Whilst taking part in an MFA seminar discussion regarding Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster and using it as a model to understand an audience’s reception and production of an art experience — my thoughts became very literal.1 Could I have admitted to my 2002 Year-Eight metalwork class that I lacked oxy-acetylene welding experience and that created an opportunity for the class to engage our mutual ignorance productively? This tangential line of thought continued as the seminar group diligently discussed how art — like the schoolmaster Joseph Jacotot’s use of the Télémaque book — could be understood as a social encounter between two unknowing parties. Regardless of its allegorical use by the art field, I speculated as to why this interest in the sociology of pedagogy had arisen now? From my own experience of high school teaching I was wary of some segments of the art-school sector regarding the coalface of education with a degree of suspicion or well-meaning but simplistic platitudes. On the flip side, maybe this use of Rancière in this and other MFA courses, could be regarded as an initial deployment of a productive interdisciplinary dialogue between different dynamics of power. This reflexive approach to teaching and learning would be refreshing if it were being used to look at actual art-school teaching and not just the pedagogical content, methodology and interpretative framework of art in the public realm.
There is currently an educational turn in contemporary art discourse: a growing formal and material interest in art as lecture, reading group, whiteboard or awkward show-and-tell, which illustrates that education is a pervasive influence on artistic production, while also often being ignored and undervalued. It’s curious that whilst we’re getting dizzy at the prospect that a gallery might look like a classroom, we’re not stopping to look at our own complicity in the convergence of artistic production and education — not stopping to attend to the specifities of the actual educational environment in which artists are increasingly involved.2 Apart from the aforementioned education-turned-stylistic-turn, critical networks disengage with the actual pedagogical models of art schools as if it were not consequential that most exhibiting artists at some point attended tertiary institutions. There are of course two obvious exceptions where education matters. The first is the graduate show — a debutante rite where notions of pedigree and influence derived from educators acquires a fresh lustre. The ritualistic harvesting of young fresh talent at graduate shows is the acceptable face of teaching within contemporary art cultures. The debutantes are embraced for their own precocious promise and for faithfully reflecting and affirming existing constellations of stars. The second example is the increasing emphasis on postgraduate education. This academicisation of art has been colonised relatively recently by the language of the hosting university. Artists now quantify and qualify their experimentation via the notion of academically sanctioned research rather than industry-based CVs. The prolonged university stint presents artists with an opportunity to not only frame their own practice as a rigorous form of knowledge creation, but to also create pathways and publication opportunities in allied creative industries that can financially support (inevitably) loss-making art practices.
The discursive emphasis that grounds tertiary research and coursework is not new or unpredictable. It is not a coincidence that the proliferation of MFA programs occurred in sync with the dematerialisation of the art object and the increase in artists’ writings in the 1960s–1970s.3 Artists have also joined the credential inflation that is endemic across all professions where potential candidates outnumber employment opportunities.4 The question that is yet to be fully answered, however, is: how will the artist’s discursive framing be valued against the dominant contextualisation offered by curatorial, historical or commercial institutional voices? What can an artist bring to a public conversation about art that goes beyond the calculus of a commercial imperative, public relations or methodological convenience that privileges cohesion and stability? The amplified place of education within the field of art creates an opportunity to take stock of how as artists we use peer review, collaborate with other fields of knowledge and hopefully question some of the arbitrary markers of industry experience and expertise that are often left unsubstantiated.
The altruism associated with pedagogy does not make it immune to an economic dynamic. Whilst art schools might once have held some distance from the university industry, funding, research and recognition are now tied into bridging some of the incongruent teaching, learning and research practices once found in art schools. This standardisation makes certain social and economic barriers more apparent, while also enabling artists to work and exhibit in a site context that invariably shifts the discursive potential of a practice. The shift in the structural identity of the art school is only the continuation of art’s place in a secondary school context, where individual expression is framed within a neo-liberal economy of discipline, community well-being and student testing that is linked to teacher performance and teacher pay. This is only made more complex when you consider the art school’s role in training autonomous entrepreneurial practitioners who must negotiate their own fraught exchanges of cultural and social capital.5 It is no surprise that when the art market is down the art industry transits smoothly to the relative security of the university. The aspirant in me would claim fair game but the undisputable statistics in regards to the socio-economic backgrounds of art school students leans to various types of privilege dominating. This access to arts education is in the process of becoming more inequitable in Victoria as the Liberal state government slashes TAFE funding. The role that Visual Art TAFE courses play in compensating for some of the inequitable distribution of access and recourses in the secondary sector can’t be overstated.6
The ‘educational turn’ is not sited within educational institutions so much as made reference to within curatorial programs, social art projects, stylistic tropes, community pedagogical projects and the outreach agendas of cultural institutions.7 Another perspective on education as art project identifies how private enterprise covers up (perhaps inadvertently) the shortcomings of a public education system. Museums and galleries acquire government funding that is tied to agendas much broader than aesthetic enterprise. While the artist’s role has always had a relation to sociability, is this social process a pedagogical stopgap for inadequate social policy? This allows and reinforces the continuation of the inadequate funding faced by the higher education sector. In the last fifteen years art schools’ studio programs have been under pressure to reduce the contact hours held by teaching staff. Projects that incorporate pedagogy as an artistic enterprise boost the reputations of host institutions — accommodating ruthless budgetary cuts with a progressive artistic veneer of volunteerism.8 This is occurring in the aftermath of the debates surrounding the co-option of social enterprise by art contexts and the subsequent questioning of their critical quality and the challenge they pose to autonomous aesthetic paradigms. The various threads of this discourse interrogated the social role the artist played within the community-context-turned-art-project and looked carefully at the power dynamic between the artist and participants/collaborators.9 What emerged was the inadequacy of the aesthetic lenses used to judge and produce socially driven art projects. This is where reflexive sociology, pedagogical theory and political assessment of what constitutes the aesthetic seemed more useful than naïve obfuscation of the potential for power play between artists and participants.10 This reflexive methodology is the core competency of both education theory and actual practice in the field — classroom teaching.
The question then might be who gains when the ‘classroom’ is coveted by the artistic frame? This question is at the heart of the conventional journalised narrative of Tim Rollins and his Kids Of Survival practice. It is testament to the fickle nature of the art industry’s co-option of education within its process and presentation. In this case an artistic intervention to help disenfranchised kids rode a critical wave in the 1980s, was acquired by Saatchi, dumped by Saatchi and then persisted as a type of laudable artist-in-schools measure, that went unregarded by any arts community until very recently when truffle-nosed connoisseurs salvaged it as a link to art’s pedagogical past.11 Rollins’ dripping wet, paternalistic literacy program via over-determined facilitation of young teenagers’ collaborative artwork, has little to do with a progressive educational ethos, as it privileges a singular visual response to the group’s collective understanding of a canonical text. The project by its very name frames the pedagogue/artist in relation to his assistance (or rescue) of unnamed students who are doing it tough. Now literacy, creative expression and collaborative communities are important — educationalists know this, and pedagogues working with cultural production have known this. The Bauhaus school and Soviet Constructivism are obvious historical precedents that challenged many disciplinary boundaries — integrating experimental pedagogical and social contexts to the production of art objects. The work of Joseph Beuys offers a precedent for shifting the ideological centre of pedagogy into an artwork, but also for non-object based outcomes.12 What I’m barracking for here is not a particular modality or site context of art teaching but an open attitude to the proliferation of creative conceptual art education. These programmes don’t need to be thrown into the fray of gallery presentation; their worth lies in their educational value to students. Grappling with the power relations that emerge out of teacher–student collaboration and the sanctimony of the facilitator are issues that should be addressed within the projects. This is the ethical realm of pedagogy. The question is not whether there is an inequitable distribution of power between teacher and student; the more pertinent question is: how will this dynamic help foster a type of growth? The rhetorical claim that creativity in all fields is equally valuable is not always accepted by the arts community. We can too easily presume that if it’s not presented on a wall or trestle table then it’s not worth doing.
An artist’s autonomy was a much-vaunted quality of Modernism. It is not surprising that our art schools once played by their own rules regarding assessment, industrial relations, learning and teaching methodologies. We are now in a period where these same institutions are fitting (or having difficulty fitting) into university contexts.13 This reform process has benefits and pitfalls, and it has been met with some resistance. Some of this resistance is worth maintaining but the claim that art schools will be robbed of their inherent experimental and progressive qualities cannot be substantiated by the evidence on the ground. Across all universities’ art schools, medium-specific silos are preserved for no clear conceptual or methodological purpose apart from convenience and location of equipment and resources; assessment procedures do not adequately address the arbitrariness of taste and are maintained due to university policy and progression into postgraduate study; some employment relations (on both sides of the worker–manager divide) would make the high school industrial relations environment seem contentious — which it isn’t. There are certainly marked differences between governmental policy and its implementation in the secondary school classroom context. However, on paper at least, there is a capacity for reflexivity in relation to both education and broader social and aesthetic terrains. This is a space where interdisciplinary relations between departments are not only expected but required; collaborative methodologies are always a work in progress; transparent and detailed assessment criteria are used to substantiate the contentious judgment of cultural production; and surprisingly complex theoretical frameworks are being used to read art.14
While I am flinging mud at art schools, it is important to note that within a local Australian context, pedagogical art environments are fostering a number of interesting projects. These projects kick goals in regards to experimental teaching and consider it within a critical dimension of an art practice. This exchange is a familiar recurrence in artist-in-schools programs too. Their publication to a broader audience, like the activities conducted by Joseph Beuys and Tim Rollins andro KOS, occurs in exceptional circumstances. DAMP, the Pedagogical Vehicle Project, Evergreen Terrace, Sandra Bridie’s composite projects, MADA’s interdisciplinary Murrumbeena Exchange, Melbourne Free School and Lucas Ihlein’s Tending: a Garden Experiment are relevant examples.15 While some, like DAMP, cut the chord tying the pedagogue (Geoff Lowe) to the students-now-established-artists many years ago, many remain a testament to intervening in the status quo of arts education. What makes these projects interesting is that they resist the atelier system of tuition that still dominates art schools in Melbourne. They represent an open and experimental attitude to creative conceptual art education. These programs do not need to be thrown into the fray of gallery presentation as their worth lies in their educational value to students as students. They involve a new and challenging understanding of what a class could be.
Spiros Panigirakis is an artist and lecturer in the Faculty of Art Design & Architecture at Monash University.