PRINT Summer 2010


art schools

Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, the PhD, and the Academy, edited by Brad Buckley and John Conomos. Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2009. 234 pages. $25.

Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited by Steven Henry Madoff. Cambridge, MA, And London: MIT Press, 2009. 268 pages. $30.

IN FACT IT MUST SURELY BE FACED that the now conventional means of justification of ‘art education’ in general must be abandoned or at least stringently reviewed,” asserted the late Charles Harrison in a 1972 Studio International essay. Harrison was prompted to air this view by a series of reforms that aimed at a rapprochement of university undergraduate studies and art education. The reforms—belatedly enacting the recommendations of the Coldstream report, a 1960 government paper that called for “academic credibility” in fine art education—stipulated that 20 percent of any art school curriculum was now to consist of history and theory. Their implementation might be seen in the context of a broader administrative regression toward discipline and inflexibility instigated, in part, by the 1968 occupations of two art schools in the United Kingdom.

Having thrown down the gauntlet, Harrison, an art historian and a member of Art & Language, went on to appraise what he perceived as an utter lack of theoretical understanding within institutions of art education (20 percent rule aside) and to deplore these institutions’ isolation from education in a wider, socially relevant sense: “There is apparently no end to the ‘educational experiments’ for which art schools provide a testing ground—perhaps because they are far enough removed, as it were, from normal human habitation to ensure that the rest of the population will remain undisturbed.” Embittered tone notwithstanding, Harrison did see a bright side: He expected that the reforms would at least effectuate a “desacralisation of art,” removing the “mystical” focus on the “‘visual intelligence’ of students and staff, and on their power to ‘enhance the quality of life,’ etc. etc.” Harrison was hoping for a different kind of artist, art educator, and student altogether. Lamenting the emphasis on “self-expression” that persisted despite the proclaimed importance of theory and history, he advocated “a concept of art education which includes research”—as opposed to the kind of rote learning mandated by the reforms—“as a vital function.” With typical aphoristic aplomb, he contended that the “potential in terms of art education now seems to lie in the direction of finding a means to explicate, rather than to decorate, the world.” This capacity of explication was to be based on the “high potential for real and effective intellectual achievement” that Harrison had detected among students in fine art departments across the country.

THE PECULIAR MIX OF CRITICISM and optimism with which Harrison regarded these art-educational reforms enacted forty years ago resonates with the mood of many present-day artists, art educators, and students. In fact, the issues Harrison raised in his 1972 article appear far from settled. Although historically specific features of the debate may have changed (e.g., those relating to technology), the fundamental questions of what kind of skills and knowledge should be provided by art schools, based on what kind of pedagogical ethos and methodology, and leading to what kind of practices, remain the same.

Two recent anthologies testify to the continued relevance of these questions, while offering occasionally piercing critiques and capturing the tensions of a moment in which what many see as a crisis in contemporary art education coexists with more “uplifting” visions of innovation, collaboration, transdisciplinarity, criticality, creativity, and so forth. Both Rethinking the Contemporary Art School, edited by Brad Buckley and John Conomos, and Art School, edited by Steven Henry Madoff, set out to map the conditions of the present and possible future of art education. Though one wishes someone had written a memo to the contributors reminding them of the quotation marks Harrison prudently put around the term art education, both books contribute substantively to the conversation on this topic.

Buckley (director of the Sydney College of the Arts Graduate School at the University of Sydney) and Conomos (a Sydney-based artist, critic, and curator) have worked together before—organizing, for example, a College Art Association panel, “The Contemporary Collaborator in an Interdisciplinary World,” in 2008. In Rethinking the Contemporary Art School, they have assembled a deliberately incongruous and divergent selection of reports and statements from the front lines of art academies and universities in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States. Strongly objecting to a culture of “intellectual and social conformity and the increasingly relentless regimes of assessment and appraisal,” the two editors, in their introduction, address the need for alternative models. And a major insight of this volume’s collective inquiry is the fact that groundbreaking work in conceptualizing such models seems to have been achieved less by the art departments of research universities than by independent art schools, such as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now officially known as NSCAD University), the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, CalArts, the Rhode Island School of Design, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the Ontario College of Art & Design. Indeed, while independent schools have thrived due to flexible and open-ended structures and curricula, as well as experimental approaches to emerging modes of practice and pedagogy, the university-affiliated institutions of Britain and Australia have seen what Harrison called research grow into a bureaucratic monster, an apparatus administered from the outside and from the top down. (Harrison himself pointed to this development in his 1999 essay “When Management Speaks”: “There is certainly more research being conducted nowadays. . . . I think that there is too much research.”) By the turn of this century, practice-based (or practice-led) research in the arts was being redefined and incorporated by administrative machineries ranging from the Research Assessment Exercise (UK) to the Research Quality Framework (Australia), which tirelessly measure and evaluate funding “proposals” and “outcomes” in order to monitor the kinds of practices and purposes for which public money is being spent.

Regarding this development, Buckley and Conomos are willing to admit that such assessment schemes actually may have contributed to increased “awareness of the arts and art education in the political elites of both countries,” but the pair’s introductory essay leaves no doubt as to their skepticism. Targeting the “corporate managerialism of the contemporary university” in the Anglo-American world, as well as in a European educational system shaped by the 1999 Bologna Declaration (which imposed a measure of standardization across a newly created European Higher Education Area), they propose that “art academics,” as they call them, should properly be “dissenters in the new knowledge economy.” In his own essay, Buckley states that the criteria by which “research outcomes” are evaluated are “mechanical and ultimately authoritarian.” Other contributors to Rethinking the Contemporary Art School are more sanguine, however, and demonstrate a certain willingness to promulgate the PR phraseologies of creativity and collaboration, of hybridity and the new, while partaking of the rhetoric of criticality and progressivism. Jeremy Welsh, a professor at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts in Norway, falls into this category, though he probably has a point when he argues that “a culture for research-based art within academia” may foster “a revitalizing of public debate around art practice.”

Whether dissenters or conformers, most of the “art academics” in Buckley and Conomos’s book do recognize that since research is increasingly the stuff of which art is made—in the classroom and in exhibition making—it is necessary to reconsider art in terms of the specific knowledge it pursues and generates. Sara Diamond, president of ocad, calls for the intensification of a collaborative “engagement of art and design with science in its broadest variance” so as to bring about both “cohesion” and “dissonance.” Reaching for rhetorical grandeur, she asserts that unless institutions of art and design pursue this course, creating dialogue between art and science, they will not “play a role in shaping our future as a species and as a planet.” Moreover, like Buckley, the majority of contributors to Rethinking the Contemporary Art School observe a shift in attention and “awareness” among the members of the political class. For better or (as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello would say) for worse, policy makers, who are always on the lookout for new ways to keep national knowledge economies globally competitive, increasingly recognize the fine arts’ potential role as providers of the kind of creativity and methodology that may foster such competitiveness.

A similar sense of the need for innovation seems to underlie the hard sell of the jacket copy of Madoff’s Art School, which reminds us of recent “dramatic changes in the art world” and promises a narrative that “boils and erupts.” This unlikely potboiler is actually the outcome of a five-year research project funded by Miami’s Anaphiel Foundation in preparation for the opening of an interdisciplinary residency program at the University of Miami. Madoff, a critic and poet, evokes a sense of urgency and surprise when he suggests that “something has happened”—in “the accumulation of cultural habits,” that is—and has subsequently prompted an “impatience for new ideas and new means.” The issue, he says, is this: What are “the most appropriate, inventive means by which the transmission of knowledge can be accomplished and with what outcomes?”

“The most innovative thinking . . . is blocked,” he goes on to suggest, by a fantasy of art’s special status, a notion of freedom from normal constraints that still holds sway within many art schools and especially within fine art departments “that want to be autonomous, nomadic, counter-bureaucratic, partially curricular or noncurricular, etc.” Although the resistance to pedagogical routines, market pressures, and administrative constraints is essential, the ivory tower/reclusive laboratory has lost credibility and legitimacy as a viable model of the art school as public institution. The notion of the autonomous “cloister” of the art school in fact only makes it easier for bureaucracy to surround and enclose it. Hinting at a “fundamental shift toward social platforms” embodied in digital environments such as Facebook, wikis, and blogs, Madoff instead proposes that the “art academy as a knowledge institution can also enter strategically into social discourse and present its creative visions of the world.” He recommends shifting from “curriculum” to “conversation” and organizing theme-based colloquiums that offer no degree, but rather aim to “contribute to artistic production, collaboration, and the cultural enlargement of the local community.”

Unlike Rethinking the Contemporary Art School, which is ultimately framed as controversial shoptalk among “art academics,” Art School reaches out to a wide field of education and knowledge-production activity developing among curatorial practices and self-organized research initiatives and emphasizing mobility, unpredictability, bureaucracy-defying liminality, and resilience. Along with educators, critics, and curators Ute Meta Bauer, Daniel Birnbaum, Thierry de Duve, Charles Esche, Boris Groys, and Robert Storr, appearing here are artists Clémentine Deliss, Liam Gillick, Raqs Media Collective, Anton Vidokle, and others who write about art school models outside or adjacent to established institutions. However, reading these texts now, one must admit that their claims to independence and autodetermination have already migrated into many established institutions, with different effects. Sometimes these ideas inform a wholesome rhetoric of change and transformation; sometimes they are used to articulate and provide the rationale for ruptures with, and within, the dominant neoliberal university—for instance, global protests against antidemocratic, corporatized, and essentially dystopian conditions in academia, which emerged from or took root in art schools. A signal example here would be the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, which was occupied by striking students, staff, and faculty in October 2009, thus launching a series of strikes and occupations in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere in Europe.

Of course, the discourse around knowledge production in the arts also overlaps with the notorious “new institutionalism”—the founding of new or the reconfiguration of existing venues of exhibition and knowledge production by former independent curators—which has been widely debated for some years now. To look beyond the analyses undertaken in Madoff’s volume, we might turn to curators, artists, and educators Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson, who have recently proposed the notion of an “educational turn”—a new discursive object that encapsulates the increasing presence of the pedagogical in art exhibitions and that acknowledges that the terminology of “school” and “academy” has become increasingly significant in discussions of contemporary art. As if to underline the fact that the very activities of learning and teaching, of knowledge production, needed to be (re-)associated with the field, there has lately been a massive and much-discussed surge of public or semi-public, nonaligned, temporary pedagogical event structures, such as Future Academy (London, roaming), United Nations Plaza (Berlin) and its sibling Night School (New York), the Mountain School of Arts (Los Angeles), the Manoa Free University (Vienna), and Universidad Nómada (Madrid). One might also cite publications such as Beyond Education: Kunst, Ausbildung, Arbeit und Ökonomie (2005), On Knowledge Production (2008), and O’Neill and Wilson’s own Curating and the Educational Turn (2010); or one could point toward the various “education” and “theory” programs that have framed many recent biennials and art fairs. And then there are the conferences, such as the Museum of Modern Art’s 2009 “Transpedagogy: Contemporary Art and the Vehicles of Education” and the two days of discussions at London’s Hayward in April 2010, which took its title and cue from Ivan Illich’s 1971 book Deschooling Society. O’Neill and Wilson attribute this proliferation partly to “curatorialization,” a tendency to conspicuously turn exhibitions into learning environments. All of these projects manifest a critically contested new spirit of education. Occasionally, this spirit appears to be oddly in sync with Boltanski and Chiapello’s new spirit of capitalism: The network city that the two sociologists envision requires flexibility and the capacity to learn and tends to produce autonomous, self-directed persons who pursue a multiplicity of projects. The constant need to acquire new skills and competencies—for the next job, the next leisure activity—engenders specific learner subjectivities, while an illusory sense of freedom from the corporate grind may occlude the fact that learning has become the most arduous and self-exploitative endeavor in the quest to survive in the marketplace.

THE EXACT SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS that have led to the proliferation of sites of pedagogy and research are difficult to pin down; indeed, the alleged predominance of the educational in the arts is an ambiguous and often uncanny phenomenon. However, it clearly seems to be a response to the crisis of the institutions: an alternative to the “university in ruins,” as theorist Bill Readings put it in the 1990s. And aren’t art’s independent schools and experimental pedagogies providing the very models that will subsequently be used and retooled by larger institutions? These institutions constantly try to reinvent and readapt themselves in order to stay competitive in the market of higher education, and they do it by routinely pursuing “cutting-edge” methodologies and faculty. This is a double-edged sword: “Art and education serving capital and serving as models for capital had been exposed,” artists Lina Dokuzović and Eduard Freudmann comment (in an essay posted last November on on the protests at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, which signaled a refusal of the contradictory messages of innovation and economization. “The great irony of the situation,” they continue, “lies in the fact that the art school surfaced as just another tool in the machinery of the production of neoliberalized individuals, exposing the paradox of the entire system that was constructed around them.” Hence it seems much less crucial to celebrate the educational turn and the current pedagogical flavors in the art world than to critically and insistently review the circulation of knowledge products and practices (aka ideas) in the context of a cultural economy that is discovering the rapidly growing business potential of learning and subjectivization.

As much as it may vary from locale to locale, the global shift from traditional art school models to the paradigm of the “knowledge institution” or “laboratory” and to art as a modality of research is reflected by both Rethinking the Contemporary Art School and Art School in productive ways. Presenting a certain variety of experiences with pedagogy and considering best as well as worst practices from the institutional realm where curricula and careers meet, the two collections will serve as documentation of what will be remembered as a transitional period, when concepts of art’s purpose and contribution to the knowledge economies of the present became once again heavily contested. Against this backdrop, one wonders how the idea of a school “as a condition of learning” that “we might carry with us wherever we go, whatever we do,” as Raqs Media Collective puts it in Art School, contributes to the socioimaginary rescue function that the collective associates with “the artist”—who “by night, in dreams, recovers what the no-collar worker lost by day.”

Tom Holert teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Art and performance at Tate Modern, London.