Art is a rigorous practice

Adam Geczy

Midori Oki, Skin Diving, Hatched, PICA

Midori Oki, Skin Diving, Hatched, PICA

Midori Oki, Skin Diving, Hatched, PICA

There is a comment that hangs in my head from my time at art school. One of my lecturers, prising his rolled cigarette from his lips, confided to me in a deep voice, “being an artist is like being a cross between an intellectual and a rock star”. The mixture of earnestness and lèse majesté made the equation sound axiomatic. More than any other kind of tertiary education institutions, it seems to me that art school is where home truths and apocrypha blindly coexist. The role of a good art teacher these days is to dispel all the false myths that are woven around art and artists, and to instil in students the skills and the conceptual tools that are behind all good artistic intuitions. The lecturer in question is, alas, neither an intellectual nor a rock star. Academics like this abound in other disciplines, but a more visible concept of testable rigour chastens them. Art schools today suffer from the dreams of virility cherished by some of their staff, and the misconceptions that the outside has of art as a discipline. Art schools of today are both the beneficiaries and the casualties of the fact that art is a practice that cannot be verified. Never forget that economic and social rationalisation is a matter of proof, not truth.

One of the basic tenets of an art education is to make students distinguish between work that is illustrative and work that is critical, that is, ironic. Irony is the essential quality of art once art loses its continuousness with religion. Once out of God’s service, art becomes a mercurial form of play, and it is its sharp playfulness—or to use the philosopher Kant’s famous phrase, purposiveness without a purpose—that makes art so difficult to position. Like telling a joke to someone with no sense of humour, to speak of art as a rigorous practice is usually in vain. Art schools in Australia have been in a parlous state for some time. While experiencing their own hardships, it is not quite the same for schools in Europe whose riches are aligned to continuations with, or strategic departures from, pedagogical traditions and acknowledged mastery.

Signs of the low premium placed on art in Australia are already there in secondary school. Since 2001, art in NSW is only offered at the rudimentary two-unit level. This carries with it significant philosophical baggage, depriving students of the option to specialise and focus, effectively placing art on the same level as home science. It is one of those cases of cultural amnesia that undermines art’s classical parity with architecture, music and poetry. And we might as well bury the fact that the history of art developed in concert with other disciplines of social and political history, anthropology and economics.

Making the study of art still more unattractive is the logic behind the way the results are scaled. The UAI (university admissions indicator) operates according to a median scale which means that someone with a perfect score in art will be scaled down to about 92, whereas more people will be likely to get 95, or over, in something like four-unit mathematics. Yet, according to this very system, if as many people did four-unit mathematics as did art, mathematics would score worse. Art is a liberal subject which means it takes a wider range of students, but now better-scoring students are less willing to jeopardise their final score by studying art. The most intelligent students, however, are also the main performers in art. What puts such squalid policies in operation is the recent romantic myth that art is an expression of innate, essentially unlearnable urges, the province of eccentrics and visionaries tragically ruled by their passions. (We might start by considering that the common beliefs about van Gogh are mostly fictitious.) Unfortunately, a good deal of art is also taught along these lines.

Art schools were also founded on similar prejudices, namely that art is something studied by either the lazy or the emotionally overwrought. (Admittedly art schools are full of students and teachers like this, but they don’t make good art, if they make it at all.) Around 1990 a NSW statewide restructuring resulted in independent art schools amalgamating with universities. Students were enthusiastic, since their degree sounded better and they were also in a more favourable position to shift to other senior university degrees. The staff, (supposedly) practising artists, joined the ranks of academics. The modern art school begins with the Bauhaus (1919-1933), a free and subtle balance of spiritualism and technological logistics geared toward innovations of form that ranged from theatre to painting to design. This legacy, still dominant, can hardly cope with the sort of values that universities impose. In the normative sense, the university is built around the concept of Wissenschaft, which not only means science but also cultivated learning. Art is not science and its learning is not cultivated according to scholastic or rational models.

Throughout Australia, one of the main avenues for university funding is through the quantity of demonstrated research. An academic accrues points depending on books and articles. But the output is stringently vetted: books must have a recognised distributor, articles must be refereed and so on. Non-compliance, no points; the fewer points, the smaller a university’s share of the pie. Until this year, so-called creative labour such as exhibitions (including novels, musical works and the like) did not accrue points. Subsequently, since the staff could not be seen to contribute to the institution in a material way, art schools became an increasing liability, like a handicapped child whose parental love is perfunctory or indifferent. For to field art courses can be up to ten times as expensive as others. Making matters worse, the humanities at large are given proportionately less money per student than more professionally oriented areas.

Despite artists now being able to accrue points, it will be a long time before art schools will contribute materially to the institution as a whole. Oddly enough, a large proportion of tenured art lecturers have been protected by the lack of recognition that their discipline has had up until now. There is an alarmingly small proportion of tenured art staff who are, strictly speaking, regular, active practitioners. Art schools are also more protected than may first appear from the overbearing onus put on universities to make their courses answerable to vocational training criteria. Here is not the place to dwell on the absurdities of such expectations in the realm of the humanities, but in art, precisely because that knowledge is so difficult to quantify, it is easy to diddle the criteria. Being an artist is more an occupation than a profession. In comparison to countries with so-called old money, our art market is meagre and few artists can support themselves from their art. Subsequently, artists service their careers with neighbouring professions, web design, gallery assistance, teaching and the like. Thus to measure the “vocational” success of an art school is best done not in terms of jobs, but how many students go on to become artists; let’s be kind and make the standard 1 exhibition every 2 years. On this score art schools fail miserably.

This begs the question, which is being turned over and over these days, whether art schools should teach students skills or teach the problematics at stake in the whole art game. Either impart techniques without the strategies for manoeuvre, or strategies without techniques. Although most art schools try to do both, most of the staff are themselves divided as to what to teach—and there is now a decreasing knowledge of skills. I know of several students who attended the art school I went to who had to return to TAFE to do foundational courses. It is a perennial concern for prospective students, but not for ignorant teachers. In not teaching them much, they can avail themselves of the myth that they are not constraining the student, letting “creativity” have free sway.

The two most immediate pressures on art schools in Australia are attracting industry dollars and teaching new media. Financially straitened, art schools have to try to service courses which students enrol in for the principal reason that they cannot afford the equipment themselves. This is chiefly the case with new media and time-based art. The only problem here is that the boundaries for this area are far from historically set, and there are but a few people who could competently teach it. And the money for holding and upgrading costly equipment and software is supposed to come from elsewhere—industry—as if industry is a blind and bottomless resource. But art schools are supposedly different from industrial and graphic art colleges. Getting art schools to attract corporations is as ridiculous as trying to get a carthorse to gallop.

Carthorse—or dead horse? Curiously enough, the crises of faith in art schools have been been felt most deeply from within. No other tertiary discipline over the past 10 years has undergone as many face changes as the visual arts. The names of departments in this country’s major art institutions differ from conventional to goofily outlandish, either masking or reflecting what is taught. It is tempting just to say that art schools should be shut down and replaced with selective, localised TAFE-like courses. A writer must know how to write, a dancer dance, a musician play or mix, an actor act. But a good painter, for example, need no longer know how to paint in the conventional sense, not to mention that there is more than one sense of convention. Art schools are themselves a convention, but views are divided as to whether they’re a necessary one.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 10

© Adam Geczy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2002