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Education Feature: Visual Arts

Education Feature: Reciprocal relations and the art of the possible

Su Baker

Su Baker is Head of the Victorian College of the Arts School of Art. Her show Mise-en-sene: reflections on the screen is currently showing at the Curtin Gallery WA.

Sasha Grbich, She took a deep breath, <BR />Adelaide School of Art. Hatched 04 Sasha Grbich, She took a deep breath,
Adelaide School of Art. Hatched 04
photo Mike Brady
Art schools in a new cultural economy

Those of us in the business of contemporary art education often hear it said that students aren’t being taught the traditional skills that were once the mainstay of art schools. This is said with a tone of nostalgia for the apparent certainties of a mythic classical academy, or at least the British form from the 19th century, or even the 20th century model such as the Bauhaus. It has also been said that these same students are being distracted from their true path by the temptations of art theory. This particular objection is of course code for a general discomfort with the challenge to the humanist canon and the critique of an art history that has been underway for much of the 20th century, at least. It is of course a false claim that students are not being taught important things. It may be that the rhetorical framework is different and perhaps not recognizable to the casual observer or even some closer to the task.

Interestingly, it is not the students who have these complaints. And that is not to say that some of them don’t engage with so-called traditional skills. They just don’t feel like victims being hard done by or excluded. They complain about other things, such as needing extended access to studios, 24/7, as they are all working jobs and need to maximize their time at school. They want faster internet speed and the latest software and more digital cameras, and they want greater interaction with academic staff. The contemporary world is theirs and I would attest that students in art schools today feel much more empowered and in charge than these unsolicited apologists would have them.

So, here’s some breaking news! It is 2004 and rising. We are operating in a new cultural economy, an economy of ideas, events, gestures, critical positions and artifacts.

The students

In all my years of involvement with art students this focus on skill and tradition has not been the issue at all. They live in their time and space as we do in ours. And there have been some wonderful ceramicists and printmakers amongst them as they do have access to the facilities and support they need. There have been some beautiful and intelligent paintings, enticing and haunting photographs made by students with all the critical and aesthetic quality that you could hope for. There have also been students who start at a point of interest, go off on a tangent, follow their creative instincts, break new ground and invent new forms. The good thing about the contemporary art school is that it takes all sorts! These students are given a worthwhile education for the world they are entering, this being one of contingent realities and constant change. It is this world that has significantly transformed over the past 30 years and so, in response, have art schools.

The 2003 Venice Biennale artist Patricia Piccininni is an example of the contemporary artist who uses a highly developed visual and critical understanding to produce artwork that captures minds and imaginations in a diverse way. Not only did Piccininni study Painting and Art History at the VCA, she developed inventive ways of transferring such sensibilities to a range of media. She works, in true Renaissance fashion, using skilled artisans, albeit digital technologists or panel-beaters, to help realise her work. Ricky Swallow, the Australian representative at the 2005 Venice Biennale, was a student in the Drawing Department where he explored art-making in broad, highly intuitive and critical terms, and now performs extraordinary sculptural acts in creating his carved wood works. No-one told Ricky Swallow how to do the Ricky Swallow technique, he invented it. These are just 2 examples and there are many others out there and more waiting in the wings.

Demand for places in art schools is high, and students graduate in what seems to be thousands. There is intense activity amongst generations of these graduates. A whole new economy of culture exists in the artist-run galleries and contemporary art infrastructure, and increasingly new applications for art school education. One might ask what is the measure of success? This is a question not just for art schools and one that has many forums. What makes for a good life? What should the public purse support? What are people prepared to pay for and how do they want to live, work and play? There must be an incentive greater than the prospective income. Students clearly want to be part of the creative ambiance that is offered by art school. Since the introduction of HECS fees in the late 1980s the Higher Education culture has changed along with the globalised world. Students are quite pragmatic. They will carry a debt for this experience so they expect it to be good.

What we are seeing is a highly motivated generation of graduates who get out there and just do it, a trend that has been in place for 20 years at least. Our role as teachers is to help them prepare artistically, critically and practically, to provide support for their hopes and ambitions and to assist them in realizing these.

The Art School

The art school has a role in generating cultural, intellectual, and creative capital in the broadest sense of the term. In a pluralist culture there is increasing circulation of artistic forms and ideas and much of the dynamism in contemporary art can be seen in this exchange between and within the works, like one big cultural think tank. A good art school creates a milieu, an atmosphere, a critical context, an occasion for these explorations and opportunities, in many cases generating a new conceptual marketplace, new desires to be fulfilled. An art school campus is a place to go and to mix it with other creative people, to learn, produce and reflect. It’s a launching pad for cultural experiment.

To this end a good art school offers a form of agency, providing the means for linking talent (perhaps a shorthand term for a cocktail of qualities) and opportunity through presenting content and studio-based experience, and also providing ongoing learning strategies for students to take with them. The art school should offer a responsive form of cultural advocacy, creating a network of opportunities, offering active support for students’ developing artistic and professional projects. There is, inevitably, a wide range of graduate outcomes, impossible to comprehensively predict and to provide for through a prescribed canon.

Emerging artists

I would like to say something about the emerging artists I have encountered over the past 10 years in art schools in Australia. They define their practices as they see fit either along conventional market lines using traditional methods and media or through more experimental and critically challenging approaches. Art schools support this wide spectrum of expectations. An observable characteristic of this new social and artistic culture is that it is highly socialized and performative. This follows the general trend in contemporary culture that has shifted art, one could say, from preoccupations with forms of representation alone to the creation of artistic events and critical actions. With this comes an increasing expectation of effective, sophisticated and immediate communication. Students are invariably driven by their own cultural preoccupations, selecting from the various options on offer. It is important not to assume that what is true for one generation is true for the next. One could argue that this generation of students, now the cultural leaders in the art schools, have their own social and cultural parameters. Their influences and reference points are different from those 30 years ago, their recreational activities are highly empathic, ecstatic even, affective and communicative. In most cases, and it is hopelessly fraught to generalise, (but I will) they love to talk, they are good to each other and are demonstrative. They expect professional behaviour from the academic staff and others with whom they interact; they understand their rights both as human beings and as consumers. They come to us for our expertise, not for a free hand, but for our critical and aesthetic judgments that they then evaluate and adapt for their own use. They are not at art school for a rest or some fantasy about freedom, but for the living of a creative life. They want to get on and be successful, in whatever way that may be manifested. They are competitive but also supportive of each other. They have a well-developed sense of justice and fairness. They have grown up through education and social systems that have been influenced by positive public policy based on equity of access and opportunity and diversity of outcomes, and the promotion of ideas of natural justice.

It is beyond dispute that we now live in a new ‘natural’ environment for education and so also art schools, based on equity, diversity and service provision. This last term enrages many people and makes them feel betrayed, offended by the crassness of it all. I am not sure the students see it that way. Students come to us not just to attain their ‘personal best’, although that is a big thing, but to do so in terms of contemporary artistic practices and contemporary cultural theories, not just traditional, historical media or a fixed art historical narrative. But rather they require us to provide them with the critical tools to explore the many histories of culture in an environment of investigation and research, with encouragement of experimentation and innovation; and not just a notion of “originality” acknowledged by the master’s approbation. This might take some adjustment for those committed to the certainties of the past; to models of teacher/student relations based on passing on the Word, or the anointing of the Chosen Few. My generation, for example, exerted considerable energy overcoming the same indulgences of the ‘brothers of the brush’. [I say this with all due affection!]. Let’s hope history is not going to repeat itself—because then we will have a mighty farce to deal with, and that would be just plain silly.

Su Baker is Head of the Victorian College of the Arts School of Art. Her show Mise-en-sene: reflections on the screen is currently showing at the Curtin Gallery WA.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 39

© Su Baker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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