Saturday, 6 October 2012

What Happened to Art Schools? An Accidental Manifesto.

In his blog post "A sick landscape and black holes"[1] Steve Dutton worries about the purpose of art schools today. He's a contemporary of mine. We remember art schools when they were different.

Dutton relates a conversation with a student who has been censured for stating that landscape can be 'sick'. The student has presented for discussion the following quotation from Jean Baudrillard's 'Between Difference and Singularity':

We can oppose this paradigm of the totality of globalisation, where all differences must be integrated, but as differences, not singularities... you must create your own underground, because now there's no more underground, no more avant-garde, no more marginality. You can create your personal underground, your own black hole, your own singularity.

I once enjoyed Baudrillard, but I now find that the only way to take statements like this one is as a kind of language mash-up, for in what knowledge field can a 'singularities' and 'black holes' (from astrophysics) be close to a 'personal underground'? If these terms are here meant as metaphors, then they cannot be strong ones if the author ignores or misappropriates the ideas that gave them legitimacy in the first place.

Obviously, I've become more concerned with the sense of such writing than with its power of affect. I'm struggling to understand how creating something akin to a singularity or a black hole (in which all matter is torn apart) can counter the homogenisation of society hinted at by Baudrillard.

Are we to take Baudrillard's "marginality" and "underground-ness" to imply the enjoyment of a high degree of personal sovereignty? I sympathise with his tone of disenchantment when I remember that, today, extremes of personal sovereignty are tolerated especially when their outcomes can be monetised. It sometimes seems that we're driving towards a point where this, alone, legitimates artistic (and academic) pursuits.

But now I'm one move short of thinking that Baudrillard's invocation to 'create your personal underground' is not particularly courageous; because in places where the sharing of supposedly radical ideas brings no social or economic benefit (for example, away from the well-defended academic centres), the corollary of residing in a personal underground is alienation and poverty...

It feels as if the question "what happened to art schools?" has become "what has happened to me?" Is my scepticism around Baudrillard a sign that I have changed in ways which align me with today's economic orthodoxy?

The art school I remember was a micro-society in which quite extreme forms of personal sovereignty could be enjoyed without alienation, and without the necessity for economic success. Can I defend the art school of my youth, and the public funding of students' time there? To the last question I can say "yes". I'll go further:

Art school should be compulsory for everyone, because a period of exaggerated personal sovereignty in a self-regulating micro-society is a good thing. Everyone should go to art school for one year at state expense. Further to that, agents of the private art world should fund the continuing education of those they wish to prepare for commercial success.

This, I think, would rebalance in a widely acceptable way the costs and benefits of art in public and private realms, including allowing everyone to have a taste of their own personal underground.


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