Nowadays art academies are no longer simply institutes for art education, but places whre art is received, produced, collected and distributed. The idea of the open academie has consequences for art, the practice of exhibition making, and art education itself.
Let’s be clear about one thing right from the start: The most characteristic thing about art academies is that no one there can really tell you what they are doing. Being an art student, first of all, means being in a state of limbo. You have been accepted at the academy as someone with the potential of becoming an artist. But since becoming an artist is what you came to the academy for, it follows that at the academy you are not an artist yet.
So who are you then? More or less of an artist? Making something that may or may not qualify as art in the long run? Living in this state of limbo notoriously generates perpetual crisis, unexpected outbursts of creativity and a talent for inventing bohemian poses that promote crisis and creativity as a way of life. Looking to the professors for assurance won’t offer much comfort either. If you are lucky and your professor has an open mind and is engaged in a viable kind of critical art practice, this will only mean that this person has been chosen as a teacher for his or her gift to radically question what making art is all about. So even if that professor has a viable practice, it may actually only be based on the very same sense of crisis and scepticism that you grapple with yourself.
If you are less lucky, your professor will have a more baroque personality and concept of what he or she is doing. A person of this sort usually works at an academy for one of two reasons: Either they got a teaching job because their art world career is on a low, so that all they can share with you is their own disappointment and cynicism. Or they got the job because their career is on a high and the appointment is meant to honour the appointed as much as the institution, which, however, probably means you won’t see them around too often since they will be busy being famous elsewhere.1 In the academy the artistic identities of students and teachers alike therefore could be said to habitually exist in a state of suspense if not confusion. Janitors tend to be popular figures at art schools because of this. They usually stand out as the only ones around who really know what they are doing even if it is watching over a telephone switchboard all day or finding other ways to avoid finally replacing that broken light bulb in the gents on the second floor.
At the same time the potential to create confusion around notions of artistic identity may very well be the academy’s biggest asset. It is precisely because many of the art world norms and standards that define what an art professional should be or do fail to be fully applied within the academy that experimental work can at times be realised within the confined space of the institution – work, which wouldn’t be possible outside of it. We all know that one motivating force behind the need to take a position and define your identity as an artist is in fact the pressure of a competitive art market. So what is commonly treated as ‘mature’ work is often quite simply the readily defined, instantly recognisable and therefore efficiently marketable form of art that the gallery economy elicits and thrives on. Since the pressure to serve up such finished products is at least partially suspended within the academy, it does effectively offer more space for risking new and unwarranted forms of art production.
It is therefore also no coincidence that a lot of artists whose work is more ephemeral, socially involved or research based - and thus less easily identifiable in the categories the market operates with - become teachers at art schools. As their work does not generate much value on the market (since there is nothing much to sell) teaching first of all is simply a way to financially sustain their practice. The affinity between the academy and such practices, however, goes deeper. Effectively, it is in the context of symposia, workshops or seminars that a lot of experimental art practices find a primary forum for their reception if not for their production. Experimental film or video art, for instance, has always been screened, circulated and also collected by academies. Similarly, the rise and survival of conceptual art is certainly in part due to the fact that this art was not only received by a more academic audience but that it actually targeted that audience and provoked an academic discourse by presenting itself as a critical reflection on the theoretical possibilities and historical limits of art.
Pushing this affiliation with academia even further, a lot of contemporary research-based or socially engaged art projects are realised in the context of the academy either through the support of research budgets or through the active involvement of students in collaborative production processes. As a result of such projects and practices, the academy today is no longer simply an institution for art education but also a primary site for the reception and production, presentation and collection of art. For many contemporary artists who rely less on the market to sustain their practice the seminar room has therefore become just as significant as the gallery space.
On a larger scale these developments could be seen to both reflect and effect changes within the division of labour in the art field. As part of the way this field is structured, distinct functions are allocated to each institution: the academy is supposed to be the site of education, the studio the site of production, the gallery of presentation, the magazine of circulation and the museum the site of collection. By becoming a site that can potentially serve and fulfil all these formerly distinct functions in alternative ways the contemporary academy can become the place from which an un- and re-making of the art field can start.
You could actually say that this process of change is already well underway ever since, during the 1990s, a type of exhibition or biennial emerged that was modelled on the academy in that the show presented itself as a platform for the production and distribution of knowledge. To the degree in which this kind of exhibition or biennial often bypasses the norms and circuits of the gallery economy (in terms of the artists and types of work they support), it could be argued that the continuation of the principles of an open academy in certain forms of curating has actually created a parallel economy to the gallery system – which, for many artists and writers has become the environment that sustains their practice.
While I do believe that these changes can be observed, I also have to admit that the notion of a clear divide between different economies and publics in the art field that I have just invoked may be overly simplified. This is because economies and publics within the art field tend to be mixed up and entangled in more complex ways. There is by now a gallery ‘scene’ for discursive biennial art in the same way as there are predetermined career models for artists within the expanded academic field. Moreover, the market of course already reaches into the academy in some way, be it through the spectres of gallerists and curators rumoured to come scouting for talent that haunt students during graduation shows.
Undeniably, schools in more market-driven art contexts like the US also increasingly sell education as a professional preparation for commercial careers. In this light, the introduction of the Anglo-American system of Batchelor and Master’s courses to the European art school system (as part of the so-called Bologna process) also seems to point less towards the creation of open academies with an instable sense of identity and more towards the consolidation of art schools as educational institutions with regimented schedules. Still, irrespective of how messy and opaque these entanglements may be, right now it seems politically necessary to take a firm position on this issue and speak out in favour of an open academy with a multiplicity of different functions.
To be specific about this multiplicity seems essential. Otherwise the apologist of the academy would risk unwittingly perpetuating a nostalgic vision of the academy as the universal art institution that it was before the art field differentiated itself into different publics and economies during the social transformations of modernity. Very likely it is precisely because of its pre-modern roots that the academy has remained partially at odds with the modern system of differentiated publics and economies. The point is then not to re-consolidate the pre-modern authority of the institution - but to treat the academy as a relic, a strange site on the threshold of modernity from which the differentiation of the art field can be renegotiated and an alternative modernity can be invented in the form of an un-regimented multiplicity of different practices.
Despite such political convictions, tutoring art students on how to position their work in relation to the different economies and publics of art is tricky. To advocate, as I do here, the notion of an art practice that embraces open possibilities and deconstructs clear-cut concepts of artistic identity makes little sense if you’re there to help students out of a crisis. The joy of making art to some extent quite simply depends on a sense of self-assuredness, a feeling of being not in crisis and enough at ease with what you are doing to just do it.
Very often, however, to help someone get a grip and to finish a work, may mean to inadvertently push this work closer to precisely that defined, recognisable form which will also make it more marketable and easy to commodify. So one of the biggest dilemmas of teaching at an art school remains whether the right thing to do in order to support students is to help them to, figuratively speaking, ‘clear their work up’ or to encourage them to embrace the unresolved conflicts of their work as a key to a more messy critical practice. While one type of advice may mean preaching gallery standards, the other (to embrace crisis) may entail pushing someone further towards a deadlock situation into which art students, especially the more perceptive and critical ones, are prone to manoeuvre themselves.
Of course, it would be absurd to assume that any convincing formal solution to an artistic problem is per se a step towards making a work more easily digestible. In the end the criteria for judging the inherent political and economical implications of a successful work will always, to some degree, remain ambiguous. And since resistance is something you cannot teach, maybe the best you can do is make clear that affirmation is only one option and not a destiny. Still, the questions raised in the process of teaching are so significant because it is here that crucial criteria concerning the ethics of art practice come to be discussed. (With ethics here I don’t mean morals but the spirit in which art is made, the attitude and ethos that is inherent to its making.) These questions are: What do we want from art? Do we want an art that embraces our problems, symptoms and confusions? Or do we want an art that helps us to come clean about them?
Ceremonies of the pedagogical?
Questions concerning the ethics of practice are of course also a crucial issue when it comes to teaching itself, or any kind of work concerned with the communication or production of knowledge, for how can you ever claim the right to make others listen to what you believe they should know? This is a problem a documentary filmmaker or artist doing research-based or politically engaged work will have to face as much as a teacher in an art school. It is the question of how to deal with the position of authority you inevitably assume when you make others listen. Is that authority not always imposed, thus making anyone who claims it an impostor? Moreover, does speaking from the position of what Lacan mockingly calls ‘the subject who is supposed to know’ not always entangle you in all the tedious oedipal power games of forced loyalty and adolescent rebellion which this role provokes? Can there not be other scenarios for producing and communicating knowledge?
Addressing this question of how to imagine a different mode of exchange in the space that art and education open up for discourse, Irit Rogoff argues that hierarchical structures of authority may be invalidated by a mutual commitment of all those who happen to find themselves in a given situation - be that an art project or seminar - to confront the challenge this situation implies, together.2 The mirage of authority is bound to vanish when, facing a pressing problem at hand, the teacher or engaged artist has to acknowledge that they know as much and as little as any other person confronting this problem - and that the first essential step in solving it is to find out what the people caught in the same situation can bring into the process of coming to grips with what is at stake. So, instead of hierarchical relations such a scenario will create ‘momentary shared mutualities’ which come ‘into being fleetingly as we negotiate a problem, a mood, a textual or cultural encounter’.3 Rogoff models this scenario on the concept of a ‘space of appearance’ which Hannah Arendt developed to describe how, in moments of political unrest, people drawn together by the intuition that their concerns may be shared, create improvised situations that allow for these concerns to come out into the open.
To imagine an ideal situation in a debate, seminar or art project in which pressing problems are addressed together in ways that are not solicited by structures of authority is a notion with which I strongly identify, quite simply because I believe I have experienced such situations. At the same time, I cannot help but understand such a ‘space of appearance’ quite literally as a scenario that resembles a séance in the sense that a group convenes to make something appear with the force of their joined mental powers. I believe that there is a beauty in conspiring to create a moment of artistic and intellectual significance and I would also agree that when the demon arrives anyone in the group is in the same position as any other when it comes to containing the spectre.
But not quite - there can be no séance without a medium and a master of ceremonies to conduct it. In the same way, I would argue, any discourse or project usually needs someone who claims the authority to speak first and raise the issue, point out the problem and create the necessary turbulence to make people feel that something is at stake. There are many names for the master of such ceremonies: ‘pressure cooker’ is the management slang term, ‘agitator, instigator or ring-leader’ the political equivalent. The question of authority then becomes even more pressing. How can you, as an artist, teacher, writer or curator, instigate and conduct a ceremony in which shared concerns are articulated through the joint effort of all present without tacitly assuming the role of the auratic master of ceremonies? The pragmatic answer to this would be to consciously delimit your powers by exercising the authority of the instigator only to the degree that you set a process in motion in which others subsequently take over. Ideal forms of pedagogy would then be about realising the operative nature of authority as a role that someone temporarily has to play to make something happen. But can you ever be so soberly pragmatic about the magical skills of creating a stir around an issue?
In the fundamental primer on pedagogy, Plato’s Symposium, the talents of Socrates, the archetypical pedagogue, are portrayed by one of his lovers as the skills of a Satyr, a creature with a flute which can bewitch people, draw them together solely by the power of the tunes it knows how to play. The point is that this tune is eros, the gift of love, which Socrates possesses but uses only to make his friends realise that this love is nothing in itself, that it exists only in and as the relation between people, knowledge and beauty. Socratic pedagogics then imply a simultaneous assumption and renunciation of authority as they are about giving the gift of love for knowledge and beauty to others in order to enable them to realise that love can be found in discourse (held over a banquet) as much as in their own life and work. As ancient as this is, it remains one of the most compelling propositions for a passion of the pedagogical.
- Naturally this more likely occurs, if not only, in academies organised according to the traditional principle of master classes which do not require teachers to spend a specified amount of time with their students.
- Irit Rogoff, ‘Looking Away’, in Gavin Butt (ed.), After Criticism, Blackwell publishing. Malden USA, Oxford UK and Victoria Australia 2005, p.117-134.
- Ibid., p.123.