If anything would be taught at a university level, the way art is, these institutions would be shut down in a matter of days. I am not talking about the role of art – maybe this is somewhat touched by the stuff I am discussing here -, but I would like to address some serious issues I have with art academia.
I get it: people have this weird idea of art being a weird thing, where everything is allowed. What strikes me though, is if this understood in a way that everything is equally valid. If you boil it down to a question of personal freedom, sure you can do whatever you want, but I seriously question that art schools have to follow that non-existing set of guidelines. Sure enough many of them do.
In the institution, where I studied, the joke was that you can not fail your exam. And while I was there almost no one did. One guy, for instance, fixed a chair to a wall, chest high, stripped himself naked, stuck a power cord in his butt, sat on the chair and insulted the professors for twenty minutes. Sure enough he passed his exam. There was discussion amongst the younger students afterwards, if they let him pass just not to spend another year in his presence; but my guess would be, that at least some of the professors found the thing he did important enough for him to be granted the title. That might be just one story, but for me it feels quite revealing. Neither was it intelligent what this guy did, nor important, nor in any way brave. One might say: But you still remember his performance, so it must have left a deep impression on you. True, and once I was walking by a posh restaurant in Berlin, late at night, and a guy vomited out of the entrance door, missing me by a mere inch. Just remembering something does not qualify it as good art.
It is quite sad, that even raising the question of the role art schools ought to play within society would be considered sacrilegious by many. You are not supposed to raise this question; art schools are for artists and they are doing whatever they want to do. And that is that. But I think it would be very important to distinguish between the art world and things that are taught and worked on in an academic environment.
The truth is, that almost all artist are forced to try to compete on the art market after they have finished their studies; but still the role of art schools as institutions of higher education should not be to fulfill the needs and wishes of the art market. I think that this would be completely the wrong focus. An academic environment is one of research and development and why should that be different for art schools? Art should be research as well – it certainly has the potential to do so. And when did we stop looking for progress and development as a key feature of young art?
If you find yourself in a class, where the bulk of students paints black squares on canvas, and you are one of them, there is something wrong with your situation. That might have to do with your professor, but you might have to take your share of the responsibility for the whole situation. Painting black squares was a huge step in the development of art and it raised and solved multiple issues and questions society was struggling with. But these questions were not your questions and the issues were not those of the world that surrounds you.
Doing what other artist did before you, is a very simple way to work as an artist. Doing similar things to what you professor is doing, might even grant you instant gratification. You are doing what he is doing? Well he certainly understands your “intentions” – since these are basically his own – and therefore he has a lot to say about your work. But that is a very strange understanding of the role an artist should play.
This is such an amazing time to work as an artist. So much information is available and so many ways to express yourself. The academic art environment should be at the core of many of the central debates. Why, for instance, are the key players in the field of visual science philosophers or social scientists? When did we lose authority over that topic? Shouldn’t artists be the leading figures here? And since artist, for decades, took their inspiration from a gazillion different sources, academic art could play an important role in bringing together different scientific fields, that are struggling with an interdisciplinary approach.
And every unnecessary black square that is been painted by an art student, not only hurts the reputation of art schools as a place of learning and research. But it also hinders the progress art could make.