this article concerns itself with art education in particular but could be relevant to education and a general state of learning today
For a free art school
“Art schools are today in trouble. At a time when more students than ever are enrolling on Fine art courses, there is a tangible sense of confusion about the purpose and aspirations of training to be an artist, and the special nature of art school culture.
At first glance, the trouble in art school reflects the consumerist transformation of higher education in general: fewer tutors, teaching more students, for less time, in studios that shrink from one year to the next, with tutors spending time processing assessment paperwork that could be better spent teaching students. Tutors now find that they have too little time to develop a proper engagement with their students. Direct teaching time, even on MA courses, is dismally limited.
These are evident and much discussed changes. However, whilst these trends have had a particularly corrosive effect on what should be the experimental and independent nature of art school culture, problems of organisation and resources don’t fully explain the tangible sense of disorientation and drift in art school today. Rather, these problems have become the form in which the disprited, professionalized, risk-averse and bureaucratic culture abroad in society today has encroached on the ambitious, speculative, experimental and progressive spirit that once informed the best artistic practice and art school teaching.
This manifests itself in many ways. Increasingly, for example, students are encouraged to adopt a pragmatic professionalism towards their work that would not seem out of place on a business degree. Encouraged to think as entrepreneurs, or to see art-making as a career like any other, art students spend more of their time proving themselves through modules on ‘professional development’ or on student placements in the community. Art education increasingly reinforces and confirms the two contemporary models for the artist: the artist as the fashionable sideshow of the ‘lifestyle’ and cultural industries; or the artist as social worker. Such prescriptive models narrow and constrain the student’s understanding of the potential role of artists, the way they act and the things they make and do.
Such values and attitudes are internalised by art students, who no longer sense the purpose or value of risk-taking and experimentation. It is a frequent complaint of teachers that students are themselves becoming increasingly cautious and conservative in their attitude towards the education they receive, and the purpose it serves: Rather than seeing their time at art school as a free-spirited and open-ended period of investigation, students today are preoccupied with perfecting their work as a product to be brought to the market when they leave – a risk-averse approach that reinforces tried-and-tested habits and conventions. And many students now see the pursuit of an education, and the achievement of a degree as an end in itself: Students are ever-more preoccupied with assessment procedures and with ‘making the grade’, yet in today’s culture of student-as-consumer, students are also increasingly sceptical and sensitive to robust or challenging criticism, often ready to contest the assessment of tutors, or plead mitigating circumstances. Tutors, for their part, are increasingly reluctant to fail students, self-consciously trying to accommodate the demands of education policy for making education more accessible and inclusive.
At the same time, the critical controversies and allegiances that drove the advanced art of the last century have lost their momentum. Students may learn about experimental art and radical theory, but it no longer seems to inspire a critical commitment to testing those ideas outside of the safe confines of the professional environment. Art’s history of experimentation and exploration is now comfortably assimilated into the norms of art school education, and no longer appears as a challenge to either the commercial market or the culture of publicly funded art.
That art students and tutors should respond in such cautious and unadventurous terms, retreating into the safety of formal academic procedure and the narrow limits of career opportunity, is a product of an educational culture that sees knowledge and learning as primarily vocational and utilitarian. This is a common feature of contemporary education. It is also the expression of individuals for whom the world seems inherently more risky and unpredictable, even if, compared to our artistic predecessors, the context in which to risk all in the name of art has become more comfortable and secure than ever – The old image of the dedicated artist starving in a garret now exists only as a quaint caricature, yet as an anachronism it highlights the reality that without a sense of a greater purpose to one’s endeavours, risk-taking and experimentation will always be confined to the limits of a professionally sanctioned, economically secure career. This narrowing of ambition finally indicates the retreat of an ambitious avant-gardist attitude to art’s place in society, and the disappearance of the idea that culture, in its most dynamic form, contributes to our sense of what its progressive and valuable in human society more broadly.
There is no textbook for the ideal artist, and art is often concerned with the wilder reaches of knowledge and experience. As a result, art school training should be about the development of truly inquiring, independent subjects, whose formation cannot be simply defined by the assimilation and reproduction of pre-existing disciplines. Art is a heterogeneous, multi-faceted engagement with the living culture of society, and its truly creative edge is led by those who have the confidence and insight to push it beyond its conventional languages, forms and attitudes.
Beyond the problems of funding and educational and cultural policy, artists, students and tutors need to rethink the purpose of their activity and of the potential of the artistic imagination in all its social and cultural forms. A sense of risk, of experimentation and of unforeseen possibility cannot be simply be taught by seminars. It needs to connect to cultural and social life as something that can be questioned and transformed, with a sense of what might be achieved beyond the pre-existing frameworks of careers and institutions. But this can only make sense if a society understands that exploring the unknown is a principle worth pursuing. If our society, as a whole, is more concerned with maintaining the stability of things as they are, rather than risking the consequences of any leap into the unknown, then artistic experimentation will always be constrained to the subjective limits of the individual, and to the pre-existing forms of commercial and institutional life.
To present a challenge to this, we want act as rallying point for art students, tutors and others who are concerned about these problems. By developing an open conversation about art and the basis for its teaching between all involved, both outside and through art school structures, we can go further that the limiting relationships and preoccupations that now dominate art school life. Instead of repeating the complaints that confirm an individualised, professional and career-centred attitude to artistic practice, we can start to think about what a genuinely free art school might look like, what it teaches and where it leads. What shape that art school takes is for all of us to decide.”