Academisation Must Die So That Art May Live

Academic research is driving art in a direction where it will require shock treatment to be resurrected.

Image from Bogdan Szyber’s thesis Fauxthentication: Art Academia and Authorship (or the site-specifics of the Academic Artist. Illustration: Niklas Alriksson.

“At a time when most Nordic art academies are affected by all sorts of crises, with no obvious way out in sight, I cannot help thinking that the artists of the future – or whatever they’ll be called by then – will emerge out of banana schools of all kinds.” This is how Kunstkritikk’s Danish editor Pernille Albrethsen concludes her review of the electronic musician Goodiepal’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) in Copenhagen.

Banana schools, is this some weird Danish thing? Don’t worry. Bananskolen is simply the name of Goodiepal’s experimental art school that was named after the so-called Banana House in the Christiania district of Copenhagen, where it was once founded. In Albrethsen’s article, the term is used to denote any form of self-organised art school activity that could potentially restore the freedom and individuality that she sees as threatened by today’s “bureaucratic education sector.”

Bureaucratisation would thus not be an academic problem, but comparable to how free-thinking artists of the fin de siècle set up their own schools and exhibitions to escape the rigid academicism of the 19th century. That is how modern art once arose, through a process of opposition and Salons de Refusés.

Albrethsen’s article comes to mind as I listen to Kulturhuset’s online debate Art and the AcademyA complicated relationship? and moderator Erik Gandini asks the panel if artistic research means that art will be “academicised.” The question seems naïve, as the academisation of contemporary art has been a fact for several decades, long before performance artist Bogdan Szyber’s failed dissertation at Stockholm University of the Arts brought the discussion to a head.

No wonder that debates about artistic research often appear as symptoms of the very academicism that is up for discussion. Those who participate almost always have PhDs, or are otherwise personally or professionally invested in the field, while candidly admitting that artistic research is primarily a source of income or a career path for artists. This was the case at Kulturhuset’s event, and also in the debate in the Swedish newspaper Expressen following Robert Stasinski’s article, published in Kunstkritikk this summer, about Szyber’s dissertation.

With one exception: Lars O Ericsson, legendary Swedish art critic and philosopher. I must admit that I admired Ericsson’s patience during the discussion at Kulturhuset, as he repeatedly tried to get the other panelists to understand the elementary distinction between free (or fine) art and art that is not. As Ericsson stated, contemporary art can basically have any framework, as long as it is determined by the artist themselves. If it is determined by a grading committee, the art is no longer free; then it is something other than fine art in the historical sense. Artistic research, for example.

Ericsson saw the inability to make critical distinctions as an expression of the “low intellectual level of the debate.” I agree. But isn’t this, in turn, an effect of the debate itself being unfree or academised? Critical thinking is the ability to make distinctions. But if there are artistic researchers who can still distinguish between free and unfree art – and understand why that distinction matters – they haven’t made themselves heard thus far.

Which isn’t very strange, since the whole field, as Ericsson also pointed out, is based on an illusion; namely, that art and freedom could be sawn apart and reassembled at will. One thing is certain, just ‘feeling’ free or unfree doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Participants in the debate Art and the AcademyA complicated relationship?  at Kulturhuset in Stockholm: Maria Lanz (vice chancellor of Konstfack – University of Arts, Craft and Design in Stockholm), Bogdan Szyber (artist and failed PhD candidate) and Lars O Ericsson (art critic and Reader of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University).

But let me explain what I see as the most alarming example from the debate at Kulturhuset, which is so scandalous that it should make headlines all over the country. It occurred when Maria Lanz, vice chancellor of Konstfack, responded to Szyber’s thesis that academic art has become a separate category (‘Edu-Art’), completely divorced from the art world and with no relevance outside of academia. Lanz’s retort was that that research art is not only relevant within the academy, as it has generated several works that have been shown “at Moderna Museet, in Venice,” and so on. 

But this is precisely the problem. For the sake of argument, if we imagine an academic art completely isolated from the art world at large, there would be no problem. Or rather, those of us who care about art would have no complaints. Artistic research as such would, of course, still remain as a serious conundrum within the academy. 

To be clear, the dilemma is this: often well-funded research art distributes its lack of self-determination over the entire field of art, which is thus academised. The fact that a few artists and universities are involved in this is one thing. But it is all the rest of us, who primarily work based on a genuine interest in art, who suffer. This is what saddens my colleague Albrethsen, and makes her dream of banana schools that will once again educate autonomous artists, instead of wannabe researchers.

What is scandalous is the fact that the professors and vice chancellors responsible for educating future artists don’t show any indication of wanting to see the problem, despite it being obvious for anyone with a basic knowledge and understanding of art. 

Before I conclude with a personal confession, let me just address some predictable objections to what I have written. The first is that freedom is never complete, that art outside academia is unfree by being subject to the market, and so on. A completely irrelevant objection that says that when freedom does not correspond to our high ideals, we should stop striving for it and instead accept unfreedom as a wage benefit. This is the sheltered attitude of a reactionary philistine who has already given up.

The second objection, often heard from ill-read Marxists, is that the autonomy of art is tainted by some abhorrent ideology. An older generation was triggered by the connection between art and the bourgeoisie. Today, it is perhaps art’s historical ties to colonialism and patriarchal violence that are the problem. These are certainly vital issues. But will art become less colonial if it is less free? Less patriarchal by being subject to government financiers? The truth is that art is freer the less dependent it is on the market – regardless of whether the money comes from private or state actors. 

The personal confession is that I’m still confident that art will find its way. As the vice chancellor of the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm (RIA), Sara Arrhenius, states in a column on the university website, responding to the criticism directed at this year’s degree show, art students tend to “resist, rather than embrace, the expectations of art school and art world.” That is often true, of course, and something I myself have dwelt on in my rather positive and hopeful review (in Swedish only). Indeed, reality is often more nuanced than can be contained in a conceptual analysis.

Still, there are two things in Arrhenius’s text that give me pause. First of all, she rejects the critic’s desire for “a freshly hatched artist to deliver something novel,” works that “visually rattle and roll,” or art firmly “distancing itself from the past.” All fine. But if you turn this around, it means that we shouldn’t expect anything new from young artists, that it would be naïve to anticipate anything but compliance. This leaves us with a rather bleak, but possibly realistic, image of today’s art education.

The second thing is Arrhenius’s vision of “lifelong learning.” She envisages that art in the future will never leave school, but will return to learn again and again, for example to RIAs new post-master Collective Practices Research programme. The horror! The horror! Personally, I cannot think of anything worse than art spending its life in a lecture hall.

Unless it’s attending a banana school, perhaps. The problem with the sustainable or “circular” view of art that Arrhenius argues for is that it can just as easily result in mediocre art. An art that conforms rather than revolts, and even learns to enjoy its newfound lack of freedom. A new artistic ideal: the second-rater, perfectly adapted for an increasingly authoritarian age. One thing is certain: over the next few years, as artistic research becomes increasingly standardised and controlled, this terror of normality will spread throughout art life. At which point, we will need banana schools and all other kinds of schools where art is something more and bigger than an academic career path. 

Frans Josef Petersson is Swedish editor of Kunstkritikk. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.

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