The Ancients and the Moderns

The current crisis at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris shows the difficulties in distinguishing between overall societal changes and individual leadership skills.

In connection with the criticism of Bourriaud and his increasing “privatisation” of École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, participants in the discussion have revived a parole from May ´68: “To yield a litte is to capitulate much”. Serigraphic poster, 1968.
In connection with the criticism of Bourriaud and his increasing “privatisation” of École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, participants in the discussion have revived a parole from May ´68: “To yield a litte is to capitulate much”. Serigraphic poster, 1968.

A new academic quarrel of the ancients and the moderns has broken out in Paris. This can be ascertained in Le Nouvel Observateur, which quotes a petition from to support the grand theorist of 1990s art, Nicolas Bourriaud, who is under attack from students and staff in his capacity as director of the ENSBA. Unlike the 17th century querelle des anciens et des modernes we are not really talking about a concrete artistic and political crisis here, nor about an historical paradigm shift. And yet. The issue at stake here is one of liberalisation, of whether the marketplace and private patronage should be involved in state systems for educating artists.

Since Nicolas Bourriaud was appointed director of the ENSBA, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in 2011 by France’s then-minister of culture Frédéric Mitterand, the school has seen a range of breaks with tradition that have provoked and shocked its students and staff. For quite some time Bourriaud has been somewhat diffusely criticised for “poor communication skills”. The general dissatisfaction reached an acme in the autumn of 2013 when Bourriaud rented out some of the students’ studios to serve as venues for an evening event for Ralph Lauren; in return the company donated €1.5 million towards the academy’s activities. The students launched a banner campaign, and for a long time afterwards this protest could be read on the school façade: “Beaux-Arts is a school, a public school (and not) a company, an art centre, a brand, a market, a ballroom.”

In recent months new conflicts have gradually reached boiling point. For one thing, Bourriaud let the school host parts of the gallery weekend Choices in May, and secondly Bourriaud announced, at a board meeting that same month, that he was planning to dismiss three members of staff: the head of administration, the director general, and a director of studies. This prompted the students and a large majority of the teachers to submit a vote of no confidence to the current minister for culture, Aurélie Filippetti, protesting against the dismissals and ultimately demanding that Bourriaud be sacked. The matter was to have been settled at a meeting last Thursday night.  No official statements about the results of this meeting have been made as yet, but rumour has it that Bourriaud will keep his position at the school.

Seen from a Nordic perspective it might be somewhat surprising that these conflicts have not reached France a long time ago. In Scandinavia the state-run institutions of education have long since lost their monopolies and privileges and have “embraced competition”, as the newspeak of such things would have it. In recent years we have seen how the academies begin to resemble modern exhibition-based institutions, complete with private sponsors, fixed-term employment, freelance contracts, downsizing, and the renting out of golden halls as venues for receptions, teambuilding sessions, and fashion shows. In France, however, where faith in the state is almost religious in scope, where life-long tenure seems a human right, and where EU subsidies to uphold the traditional national state seem to flow rather more freely, it would appear that the whole thing has only just begun.

Nicolas Bourriaud © Prix Meurice pour l'art contemporain.
Nicolas Bourriaud © Prix Meurice pour l’art contemporain.

The continental European academies have not yet resolved the question of whether an artistic education should protect its students against or prepare them for the market they will ultimately meet and depend on. The in-house opinion is almost always the former: the objective is to promote immersion and to postpone commercial and professional career building for as long as possible. To external observers it can seem baffling that art students are not educated to face the reality of which they will one day be part, but instead are made dependent on state subsidies right from the outset.

For obvious reasons Bourriaud adopts the latter position, and indeed he has had little difficulty finding declarations of support and sympathy on the art scene. He was not headhunted for the position as director because he had climbed the career ladder within the education system, but precisely because of his successful years on the art scene – which include a position as head of Palais de Tokyo, where he shared the directorship with a 1980s legend within curatorial and critical work, Jérôme Sans. Of course he was also hired for the intellectual impact he has had on art, not just in a French context, but internationally. Now, this intellectual quality is turned against him as he is criticised for being a “poor communicator.”

The fundamental idea behind his diagnosis of 1990s art in terms of so-called relational aesthetics was, as prescribed by the period itself, contextual in nature. Art can never close entirely in on itself within its own finite system; it is a subset of society that must always relate productively and critically to a wider political, global, and indeed commercial/market-oriented society. It is likely that from his perspective the École des Beaux-Arts has artificially kept alive a certain vein of artistic and institutional autonomy for far too many years now – to the detriment of the young French art scene, which is still struggling to make an impact on the international scene. Thus, he presumably only regards the fact that he is still an active curator – e.g. as director of the Taipei Biennial, which opens on 15 September – as an asset for the school, not a drawback.

Tellingly, the critique previously levelled against academy directors in the Nordic countries by educators and students is eerily reminiscent of the current criticism of Bourriaud. In our own northern corner of the world such criticism has also often begun with murmurings about “poor communication”, which is equated with self-reliant decision-making and a fear that the directors will sell their academies’ hearts and souls when they accept funding from private foundations, rent out premises for private functions, or actively promote their students. In most cases, however, we have seen that it is difficult to distinguish clearly between general societal changes, which are unlikely to disappear simply because you turn your back on them, and the particular leadership and management skills of specific individuals.

L'École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris © Przesłany/Wikimédia Commons.
L’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris © Przesłany/Wikimédia Commons.