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Creative protesting

It’s time to heed the complaints and free art schools from the constraints of the university system, says Niru Ratnam

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

It’s time to heed the complaints and free art schools from the constraints of the university system, says Niru Ratnam

The Turner Prize award ceremony always attracts protest — usually in the shape of the Stuckists, a group of bedraggled, eccentric-looking artists who gather outside Tate Britain in funny hats and bemoan the death of representational painting. But this year they were upstaged by around 200 art students, who entered the museum in the afternoon and refused to leave, staging what was described as a ‘teach-in’. In addition to wearing their own humorous hats, the students made speeches, marched round and chanted. The ‘teach-in’ was a protest against proposals unveiled in the Browne Review to remove state funding from university undergraduate fine art courses (along with all other arts, humanities and social sciences subjects).

The Turner Prize teach-in was one of a number of such protests at art schools. Goldsmiths students occupied their library (some presumably overjoyed at having finally located it), students occupied the Slade and there was a teach-in at the National Gallery. Art students are good at this sort of creative protesting, and they drew a large amount of support from established artists and art school academics. Many of the art world grandees at the Turner Prize party expressed their support.

There is a reason for this: creative dissent is just about the only thing art schools teach well any more and that artists all agree is worth doing. The American academic Thierry de Duve pointed this out in a paper he delivered in 1993, which was subsequently published as ‘When Form Has Become Attitude — and Beyond’. De Duve argued that first modernism and then postmodernism stripped the art school of any useful function aside from teaching an attitude of dissent.

Until the 20th century, art schools taught observation and imitation as the tried-and-tested method of the Academy. Modernism made imitation obsolete and so for a time art schools followed the way of the Bauhaus — a strange mix of the mechanical and the mystical that offered to teach a stripped-down modern ‘visual language’ (which resulted in some tremendous furniture). Then postmodernism came along and questioned the modernist ideal of unearthing the essence of any particular medium by arguing that there were no essences and the only way to move forward was to navigate semiotics, Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, structuralism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism — and see what was left. And the answer was, not very much, aside from the ability sneeringly to deconstruct any assertion around what might make good art. As de Duve notes, ‘critical theory’, the collective name for this hodgepodge of knowledge, is apposite; a theory of relentless critique that has long lost the ability to offer anything positive. In short, art students might have lost the ability to paint, draw or sculpt but they learnt how to argue.

And one of the most popular things artists have learnt to argue over is the nature of art education itself. There are numerous examples of this; the now quasi-mythical occupation of Hornsey Art College in 1968 started off as a dispute over a freeze on Student Union funds but rapidly escalated to a series of intensive discussions on the nature of art education. Contemporary artists now regularly make work about the bankruptcy of art schools.

Indeed, until Browne’s report drew the art world together in unified protest, much recent debate had been around the poverty of teaching in art schools. This has centred on the tension between attempting to teach ‘fine art’ and the demands of the system that up until now provided a large chunk of the money. On the one hand, there is a subject that postmodernism has left wildly open-ended with little consensus on what constitutes ‘quality’ and how teachers might go about assessing student’s output. On the other, there are the demands of the university system now permeated by the language of management consulting, so that terms like quality control, benchmarking and key performance indicators are regularly inflicted on bemused academics. At Goldsmiths, Irit Rogoff has stated that the result-orientated culture of the 21st-century university system is ‘completely alien’ to a contemporary art education, and it’s a fair assumption to say her view is shared by a number of her colleagues.

What’s intriguing about Browne’s recommendations is that they might inadvertently provide a useful catalyst. Until they were announced, the stand-off between advocates of a more radical art education and the university system had ground to an impasse. If one of the functions of the Browne Review is to soften up arts and humanities for ‘new providers’, a phrase that David Willetts has recently taken to repeating, then art students could actually benefit intellectually: art schools might at least be freed from the constraints of the university system.

The maths is fairly straightforward; up to now every undergraduate art student has come with just over £7,000 of cash, £3,224 in the form of an up-front loan to pay tuition fees and a second chunk of £3,947 from government (via the Higher Education Funding Council for England) that under the Browne Review’s proposals will disappear. Without that second chunk of money the question is obvious: why should art schools bother with the current university system?

The field seems open for new for-profit providers to develop art schools which wouldn’t necessarily have to involve three-year courses but might offer more intensive two-year degrees where students are eligible to receive the preferential loans open to other university students (this model is operated by Britain’s first private university, the University of Buckingham). Another alternative would be to ditch the degree entirely and the largely unwanted components it brings with it, such as the need for a dissertation, and provide an education that fits with the conceptual openness of contemporary practice.

It isn’t too difficult to imagine how this latter option might look — an obvious example is unitednationsplaza, an open-access, discussion-heavy art school-type forum with associated informal residencies that initially took place over a year in Berlin between 2006 and 2007. It featured more than 100 of the international art world’s intellectually hippest artists and theoreticians who delivered free-wheeling seminars before retiring to the well-used bar.

However, those who laud initiatives such as unitednationsplaza tend to be the same artists and academics lending their support to London’s students protesting against the Browne Review. Few seem to note that unitednationsplaza was cross-subsidised through the private sector by the profits of e-flux, the online exhibition advertising business of the main organiser, Anton Vidokle.

The artists and academics currently debating the future of art schools are deeply suspicious of private finance. But before the possibility of for-profit providers reared its head they were equally suspicious of state funding. Frankly, after 40 years of critical theory, most of them are suspicious of everything. It’s time to set art schools free.

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