THE DAFT AND THE SPURIOUS 3
Art school in the UK, at least as it exists at the moment, is effectively a scam. It might have a more acceptable visage than out of control scams like the NFT art market or the psychic bloodletting into Grantium, but a decade plus of marketisation has re-formed it into an immersive bureaucracy holiday for the children of wealthy or indebted parents and a relentless psychic damage carousel for those working there, with the exception of all the management staff who are unqualified two-faced ghouls.
The arts/humanities education is delivered by mostly academics on precarious employment contracts, who are all effectively on a countdown to burnout since it is impossible to deliver a good quality of teaching on exploitative frameworks without putting yourself in a position that would be considered exploitative — such as persistently working outside of paid hours just to deliver the bare minimum. This is because market logic includes a mantra of ‘line must go up’ so ‘student/customer’ numbers increase but the revenue does not go into teaching support. Some senior academics whose employment predates the shitfall also have a tendency to become institutionalised, coasting on doing the barest minimum possible but mentally having checked out of the work. Their feedback on student satisfaction surveys may get lower every year, but they’re essentially unsackable due to the nature of their permanent contracts. You won’t see these folks on a picket line, unless it’s on the one day when a press photographer might be coming. Once they retire, they will be replaced by someone on a lower salary bracket with an insecure contract. Thus the allure of working in academia as a researcher, tutor, technician or anyone who contributes to a learning process is whittled away year by year. However, academia is a great place to work if you’re a manager. You can operate as a barely accountable mafia-within-an-institution, breaking employment law and doing strange things with budgets with barely any oversight. If you fuck up a bit too much and there is some heat at your back, you can simply just move horizontally and get a similar high wage job at another institution. Malpractice investigations at your former workplace will fall into the ether as the perp is no longer in the building. All you have to worry about is some kind of karma for union busters.
Managerialisation is prevalent in art schools. This way of operation is ideological rather than cost-effective: it collectively views ‘teaching’ as a homogenous service that is just ‘delivered’ by an individual within a certain level/branch of the institutional hierarchy. At recent university strikes, there have been consistent references to Uber by striking UCU union members (  ) which is not just a wry choice of slogan. The point of Uber is you have a service accessible on demand, so from a consumer perspective it’s generally advantageous. You don’t instantly see the punishing conditions an Uber driver works under or the toxic workplace culture of the company itself — you just get an OK-priced minicab when you want one. That does translate a bit to teaching in art school, students get their buffet of seminars and thematic workshops but do not see how little support the creators of those seminars actually get from their own workplace in creating the thing that validates the point of their workplace even existing in the first place! Like, I’ve done an art ethics workshop and I invited a speaker who I had to pay myself because my materials budget was somehow forbidden to be used on inviting guest speakers. The materials budget was £75, which I basically used to get some craft supplies. The previous year the materials budget was £200. Why it was so massively cut, yet the expectations remained the same, seems counter-productive, but it’s about how lean you can run a functional service by paying the people doing it as little as fucking possible. The comparisons with the gig economy start to flourish here. The same art workshop programme just operates as a perfunctory ‘inter-disciplinary’ box tick for an academic offering to students, something they consume which is part of the product they’ve purchased. On the whole the students don’t often care because, as with the Uber analogue the primary interaction does not provide any viewport into the working conditions that facilitates that interaction. Early on in the pandemic, after the art schools shut down, various UK art students made a campaign called Pause or Pay to either get reimbursed for their art school opportunities erased by the pandemic, or get some delayed gratification from it. Pivoting to a ‘consumer rights’ advocate style position as a form of protest, unsurprisingly didn’t work! Did they read that Audre Lorde text? Education and the humanities is an enticing prospect for marketisation because the consumer-provider relationship is not clearly transactional, it’s vv vague. How can you feasibly value ‘education’? There are many attempts, such as tying in post-graduation employment rates of specific courses as part of a ‘standards’ framework to be justified against, which is kind of a barefaced continuation of the tory culture war against the arts & humanities if universities are considered job feeder mechanisms.
But c’mon students are buying BAs and MAs at this point! To pay uni fees, such huge amounts, or pay them back, it’s akin to a terminal Klarna debt or some cosmic horror tax. With the financial blow mediated by existential debt, it doesn’t feel like you’re buying a learning experience in the same way you might pay upfront for a set of language classes at [x] amount per class for [y] amount of time. Barely anybody fails a MFA despite students often coming with zero real world experience of actual real life jobs, occasionally just residencies or nebulous awards. A MFA is supposed to be the professionalisation stage of your arts/humanities learning curve where it would be assumed you have a pre-existing cache of experience in the relevant subject, tho more often it looks like a dysfunctional paywall that needs to be surmounted to get up that sweet sweet career ladder. Despite the reorientation of the student cohort as a customer base, it’s not like their money really goes into the service they pay for. As arts/humanities programmes have gotten more expensive despite being underfunded, hugely overinflated VC and senior management pay soaks up a large amount of fee money, plus vanity projects like campus renovations which are usually stealth ways of minimising the amount of fabrication space and re-orienting the school to fit with tech industry ideals. Student-facing staff and internal management depts are effectively silo’d from each other, like inefficient parts of the local borough council that never seem to communicate properly and operate kind of haphazardly. The fastest kind of departmental growth is in middle-management, more fee money just engorges a tumorous bureaucracy of interior middle-management who wrest more oversight over how the institution is run from the people who actually teach students. This has been going on for fuckin ages, arguably since Gordon Brown was PM. It’s a shame that the students were only radicalised by the institutions setting them adrift during a global health crisis and not really at any point during the creeping marketisation that has been accelerating since the 2008 financial crisis. Much like how ignorance is part of English culture to keep the population licking the boot of the monarchy/ghost of empire/tories, collective solidarity in anathema to the student experience by design. This reflects the wider arts and culture industry in the UK, which is barely regulated and workplace unions are a rarity. There is one artists union (AUE) but it’s more of an advocacy group. BECTU has an Art Technicians branch, which is fairly young. Museums have PCS, Unison and BECTU branches and they are never not fighting something + are cool. YET ALAS being an art worker is not the glamorous desire of most art school graduates though, even if they do teaching work for income, they often don’t even see themselves as a worker, more like an influencer or something. The BA/MA tuition fees are like a big investment gamble to avoid that kind of wage labour in the culture sector, especially if the student comes from wealth already (which in art schools is like ¾ of the entire cohort or whatever).
When you’re a customer of something that gives your artistic trajectory legitimacy, becoming antagonistic to that provider is uncomfortable because obvs it may sour relations between yourself and your peers, tutors and random bureaucrats who you’ll have to try to convince that a good sculpture workshop is more than a few bench saws and tig welders. It doesn’t matter if the prestige of the institution that you’ve studied at is a lie, a total phantasm of bollocks, because a collective hallucination can transcend material reality if enough people want to/pretend to believe it as such. Obviously for most though, participation in that hallucination is not as simple, especially if you haven’t got rich parents or a UK citizenship. Anyway, marking up a fancy looking CV of art schools makes you seem a better investment in the various plateaus of gallery/residency tiers. It doesn’t really matter if you turned up a sum total of 5 times during a MA. Fuck even if you land an incredible funded project, the art school probably won’t even support you beyond tweeting about it as if your success is thanks to you being a student there. If you’re a successful graduate and you get invited back to give a lecture, they won’t even pay your invoice within 30 days. Art universities are the worst at paying invoices, it’s fucking incredible how. I’ve worked at commercial galleries with varying levels of bureaucratic oversight of their finances and generally I’ve not had to chase an invoice for longer than 2 months. I know people who’ve not been paid by A Big London Art University for 6+ months for VL work. Some universities also invent reasons to delay paying you, such as demanding to see a passport as ‘proof of eligibility to work’ even if you’re a UK citizen giving a zoom seminar from the US/EU etc, because managers are fuckin cops. It’s just fuckin daft. But again, it wasn’t until the pandemic induced disaster-capitalism opportunity to accelerate austerity programs in that students realised how shit the staff that teach them have it. Goldsmith embarked (and continue to) on a horrendous fire-and-rehire plan, the Tate Modern just told all of its lowest paid and most precarious staff to get fucked, some commercial galleries and even ones with charitable status made existing staff redundant and then advertised for those same jobs AT A LOWER FUCKING WAGE. The whole art world ecosystem in the UK has quite an exploitative attitude just built into it and if you didn’t care much about it as a student then it’s unlikely that you’d start caring later on. Ironically perhaps art schools help normalise this exploitative status quo. Considering students often have to jostle for access to resources or compete for bursaries/prizes, the whole idea of the student body as a ‘community’ is not strictly true. You’re all peers, learning and making together UNTIL fuckin Dior or Chanel or Samsung pop by with their ‘student award’ and you’re no longer a community if you’re competing against eachother for something that will give an individual a significant advantage over the rest. So there’s an atmosphere of faux-comraderie, like a fuckin bunch of masterchef contestants who are all matey but are also all trying to win for themselves. Tutors often don’t really do much to interrogate this, it’s just kind of accepted as normal that a mercurial kingmaking/gatekeeping process is at work even before your graduate exhibition! Therefore to succeed you have to cynically game this process by either making work that is dazzling and won’t be understood by your tutors and/or just relentlessly suck up to rich people and develop an insufferable art persona — which is a favourite amongst tory scab gentrifier artists who LARP as working class because they make stuff that looks shit on purpose but it doesn’t look shit because they suck at making art, it looks shit because it’s about some performed trauma etc. A living Bedwyr Williams drawing, essentially. The amount of art competitions that have a locked-in criteria of ‘must have graduated within the last x amount of years from a UK art school’ reinforces this perception that the main ecosystem of an ‘art career’ after university is a competitive one, not one for mutual support and collaboration.
To summarise at this point, the classic bourgeois art world is mirrored/reproduced in art schools. Even if the art school has great tutors that are working to decolonise the curriculum and try to use their unfettered ‘teaching’ space for radical praxis, the mechanism itself is totally weighted towards a neoliberal market logic. Those tutors are possibly not sure if they’ll be working again at the same institution next year. The institution will definitely take credit for the work the tutors do in spite of their working conditions. During the recent wave of university strikes, lots of comms depts have emailed students to basically ask them to scab and blame the ‘disruption’ on the unions who are just being unreasonable and don’t care about the poor students who’ve had a shit time due to the pandemic. The redundancies at major art museums all hit the lowest paid staff, despite the management claiming the redundancies were inevitable because they had to save money. Yet these union busting people in directorial positions at these big institutions often draw salaries that put them in the top 10% of earners in the entire fuckin country! They could take a pay cut instead but as we’ve seen with the recent tory lobbying sleaze issue, the idea that tories can’t fuckin live on *just* £80k a year is apparently an idea that seriously exists!
It’s always perpetually wild that art school VCs can embark on restructuring plans to gut humanities depts, tighten the budgetary chokehold every year on visual art subjects and as the staff burn out they replace them with ones on zero hours contracts. Foundries and casting workshops get replaced with VR mocap suites, subsidised by big tech donations which obviously suits everyone involved who doesn’t mind the encroachment of the private sector into education. As the govt cuts art funding, introduces even more draconian/racist surveillance laws while having a little culture war against universities/arts&heritage, students are still applying to these increasingly threadbare fuckin art courses. In greater numbers than ever! Y THO? Bursaries are scant and often geared more towards some kind of mythical Design sophistry. Fees are enormous and the student loans system is gearing up to get even more predatory, as the mountain of accumulated debt is becoming a real problem for the treasury. Graduates aren’t paying it back because the job market is fucked as art work is mostly precarious or nomadic. The barriers to entry are higher than ever, but the slump of student applications post-brexit/post-pandemic/post-cuts has not materialised. To make art education more of a luxurious rip-off, not even as good as a gold encrusted steak from salt bae, you’d expect applications to dwindle even a bit. There’s a massive shortage of chefs in London because of the hostile environment immigration rules, the lack of support the sector received during the pandemic and the generally accepted norm that english chefs are mostly shit and lazy, so no kitchen managers really want to hire them. There is absolutely no shortage of art graduates, who are ideal willing prey for oligarch funded artwashing foundations like Zabludowicz (right wing israeli pro-apartheid blood money laundering) or Freelands (murdoch billionaire children tax evasion) or Outset (property development art gentrification accelerator and studio monopoliser). Despite the intensification of indirect gatekeeping (art education accessible only to those with possession or relation to significant wealth), why are students still burning through their parents money to enter a faux-industry which shows no real signs of becoming more diverse or inclusive — the power and the money is in the same hands as it was 10+yrs ago, excluding crypto cultists who want the same power structures in a new set of venture capitalist hands.
It’s possibly worth looking at the NFT art boom by proxy. TL;DR it’s artificial scarcity, registering a receipt of ownership to an image (which is freely copyable) on the blockchain as a gambit to make digital art more lucrative. This is primarily done using cryptocurrencies, which fuckin immolate the environment by their excessive electricity usage but a crypto freak will always tell you it’s just about to get cleaner next year (they’ve been saying this for 5+ years). Cryptocurrency is useless as an actual currency due to its volatility, but it’s great for financial speculation. You can become your very own day trading hedge fund manager! It’s also very attractive to libertarians and fash accelerationists, who also love the idea of earning ‘money’ without producing or doing anything. Art has always been a great vessel for money laundering and NFTs are no exception to this, despite the blockchain being an open ledger there are so many fuckin hilarious scams going on — from wash trading to rug pulls. HOW IRONIC, given that so many crypto art freaks say the ‘community’ is better or different than the traditional art world. It’s not, it’s got patriarchy, gatekeeping, financial fraud and the same propensity for uncritically bootlicking silicon valley ideology as if Walden’s pond was an AWS server. On the plus side, it gives the vile little digital art profit seeking sub-randian nebbish far more agency in the scams, replacing the unethical gallerists with a venture capital backed online marketplace that is very susceptible to hype-based fluctuations. Minting a NFT requires some money upfront from you, how much can often vary but after the various fees AND the necessity of pumping real money into crypto — you’re basically making a bet. Rather than spinning the wheel at the roulette table, you’re trying to game the digital art marketplace with your own perception/intuition and suckering in any pre-existing art networks you have. Rather than betting on the random chaos of flying balls on a spinning number wheel or praying to the gods of Grantium your fully costed proposal is seen worthy, you’re cynically trend forecasting artistic production to hopefully sell your bullshit NFT to some crypto trader who finally has something more to do with their magic internet money since you can no longer use it to buy experimental LSD. You’re not trying to count cards, but you’re trying to anticipate and entice an amorphous art market audience. Art writers are very often detached from reality and if anything is expensive, even if it is stupid, it becomes instantaneously meaningful for them. Hyping it up is also part of their informal role, they’re not objective critics free from any kind of editorial mandate lol. Luxury art magazines don’t send their writers to review shows that haven’t paid for any kind of advertising within said magazine. Just like with the post-internet trend, naysayers can be waved away with various accusations of luddism, or fear of the future, or conservative inclinations (lol) because the weird white neckbeard dudes of web3 and their replication of capitalist market logic but with an easier buy-in for the individual is THE FUTURE and if you don’t like it have fun staying poor! Art ‘communities’ in NFT world are also mediated by platforms like discord/reddit/telegram groups so there isn’t any kind of proper solidarity, nobody would turn up to picket MoMA or occupy the Guggenheim. This kind of anti-union incentive is ideal though. The art world is anathema to unionisation enough, as I’ve said before, but the digital art subsect is even more disconnected from any humanity that isn’t writing 10,000 word essays in instagram about how anyone who hates NFTs just doesn’t get it. There is an analogy to micro-work platforms, companies that contract out freelance workers for jobs that are paid for by the hour. These kinds of piecemeal tasks often come in the form of content moderation on social media OR helping train algorithms identify what images are etc. So many bullshit startups built on some kind of “AI” rely on these double-outsourced workers to help give the illusion their “AI” even barely functions. These workers, often migrants or refugees, do these jobs remotely from anywhere with internet access. They don’t talk to each other, all their communication is mediated by an online interface. This purposeful isolation of the content moderation workforce has a primary benefit to the platform owner, besides squashing pay and going through duty of care loopholes, it really discourages unionising! I mean how do you build meaningful solidarity when you’re isolated from your peers and all communications are potentially surveilled or mediated by another platform? It’s probably just not feasible. Some idiots would love to believe it is, but they tend to believe that ‘solidarity’ is just pontificating or podcasting about ‘what if the left did that or that’ rather than meeting with your comrades to make strike pamphlets or something. You don’t meet with your comrades to discuss if the union will open a metamask wallet, fucksake lol. It’s not altogether surprising the utopian idea of a decentralised blockchain-enabled digital art ecosystem is one that is also bereft of any kind of art worker relationship and is just a disguised nest of individuals trying to fuck eachother over for ETH bids on some boring GAN image or Blender tutorial gone wrong, but it’s just about making a living making art right? It definitely isn’t a Greater Fool scam hustle ;)
The competitive profit-motive is not exclusive to those art scams though, it’s been normal in how many artists try to get work made. Most commonly there is a side job in teaching, fabrication, freelance writing/editing etc. which funds the studio and materials and then there are …. the open calls. The Arts Council, various foundations and charitable orgs, studio providers etc all dangle a carrot of project funding, so you do your best admin and budgeting and pitch them your work via some cantankerous website submission system and cross your fingers. Some even ask a fee for submissions but those are often more obvious rackets, especially targeting photographers who are often the most thirsty for any sort of recognition, which they implicitly feel entitled to as the most direct conduits of image creation/replication, thus easy marks. You’re not gambling with money sending off these applications for funding, so it’s not like the gas fee for NFT minting, but it’s still your time and you do naturally feel that you should spend a decent amount of time and care on a serious application for funding, especially if it’s upwards of a few thousand £££ and has relatively few strings attached. Indirectly this does put you in competition with your fellow artists, who often all apply to the same things because how the fuck else do you get art funded with this conservative govt and it’s agenda to push all forms of creative industry into subservience to private philanthropy. Even amongst pals, it can sometime cause tension when even established artists get their DYCP application rejected and some rando posh kid who was once in the vanguard of Peckham gentrification gets £2k to buy a zoom recorder and take a train to the countryside for some vague bollocks. Or when someone who works with neurodivergent friendly interactive art practices doesn’t get funding but a middle-class art school graduate with dubious connections to property developers gets money to basically take a gap year in another country to do coloniser shit. My take is, so much of it is variations on gambling with obscure and idiosyncratic ‘benevolent’ structures. It might be slightly more complex than a chip shop slot machine, but probably not by far. Neither give you feedback on your odds or failure. Again, art schools kind of recreate this gambling within themselves in a more vibes sort of way, which then further goes to normalise this type of speculative and insecure vibe for everyone going through it and the wider industry. It helps create a generation of art graduates who are individualistic and stupid, but who succeed via financial might as you can only really get wins in gambling the more money you sink into it. Community spaces and workers co-ops and DIY galleries are then neglected and/or underfunded into threadbare existence, with the annual ACE funding round or some errant landlord as their sword of damocles. Art influencers give the Brexit Festival legitimacy and big galleries who get taxpayer funding also run pay-to-submit open calls. When the pipeline is shit and the lake is shit, it’s very hard to create anything that is progressive or sustainable without also being turned to shit and there is a chorus of idiots who are ready with a buffet of mea culpas or ‘there’s no such thing as clean money’ rhetoric entirely fabricated to basically make you feel okay for being a tory or doing a tory thing, i.e accepting patronage from an org with ties to brutal apartheid but not having to feel bad that you did that because you have to make art somehow. You’re entitled to this! You deserve it!
How to stop things getting worse? It’s v smug and easy (my ideal MO) to point out how shit things are getting, offering at minimum a critique of gov ideology or solidarity to strikes.
Academics: Assuming you’re not on strike and you have some leverage over who to invite for lectures and what to put in the curriculum for art courses, perhaps invite some art worker unions? I know it’s very tempting to just invite the artists who’ll share their rolling tobacco with you, but to connect with gen z you don’t just have to do memes or deify when tech billionaires misunderstand philosophy or basic urban planning. Avoid crypto and web3! The art world was full of useful idiots when Trumpist alt-right ideology was the bleeding edge and overheated racist space cadets were deemed interesting for some weird reason. If art students want to become weird online scammers and gamble with basic renders, leave ’em to it. It’s not digital humanities, it’s just cringeworthy financial speculation. For people who actually like, work and like, keep cultural institutions open and actually running, why not invite PCS Tate or Southbank or V&A? New Museum Union? They’ve been out on the picket line, they’re cold, why not invite them in afterwards. Continue that dialogue. Or if that’s not gen Z enough, get some decent podcasters in, like Art and Labor or 10k Posts or Death Panel. None of that terf reactionary anti-vax influencer shit or shit actors wanting their toes sucked by starfucker careerist artists. The ‘space’ of teaching is one of the few parts where you don’t have management constantly surveilling you and as fun as the themes of ‘digital identities’ have been for the past 10 fuckin years, let’s maybe start talking about ‘work’ and ‘art’ in material reality and politics instead. No need to sack off computers entirely, they’re still part of it, but just don’t reinforce silicon valley trickle down ideologies so much. There is no valuable advice to art students I can give because if all they care about is ‘experience’ and ‘value for money’ without even comprehending how those two things do not really gel together, that’s it just a capitalist myth that has been sold to you, then lost cause m8. In regards to value tho, how about artists make some affordable stuff once in a while? If you have the skills to actually make a small physical piece of work and sell it for £50 or so, start a little instagram shopfront or something. It’s surprising how many people go after that stuff and they do not give a fuck if you’ve got clout or not, they’ll just buy your little forged bronze boi or watercolour of something john carpenter monstery because they like it. And the cost of one sale might be enough to cover a months fucking ludicrously inflated heating bill, which can really fuckin take the sharp edge off like… living. If you’re an artist who does have the nice accumulation of clout, maybe give back to the arts in another way by showing at DIY spaces sometimes! If you’ve had some art fairs or institutional solo shows under your belt that’s cool but why not work with yr m8s in small co-op run spaces? I know the profit opportunity is significantly reduced, like no big buyers or donors or residency bequeathers, but maybe show art in spaces that aren’t just for that y’know? It’s ok to do both. The logic of the line (it must go up!) doesn’t have to be followed for everything.
Ultimately the grand problem is harder to address in a way that seems satisfying. To suggest that these problems with the culture industry and education would be improved upon by, for example, if the electorate stopped voting for the tories, is not narratively rewarding and doesn’t showcase much imagination for the writer. Nor is a nebulous warning that ‘the left’ must reckon with an important juncture of consensus making that will unite the splintered factions and flex their influence upon the collective sense of basic human decency is also a bit of a letdown for any reader. Hypothetical ultimatums that would be achievable if perhaps this or that. All the suggestions for progessive change, even ones that require no sovereign funds like stop the government being able to appoint board members/chairs for national museums, seem great but in all honesty how the fuck are they going to be enacted. So the question is more how to counteract the rightwards drift in cultural politics, and that goes back to the point of entry in education. Art schools are incredibly vulnerable to being hollowed out and part-privatised by tech companies, reduced to being a feeder system for a speculative economy because capitalism always needs a frontier where new forms of wealth can be extracted. That’s why it needs to be carefully watched how art schools teach interactions with XR (virtual reality and digitally-based practices). If an academic suggests inviting some Berlin rich kid collective or fuckin Simon Denny, be afraid. Unfortuantely not all artists are on the same side, some are on the side of shilling for the rich or grifting for a pyramid scheme. If they’d cross a picket line, they shouldn’t be fuckin giving any kind of tutorial to art students. Let em have their dogshit Sothebys Metaverse or property developer pipeline or tory benefactors, let them innovate new and exciting ways to lick the boot of the powerful. Art students should also expend more energy into finding ways to unionise, complain and anatagonise the university power structure — that experience is guaranteed to be a better education than any paltry offerings you might receive and most non-scab tutors will thank you for it.