BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 18 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 182

Thinking Differently

How are art schools changing?

BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 18 SEP 16

One torrential weekend in August, I found myself in Salzburg. Best known as the birthplace of Mozart, since 1953 this sleepy city has hosted a summer academy founded by the painter Oskar Kokoschka. Each year, students from more than 50 countries populate a warren of studios in a medieval hilltop castle, one of the largest in Europe, serviced by what might be the oldest railway in the world. When I visited, this Disney-ish scene was the backdrop for courses spanning performance and Mughal miniature painting to pit-fired ceramics.

I was in town to participate in a conference titled ‘Global Academy?’, which also provided the theme for this year’s Sommerakademie. The event had expansive ambitions: to map what constitutes art education today, taking the temperature of traditional as well as alternative academies, while also looking back to historical models for inspiration. All of this was way too broad to cover in the allotted two days, but I enjoyed conversations that ranged from the Bauhaus’s dialogue with Shantiniketan in West Bengal to the Roaming Academy of the Dutch Art Institute (DAI), the itinerant chapter of its MFA programme. DAI’s director described the school as a fleeting community touching down, spaceship-like, all over the world, from Jakarta to Tehran. My notes from the conference are pages of excitable, at times semi-comprehensible, scribblings. A selection: constellations and tabula rasas, Rabindranath Tagore, against belonging, ‘organic impositions’, para-institutions and, more gnomically, ‘The Tower of Babel is our refuge.’

What I liked most about ‘Global Academy?’ were a handful of presentations from small education initiatives that have popped up in the last year or two. Several of these projects are in regions with little or nothing in the way of state subsidy, and with historically traditional approaches to art education. They included Spring Sessions in Amman, the Karachi Art Anti-University and Samdani Seminars, which grew out of the Dhaka Art Summit. Opening later this year is RAW Academy in Dakar, an offshoot from Cameroonian curator Koyo Kouoh’s exhibition space RAW Material Company. Whether on a shoestring or generously funded, what many of these temporary schools have in common is a simple belief in, as artist Tony Evanko, director of the Medellín-based art centre Casa Tres Patios, put it, ‘the pedagogical power of art practices to instigate change’.

I finished my own conference presentation with a hopelessly blurry photo. It showed a typewritten diagram that the poet Charles Olson had made around the time Kokoschka was establishing his Salzburg academy. Olson was, at that point, one of the handful of faculty still clinging on at Black Mountain College. In little more than two decades, this experiment in education on the banks of North Carolina’s Lake Eden had produced a remarkable rollcall of alumni. But it was perenially hard-up and, by 1956, the lights were about to go out. Olson’s diagram was, in part, a rose-tinted vision of Black Mountain’s afterlife; more generally, it suggested a future after art schools. At its centre is written ‘The College’ and, in each direction, arrows point to possible reincarnations: a theatre, a publishing house, a magazine. It’s unsurprising that this vision of a deschooled future should emanate from Black Mountain, which had always maintained a disdainful relationship to the academy. John Andrew Rice, its first rector, once exclaimed that art schools were ‘the most awful places in the world!’

Sixty years later, art schools continue to be rethought, from above and from below. This is happening in ways that feel, by turns, heartening and deeply upsetting. Student debt is a central issue, particularly in British and American contexts. In the case of the latter, where the situation is most advanced, it currently stands at around US $1.2 trillion. To underline the enormity of this staggering figure: student debt in the US has topped credit-card debt. The New York-based collective BFAMFAPhD, who have produced valuable research about tuition fees, ask: ‘What is the work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?’ Their bleak conclusion? The product of loan repayments and credit defaults.

As art schools are imagined along the lines of businesses, students get recast as consumers. In this atmosphere, the vocabulary that has been familiar in art education for at least 50 years starts to morph. Critical thinking becomes ‘disruption’; creativity is rebranded as ‘innovation’. The language of Silicon Valley creeps in. But what art schools should be getting on with, whatever their location, hasn’t really changed so much since Kokoschka set up the Sommerakademie. Independent thought and freedom – from debt or otherwise – are most important. As the Los Angeles-based artist Frances Stark put it last year, art schools should always promote ‘thinking differently’ but ‘not in the Apple sense’.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.