Why I ... think the role of art schools is less clear now than in the 1960s

June 18, 2004

Art education today bears the fruit of seeds planted in the 1960s. We see it in the wide-ranging creativity of art students, even as we observe the reactionary response of institutions, which since the Thatcher years have become increasingly obsessed with accountability, profitability and expediency. We see also the fallout from postmodernism, where, in terms of student aspirations, relativism has opened the door to an infinity of artistic strategies and possibilities, but in terms of teaching and evaluation has left institutions without real authority or credibility.

The commercialisation of higher education has led to huge gains in real estate but massive inadequacies in resources. Top-down planning has left the lecturer in a state of bureaucratic stress, endlessly reporting, evaluating and meeting criteria set from on high. The one-to-one tutorial has virtually disappeared, and indeed would better serve students if it were really to be virtual - that is, online and accessible to a worldwide network of experts and practitioners who were not constantly disappearing for staff meetings, crisis talks, management updates and admin workshops.

These institutions are governed by the bottom line instead of showing the cultural way forward with vision and artistic leadership. Students find the stimulus for change, transformation and enterprise on the street rather than in the studio, in the clubs rather than in the seminar, on the net rather than in the museum. Art schools for the most part are housed in old modernist or Victorian buildings designed for other kinds of practice and older sensibilities. They are incorporated in but are rarely tolerated or understood by the university sector that has absorbed them.

The 1960s was characterised by many attempts to re-invent the art school, to redefine what art could be. We were futures-oriented and dedicated to change, for its own sake. The art school was the place where everything was possible, encouraging open-ended speculation, experiment and self-invention. Student numbers were much less, with nothing like the mass marketing(ing) of today, with its crass modularisation and commodification of learning. Much of the student's search for knowledge and identity now takes place in the net. The role of the art school is not entirely clear beyond providing qualifications and a community base. The exceptions are found largely where real engagements with technology and the sciences are possible.

Our teaching in the 1960s foregrounded behaviour, consciousness, conceptual strategy and process and system over the object-based aesthetic inherited from the European mainstream tradition. The work was more constructive than responsive; the world was to be built rather than simply observed; the personality of each student was seen as fluid; chance and contingency were celebrated. Students came with rather rigid preconceptions about themselves, and art, reflecting the sclerosis of their secondary education.

In our view, only carefully constructed situations designed to elicit amazement, analysis, deliberation, self-affirmation, enthusiasm, re-evaluation and delight might shake this hold on their perceptions, release their imagination and accelerate their learning. We sought to provide the training and pastoral care needed for them to recreate themselves, their relationships, their environment. We saw the art school as a creative organism in which we all had a stake.

To realise our ambitions we sought out cyberneticians, psychics, architects, scientists, writers and musicians as part of the mix of minds and methodologies from which new artistic practice might emerge. Analysis, theory, speculation and social application were valued in equal measure.

Now the future seems to lie in the growing alliance between science and the arts, and in transdisciplinary networks where research may lead to a visionary pragmatism.

Roy Ascott
Professor and director of the Planetary Collegium, Plymouth University
and senior adjunct professor in design/media arts
University of California, Los Angeles

Roy Ascott's book Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art Technology and Consciousness is published by University of California Press. He appears on BBC Four's Time Shift - Art School at 9.20pm on June 19.

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