BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Opinion | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

Industry Standard

Where next for art education in an increasingly professionalized art world?

BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Opinion | 01 MAR 11

In November 2010, the Camel Collective – a loose affiliation of artists, architects and writers from Denmark, the US and Mexico – organized The Second World Congress of Free Artists, as part of the exhibition ‘Modifications’ at the Åarhus Kunstbygning in Denmark. The daylong event was a performance by actors of more than 30 speeches written by art practitioners, thinkers and educators proposing alternatives to the professionalization of art and artists in recent years. An actor dressed as a 17th-century Jesuit priest delivered ‘A Message on Pedagogy and the Liberation of the Spirit’ by artist Carlos Motta; Mary Walling Blackburn’s ‘Odor is Speech’ took the form of an olfactory transmission, while Colin Lang, a lecturer at Princeton University, read ‘An Imagined Bauhaus’ – a text inscribed on a block of wood.

In 1956, Asger Jorn and Pinot Gallizio, two members of the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, organized The First World Congress of Free Artists in Alba, Italy. Six speakers addressed the subjects of ‘free art’ and ‘industrial activity’, examining the conditions in which industrialization had become an obstacle to critical and independent thinking and practice in art. As Jorn stated in his opening speech at the congress:

‘We who are faithful to the ideas of Gropius and Le Corbusier are convinced that contemporary academicism is worse than it ever was in this domain. In the review Eristica, we clearly demonstrate the reasons for their inevitable failure, and we insist on the fact that the resolution of the basic problems of the first Bauhaus depends on the supersession of academicism in the realm of the fine arts, which is confronted with the supersession of the artisanal by the industrial world.’

The Second World Congress of Free Artists last year came into being to respond to, among other things, the introduction of PhDs for artists, which they see as ‘the institutionalization of the educational turn in artistic practice, and the homogenization and privatization of higher education as a result of the Bologna Process in the European Union’. Having the voices of artists, theoreticians and critics articulated by non-art professionals, objects and even smell was a highly symbolic response to the group’s call for art not to be reduced to a specialized business conditioned by methodological or industry demands.

In 2002, the first issue of New York Magazine of Contemporary Art and Theory was devoted to an essay by Boris Groys entitled ‘The Loneliness of the Project’. In it, Groys discussed how contemporary society is organized by the conception, preparation, evaluation, acceptance, realization, rejection, adaptation and application of all kinds of projects that both bring us together and isolate us. Each one ‘first and foremost amounts to a proclamation and establishment of seclusion and self-isolation. This gives an ambivalent status to modernity. On the one hand, it fosters a compulsion for total communication and total collective contemporaneity, while on the other, it is constantly generating new projects that repeatedly end in the re-conquest of radical isolation.’ We find ourselves increasingly defined by the projects we’re involved in and the radical isolation of our visions in the midst of their specificities.

The art world is now almost entirely made up of a growing number of time-sensitive, location-specific and sponsorship-based events and activities, such as biennials, art fairs, festivals, auctions, research projects, residencies, panels and conferences that are replicated and multiplied around the globe. In some regions they are brought to life within a short period of time in the name of local initiatives to cultivate cultural and creative industries in pursuit of administrative goals and visible results such as media attention, public satisfaction, visitor attendance and market performance. Artists and curators work together in increasingly business-like ways: by commission and assignment, prompted by invitations to write up proposals and produce work responding to a certain exhibition theme, venue, sizes of art-fair booths, budgets, deadlines and the local context. Artists, curators and gallerists, independent institutions, biennial and art fair founders, critics, art publishers and conference organizers form a kind of supply and demand relationship that gives rise to a hierarchy. In other words, art has fallen victim to the paradigms and power structures of an industry. The art world has evolved in its ability to function within the values of a capitalist society, and the ‘professionalization’ and industrialization of art and artists have driven both to become symbolic and performative. It is paradoxical that as more institutions surface within the art industry, increasing numbers of artists share a desire to create personalized systems that can be logistically, artistically and even theoretically autonomous. In China, more and more artists are avoiding conventional gallery structures by curating their own exhibitions, publicizing their work online and even writing their own art criticism.

Although The Second World Congress of Free Artists took place in Europe and addressed issues specific to the continent, practitioners in non-Western contexts have also been experiencing the increasing pressure of art being standardized by the demands of the global art market. In 2009 in Wuhan, a city in central China, Canadian artist Ken Lum gave an inspiring lecture at the Manufactura’s Studio titled ‘Towards a Re-Definition of the Art School’. He shared his views on the problems and prospects of art schools based on his long experience of involvement in art education. He also explained why, since 2007, he has decided to stop teaching in the US, where he feels that art academies have become places for the privileged few, with little relationship to society as a whole. He called for art students to consider the complexity of their relationship towards their environment and society – in other words, for art to prescribe its own remedies for what ails it.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University, Australia, and director of Inside-out Art Museum, Beijing, China.