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Art School Anatomies

From Academy to Protoacademy

Broadly speaking, art schools evolved from a medieval guild system of apprenticed labour, to a professionalized art academy, to schools based on Bauhaus models of art education, to the present academic system.

Art School Anatomies Image

In an 1878 article entitled "The Art-Schools of New York" America's reigning National Academy of Design was condemned for its provincial emulation of French Academy educational standards. As evidence, the anonymous author (magazine articles were often written anonymously then) pointed to a call by one of America's newly installed academicians for "the same authority for the [National] Academy that is recognized in Paris." [763/4] The author goes on to champion several new New York art schools such as the Art Students League, praising them for their easy-going tuition and their quick response to the new American "craze" (the author's term) for art. Educational standards of 1878 emulated the French Academy, but the author sees a way out:
After all, it is possible to offer a practical suggestion, not only to the Academy, but also to all Americans interested in the progress of plastic art in America. It is this: Take care of the art-schools. [author's italics] It is to these schools that one looks, both for accomplishment of good work and for the dissemination of aesthetic taste. Out of these schools should come, not only artists but aesthetic evangelists. [Scribner's, 765]
In the twentieth century, beginning just after World War I, the international art academy system became increasingly influenced by the Bauhaus, which was several movements in one, comprising more mystical figures such as Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky and sterner souls such as Walter Gropius and Joseph Albers, the former of whom are most associated with the rigorous tradition of Bauhaus education.

Our tendency to associate the Bauhaus, and by implication its pedagogy, with a rather stiff modernism -- as if best reflected in the image of a 1960s building developer or in the Churchillian demeanor of the cigar-chomping Mies van der Rohe -- is wrong, and a close attention to the history of the Bauhaus proves it so.

Andor Weininger was an early Bauhaus student who became the prime mover of the so-called "Ambassadors of the Fun Department of the Bauhaus." Weininger hints at how the spirit of the "fun" Bauhaus could be re-animated in contemporary art schools in a 1957 essay, penned thirty years after his involvement with the Bauhaus began, for the University of Toronto student journal Mosaic. In "The 'Fun' Department of the Bauhaus," Weininger evokes the early Bauhaus spirit in a description of a good-natured roasting of the School's head Walter Gropius at one of his birthday parties:
The idea was to involve everyone in acting, singly or in groups, in a pompous-humorous way. The program was: serenade, torch and lantern procession, presents and 'tributes,' jovial addresses, 'scientific' speeches, bombastic lectures, groups in costume as angels, partisans, choruses, mass declamation, etc. When the 'ceremonies' were over, the master of ceremonies gave the sign for the dance to commence.
When the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1925, at least according to Weininger, the School made an accommodating move that entailed compromise and suppression:
The Nazi and conservative enemies were growing stronger in the area, and the Bauhaus decided to leave Weimar. In another province, democratic Anhalt, was the city of Dessau, somewhat larger than Weimar. Her Bürgermeister gave the Bauhaus a new home, and new possibilities.

The move, in the summer of 1925, brought about a very important change, the reorganization of the Bauhaus, and there were ideological changes as well. 'Romanticism' was left behind in Weimar. 'Expressionism' already had begun to develop logically into 'Functionalism.' .... In sober Dessau, the Bauhaus folk behaved less extravagantly and in a more civilized manner, especially during the transition time. [Weininger, 37]
Certainly this turn to respectability in the face of extreme conservatism finds parallels in the conservative pressures art schools face today. A more hopeful note about issues of art school excitement was recently sounded by Charles Esche, a founder of the concept of the "protoacademy":
[M]ost importantly perhaps, what academies do does make a difference. Creativity can indeed emerge in any context but we only have to look at specific moments in art school history from UNOVIS and GINKHUK in the Soviet Union, to the Bauhaus, to the Free International University, [The] Nova Scotia [College of Art & Design] in Canada, CalArts in the US and Goldsmiths in London. In all these places something occurred between the energy of the students, the commitment and courage of the staff and the external political and social circumstances that defined a new way of working with art education and benefited all parties enormously.

- from "protoacademies" by Charles Esche an "edited transcript of a talk given at Staatliche Akademie der bildenden Künsten, Stuttgart July 2000." [Esche, np]
(Note: The FIU, or "Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research," was founded by Joseph Beuys and the Nobel-Prize winner Heinrich Böll in 1974. [Stachelhaus 116]. Beuys's experiment proscribed no "tests, no examinations, no limitation on the number of students, [and] no age limits.")

Art School Anatomies

If Joseph Beuys's FIU marks the outer limit of art school educational utopianism (at one point, true to form, Beuys called his FIU idea a "sculpture"), perhaps the contemporary American artist Mike Kelley articulates best a distopian vision of today's fine art education.

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In the mid-1990s Mike Kelley made architectural models of the art schools he attended in the 1970s. This art satirically addressed Kelley's own education in terms of the panic in popular culture of the time about repressed memory syndrome. Kelley's art education was mapped and made three dimensional in often humorous ways, and his project reminds us that very few contemporary artists directly address the social construction of themselves in and by art schools.

It is worth asking why a major artist like Kelley would pathologize his art school experience. In fact, Kelley is wittily reacting to his "formalist" or "New York School" art education, an education based on post-war America's simultaneous reaction against and absorption of European (read Bauhaus) mores:
I thought I should address my 'abuse' through the art-education system instead of the more common examples, such as the home, because it made it more obvious that this was an aesthetic exercise. That is why I constructed the Educational Complex (1995), a large architectural model made up of every school I have ever attended, with sections I cannot remember left blank. The blank sections are supposedly the result of some 'trauma' that occurred in those spots, which caused me to repress them. However, it's obvious that there are formal considerations at play in the organization of these blank areas - these point towards my formalist art education itself as the possible 'trauma'. [Kelley interview by Isabelle Graw, see: Welchman, 19]
One of the most fascinating recent efforts to add an informal "fun" layer to what is seen by many as a stultifying international art school academic structure happened recently at the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland in the form of a (as mentioned) "protocademy." The theorist of these activities was the international curator Charles Esche, who has reasons to hope that a movable feast like the one proposed by the Art School Anatomies project is ripe for distribution:
Now, the art academy, college or school is already at least half way there. It has a ready made community of artists, critics and curators both as teachers and students. it has the infrastructure of production, it has the means to organise talks, discussions, exhibitions and other activities on a more or less equal level.... If we observe the origins of the art academy in the Socratic academic grove of ancient Greece, we find an instruction from its founders that it should be a training ground for citizens. And by citizens, Plato and Socrates meant, in the fully realised state, people who were 'persistent annoyances' to the political powers. With such an ambition, all we may need to do is 'open the doors' to an interested public and the communication between the academy and the world would become the most compelling arena for art.

Of course, this is a rather idealistic comment, but shouldn't such idealism be at the heart of any art academy anyway?....The idea that people should be subsidised to speculate, through art, on the nature of society, politics, economy and individuality is an argument we will have to make with renewed insistence in the yeasr [sic] to come. Why not, as part of that, create a justification based on the experimental nature of the work carried out there, the value of non-utilitarian and resistant structures to the health of society?....

I also want to question [the] very idea of teaching art, as though the activity had a professional corpus of knowledge that can be transmitted. After that, the process of becoming an artist involves the very opposite of acquiring a body of knowledge and joining a profession. It is about questioning learned responses and ways of behaving, of following enthusiasms and being the amateur in the realm of the professional. Most of all, it is about a form of collaborative research in which specialists are often inveigled to help and the journey to produce the work becomes as significant as the end product. It is then a social as well as an intellectual activity and the skills required are as various as the work done. If anything needs to be taught, it is a particular attitude to the world and the confidence to reinvent the term art every time you make a new work. [Esche, np]
The Program

Art School Anatomies project research will involve general historical formulations of how the entity “art school” achieved its post-1945 academic credentials; how art school functions now; and how art school could change. As if it were a body, art school will be autopsied, analyzed and represented, not just by reference to raw data, but more so within the conceptual paradigm of the artwork that does the analysis. This project will demonstrate how art school itself can be elucidated by art (for example drawings, sculpture, performance and video or what we call "demonstrations"). The effort will be to initiate dialogue with audiences at different sites within and without the art school. Like other contemporary investigations (see bibliography), the art school will be modeled in ways that approach the complexity of its referent.

The Art School Anatomies research team hypothesizes "symptomatic reactions" on all levels (philosophical, psychological, procedural, social, architectural, aesthetic etc.) to art school education. The team will interpret current arts degree educational systems including accreditation procedures, degree-granting tenets, course content and even the architectural design aspects of contemporary art schools. We will also examine how the academic structure of the contemporary degree-granting art school is striking in its conformity to standardized international educational configurations.

The Canadian NSCAD University is one of the sites that Charles Esche mentions in his argument for the "protoacademy". NSCAD's mini-revolution happened in the years after 1967 when Garry Kennedy and Gerald Ferguson redirected the school in a radical reassessment of art, an activity that Ferguson has described as being entirely "extracurricular" [Eyland 1997 conversation with Ferguson]. The radical experiment by Roy Ascot at the Ontario College of Art in the 1960s is also worthy of investigation. Morris Wolfe has written perceptively about this episode in his book OCA: Five Turbulent Years about the Ascot episode.

The Art School Anatomies team will investigate the current constellation of ideologies and cultural influences that impinge on contemporary post-secondary art schools. The team will interpret art school's structure (literal and procedural) as responses to these ideologies and influences. The relevant influences to be identified and articulated include instrumentalization of education, pervasiveness of managerial processes, stereotypes of "the Artist," contrasting criteria for effective art (e.g. student "street cred" as opposed to academic grades, mastery of traditional technical skills as opposed to business management practices, etc.), as well as the social and pedagogical implications of the architecture of art schools (not to mention the pedagogy of architecture schools!).

The tropes with which the team will be working, insofar as these facilitate the differing methodologies of the team members, are:

1) "symptoms" of conflict, incongruity and contradiction, the flux within contemporary culture;

2) the process of "autopsy," with the implication that formal art education, as if it has ceased to thrive and breathe, warrants methodical dissection (Is this growth malignant or benign; operable or inoperable?); and

3) the ubiquitous art school "crit" method, i.e. the way formal reviews of art are held within art schools.

It should be noted that our "pathologizing" of the art school, like Mike Kelley's, is both an artistic metaphor and part of an artistic analysis with which we begin, and not a simple condemnation of the present art school system. Metaphors of the art school as a body have run through project member discussions as a way to proceed as artists, and not as if a proscriptive artistic methodology or a foregone conclusion to our project was expected.

In addition to traditional architectural, educational, and cultural analytic methods, research will also take the form, as mentioned, of exhibitions, performances, curated film and video series and newly commissioned art works that involve artists and academics who are not formally associated with our team.

Because the site and the subject of this investigation are one and the same (the art institution) we propose "an investigation within an investigation" which will test research achieved by means of visual arts production. The hypothesis is that the visual arts (our emphasis will be on film/video, painting/drawing, sculpture and performance) are unconstrained by procedural, categorical and canonical approaches to cultural discord. The visual arts can be included as a research process that expands the field of inquiry by including overlooked details, making unprecedented connections and by transforming perceptual experience.

The team's dialogue and collaboration will offer a complex model of art schools by inquiring whether there is an "art school syndrome" characterized by recurring arrangements of physical spaces, recurring socialization processes, contradictions between professionalism and educational goals, and psychological tasks carried out under the general term "identity formation."

Central to our investigation is the creation of informal as well as organized dialogue at the involved schools through a performance analogous to the formal Canadian review committees that (infrequently) assess undergraduate art programs. This performed (and maverick) paradigm of an outside assessment will address the implied values of art school education, by posing questions including but not limited to:

- Of what is increasing enrollment in art schools a symptom?
- What are the operating distinctions between "amateurs" and "the real artists" within art school?
- What are the images in popular culture of art practice and artists?
- What are the images in the so-called art world of the professional artist?
- What are the sources from which an identity as "Artist" is drawn?
- Are there public and personal aspirations either encouraged or discouraged by art schools?

In this performative treatment (the renegade "assessment") of the art school as cadaver, the team will investigate possible "killer vectors," that is service industry models, consumerism, the intertwining of bureaucracy and the legal systems, and post-Warhol business models. We will also investigate how the art related fields of design, fashion, music, and gaming be assessed within this project.

Our team will, over time, participate in the production of objects, performances, panels and gallery installations that will follow our inclinations, interests, expertise and research directions, and, most importantly, the direction of our collaborations.

- Cliff Eyland and Jeanne Randolph with contributions from Dick Averns, Lorne Falk and Natalija Subotincic


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