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RT50 Editoria:l Arts education

Sitting with ambiguity

In response to considerable demand, our annual feature on the teaching of the arts in tertiary education has been expanded significantly this year to cover 8 artform areas—music, sound art, visual arts, film, new media, dance, theatre and contemporary performance. We’ve decided to focus on the training of the artist at a time when issues abound about proliferation of courses, competing methodologies, limited job markets and the commercial challenge to art’s integrity.

The essay on visual arts aside, where the issue of what art schools really do is tackled provocatively by Adam Geczy, our reports survey the practical training courses Australian universities have on offer. Our writers have interviewed lecturers, many of them also practising artists, about their teaching. Sometimes they speak on behalf of their schools, sometimes about their own practice.

It was clear from many of our respondents that limited funding, escalating class sizes and threatened course closures continue to be a serious challenge to staff morale and the effective training of artists. However, our focus is largely on what the various schools offer regardless of the conditions under which they operate.

There are a number of trends that emerge in these reports, some have been with us for a while, some are new, all are reaching new levels of intensity. Almost across the board there is a desire to generate in students the capacity to collaborate, for both the practical and ethical advantages of cooperation (even in feature filmmaking where the ideal of the auteur has persisted for so long). Autonomy rates highly, not as individualism but as the capacity to be self-sustaining, to create work alone or in teams rather than waiting to be employed. Not a few courses promote adventurousness, in terms of keeping up with new developments or in challenging convention. And in an era when artforms are transforming and electronic media converging there is a great emphasis on flexibility and multi-skilling.

Some departments pride themselves on having industry connections, on being part of network clusters, of providing in-course opportunities to students in the commercial world. It is here that some tension is felt over the apparent pragmatism of the “creative industries” approach as art gives way to the broader notion of creativity, and the demands of commerce, for example ‘to entertain’ or provide ‘content’, threaten to dominate. Conversely, commercial and subcultural developments in the wider world of music require an academic response, as Michael Hannan argues, that recognises there will be a variety of serious musician for whom traditional training will have little value. This adjustment is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon, the evolution of artforms and, particularly, their engagement in multimedia and new media. If some lecturers ask that their students learn to “sit with ambiguity” as part of their becoming artists, then the ambiguity that surrounds artform developments is something that teachers also have to sit with.

While most schools claim good employment results for their students, the jobs issue is nonetheless a vexed one, particularly in visual arts and dance. Our report notes the global approach to employment by at least one Australian university dance school given the almost total lack of work available in this country.

Whatever the challenges, many lecturers spoke with passion about their teaching and their concern for their students. There’s a desire to create a safe place in which students are emboldened to think, to create, to collaborate, to accept challenge and, in turn, to challenge.

The death of a dancer: Russell Page

In a year already too burdened with artist deaths, we were deeply saddened to hear of the passing of dancer and actor Russell Page on Sunday July 14. We saw him dance a few days earlier in Rush, the work his brother Stephen choreographed for Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new program, Walkabout. As ever, Page danced with conviction, elegance, power and a unique dancer’s language. He will be missed. KG VB

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 3

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