'Art School'

What does it mean to be an art school today? How should art education regroup and evolve in response to changes in the art world, higher education, information technology, the art market and the broader economy -- and what should it mean to be an art school tomorrow?

November 2, 2009

What does it mean to be an art school today? How should art education regroup and evolve in response to changes in the art world, higher education, information technology, the art market and the broader economy -- and what should it mean to be an art school tomorrow?

These are some of the many issues addressed in Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century) (MIT Press), a new book edited by Steven Henry Madoff, who is senior critic at the Yale University School of Art. The book contains essays, questionnaire interviews, and transcripts of conversations by and among prominent artists and art educators, all of them addressing the mission and means of the art school.

Madoff responded by e-mail to questions about the book.

Q: In the introduction to Art School, you write that the book is “an outgrowth of my deep curiosity about what a particular kind of school – an art school – might and will be in this new century.” Tell me a little about the process that began with your curiosity and culminated in this book.

A: My thinking about the challenges facing art education and educators began with my planning of a conference on the subject at the Aspen Institute in 2003 at the behest of the Anaphiel Foundation in Miami. The founder of the foundation, Craig Robins, initiated this because of his desire as a cultural philanthropist in Miami to see if there might be a new way of looking at art education that would benefit Miami’s art community. This conference turned out to be just the first of eight symposia in total that I organized in Miami, London, and New York, which brought together about eighty artists, writers, teachers, administrators, technologists, and architects to bring their expertise to bear on the subject. The book is an outgrowth of this enormous project, which helped me frame the ideas that I hoped to have articulated by the many contributors to the book.

Q: The book contains a wide variety of essays. Can you discuss two or three of them to give some idea of their differing and common themes?

A: I would say that there are many, many contrasting viewpoints in the book. But what stands out is the shared interest in opening up the idea of a standardized curriculum and educational structure. Whether this is Clementine Deliss’s nomadic project called Future Academy, which has traveled from Europe to North America to Africa and Asia, or Anton Vidokle’s Unitednationsplaza project in Berlin or the Mountain School of Art, which is held in a bar in Los Angeles. These new, less formal structures that focus more centrally on the circulation of ideas and less on traditional requirements and degree granting are fascinating. Not that they will replace traditional art schools, but they may influence the future of art schools. When you look at the history of art teaching in Latin America, as Luis Camnitzer does in his essay in the book, you see that there is an alternative tradition of studio-based education in which an artist takes on younger artists to teach them. So there are many ways to think about art education, many practices, and the book’s value, I hope, is that it exposes readers to the possibilities.

Q: The last formal essay in the book is your own, “States of Exception.” In it, you discuss some of the issues you see in art education today, and bring up, broadly, some ways they might be addressed. Can you outline a few of those issues?

A: My essay is simply meant to address the idea of the cloister. It is typical, and somewhat true, that art schools are thought of as closed environments in which young artists get the chance to experiment and learn, free from the pressures and influences of the marketplace. I don’t believe that’s fully the case nor do I feel that this is a bad thing. The market is just another part of the art world and artists are of course a very essential part of that marketplace. The issue is to put this in perspective and find the right way to address the market. The Staedelschule in Frankfurt has been particularly impressive, I think, in that it has a very open structure in which all kinds of conversation, conferences, publications, and a public art gallery are strenuously employed to include every aspect of making and involvement in the professional and public communities that swirl in and around the school. My essay means to suggest that we have to be frank and open about every aspect of being an artist in the world as it exists and find ways to help young artists understand this. Of course, it’s often the wonderful case that these young artists are already incredibly aware, knowledgeable, and smart about these things.

Q: Would it be fair to guess that you probably wrote your own essay after having compiled much of the rest of the material in the book? In what ways has this ambitious and lengthy project changed how you think about art education?

A: I came to this project without an understanding of the vast global array of educational experiments going on. I had a much more conventional understanding of what a school is and how it goes about education. The explosion of ideas, frustrations, practical concerns, and alternative responses to this notion of transmitting specific kinds of knowledge from one generation to the next became apparent as soon as I began to listen to people in the symposia that I organized. And there are many new proposals and projects that appear all the time. The book is just a sampling of the fruitful ferment that is taking place in this field and that will inevitably shape art education in this new century. My own essay is about just one pressure that I have noticed as a person in the art world and as a teacher at Yale’s School of Art.

Q: Economic issues have always been part of the conversation about art schools in particular, in part because – as Piero Golia points out in his questionnaire responses – art school can cost as much as law school or medical school, but offers much less reassurance of a lucrative career. In what ways has the current – dismal – economic climate affected the discussion about what art school is and should be?

A: My impression is that the downturn in the economy has only increased the sense of anxiety for MFA students who are about to enter the art economy. But the historical fact is that even the last 50 years of the American art economy have shown great swings in the financial health of the market and the consequent impact on the financial lives of artists. It is only relatively recent that artists could even think of making decent livings from their art work. Many people believe that these downturns are good in the sense that it makes everything in the art world a little more lean and urgent, including artists making good works. However, this downturn has not proven so severe as people thought. Young artists are still being picked up by galleries and are still selling work in New York. In Europe and Asia, the situations are different. The Europeans have a much less financially driven sense of culture, while the Asians are just now entering into the global art economy and going through a period of gestation and upheaval.

Q: At the end of the book’s introduction you write, “Every author and every editor wants to think of what they’ve published as a gauntlet thrown down. That’s what I hope this book will be for readers… .” Whom do you see as the ideal audience for your gauntlet, and what sorts of reactions might you like to provoke?

A: Naturally, I expect that the immediate audience will be educators, and in the realm of the art world the educators are most often also practicing artists. Still, the ambition of the book is that it addresses the broader interactions of the educational place with other places and institutions within the social sphere. Many participants involved in cultural institutions of all kinds may find the essays and ideas in the book provocative and with applications to their own work. As well, art historians and cultural theoreticians will find a lot that is relevant to their thinking — or again that’s what I hope the book can provide. As far as what I’d like to provoke, the answer is simple: new thinking. There are so many histories, proposals, and questions put forward in the book that it would be hard not to take away some useful ideas for teaching, for structuring education, and for conceiving of new institutional models. I really do hope that the book will be the starting point for new conversations.

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