UK universities have been under continuous but gradual pressure from government policy to re-adapt to a new pedagogic structure. While the most egregious effects have been felt more recently, the shift roughly began with the introduction of selective research funding in 1986, polytechnic institutions becoming universities in 1992, and the introduction of variable fees in 2003, which has snowballed since. Alongside a mix of new regulations and relaxations, the field of higher education has become marketised, which has unsurprisingly turned out to not be a good thing!
Post 2008 financial crisis, the HEI sector has started to perform some of the more predatory behaviours of neoliberal capitalism, with university vice chancellors being paid more than £200,000 p/a salaries and the teaching jobs becoming more precarious and lower paid. This mirrors the growing chasm of wealth inequality manifest amongst developed nations. The majority of students now are the same millennials coping with a declining standard of life in comparison to their antecedent generation. But it’s tricky to gauge how these miasmae operate within an institution such as an art school. How do the humanities respond to an intensive competition for research funding like REF or the large scale models taken from STEM practices? Year on year, the market logic in the governing bodies of the university hardens. The malign changes often occur by confounding stealth or by slow bureaucratic creep.
Teaching contemporary art is not as simple as forming a curriculum that follows a narrative history of “movements” with the occasional deep dive into a genius figure. The context of time/place and the relation to politics and world events cannot be ignored for academic convenience. Similarly, non-white and queer histories of art shouldn’t be sidelined to the periphery because they lacked establishment verification heretofore. Decolonising the curriculum is not about the exclusion of the dominant (and often patriarchal) histories of art but the interrogation of culture inextricably linked to colonialism, past and present. It’s not simply about diversification or a guilt-ridden liberal apologia but addressing a fundamental aspect of societal power structures — who gets to be considered human? When teaching art, it is absolutely essential to ensure that students are questioning it, not simply accepting the dominant narratives or academically sanctioned accounts. Equally in the making of art, the student should ideally not create work that is simply a reproduction of the ‘contemporary’ but a work that poses questions, interrogates ideals and offers the audience a perspective to inhabit.
However, the pragmatic reality of teaching arts and humanities isn’t a paradise of unbridled creative self- discovery. Whatever the magnificent content of the teaching may be, it’s always liable to be undercut by institutional bureaucracy. Studios can go unheated for months because of an administrative error in one department cascades through building management (who outsource maintenance workers) and incomprehensibly terrible communication practices means each department operates like a cantankerous fiefdom. Teachers in HE spend increasing amounts of time filling out spreadsheets, timetabling and other administrative tasks. VLs on zero-hours contracts for teaching do not even get paid for marking the students work. These things do not have a positive impact on those delivering the teaching and that is to the detriment of those receiving it.
Ironically, many metropolitan UK art schools are adopting an expansionist prerogative during the prolonged economic downturn. It’s a problematic adoption of the “Spend Money to Make Money” mantra. To guide this unhealthy swelling, a management culture proliferates. Relationships to wealthy benefactors and a glut of marketeering/PR practiced by highly paid yet haphazardly unintuitive new managerial class become priori. In the context of science and tech colleges where students might experiment under the patronage of industry, these convoluted offices seem more fitting but it is ill-suited to the arts and humanities where the product, if it must be categorised as such, would primarily be knowledge and ideas — which are often viewed by the Conservative political framework as ‘useless’ or ‘luxurious’ in the context of a marketised education system. That is the rationale for the opaque removal of public art education subsidies, thus another justification of the managerial cohort to ‘manage’ the survival of the university in a hostile marketplace.
As an art student, the bureaucratic process follows you in the form of self-assessment forms, research quality guidelines, examination forms, requests and statements. It is a Lacanian Big Other, the mechanism in which human potential is quantified and forged into an archival value. Neoliberalism, as Mark Fisher once remarked, is a vast fiendishly intelligent mechanism for conscience deflation. He also remarked of our current sociological moment as an “empire of simulation”, a regime in which nobody believes in the core ideal but goes along with it anyway. The danger is that the shitty situation within art schools creates a particular learning environment, subtly prescribing a certain methodology of art making in relation to wider culture and society. The results of a neoliberal art system can already be seen in the pay-to-submit competition racket that artists flock to year after year. Work from graduates starts to become uniformly obsessed with professionalism and utilising exclusive, insider languages that primarily appeal to other art professionals. In response to the dwindling resources and increasingly transactional conditions in the arts sector, many artists have gone the opposite direction of revolution and instead focused on careerism. This is ultimately a detrimental attitude, unless you subscribe to a MO in which art that caters for the establishment is the most desirable form of art production (art funding purely from private/corporate philanthropy instead of public is the desired New Labour and Conservative government agenda). Competition is a key tenet of the capitalist market logic, so it isn’t a negative in the art school if viewed through the appropriate ideological lens. But it seems anathema to progressivism from whatever angle you look at it.
Today, the method of teaching art is mostly done along the lines of a student-focused ‘shared creativity’ rather than direct transference of ‘knowledge’. In 1969 Penguin Education Special Student Power, Tom Nairn and Jim Singh-Sanhu refer to a post-Bauhaus pedagogy, which is a flexible training in forms of research and expression, intellectual expansion and (hopefully) the physical skills to actualise projects in question. But the caveat with this pedagogy is it doesn’t produce the quasi-mythical artistic ‘genius’ — the idea is to produce a socially aware practitioner who has the capacity to meet the challenges of change in materials, history, technology, meaning etc. This requires much theory, reconciling theory with practice, experiments and productive failure. The lingering allure of the artist-as-genius remains as a fantasy. Often art students within the university see their education as a priming for an artistic career. Yet moral compromise (and perhaps some inherited wealth) is necessary if one is to materially live off artistic production alone. The art student trajectory could be comparable to the ambition of the advertising executive mixed with the aggressive commodity-fetishism of high fashion. This is not because of any inherent Ayn Rand-esque “selfish hero” element in the hypothetical art student. Students have limited time on their courses and often don’t always have the energy to fight the institution at every step, potentially aggravating the very place they’ve come to study. This also may be because the teaching model is often individualistic and the emphasis of grading/learning standards being met to allow any recognition of effort or growth. It is a complex and ongoing issue that cannot be solved easily.
With the best will in the world, it is a gargantuan task to transform an art institution, despite the widely acknowledged open secret that bureaucratic enclaves within university management are pushing entire institutions towards a business model that is highly predatory and devoid of empathy, with the fiscal bloodlust excused by an interpretation of “reputation”. Worst of all, it isn’t even efficient! So, what’s the point, apart from a Kafkaesque longform story of an economic misadventure? In Stupor, or Affect at a Standstill, a short text by Marina Vishmidt, it is ruminated that our political age is one of stupor. Generally, humanity is increasingly slow to react to any sort of existential crisis — but yet online conspiracy theories and the slow fragmentation of political parties swathe us in a contemplative maelstrom. Events and scandals and crisis are mitigated through a psychological complex whereas everything is discussed, debated, critiqued, debunked, analysed through a hellish mixture of news and proselytising. As Vishmidt puts it: “Affect now becomes a way of justifying staying in the infinite of the present without anything needing to be different because it is actually always different. Stupor, here, is the well-being of the asymptomatic.”
While it would be counter-productive to teach against a grim reality, pedagogic methods need to be developed that make students ask questions of this ecosystem they are matriculating in. How can these powers be subverted in the classroom? The hypothetical answer to the question of what would break this stupor could, ironically somewhat, be endlessly pontificated upon. We all know what happens to those who whip up campus discontent — they get unceremoniously relieved of employment. A reasonable plan that would improve the university as a whole might potentially require the quasi-feudal caste of upper- management to be re-organised or trimmed down, which would be a tough one. This leads me to the most opportune area where academic freedom can be flexed and where the bureaucrats almost never venture: the teaching itself.
In May 1968, at Hornsey College of Art in London, students and some staff staged an uprising in the form of a sit-in. From what started as a protest about student union funds rapidly transformed and became a 6- week occupation of the art college. There were hierarchies in place, with the professionalised GradDip art students taught apart from students taking on more vocational studies. The college management was obsessed with PR — it’s outward appearance and external image. What went on inside was cosmically distant from the glittering image presented outwards. Yet it obviously wasn’t a perpetual disaster, students made good work despite the myriad obstacles. So, in effect the PR wasn’t a lie, but the creative excellence of the college was not exactly of the college. This sentiment is relevant today, when a major art university inflates student numbers but does not invest in new studio space or resources, yet when an alumni gets nominated for a prize all the PR horns start blaring.
Despite being in the context of ’68, the concerns of the Hornsey students feel especially relevant to our 21st century austerity. Indeed, the students would have likely faced the ultimately insurmountable challenge of their demands being met by the college authorities and the local borough council. While the lasting effect of the protest did bequeath greater student involvement in the running of the school, in November of the same year the occupation came to a close. Security forces purged the building of protestors, with a large number of students and sympathetic staff expunged from their tenure and then did away with the school altogether. That is the final violence of bureaucratic institutions, the potential threat of a privately chartered enforcement. Nevertheless, it remains perennially important to make power visible. More sustainable contemporary teaching has to reconcile the idealism of an art practice with the political realities of the cultural sector. Teach about corporate artwashing, be upfront about the tension between art and capitalism, the financialisation of creativity and the cult of productivity. Stress how important it is to collaborate, to experiment and fail and how to get a gallery to pay your invoices on time. Collective organisation should be reframed as an enriching activity rather than a reaction to injustice. The power must be shifted back to the artist, as without our work, the dealers and bourgeoise gallerists and marketeers and all manner of neoliberals would have nothing except copious amounts of drugs and terrible silicon valley startups.