Let’s take two social subjects that chronically stoke the passions of public opinion, while public authorities are tending to show growing disinterest in them; two subjects that reliably cause tensions and defiance both outside of their spheres and within: education and contemporary art. The great debates around art schools being subjected to reforms that aim to standardise tertiary qualifications, over the last two decades, have been held almost exclusively within these institutions, in a defensive position.
In Europe, the Bologna process that began in 1998 gave rise to a powerful outcry, correlative to a self-examination of the crisis affecting art schools – a crisis that only seems to have worsened since. In France, the regional schools (thirty-three, versus nine national schools) are becoming increasingly fragile – a fact already attested by closures – with budget shortfalls each year making the maintaining of pedagogical programmes a veritable feat, obliging staff to make sacrifices while their salaries remain inferior to those of secondary school teachers. Let us include, among the signs of ill health of these schools, their low international attractiveness (with the exception of China and South Korea, where an ideal of French cultural excellence seems to have resisted) leaving them well behind in terms of multiculturalism. They have also failed to accommodate genuine social diversity and integrate minorities, one of the markers being the extreme rarity of racial groups among the students of these courses, still firmly rooted in discriminating social representations. Let’s add to that the delay with which reactions are expressed and measures taken against gender inequalities – and even sexist attacks that have long remained commonplace – to paint a picture of an institution fossilised in the twentieth century.
And yet art schools, more than ever, are centralising progressive desires and ambitions for a better society, even if it means infusing all innovative ideas (and their language) with positions that are more or less compatible intellectually; even it means – at worst – satisfying the truncated images through which some of their political guardians justify themselves: by presenting themselves as creative business incubators, suppliers of territorial agents colporting convivial, inoffensive, environmental, and symbolic actions… Or in another way, just as revealing of the aspirations that crystallise art schools in spite of their ambiguous image, the ‘educational turn’ that has been observed in art news since 2005. This curatorial phenomenon has been expressed by the investment in the ‘school theme’ and the vocabulary of the pedagogical through art projects that wish to signify their experimental character and desire for inclusion in socio-political space.1 As for us, at La belle revue, we have high hopes for art schools. While the reduction, in contemporary life, of spaces and times exempt from capitalist logics is indeed oppressive, we think that among the places available for the exercise of critical thinking (to be drawn on as required to rethink all of our existing ways of seeing and doings), art schools are one of the refuges from society. We’d therefore like to think of them as the loci for all practices and thoughts that disrupt the reign of destructive liberalism, as Geoffroy de Lagasnerie suggested at the national art schools’ convention in 2015 in Lyon, in the hopes that schools would be “sites accommodating the manifestation of the world that is now being invented.”2
The subject of art schools is favourable to discursive effects and it is on the back of these that La belle revue decided to develop this modest dossier within such a vast debate. It comprises interviews that attempt, through practical case studies about a few specific pedagogical experiences, to inform us about some of the realities of teaching art, at the margins or within the institution, such as the relationship to effective pedagogy or student-teacher relations. Students are strangely absent from narratives about the transmission of art, given the extent to which the myth of avant-garde pedagogies are built on programmatic texts, disregarding the individualities that receive these teachings. It is therefore through the story of a former student that the mythical Städelschule in Frankfurt is evoked, a story full of fervour in which the artist Anders Dickson nevertheless describes methods and stakes that seem to us to be shared by any and every art school. This desire to displace our perspective on art schools would have merited radically entrusting the editorial direction to the students or recent graduates. In the meantime, grace (and disgrace) is applied to them in the foreword via the poem by Thom Donovan,3 a love declaration in the form of a list that humorously evokes the unusual and bittersweet flavour of teaching dispensed to young adults and upcoming authors. Designed “in place of a profession of faith” required by the universities in the United States, it thus ironises about the discrepancy between the formulation of the academic requests and the forms that pedagogy takes in its practice, inevitably adaptable and unavoidably contingent. This is what emerges from the examples of pedagogical situations described by Clovis Maillet, whose clear voice expresses his vision of the specificities of art schools and pedagogy coherent with feminist thought.
The modest editorial goal of this dossier is therefore to talk about art schools from the outside – even though we must concur that La belle revue is linked to the art schools of the region through its dissemination of their graduates’ work and that the reading committee includes art school teachers, who are clearly implicated. Also, two interviews shift the gaze a bit further afield and even counter to the institution, such as the Free Home University as told by one of its founders, curator Alessandra Pomarico. This captivating interview – but which would again require a questioning of the role of narrative in the story of radical pedagogies – explains how autonomy is the condition for the deep analysis of modes of production of knowledge and the possibility of thereby considering societal reconfigurations, among other solutions, for the creation and sharing of art. We are taken even further afield, even to remote territories, through the interview with Natalia Arcos and Alessandro Zagato, founders of the Groupe de Recherche en Art et Politique, which collaborate with Zapatista communities in Chiapas, where an autonomous education system has been established, with a view to decolonising knowledges and reappropriating their cultural identity. The critical spirit of the reader will be tested as much as the equivocity of the discourse held within the casual institutional space of our Western societies. Because the declarations from (armed) revolutionaries are clear, as are those of the tenants of a radical pedagogical alternative; but apparently, the paradigm to overthrow is exactly the same as the one against which teachers or directors of public establishments in professional symposiums are battling, that is, the application to the fields of knowledge and art of capitalist logics that result in homogenisation and confiscation.
It is here that our “educational complex” resurfaces, borrowed from Mike Kelley’s title, in a psychoanalytical sense that so disgusted its author. Begun in 1995, all of the sculptures contain a model, created from memory, of an educational complex bringing together all the buildings in which Kelley had been taught and been a victim of institutional mistreatment. The complex that we are pointing to raises the dissonances of double talk – of which art schools are champions.
In this respect, it is striking to find the usual vocabulary of unclear orders heard in art schools used wittingly in the revolutionary context. Indeed, it is more likely that a community of learners be formed with students when you live in a community far from everything. Similarly, the figures of horizontality and notions of collegiality with which we flatter employees in all businesses as well as in art schools are genuinely feasible in an organisation that has abolished hierarchy.
So we need to ask ourselves what is the function of this ‘utopian impulse’ being maintained with the myth of the avant-gardes within art schools and what it is based on, once returned from the modernist project of shaping the world through art (and some of its associated political offshoots) as well as the psychedelic wanderings associating spiritual awakening and political protest (I’m referring to the ‘yogi impulse’ also observed in the field). It’s true that there’s enough to give way to melancholy when faced with this cruel paradox that consists of defending the threatened specificity and autonomy of art schools while relying for this defence on a social project that would suggest dissolving them – more specifically: not to constitute a specialist corpus, but to accentuate the transmission and hybridization between art and the other fields of knowledge and activity.
Add to this other, more or less consecutive paradoxes that those who teach art are well aware of, ever since our master John Baldessari, among others, formulated that art can’t be taught; those who must activate the observation of a mind becoming enlightened, and other non-quantifiable things in boxes indexed by figures, by twenty-six or by one hundred and sixty-five; those who, within an institutional framework, attempt to help young people procure the tools to emancipate themselves from frameworks, who on their side of the equation, wish to emancipate themselves from the teaching. Because art schools are the realm of the double bind and the guesstimate. Any pedagogical project is a supposition and, when there are other perspectives that “arouse desire” (another dazzling injunction that threatens to make teaching slide into entertainment), it must make a journey into the future and return to the already-obsolete present to prepare these future authors for the art world as it will be configured.
This is provided that the (art) world changes, and that the art schools are sincerely committed to that change, which they don’t yet seem ready for. Despite the fact that they welcome or advertise their affinities with theories breaking away from the dominant systems (such as feminists, decolonialists, and degrowth activists) most of them continue to promote their graduates within prominent economic and media networks, and to evaluate their success (with swathes of publicity) according to their integration within these same networks. Why is this propensity to adopt new vocabularies not the same as separating from the ones related to the commodification of art, like the term “production” that often serves to avoid the term “artwork” when it comes to a student’s experimentation? This vocabulary has been excluded, it seems, from the alternative schools that are in systematic opposition to the world of professional art perceived as the apostle of capitalism. So let’s stay attentive to the kinds of exchanges that are being developed between these autonomous schools and our institutions that require reinvention.
- Irrit Rogoff, “Turning”, in e-flux Journal #00, November 2008 [DOI: www.e flux.com/journal/00/68470/turning, consulted on 29 February 2020].
- Demain l’école d’art, Actes des assises nationales des écoles d’art, 29 et 30 octobre 2015 (Paris: ANdÉA, 2016) [DOI : www.journals.openedition.org, consulted on 29 February 2020].
- In Lieu of a ‘Statement of Teaching Philosophy’ by American writer Thom Donovan as part of a long-term literary project called Left Melancholy.