Refusing Conformity and Exclusion in Art Education
While experimentation and activism often focus on art school education or education as art, there is a tendency to ignore the creeping influence of corporate public pedagogy which is poisoning the roots of art education in the UK’s schools. Art pedagogy can only be radical, writes Dean Kenning, if it takes on the exclusions and market bias which are impoverishing educational culture
The discussions we have witnessed over the past few years around art education, as well as proposals for, and experiments towards its renewal, transformation or re-conception, have taken their impetus from developments in the distinct fields of art and formal education. In the field of art we have seen the rise of curating as a kind of art production in itself, alongside what we can loosely term ‘relational’ and ‘participatory’ practices. Such practices have sought to move beyond any delineated object in order to locate art within the wider, inter-human, relational situation. But unlike community art, for example, such encounters take place within – or at least end up back at – institutional art spaces. On the one hand, educational forms and materials such as desks, blackboards, over-head projectors, collections of books etc., are presented within the exhibition format in a way that mimics conventional learning environments.1 On the other hand, educational initiatives – such as marathon lecture events, participatory workshops or alternative art schools – take place at, or with the backing of, galleries, museums and biennials, or within the bounds of art world networks, and are often presented as artworks in their own right. Pedagogical forms and initiatives such as these have been much discussed under the rubric of the ‘educational turn’ in art and curating. The trope of ‘turning’ suggests a dynamic process enabling art to move beyond its established limits. As the editors of one of the foremost collections on the subject write: ‘there is an invocation of flux and the shifting of territories, stabilities and normative positions.’2 The move towards education, meanwhile, appears to connect art to a more general social arena, and one, moreover, that indicates a functional role for art. We should also add a further dimension to the UK situation, where funding arrangements for public galleries since the late '90s have made education departments a central part of the institutionalised artistic landscape. While budgets for gallery education have increased, and artistic and curatorial practices directed towards schools and community projects have proliferated, the paradoxical effect of the pedagogical turn in art and curating discourses has in certain respects been to hijack these more hidden practices, and thus perpetuate the low status of many involved – for example, when high profile artists are brought in to a school's project.3
In the field of university-level art education, debates tend to be both more urgent and more local, originating, as it were, from the factory floor. Nevertheless, it is clear that the neoliberal push towards a privatised student-as-consumer model of education is a global phenomenon; a fact rendered visible by student struggles for free and universal access to education in cities across the world. In the UK, loss of independence for art departments amidst a growing instrumentality had been exacerbated in recent years by increased standardisation, an oppressive assessment culture and the transformation of education into a commodity – up to the point of the current, accelerated crisis unleashed by the Tory-led coalition government.
Rather than rehearsing the various pedagogical experiments in curating, alternative art schools models, conference debates etc., or examining in detail policy changes that have afflicted universities and art departments, as well as the protests that have arisen in response to them, I would like to put the developments outlined above into relation with more general ideological forces and structures that are effecting art education as a symptom of wider social disfigurement.4 The field of art and the field of education are conceptually distinct, but they are mutually interactive when it comes to these debates. Sometimes education-related practices and discourses occur as if what is happening in formal art education is not their concern. A different approach, but one which may simply be the other side of the same coin, is to see art-based experimental modes of education as, to some extent, an alternative to formal university-based models of education for artists and, therefore, a means to solve or sidestep the problems besetting the latter. What I want to focus on is the tipping point between art-related educational practices which confront social mechanisms of conformity and exclusion in order to offer real alternatives, and those which slide back into education-themed art events. The issue revolves around whether artistic experiments occur with the wider social picture in view, or whether they remain contained within pre-established cultural and institutional limits.
Conformity and Exclusion
My basic position is that the ‘trouble with art school’ lies not primarily with the validity or otherwise of the various methods by which future artists might be taught, but with who those artists might be, and how what they do might be affected by constraints they will be placed under.5 In other words, the ‘trouble’ lies with the potential destruction of art school as a critical and heterogeneous space due to the government’s dismantling of the (already battered) welfare state model of free and inclusive public education. As students are expected to take on the burden of massive personal debt, and as universities become ‘providers’ in a competitive global marketplace – with the inevitable consequences of course closures and a two-tier system – a higher level art education is heading towards increasing corporate conformity and increasing exclusivity.6 The danger is that the study of art as a practical discipline will become not only more professionalised and acquiescent as onerous debt encourages the demand to succeed financially, but a luxury available only to the well off and to those with enough existing cultural capital to think the gamble on a precarious future is one worth taking. A factor little commented on in the discourses around art education is the way this exclusionary mechanism is exacerbated by the diminution or phasing out of art in many secondary schools, a consequence both of a narrowing in the way performance is measured for national league tables since the introduction of the EBac certificate and the proliferation of new academy and ‘free’ schools which are run beyond local authority control with freedom to impose their own curriculum.7 In both cases it is poorer students who will be deprived of the benefits of art classes and exposure to a wider culture of art they may otherwise not have access to. (We must not let the urgent need to address particular deficiencies in the art curriculum or lack of resources blind us to the way the availability of art as a subject at school provides a pathway to study at further and higher levels.)8 Quite apart from the effect on particular individuals, the consequences of an increasingly homogeneous upper and middle class student body can only be detrimental for future art practice itself, and the critical social role art can play. In an article which addresses this issue with rare clarity, John Beagles has highlighted how prevailing discourses on art education have failed to account for the way class exclusion itself effects art schools. For Beagles, pedagogical innovation will not get us very far if it does not operate in conjunction with efforts to enable access for a broader range of students: ‘Tackling exclusion and transforming the culture of art schools are two inextricable sides of the same coin.’9
Image: Céline Condorelli, Revision Part II, an adjustable spatial setting for ARTSCHOOL/UK 2010
Given the assault both on the democratic ideal of education as a necessary sphere of free thinking, and on the comprehensive ideal of equal access and opportunity to study, it is incumbent upon those engaged with issues of education from the perspective of art, and who believe in art’s ability to contribute concretely to the wider cultural landscape, to address these fundamental structural transformations. Alternative art school models and educational forms and events taking place in an art contexts are in danger of becoming a pseudo-critical pose or smokescreen, unless they are capable of confronting real conditions on the level of the social space in which they are carried out, of acting to stop processes detrimental to the expansion of art as a critical practice, and of challenging the ideology that underlies these processes. At its worst, and in spite of all radical content and non-hierarchical student-tutor relations etc., alternative art educational models risk exacerbating exclusion and instituting what might be called a pedagogy of privilege.
From Art as Education to Education as Art
The pedagogical turn in art appears to promise openness, genuine engagement and a breaking down of boundaries. One of the things Anton Vidokle suggests is that artists who adopt the school as their modus operandi have the capacity to turn the passive ‘audience’ back into an active ‘public’, and thus engender the socially transformative function of art which inspired predecessors such as Courbet and Manet to institute the very notion of art as a critical practice.10 Vidokle’s own unitednationsplaza, ‘the exhibition as school’, is one of the most celebrated reference points in discussions about art’s turn to education. Infamously it did not take place as intended in 2006 when Manifesta 6 was cancelled (following political interference by the Cypriot authorities), but was realised later in Berlin, and then at the New Museum in New York under the name Night School. Without wishing to judge the entirety of an extensive, multi-event project such as this (and one I was not party to), I would nevertheless like to point to the way Vidokle’s school was set up (indicative of many similar projects), and consider how these conditioning factors might allow us to question some of critical claims being made. Firstly, those involved closely with the project are big, international art names: Boris Groys, Martha Rosler, Liam Gillick, Walid Raad, and others. Whilst various of these artists and writers may be inspiring and raise public interest, it does feed straight into the art world validation system, justifying publicity and debate within the circles of art discourse (art magazines, and so on, will pay it attention), and attracting a largely readymade public who can self-identify through the shared recognition of these names. Secondly, there was a selection process: one hundred artists, musicians, designers etc., out of the several thousand who applied, were chosen to join the ‘core group’ of the programme.11 Whatever the outcome, the whole idea of selection relating to a field or institutional apparatus – education, schools – whose purpose, from one perspective, is always to maintain and reproduce class divisions precisely through processes of selection and hence exclusion should, at the very least, raise questions.12 Depending on the channels of dissemination, the process used could already be viewed as a form of selection, ruling out those who were not aware of the call. How much, then, is this really about opening art up, breaking down borders, and engaging a wider public? Outside of the regulatory confines of formal educational establishments, are there not opportunities for artists and curators to invent structures that refuse selection, and so encourage the interchange of what Beagles calls ‘distinct subjectivities’ – the mark of a genuinely democratic public sphere?13 As Beagles implies, it is the introduction of voices able to challenge art’s claims to neutral universality that allows for forms of dissensus which cannot be manufactured simply through the introduction of a set of texts and topics for debate. Thirdly, although the project is described in terms of turning the space of art into a learning process, with the implication of a breaking down of the artist-audience relation, and the idea of a contingent, fluid, and unframable process, unitednationsplaza, as Vidokle himself says, ‘functioned very much as an artwork in its own setting’.14 This is not simply a matter of dialectical inversions – school as art as school, etc. There is something more at stake: the way that art, in becoming a platform for more open, collaborative processes, gets returned as a distinct, authored work, with all the symbolic capital that accrues to the artist as author.15 We seem to have moved from ‘exhibition as school’ to ‘school as exhibition’; or, to put it another way, from art-as-education to education-as-art. I would simply for now want to make a plea for the anonymity of the great teacher or tutor, wherever they exist within the vast machine of education, including art education. Why should art practices remain tied to value systems premised almost entirely on visibility?16
I want to move to another event that took place in October 2011 at the Slade School of Art, something I did participate in called It Started With A Car Crash: Alternative Educational Road Tour.17 The location for the event was significant as less than a year before, Slade students from the BA Fine Art course were in occupation in protest at the planned implementation of the Government’s (misnamed) education ‘reforms’. The event had been organised by the IMT gallery as part of an exhibition by The Bruce High Quality Foundation, an art group who had taken their own self-run ‘university’ on a tour of various educational establishments in the US, and were now making a stop-over in London. But where did this ‘educational tour’ take those of us gathered at the Slade symposium? For me it seemed to take us both outside and inside – outside of the institutionalised spaces of art education, but only in order to take us safely back within art world confines.
The Kurt Schwitters DIY School was made up of Slade Fine Art students who had been part of the earlier college occupation, plus some others (including two young children). The collective had formed out of a residency they undertook on the site of Schwitters’ Merz Barn in Cumbria. Their performances on the day reminded me of techniques used during the 2010 occupations, seeming to articulate horizontal relations, consensual decision-making and equal status within the group through a method whereby each member of the collective, standing in a row, would take their turn to speak or enact something. One got a sense of the intimacy of the group and the empowerment felt at the experience of creating something beyond the limits of the self. It was a reminder of the freedom that getting away from one’s usual surroundings can inspire, and the necessity of that. At the same time the performances seemed inward-looking, an expression of wilful disengagement from others in the room due to the fact that what was spoken about, whilst probably making sense to group members, seemed to withdraw from the possibility of communication with anyone else.
Without wanting to refute the potential of such experiments, the contrast between different modes of collaboration and group formation manifested, firstly, through the education protest, and secondly, through the residency are striking. On the one hand we have an art college occupation, formed and carried out in an act of broad-based social solidarity against a common enemy – a formation which amongst other things was instrumental in the creation of the umbrella protest group Arts Against Cuts. On the other, a ‘DIY School’, made up of students who had taken part in the occupation, but whose extra-curricula art community grew from a rural residency, and was limited to the small number of people who took part in it.18 Whilst it is not an either/or question, on this occasion the balance of criticality tips in favour of the art institution itself as a site of contestation and social engagement. The question would then be about how the powers of distinct, artistic forms, arising from the collective imagination of collaborative formations – whose value may indeed lie with a certain level of non-communication and non-recognition – might operate in a politically charged mode.19
The New International School also delivered us to a rural location, this time a residency programme in France. The project was framed in terms of it offering an alternative to over-bureaucratised formal art institutions, and its discourse-based art pedagogy of self-examination was celebrated, with the marginality of the NIS’s location regarded a means toward this end. The impression, garnered from the screening of a collaborative video produced at the school, was one of almost total isolation, and a solipsistic introspection. There was also the unspoken issue of what type of artist was able to travel to France and support themselves on an unfunded residency of this sort. Again, in spite of the value individual artists may have derived from their experience, it is certain that even the most bureaucratised university art course had the advantage over this School in terms of a heterogeneous social cohort – regardless, or probably more accurately because of, its ‘international’ make-up.
A final incident seemed to epitomise the problems of an event which offered a journey outward, beyond the normative realities of gallery-based art and institutionalised art education, only in order to turn back and entrench us ever more deeply in those conditions. One of the members of The Bruce High Quality Foundation made a rather off-the-cuff remark to the effect that alternative art schools have the advantage of being much more flexible when it comes to being able to get rid of dead-weight faculty tutors. When I pointed out that in the UK at least we have been experiencing a period of massive staff cuts on many Fine Art courses, and that a similar language of dynamism and flexibility was often adopted by senior management to justify cuts to teaching, the curator of IMT interjected on the grounds that it wasn’t very productive to go down this politically-charged road. Clearly the promised ‘debate around alternative networks of education’ that headlined the event had its limits, and this limit seemed to be any antagonistic injection of the reality of what was happening around us, that is to say, outside the boundaries of individual art projects. A bland consensus is the consequence of collaboration for its own sake – a method of learning now commonly applied in fine art schools where tutors are thin on the ground. But there is another issue – the way that art events around education are always in danger of becoming another curated art event, adopting education as a theme but avoiding the bigger picture, and so contributing little in the way of social influence or action towards change. If we maintain a hope that artists, galleries and other arts institutions can be a lever for social change, or a brake on regressive measures, then this is a danger we need to be wary of.20
When art turns in on itself, things begin to curdle. This, then, is another sense of the educational turn: art appears to move outward towards the social terrain of education – a deeply political terrain which cannot but confront the reality of art’s own exclusions, hierarchies and value systems – but only for education to be recuperated and turned back into art, appropriated, mimicked, aestheticised. A turning inward, then, which is simultaneously a separating out from the common medium, so that education – which everyone has experienced, and so understands in one way or another – is reconstituted into recognisable artworks, exhibitions, or curated events.21 When those engaged in open-ended discussion more and more resemble each other in terms of background, cultural tastes and lifestyles, things have also turned inward. The purpose in this case seems to be less about art’s potential to enter into the most pressing battles and debates, and more about producing a kind of super-artistic subject; someone, for example, who learns all about The Ignorant Schoolmaster, but knows nothing about why the school down their road is now sponsored by an investment bank.
We can see how, while adopting the political rhetoric of social engagement, projects which contain education within institutionally, culturally and discursively demarcated art zones, can serve to reinforce art’s social separation and exclusivity. Earlier I stated that it was imperative that debates and practices around education and art contend not only with specific government attacks, but confront the ideologies that underlie them. The dominant ideology is encountered in the art world and anywhere else where we experience conformity to a neoliberal corporate agenda, and social and cultural exclusion under conditions of widening economic inequality. As I stated at the start, social conformity and exclusion are precisely the likely effects of the changes taking place in UK education. In this sense these changes are part of a much wider national and global ideological agenda to transfer what remains of the non-commodified public sphere into private hands. These processes are accompanied by, and are indeed part of, what educational theorist Henri Giroux has identified as ‘corporate public pedagogy’: ‘a powerful ensemble of ideological and institutional forces whose aim is to produce competitive, self-interested individuals vying for their own material and ideological gain.’22
Corporate public pedagogy is not simply a kind of hegemonic cultural wallpaper; it is something that is being built into the very architecture of our education systems. The democratic ideal of informed and equal citizens, whilst never being fully realised in practice, underlay comprehensive reforms throughout the 20th century. This ideal has now been replaced by a belief in entrepreneurial values and a faith in business methods. The government’s idea of corporate responsibility is to take state education out of democratic local authority control, and hand it over to much less accountable private companies and wealthy philanthropists.23 Melissa Benn writes of ‘the biggest trend in the edu-market […] the growth of “chains” […] a development many believe will soon dominate the education landscape.’24 She is speaking about organisations such as ARK, E-ACT, the Academies Enterprise Trust and the Harris Federation. ARK – Absolute Return for Kids (this kind of business jargon is omnipresent), set up by a group of hedgefund financiers and a billionaire CEO, currently runs 11 academies in the UK which operate according to strict discipline, a ‘behaviourist’ teacher-dominated pedagogy borrowed from KIPP (Knowledge is Power) US Charter Schools, and a curriculum which prioritises ‘depth before breadth’ (demoting ‘soft’ subjects like art). Its abiding ethos is that ‘business methods’ can ‘solve social problems.’25 But this is not the limit of corporate influence: many commentators believe that sponsored Academies and Free Schools are a means to a more extreme end: the entry of for-profit education providers into the state system. Pearson, which sells academic books, teacher training and tracking software to schools in the increasingly outsourced UK education market, is promoting ‘complete solutions’ for running schools, as part of a desired ‘fully privatised national strategy’ that is likely to follow the profitable US model of low-cost computer-based learning. It is alarming to note that if it were not for the News of the World phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson enquiry, Rupert Murdoch might already be embedded within UK state education, extending his recently acquired edu-division (run by anti-union, pro Charter School, former head of New York City education, Joel Klein), and beaming News International’s ‘large library of media content’ directly into classrooms.26 Whilst education businesses and private school operators such as Cognita and News Corps wait in the wings for a chance to colonise material and intellectual wealth built up over decades in the public sphere, an all-pervading ‘business ontology’, to use Mark Fisher’s apt term, is in danger of eclipsing any sense that alternative social formations are possible, or indeed ever existed. And so children’s minister Sarah Teather recently awarded UBS investment bank with a Big Society Award for allowing staff to volunteer at Bridge Academy in Hackney. According to the Evening Standard, Teather said that ‘bankers can provide state school pupils with the connections and networks students at top private schools benefit from […] and inspire pupils who might not otherwise be exposed to the corporate world.’27 More recently I have heard of a bank-sponsored school celebrating ‘enterprise week’, with all manner of Apprentice type activities for pupils.28
Image: Arts Against Cuts stage a teach-in during the Turner Prize award ceremony, December 2010
This may seem a long way from art. Surely one enters art school in order to escape from such things as rote learning, authoritarian classes, rigid discipline, the segregation of knowledge, a positivistic culture of testing, an obsession with career plans, etc.? All of this is in fact questionable, and it would be productive to look at how the particular twist increasing privatisation gives to each of these things is mirrored in various ways at University level education, and on Fine Art courses. I want to make a more general point about the way corporate pedagogy permeates the field of art, a field in relation to which art schools increasingly seem to see themselves as providing their students with ‘training’ – with the effect that formal art education increasingly conforms to the ‘realities’ of this field, rather than enabling a critical distance from it, and therefore limits (or attempts to limit) the possibility for students to question or refuse its values.29 What, then, is the make-up of this field, within which artist and curator-led educational models have proliferated in recent times – offering what claim to be alternatives to the dominant ideological models of education? The sphere of art is, in fact, very far from being a natural zone of criticality and contestation, and in many ways embodies and promotes those very neoliberal values Giroux and Fisher speak about. Firstly exclusion is built into the art world’s hierarchical symbolic economy, where access to prestige, validation and funding is often dependent on elite networks of acquaintances and the financial resources necessary to engage in unpaid internships, etc. Secondly, conformity to a neoliberal definition of reality permeates an arena where ultra-individualism is encouraged by a culture of competition and personal promotion and by the corporatisation of public galleries through sponsorship, branding, franchising, exclusive hospitality events, etc. As with corporate influence in compulsory education, and the marketisation of higher education, what this corporate occupation of the public gallery does is to change its character and negate its ability to act in opposition to economic and cultural power. This influence may appear more subtle than the examples given above in relation to the privatisation of schools – corporate logos and their feel-good catchphrases in fact provide a kind of omnipresent, albeit perhaps ignorable, wallpaper within a sphere of life where it might be imagined one could be free of such things. But sponsors, patrons and collectors do exert all kinds of coercive authority in terms of what artists and curators rationally determine to be in their own better interests to do and avoid doing in their work – from the production of art, to where and the manner in which it gets shown, to what or whom one is able to criticise, challenge or refuse, etc. In the precarious, competitive, winner-takes-all field of art, where access to the right people plays such a massive part in success and visibility, the impulse of obedience is significant. Such obedience is in fact learnt behaviour, even if the effects of domination, being almost entirely negative (what is never made or proposed or spoken in the first place) are in reality felt as an absence, or else its confirmation rarely rises above casual art world gossip.30
There is, at the very least, a logical contradiction when art projects which claim to offer alternative models of education, fail to address the dominant corporate pedagogy that shapes the frame in which they operate. Critical pedagogy is nothing if it is not, amongst other things, a constant questioning of the relations which structure that pedagogy – and a mutation of that pedagogy in response to what has been learnt as a result of those questions raised. But the conclusion to draw is not the somewhat utopian notion that, without first establishing a truly democratic comprehensive, equal and dissenting sphere, critical and politically oriented practices will remain doomed to neutralisation and co-option towards opposite ends. Instead, what is crucial is that critical practices themselves can begin to alter notions of what the field can consist of, and what institutions may be capable of. In what follows I want to suggest two examples (both briefly touched on earlier) of ways this might occur in respect to art-education.
Art as Education & Protest Pedagogy
Education-as-art, education, that is, recuperated and returned as art capital, never fully escapes from an old fashioned version of autonomy premised on the institutional consecration that separates art from the disorienting sphere of social life. 31 A different version of autonomy is premised on contestation and dissent. Art identifies and then acts to change those forces – social, cultural, economic, aesthetic, etc. – which impede its freedom; it confronts, as a kind of material to be reshaped, the contextual frames which influence and determine its meanings and values.32 Whereas education-as-art models appear to change art’s form, but leave its basic structures untouched, art-as-education models, on the contrary, change not only art’s forms, but attempt to shift the structures which determine what art is capable of. In this way art does not become education in any simple transition; rather in turning to education as a field where art’s own limitations can be identified and exceeded (its various conformities and exclusions) art can act in a way which transforms the notion of what it can be. An example of what art-as-education could look like is Brecht’s theatre, particularly his learning-plays. In today’s context we might look to artists working in schools, operating, for example, through gallery education departments.33 When artists cross the threshold into schools, they are often afforded a degree of freedom way beyond that afforded to art teachers, in terms of such things as time, novelty, the ability to operate beyond lesson and curriculum constraints, etc. Artists in schools are therefore in a good position to introduce, through all kinds of forms and methods alien to the usual school environment, possibilities for critical and dissensual thinking. Such thinking could be directed towards, and viewed as a negation of corporate public pedagogy in its many manifestations, both as it is seen to encroach on the school itself, and as it pervades the wider culture – for example through mass media forms of news, sport, entertainment, advertising, etc. Autonomy here is not simply a case of the artist’s relative freedom to operate, nor does it reside wholly in the effect on pupils as they move briefly from consumer-subjects to thinking agents. Autonomy is also a consequence in this case of art pushing against the limits of its own exclusions and conformities – of entering a distinctly comprehensive arena, and releasing artworks from their usual cultural policing as precious objects directed towards certain individuals, and intended for certain audiences and/or publics. In this respect, whilst what goes on in gallery education departments is often derided as a (State-directed) instrumentalisation of art, or is subject to casual dismissal or disregard by many of those involved in the ‘pedagogical turn’ debates (a prejudice which is to a large extent status-driven), it may be more productive to think of these departments as trojan horses – smuggling in practices which threaten the hierarchies, exclusions, and economically valorising procedures of the gallery as a whole, and therefore the class interests which would like to maintain these conventions and relations.34 We might, then, further think about how the artwork, as it appears in different forms across many arenas (including within gallery exhibitions), might be reconceived as a resource, a teaching aid, or, as the dictionary has it, ‘an action or strategy that may be adopted in adverse circumstances’. In this way we get a sense of how art may be liberated from its passive, protected status, in order to operate in a more socially functional, and potentially political way.
Image: Brecht's The Ocean Flight (Lindberflug), a Lehrstuck, 1927
Another way art could operate critically to confront both the exclusions and the corporate pedagogy being introduced into art education is through what John Cussans has termed ‘protest pedagogy’.35 Cussans is describing activities undertaken by Arts Against Cuts, which both he and myself were involved with. As already mentioned, AAC arose out of the education protests and college occupations of late 2010 and involved art students, lecturers, artists, writers, activists, student union officers, and others.36 At group gatherings and over the course of open access education and planning Weekends several teach-ins and occupations of cultural venues were proposed. Initially these took place at Tate Britain during the Turner Prize ceremony and the National Gallery on the evening of the parliamentary vote on tuition fees, coinciding with a major education demo.37 Further actions followed in early 2011, including at the British Museum on the day of another education demonstration, at Sotheby’s auction house, and the Whitechapel Gallery during the opening of the Government Art Collection. The people who took part in these events were mainly operating within the field of art and art education. But while the experience of lectures, communal chanting, spontaneous life drawing, and manifesto production during occupations and teach-ins, as well as the production of images for banners and stickers, and the various workshops and discussions at the planning weekends, all represented of itself a broad, transdisciplinary and experimental extra-formal model of education in action, this type of pedagogical practice was not insular and desirous of recognition as art, but directed in a practical way towards the reinstatement of free public education, and the collectivist and comprehensive values embodied by public sector provision. What is more, in fighting for those values, the art-as-protest pedagogy of AAC was able to challenge the corporate pedagogy and elitism current in the art world in the following, interconnected ways: 1. The actions were genuinely collective and non-authored, even while individuals brought particular ideas to the table, thus negating normative neoliberal models of social success: hierarchical structures of validation and prestige, and the general competitive individualism operating in the art world. 2. The occupations and teach-ins performed a symbolic reclamation of corporatised cultural space for the public sphere. In the midst of the actions at the Tate, National Gallery and British Museum, there was a sense of collective ownership – a sense that occupation was about asserting a common claim over something which had a different type of value from its institutionally engineered market value, one which belonged to us all: the public gallery not as a collection of ‘priceless’ treasures, but a democratic social space; and by extension, the necessity of art education as a critical and imaginative resource that should be available to everyone. 3. Coming from an art perspective, this form of education through protest challenged the exclusions of the art world by connecting with other groups – those within further education and school students, teachers, union members, gallery and museum workers, etc.
I offer the above suggestions not as definitive solutions to the problems of conformity and exclusion in art and education, let alone to the wider social structures and ideological forces which underlie them, but as an indication of possible directions. There are many questions which could be raised, for example in respect to the permanence and strength of heterogeneous bonds formed during protests or residencies in schools, which are by nature delimited in time. However in the arena of art education where, as Marina Vishmidt argues, ‘individualised rebellion is obligatory [but] socialised rebellion is proscribed’, moves towards the social must surely be welcome.38 And in so far as such individualism reflects neoliberal ideals of competition and privatised being, the desire and ability to invent new forms of commonality are a matter of the utmost urgency. But I want nevertheless to end on a note of intransigence. In his essay ‘Education After Auschwitz’, Theodor Adorno defines autonomy as ‘the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not co-operating.’39 Adorno has in mind the fact that the Holocaust occurred because there were enough people willing to obey orders, to submit to an external power that was stronger than them. Adorno’s suspicion of collectives is perhaps understandable, but ultimately too limiting, and his vision of education too top-down. But I think it is essential to emphasise the importance of not co-operating, in an area of discussion where terms like collaboration, participation and co-operation operate as ‘positive’ signals designed to abstract us from any sense of the power relations they may be upholding. Just as consensus has a critical function when located within a wider antagonistic relation (adopted tactically to confront a common enemy), so collaborative situations in art set-ups have limited critical value unless they push against the conditions of domination and exclusion which define the contexts in which they exist. Resistance against common impediments to freedom is where true solidarities grow. In this respect artistic autonomy is also about learning to say no.
Dean Kenning <deankenning AT gmail.com> is an artist and writer. Exhibitions include Commonism (Five Years Gallery), and The Dulwich Horror: HP Lovecraft & the Crisis in British Housing (Space Station Sixty-Five). Also, recently, Reclaim the Mural (Whitechapel Gallery) as part of the group The Work in Progress. He has written many articles and reviews for Art Monthly, and has also published in Third Text, Art Review and Modern Painters. He is a visiting lecturer on the BA Fine Art course at Central St Martins, and is post-doctoral researcher at the Contemporary Art Research Centre, Kingston University, where he is currently organising the Stanley Picker Public Lectures programme.
1 What Irit Rogoff has cautioningly called ‘pedagogical aesthetics.’ See ‘Turning’, in Curating and the Educational Turn, Paul O’Neill & Mick Wilson, (eds.), Amsterdam: De Appel, 2010, p. 42.
2 Paul O’Neill & Mick Wilson, ‘Introduction’, ibid, p.15.
3 A case in point being Dis-assembly. See Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Andrea Philips, Lars Bang Larsen & Emily Pringle, Dis-assembly. Faisal Abdu'allah, Christian Boltanski, Yona Friedman, Runa Islam: A Serpentine Gallery Project with North Westminister Community School, London: Serpentine Gallery, 2006.
4 For a good summary of many of these developments and their political significance see Marina Vishmidt, ‘Creation Myth’, Mute, July 2010, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/creation-myth
5 I presented an embryonic version of this paper at The Trouble With Art School, an event held at the ICA, 30 November 2011. I would like to thank Corinna Till for all her valuable input regarding the present text.
6 The ConDems are in fact helping to engineer a stark two-tier system by imposing supply side limits, making up to 20,000 student places available to institutions who can set fees at below £7000 per year. Whilst David Willets will sell this as giving a better deal to student consumers, the real purpose of such market rigging is to encourage new providers to enter and compete with universities on cost. The multinational firm Pearson, who have also expressed an interest in running Academy and Free Schools, have claimed they can run a degree course for as little as £4000.
I garner these facts from a talk given by Andrew McGettigan for the Marxism in Culture Open Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, London on 14 October 2011: ‘Financialisation, Monetisation, Privatisation: Creating the New Market in HE’. For up to date analysis of Higher Education developments see Andrew’s Critical Education blog: http://andrewmcgettigan.org/
7 The confusingly titled English Baccalaureate, introduced to state sector schools in November 2010, is awarded to pupils achieving A*-C in GCSE in the following subjects: Maths, English, Science, Foreign Language, and History/Geography. It immediately became the measure of quality for schools, with the consequence that in many places non-EBac subjects were squeezed to prioritise EBac subjects. From the start of 2011 many secondary schools decided to limit pupils’ choice of art’s subjects, to enable them to drop art a year early, to allot less time to arts subjects, and in some cases remove art as a GCSE option all together. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/feb/07/gcse-arts-cut-english-baccalaureate and http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jul/13/ebacc-limited-choice-gcse-school-pupils A sign of the seemingly planned diminution in art provision is the 40 percent reduction last year in PGCE training places for art teachers compared with a 14 percent reduction in places over all. See http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6087624
In its determination to accelerate New Labour’s expansion of corporate and private sponsored education, the government has vastly expanded Academy Schools, largely by bribing comprehensives to convert with the promise of desperately needed funds. Many sponsors are charismatic entrepreneurs keen to impose a no-nonsense, three Rs, vocation-oriented curriculum, often in the name of ‘poorer students’. Whilst it is certain art will be considered an unnecessary ‘luxury’ in many inner city academies, art, music and drama are likely to thrive in some of the more affluent Free Schools, being seen by parents who themselves attended university as an essential part of a well-rounded education. Thus we see the likely divisions in degree study being reflected at compulsory level education prior to HE selection.
It is worth making the point that a major factor in the Tories’ education policies regarding Free and Academy Schools is to take schools out of the hands of local authority accountability, and to diminish workers' rights as the new employers are exempt from teachers’ pay and conditions agreements. For a thorough account of the ‘state-sponsored privatisation’ of compulsory education see Melissa Benn, School Wars. The Battle for Britain’s Education, Verso (London, New York), 2011
8 The abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a weekly sum paid to 16-19 year-old students from poorer families who remain in education, will also effect the take-up of art at pre-degree level (on Foundation and, especially, BTEC courses). In general the decision on EMA is likely to have consequences at least as significant (and more immediate since EMA is a payment, not a debt) for social mobility as the increase in university fees, and was a major source of anger expressed in the student demos of late 2010.
9 ‘It is clear to me that issues about exclusion need to be equally embedded alongside all curricula and pedagogic innovation. It is no longer forgivable or strategically appropriate to regard them as appendices to be dealt with by external WP programmes.’ John Beagles, ‘In a Class of Their Own. The Incomprehensiveness of Art Education’, Variant, Issue 39/40. http://www.variant.org.uk/39_40texts/comp39_40.html. I would concur completely with Beagles’ call for ‘a renewed, reimagined, core insertion of comprehensive education values’ into debates and struggles around art school education.
10 Anton Vidokle, ‘Exhibition to School: unitednationsplaza’, in Curating and the Educational Turn, ibid.
11 Op. cit., p.153. A similar selection process occurred at the New Museum.
12 And this would include mechanisms of self-selection, such as the ability to pay private tuition fees, to afford to live in an affluent area near a good state school, to have professional connections, to have support which enables one to live away from home, in another city or country, etc.
13 John Beagles, ‘In a Class of Their Own: The Incomprehensiveness of Art Education’, Variant, issue 39/40, Winter 2010. http://www.variant.org.uk/39_40texts/comp39_40.html Beagles continues: ‘the often antagonistic debates between […] those whose subjectivity is often motivated by being bored or out of place, and those at home within culture, frequently leads to a questioning of dominant modes of thought.’
14 Vidokle, ‘Exhibition to School’, p.155
15 As Tirdad Zolghadr, one of the school’s core collaborators/tutors, writes, ‘the project, in and of itself, was discretely framed as an Anton Vidokle artwork.’ ‘The Angry Middle Aged: Romance and the Possibilities of Adult Education in the Art World’, in Curating and the Educational Turn, p.161
16 On the question of artist visibility see my feature ‘The Artist as Artist’, Art Monthly, June 2010
17 Several groups involved with extra-formal models of art education were invited to speak/perform. I was invited as part of Free School in a New Dark Age, an informal art school initiated by John Cussans in 2008.
18 David Burrows, head of BA Fine Art at the Slade and host of the event, has pointed out to me that for many Slade students taking part, the gallery teach-ins still seemed tutor-led, and the residency was a means to pursue communal experiences in a way they could claim ownership over. It is also worth bearing in mind the exhaustion felt when collective action ends in defeat, and therefore the need to regroup, or to seek solitude, in order that energy can be generated again and directed into forms of art.
19 A case close to home might be the production of the Nomadic Hive Manifesto during the National Gallery teach-in/occupation of December 2010.
20 Immediately after the student demos, the occupations and smashed windows – which, along with groups such as UK Uncut, seemed to energise a whole wave of revolt across the country against austerity cuts, the privatisation of public wealth and attacks on public sector workers – galleries and other art organisations wanted a piece of the action, and there were many calls for protest groups and politically inclined artists to collaborate on exhibitions and speak at art events. Protest was so contemporary, but often the art context seemed to suck all political energy out of the most subversive content. An unfortunate example of this, despite its worthy objectives, was If Not, Then What? taking place at Chelsea College parade ground in March 2011, and described as ‘an anti-cuts project creating new visions of the future’ and as ‘coinciding with the Liberal Democrats conference (in Sheffield)’. A temporary wooden pavilion, designed by the artists Charlesworth, Lewandowski & Mann, was intended to house various political events – from talks by campaign groups to ‘alternative society workshops’. In addition to the likelihood of such events being completely neutralised given the particular context, the structure itself was classified as an artwork, and its walls and floors had then to be protected from potentially damaging elements such as sticky tape or muddy boots. Another revealing detail was that although the named artists were paid to participate, the protestors and campaigners who were meant to actually activate the event (including politically-inclined artists) were not.
21 At the Slade event John Cussans presented a paper which examines the way in which, according to the logic of university research assessment funding (the RAE, now the REF), everything from DIY free schools, to protest actions, are capable of being recuperated and turned into a validating research output for the institution. Unless, that is, one is careful, or in other words, knows how to refuse. See John Cussans, ‘Return This! The Paradoxes of Protest Pedagogy in a “Research Culture”’. Available at http://freefreeschool.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/after-the-car-crash/
22 Henri A. Giroux, Border Crossings. Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education, New York & London: Routledge, 2005, p.4
23 At vast public expense, during a time of massive cuts to local council budgets, and when the Schools Building Programme for state schools has been scrapped. A report at a recent conference opposing Michael Gove’s Education Reform Act makes the link between subsidised privatisation and societal division (particularly in relation to Free Schools): ‘new schools are being funded to help the hard pressed middle class escape the poor. Gove’s new legislation has a really frightening objective: to lure “aspirational families” away from any commitment to a common educational project, at the risk of creating even greater social segregation.’ ‘Caught in the Act – Report on 19th November Conference’, p.2. http://www.campaignforstateeducation.org.uk/caughtintheact.html
24 Melissa Benn, School Wars, p.121
25 Op. cit., pp. 123-124. See also ‘Caught in the Act’, p.4. Like many such chains, there’s a pervading philanthropic rhetoric of enabling bright but underprivileged students to rise above their circumstances. This sometimes reflects the individual sponsor’s own journey from rags to riches.
26 See http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/feb/26/schools-crusade-gove-murdoch?INTCMP=SRCH Also http://followersoftheapocalyp.se/spinning-a-story-gove-klein-becta-cameron-and We get an inkling here of what was behind Gove’s savaging of the Leveson Inquiry, which was, he said, having a ‘chilling effect on press freedom.’
28 We should be under no illusion that the neoliberal methods being imposed in schools are done with the intention of creating an obedient, pliant and well disciplined workforce. Local businesses who sponsor schools are dealing literally with a captive future workforce when they have influence on what gets taught. Another worrying development is the increase of army cadets in schools, and now, following the US Troops to Teachers programme (‘Proud to Serve Again’), plans to set up militarised Academy schools run by ex-soldiers. As Captain Burki, who hopes to establish a school in Oldham staffed entirely by ex-servicemen, said (referring to last summer’s riots) ‘The performance of our armed forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere stands in stark contrast to the mobs that have recently been roaming our streets.’ See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2032890/UK-riots-Phoenix-School-open-teacher-soldier.html It should also be clear that, at another level, personalised student debt is a disciplinary mechanism for social obedience, particularly in regard to work relations.
29 This conception is in large part an effect of government stipulations, which came with the introduction of fees by New Labour in 1998, obliging courses to provide details of employability potential, thus explicitly equating quality with future earning capacity. Art departments even began talking about ‘T-shaped people’, meaning arts graduates whose multi-disciplinary knowledge and skills enabled them to claim flexibility in relation to the jobs market. I am speaking here, however, about training to be an artist in the art world. Hence the language of ‘emerging art professionals’, ‘early career artists’, and a focus on selling oneself as a creative individual through portfolio presentation, lectures on networking, DIY exhibitions as ‘professional development’ modules, etc.
30 Occasionally, in a more public arena, the limits tacitly imposed on art by corporate power are made manifest, as was the case when those limits were tested by a Tate Gallery workshop, out of which the anti-BP sponsorship group Liberate Tate was born: ‘When art activist group The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination were invited to run a workshop on art and civil disobedience, they were told by curators that they could not take any action against Tate and its sponsors and the workshop was policed by the curators to make sure the artists produced work ‘commensurate with the Tate’s mission’’. See http://liberatetate.wordpress.com/about/
31 Nicolas Bourriaud’s use of the term ‘micro-utopia’ to describe relational art practices is symptomatic here. For Bourriaud critical art that envisages alternative ways of living and new forms of relating to one another, cannot operate directly in the world (this would be utopian in a bad, totalising modernist sense), and so must remain in its own ‘micro’ aesthetic sphere.
32 I am influenced here by the dynamic conception of autonomy proposed by Dave Beech & John Roberts in their essay ‘Specters of the Aesthetic’. Unlike Peter Bürger, who offers a materialst interpretation of aestheticist ideology, but only then to condemn art to social exclusion in its ‘autonomous’ zone (on pain of its becoming commercial), Beech and Roberts conceive of autonomy as an agent-led process towards the elimination of factors which constrain freedom. They see autonomy as a fight for autonomy. Dave Beech & John Roberts, The Philistine Controversy, London: Verso, 2002
33 I have developed my thoughts on art in schools both as part of ongoing research developed with the Schools and Teachers programme at Tate Modern, and through my involvement with the Portman Gallery located in Morpeth Secondary School, Bethnal Green.
34 Both Felicity Allen and Carmen Mörsch have commented on this tendency amongst exhibition curators and those writing about more high-profile education-oriented art to look down on education department curating. They both offer vigorous assertions of the value of gallery education practices. See Felicity Allen, ‘Situating Gallery Education’, Tate Encounters, February 2008. Available here as a PDF http://felicityallen.co.uk/writing/situating-gallery-education. And Carmen Mörsch, ‘Alliances for Unlearning: On Gallery Education and Institutions of Critique’, Afterall 26, Spring 2011.
35 John Cussans, ‘Return This! The Paradoxes of Protest Pedagogy in a “Research Culture”’. Cussans describes protest pedagogy as: ‘pedagogy about protest, through protest and in protest‘ and, in relation to Arts Against Cuts planning weekends, ‘a combination of art school, alternative university, public assembly, and action planning.’He has related his concern that the term ‘protest pedagogy’ could become another fashionable label for the art world to pick up and hang on actions and events as a way of gaining symbolic capital by association. I therefore use it with caution.
36 Whilst my concern here is art and education, learning as and through protest of course applies to activities beyond the immediate field of art to include (to limit myself to the recent UK context) university occupations, teach-ins at banks organised by UK Uncut and other groups, the programmes run at the Really Free School in various squatted buildings, the Occupy LSX Tent City University and Bank/School of Ideas etc.
37 See my article ‘Protest, Occupy, Transform’, Art Monthly 343: February 2011. http://www.artmonthly.co.uk/magazine/site/article/dean-kenning-protest-occupy-transform-february-2011/
38 Marina Vishmidt, ‘Creation Myth’, op. cit,, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/creation-myth
39 Theodor Adorno, ‘Education after Auschwitz,’ in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. My emphasis.