The art of the matter

As high-profile art schools are absorbed by larger institutions, Peter Hill asks if their uniquely fertile environments suffer for being overseen by those whose priorities inevitably lie elsewhere

January 19, 2012

What makes a great art school? Every few years, a different institution seems to emerge ready formed on the international art scene as the place where young artists want to study, play and - increasingly - pay. Often it is because recent graduates of that school have found critical and financial success in glossy art and design magazines, and on the international art fair and biennale circuit. Word of mouth does the rest.

Sometimes painting is in fashion; sometimes it is product design, textiles or critical theory. Often it is an overarching idea, such as Pop Art or Post-Modernism, or a new technique - such as the airbrush in the 1960s or digital media three decades later - that blows through all disciplines, often disappearing just as quickly, or forming a separate academy of its own. Animation, for example, grew up in art schools as a quirky sideshow and migrated to Hollywood as a trillion-dollar industry. Occasionally, the art and design school itself sets a global agenda both for pedagogy and commercial success, as with the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany.

By the 1960s, there was that great year at the Royal College of Art in London that produced David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Peter Blake and Allen Jones, among many others. And there is the photograph to prove it, too, of all those Young Turks leaning against a statue at the Venice Biennale, ready to take on the world - with Hockney looking like the cat who got the double cream.

The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles, bizarrely (or appropriately) founded by the Disney corporation, has had a rolling procession of art-star alumni including Barbara Bloom, Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl, Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, David Salle, Laura Owens, Lari Pittman and the film-maker Tim Burton, responsible for works from Beetlejuice (1988) to Alice in Wonderland (2010).

In Australia, the University of Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts has seen more graduates represent their country at the Venice Biennale than any other art school, including Ricky Swallow, Bill Henson, Patricia Piccinini and Howard Arkley, while the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales in Sydney has formed a remarkable number of research clusters, regularly winning the large government-funded grants in areas such as art and sustainability, art and politics, new technologies and the creative design of cities. Monash University and RMIT have both attracted students with pioneering overseas campuses, the former in Tuscany and the latter in Vietnam.

The Glasgow School of Art has had two significant runs of success, first in the 1980s with the neo-expressionist painters - Steven Campbell, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and Peter Howson - and then a few years later with the neo-conceptualists Christine Borland, Douglas Gordon, Martin Creed and others. This success continues: six Glasgow graduates have now won the Turner Prize, and others have been shortlisted. Many of them studied under the legendary teacher Samantha Ainsley in the school's environmental art course, including Douglas Gordon, who won the prize in 1996, last year's winner Martin Boyce, and Nathan Coley, who was shortlisted in 2007.

Then there is Germany, whose post-war recovery brought new visual-arts glories through its embrace of contemporary art. At the Dusseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, Joseph Beuys was the sun around which a whole planetary system of great artists revolved - Jorg Immendorff, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and others. And in London, Goldsmiths, University of London was pulled into the limelight of the popular media by Damien Hirst and his co-exhibitors in the now-legendary Freeze exhibition of 1988. It also included work by Fiona Rae, Mat Collishaw, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume and Michael Landy. Lately, the chatter around easels, in cafes and internet chatrooms has been about Mexico City...or is it Berlin?

Art schools of choice change very quickly, so don't get rid of your marketing department yet - word of mouth can be as cruel on the way down as it is overenthusiastic on the way up. Many an eager student has turned up at an art school on the other side of the world only to be sorely disappointed, realising that they have arrived five years too late. The institution they thought was the current engine room of creativity has overcrowded studios, thanks in part to the very reputation that has drawn so many students there.

It is under-staffed because many of the key members of faculty that helped to create it have moved on and have not been replaced, and the dominant art movement may well have changed - relational aesthetics has usurped video art, as it had previously done to Deconstruction, Appropriation and Neo-Expressionism in turn. The crucial point here is that healthy art schools realise that art movements will indeed change every five years or so, often dramatically and unforgivingly, in architecture and design as much as in fine art. Suddenly Minimalism is replaced by kitsch or computer modelling, which in turn is overtaken by art driven by issues of "sustainability" or energy efficiency, or by pop-up projects or "superfictions".

But should university art schools be defined by a handful of celebrity graduates? It may be wiser to look at the conditions that allowed those artists to develop their own language in the first place. How can we design curricula and postgraduate research clusters so that individuals can navigate a path through both the academic research hierarchy and the world of commercial galleries, biennales and game-changing art-and-design magazines? Artists are, after all, as likely to be individuals pushing away at something that may take decades to resolve as they are to be part of a team.

Amalgamations and homogeneity are not necessarily the way forward. If a country such as the UK has more than 70 art and design schools, and Australia more than 30, why not encourage them all to be different and to play to different pedagogical and research strengths? Why not allow them to be experimental in their structure and let a mixture of market forces and word of mouth do the rest? Instead of putting mountains of money into marketing brochures - which all use variations on the same cliched "moving forward to excellence" crap that every prospective student sees through in a trice - why not fund visual arts researchers properly? Then they can travel, undertake residencies and produce stunning "new knowledge" that will move quickly through the world's visual culture and into the economy at large, fuelled and re-funded by the disposable income of the arts-loving population - from rock concerts to high opera, from literary festivals to biennales of contemporary art.

Until recently, Sydney had four extraordinarily different art schools. A young person studying art at high school had a wide range of campuses, courses, philosophies of art and lecturers to choose from. Now, however, there is greater homogenisation, less variety and closures stemming at least in part from perceived duplication. Similarly, in 1986 several of London's quite distinct art schools were amalgamated into the London Institute, which in 2004 became the University of the Arts London. The move offered strength in numbers but initially left some confusion about the individual identities of its six constituent colleges. It does, however, have the advantage of being the world's largest cluster of stand-alone university art schools, forming an institution where the person at the top goes to bed worrying (or enthusing) only about the visual arts rather than biochemistry, business studies or Romance languages. Gradually, it is forming an identity that is diverse rather than prescriptive.

Over the past five years, stacks of books and magazine articles, all written at the highest level of engagement with the politics of the contemporary art school, have asked "whither now"? What will be the impact of the Bologna Process on the way art is taught and courses are structured? Will the PhD replace the MFA as the terminating degree at most university art schools? Will creative studio research be rewarded by grant-making bodies or will artists have to twist themselves around some ill-fitting "theory" model? Will the UK abandon Bologna in favour of a fast-track two-year undergraduate degree - and will Australia, as so often happens, follow suit several years down the line?

There is no shortage of utopian ideas about how art schools should be run. But the hard-headed managerialist models that are particularly prevalent in art schools in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia have dispirited many faculty members. University of Sydney academics Brad Buckley and John Conomos speak for many disillusioned scholars when, in the introduction to their compelling 2010 book Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, the PhD and the Academy, they say: "The few art schools with the status of a faculty or division that are left in Australia regularly have deans appointed against the expressed majority wishes of the academic staff or faculty, with the appointees mirroring the conservative values of the senior university bureaucracy. They seem never to be artists but to be drawn from disciplines such as cultural theory and business."

Twenty years ago, I was confident about how an art school should be run. It should be a stand-alone institution. The bureaucracy should go no higher than the director of the art school, whose highest priority and last thought at night should be the art school's future and its international reputation - backed up by strong local engagement. Research funding in the visual arts should be based on visual and creative evidence rather than theory-driven, text-based grant applications. In short, I thought there was a lot that universities themselves could learn from the way the best art schools were run - and in these arguments I often said that the Centre for the Arts at the Tasmanian School of Arts in the University of Tasmania was the model par excellence, in many ways thanks to the vision of its former head Geoff Parr.

But what happened instead is that universities hoovered up art schools, and the process looked more like an invasion than a joining of forces. The dominant power took over the smaller and refused to learn anything from it. One culture was imposed on another without any intelligent debate or excitement about the possibilities that now existed to share knowledge between the two systems. One of those cultures was, and is, driven by a mixture of skills, creativity and studio-based research, and the other by a mix of disciplined methodology, scholarship and laboratory-based research.

Today, whatever faculty you are working in, the buck stops at the level of vice-chancellor. There are a few glorious and inspiring exceptions, but let's be honest, how many vice-chancellors have their own (perhaps excellent) art school at the top of their list of night-time thoughts? They go to sleep worrying about winning major science grants, or their place in the rankings of international universities, or the naive measuring of research and teaching outcomes, or, most likely, ways to increase numbers in already overcrowded classrooms by attracting more students from China and India. The result is that in just about every country, art and design schools are pretty close to the bottom of any vice-chancellor's thoughts at any time of the night or day. The creative disciplines - so valued in the world at large - are being destroyed by pro vice-chancellors who, in the main, have no clue about the multibillion-dollar economy to which their staff and students are contributing. How many science or humanities graduates can market their work after graduation to the tune of tens of millions of pounds, as did Damien Hirst?

A crucial condition of creativity that is being eroded is time. It is what every academic needs, and yet we are all being starved of it through management-driven and mostly unnecessary paperwork and form-filling. Jay Coogan, president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, expresses this need well when he says: "Though time is often in short supply in demanding educational environments, making temporal space for creativity should be consciously integrated as part of the educational experience. Time often plays a key role in developing original outcomes and finding unique solutions. To be creative, you cannot be hurried, as there is often a long period of nurturing before creative ideas begin to gel. Developing as an artist or designer requires mental space to allow for intended or unexpected discoveries. An environment that encourages time for solitude interlaced with time for intense interaction is optimal."

So what do we do? How do we escape from our marginalised position within the academy? A number of artists and recent graduates are using fictional situations, or what I call "superfictions", to raise visual art education to the next level rather than allowing it to be dumbed down to an accepted norm. In the same vein, in a brilliant 2010 article in the magazine Art in America, Carly Berwick considers a number of projects that show how the visual arts might be taught - with no fees and no hierarchy, and where creativity reigns over disciplined methodology.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation University, for example, with substantial involvement by recent graduates of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, focuses entirely on what a great art education might be. According to Berwick, "Unlike conventional, accredited schools, the BHQFU is free, peer-run and peer-taught. While there have been artist-run schools in the past, what's different about the latest endeavours is that their creators consider them distinct art forms (and that they offer a broad range of subjects beyond art)...At BHQFU anyone can suggest a class or programme and offer to teach or organise it."

Similar art institutions as artworks are blooming around the world, driven in the main by young artists and staff members disillusioned by the economic rationalists within the higher education sector.

Many of these experiments fall under the umbrella of the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud's notion of "relational aesthetics", a kind of "open university" broad enough to include anarchic projects by artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and countless other artworks where exchange or bartering can drive access and learning. Others link to the ideas of the Austrian-born theorist Ivan Illich, who aimed to abolish traditional teaching altogether in favour of "informal peer networks".

Manifesto 6 was an art educational biennale in Cyprus, planned for 2006 but cancelled for political reasons. Plans for the event heralded a new paradigm of art education and its significance is still being discussed long after the non-event. In the 1990s, there was the École Temporaire in Paris, run by the current art star Pierre Huyghe, and from 2001, the Copenhagen Free University ran from an apartment building in the Danish capital. Somewhere in between these utopian art education projects and the strict economic rationalism of the global university system, surely there must be a flexible spot, an oasis of creativity, where good sense and intelligent planning can deliver inspired art education and foster "appropriate research outcomes" (code for dynamic art).

My thoughts return to Hobart in Tasmania. You build an art school around a huge lecture theatre and fly in an international guest speaker every week. You have open-plan studios so that first-year undergraduates can see what is being created by fourth-year students. You have artists' flats in the building, and a series of international artists in residencies. You have a vibrant art gallery on campus showing a range of local, national and international work. You build strong links with the local community that enable you to raise sponsorship to pay for many of these initiatives. In short, you start aiming at excellence within your own discipline and you don't settle for less. As every faculty should do.

But who do you need to convince to do all of these things?

In these bizarre university days, you need the strange planetary alignment of a visionary vice-chancellor, a sympathetic dean and a dynamic head of school. You need leaders who recognise the commonalities between universities and the visual and performing arts. What links them now, just as it did 200 years ago, is critical thinking, the search for new knowledge and a quest for excellence. There should be no hierarchy of excellence within universities. A glazed ceramic pot made in Tokyo or Cornwall or Tasmania can exist at as high a level (of beauty, intellect and emotion) as a mathematical equation, a sonnet, a cure for malaria or the engineering of a dam. Each adds to our humanity and should be celebrated for doing so.

As Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, said in a speech at Trinity College Dublin, in 2010: "Look to the past to help create the future. Look to science and to poetry. Combine innovation and interpretation. We need the best of both. And it is universities that best provide them."

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