Savage wasn't a repeat juror (Winter was) but WAS a trustee from 1928 to 1947 — nearly two decades, and apparently long enough to exert his influence.

As for the link to the nearly 13-year old piece on Greg Crewdson, I think that's actually quite different. And interesting that you picked someone who is not only talented, but an incredibly nice guy.

Jessica Helfand

The 13 year old artice was a quick google search away and clearly offers a close parallel to the kind of influence pedaling that you decry in your post on Savage. I'm sure that Mr. Credson is a really nice/sweet/swell guy, and unlike the pink sheet's author I find Anna Gaskell's work consistently compelling in her own right - 13 years has demonstrated that.

All educators advocate for their students, through letters of recommendations, references and the like. The difference is the outsized influence that that a call from Mr. Crewdson has. Not many newly minted MFA's have their first solo show's at Mary Boone. Well at least not many with degrees from institutions other than Yale. It could be that all Yale MFA's are incredibly talented. Or it could be that the faculty advocates from other less prestigious schools are busy trying to get their own work shown at Mary Boone after 15 years of teaching at South East Tech.

Not to worry. Yale will continue to have plenty of it's Alumni win the Rome Prize. Little Savages indeed.
Yale Savage

dear ms. helfand,

do you really think that your experience is so different, and that this doesn't happen anymore? i'm shocked that you could have such blinders on.

i just reread your article, and you do really seem to think this doesn't happen anymore - "we share in a time-honored tradition of fairness". wow. let me just say this: it is much more subtle, likely unconscious, and insidious, than you may think. (it seems you think it was very obvious aping, in savage's case.)


p.s. i say this as the graduate of a top west coast design school, and the winner of a fairly prestigious award in my field. not that i should even need to say either in order to claim validity - but we all know that's not true.

Wait, are you trying to say that it's not what you do, it's who you know? SHOCKER!

Perhaps that is why, compared to Europe, the US awards precious few architecture commissions through competition.

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