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Monday, 15. October 2007


Who is being naive here? by Kirsten Forkert


Kirsten Forkert

Who is being naive here?

I would bring up the question what happens when the market enters the school—with all the promises of instant career affirmation and at least some ready cash, at a time when students find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet? What need to be asked here is how do the demands of the market, which are often for formula and even, to be facetious, in some cases even for the criteria of home decorating, affect some of the ideals of arts education as a place to learn and experiment, take risks and even fail?

A related pressure, which to some degree has always existed but has intensified as art school plays a more central role in artists' careers, is when art school becomes primarily a place to accumulate cultural capital and obtain contacts for future opportunities, that would not be available outside of academia. Programs such as Yale or Columbia in the US, or Goldsmiths College in the UK – those programs perceived as 'hot' (are so because of this promise, which has also earned them the epithet of 'finishing school') which also hints at the high cost of tuition at these places, and the resulting exclusion of low-income students. This is where Singerman's critique may be accurate. In his The Flexible Personality, Howard Singerman, Associate. Professor, University of Virginia state that schools are becoming places to 'learn the art world'. This phenomenon also points to what Angela McRobbie and other have discussed as 'network sociality' '10 to describe the blurring of work and social life, whereby social contacts with the right people become a prized commodity. Disturbingly, as McRobbie points out, that one of the results of the “decline of workplace democracy and its replacement by 'network sociality... [can be] ..that .independent creative work finds itself squeezed, compromised or brokered by the venture of capitalists culture.”11I would like to ask, if art school becomes primarily a place to network, what happens to you if as a student, your work or ideas or ethics lead you to a situation of conflict with the big names? Aren't you then shooting yourself in the foot, as the expression goes? This gets back to Singerman’s The Flexible Personality in terms of the resulting culture of favoritism, conformity and self-censorship.

We should pay attention to the effects of cultural policy on art practice. We could also ask about how much different cultural policy shifts in different countries mirror each other: within the context of neoliberalism, the Cool Britannia campaign and its relationship to YBA (YOUNG BRITISH ART) which was marked by an imperative to produce national or regional celebrities, or, within the context of neoconservatism, the pressure of being closed and the money cut down by the Austrian government in the case of Public Netbase, Vienna or the closing down of NIFCA in the Nordic region. I will discuss the Canadian situation because it is the one with which I am the most familiar, but similarities can be establish in relation to cultural policy in the USA and European Eunion context. Around 2001, the Canada Council for the Arts began to fund dealers; around the same time, Foreign Affairs/International Trade began a pilot project for gallerists. In the 2005 the visual arts section the Canada Council for the Arts radically changed how they funded individuals, benefiting senior artists (who could now access much larger amounts than previously) but placing strict limits on both the amount of funding and the frequency of application for artists who were not yet established. In an interview on the national radio, program head Francois Lachapelle stated, “"We are now saying you don't have entirely free access to our program”... and “you will come when you will have confirmed public presentation of your work."12

At around the same time, the interdisciplinary section, which once funded performance art and interdisciplinary research, began to primarily support theatre companies—which look much better on paper as they hire staff and have a clear and established hierarchies and procedures. What is key here is a shift away from the principle of redistribution: supporting emerging artists and noncommercial practices without expectation of visible results, towards the principle of supporting regional and national celebrities (those already validated by the market and major institutions), who can then boost the national profile in the international context, within a Schumpeterian economic framework of competing nations (and in general, an area to which we should pay more attention is emphasis in cultural policy on creating both national celebrities and national narratives). A similar, although less dramatic shift happened with funding to organizations, which I experienced as a board member. Arts organizations who received public funding were rewarded for 'organizational stability' over other criteria; those who presented lectures, performances, reading group or other events were criticized, and sometimes financially penalized, for lacking focus. The response would be to focus entirely on five week exhibitions, to the detriment of other activities. So my concern, out of these shifts is about the ability to survive—either in terms of receiving funding or of spaces to present it—and that many of us are presented with the choice of either operating within the market or squeeze in a few hours here and there between full time jobs.

In his 2004 text Basic Instinct: Trauma and Retrenchment in MUTE magazine, Anthony Davies talks about shifts in both the business world (basically, the reaction to the dot com crash) and the art world. Davies describes the shift in the art world as a consolidation and retrenchment into the boundaries of the discipline, as he describes it: “Art...is infused with the imperative to set standards of quality, articulate vocabularies of expertise, and cater reliably to the diverse markets spanning both subsidized and ’commercial’ art worlds”13. He mentions a round table in the 100th issue of October magazine on the present conditions of art criticism, including founding editor Rosalind E. Krauss, editors Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Hal Foster and George Baker, art historians David Joselit, James Meyer and Helen Molesworth, artists John Miller and Andrea Fraser, and critic and MOMA curator Robert Storr14. Art criticism was described as being in a state of crisis—from both the influences of the creative industries, the role of the star curator and the market populism of belle lettrist critics such as Dave Hickey. As Davies writes, “In keeping with this diagnosis, the group's anxieties settle on the specter of populism, the corrupting influence of lifestyle media and market acquiescence and, somewhat predictably, draw them towards the kind of affirmative, self-valorizing standards capable of reasserting criticism's disciplinary role”15: the return to criteria of aesthetic judgment, and the traditional role of the critic as arbiter of this criteria. Davies also mentions a return to formalism and the art object within the UK art context, as a reaction against both the Young British Artists (who mostly produced installations) and what was described as “'aggressive' identity politics”16, described by Whitechapel Art Gallery curator Iwona Blazwick as “the new gentleness”17, in her catalogue essay to the 2002 sculpture exhibition Early One Morning—where she claims that “a paradigm shift has occured”18

The influential critic Claire Bishop; while she does not call for a return to the object, she does reassert the conventional boundaries of the art discipline. I read her text, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics in 2004, and at the time welcomed the critiques it made of what felt like the unacknowledged formalism in Bourriaud's text, as well as how its often affirmative character of relational practices could be easily used by institutions. At the same time, I questioned her championing of Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra and especially the exploitation in Sierra's work which Bishop seemed to be interpreting as critical negativity and antagonism (referencing the work of Chantal Mouffe, though Mouffe is actually calling for agonism rather than antagonism)—and in her call for a reassertion of artistic autonomy. In her conclusion, she argues that “The work of Hirschhorn and Sierra is better art not simply for being better politics (although both of these artists now have equally high visibility on the blockbuster art circuit). Their work acknowledges the limitations of what is possible as art (“I am not an animator, teacher or social-worker,” says Hirschhorn) and subjects to scrutiny all easy claims for a transitive relationship between art and society.”19Her 2006 Artforum article The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents, extends this analysis on relational aesthetics to a wider range of socially engaged and community based practices, some of which is funded by the state and some of which is self-organized and funded. She again discusses how this work can be used by government, such as New Labour's social inclusion policies—but then shifts from this analysis to arguing that this work is too preoccupied with ethics and does not adequately engage with questions of aesthetics. Referencing Jacques Ranciere, she argues that “...the aesthetic doesn’t need to be sacrificed at the altar of social change, as it already inherently contains this ameliorative promise”20

Of course, at this point in time, how can we separate aesthetics from politics, or form from content? The question that I would like to ask then is what does it mean to call for aesthetic values, or to argue that the aesthetic is inherently ameliorative?

I will end by arguing that in the face of these shifts, it is important to defend spaces for experimentation as much as possible (within or outside art school) and to argue for the importance of experimentation—and that this includes activities that might be seen as peripheral, organizations and collectives that do not last, and for the tradition of artists engaging with writing, activism, popular culture and alternative media—an after effect of conceptual art and other related developments of the sixties, which existed in contradiction to their operating as modernist art movements. I have not had the space for this, but it is also important to acknowledge the related history of artists' self organizing efforts, and independent spaces and collectives—especially as they challenged the rigid separation of roles of the artist, critic, curator and dealer. Within the education context, it is again important to argue for the value of those art practices that neither carry the authority or institutional sanctioning of more traditional forms of art training, nor the obvious industry or entrepreneurial applications promoted by the Bologna Process, or as I experienced them in Canada. I would also argue that it is important to deconstruct some of the claims made by the Bologna process and will end with an anecdote. A friend of mine is studying film at Lund University, and was speaking to some school officials about the Bologna Process. She asked the official why students did not protest. The official responded, “they actually wanted it because they thought it will give them jobs”. My friend asked, “how do they know this”? The official responded, “they don’ know, and in fact, we don't know either. So they are basing it on faith”. So if the adoption of a piece of legislation as technocratic as the Bologna process is based on faith, then the argument that those of us who question the Bologna Process are naïve falls apart—because who is being naive here?



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