Towards a Free Art School

‘Towards a Free Art School’, a text by the Manifesto Club Artistic Autonomy hub, was presented by Doug Fishbone, at the Serpentine Gallery Manifesto Marathon, 19 October 2008.

(Photos – of Doug Fishbone, and of members of the Artistic Autonomy Hub – © Serpentine Gallery and Mark Blower, photography)

Good Morning, I’m Doug Fishbone and I have been invited to present on behalf of the Manifesto Club. There are quite a lot of people involved in the Manifesto Club, so they have jointly written this script and Manifesto for me to transmit to you. Because usually, they communicate through discussions on the phone, via email and at evening meetings in pubs, which always takes more than 20 minutes.

This Manifesto proposes A Free Art School. Art schools are where artists and art professionals develop their values and discourses. They are spaces that produce the ideas, visual languages and independent thinking of artists – art schools are where future art takes shape. So this manifesto is called Towards a Free Art School. It looks at what are the problems affecting art schools today, and suggests the kind of values that we think go towards what makes teaching art, and learning about art a valuable thing to do. Education is about exchanging ideas with others, learning to learn and communicate for yourself. Art education works best when it focuses on encouraging people to make and organise things for themselves rather than telling them what to do and speaking at them like this, from a podium, wearing a suit.

Doug Fishbone

This manifesto, like many manifestos, is generated from people saying what doesn’t work, what does work and what could work. Towards a Free Art School has been put together by The Manifesto Club’s Artistic Autonomy group – a group of artists, arts administrators, researchers and students who want to defend artistic freedom through campaigns for greater freedom in the arts, and against restrictive policies and practices.The Manifesto Club itself is formed of different self-organised groups, so before I present the manifesto Towards a Free Art School, I’m going to tell you a bit about the club. And I’m going to stop using ‘I’ now, and start using ‘we’, meaning the Manifesto Club.

The Manifesto Club is a humanist campaigning network based in London. The aim is to bring together individuals who believe in developing people’s creativity and knowledge. The Manifesto Club’s agenda is for a twenty-first century Enlightenment; to build a future where human potential is developed to the fullest extent possible. At the current time, despite the significant achievements of the past two centuries, Western societies are gripped by a powerful mood of cultural pessimism, of suspicion towards science and technology, and a disturbing sense of self-doubt and misanthropy. Across the world there are new forms of prejudice and irrationalism; a growing attachment to identity politics and victim culture; the loss of belief in progress and fear for the future. That’s not a lot of fun.

The Manifesto Club invites all those who are concerned about these retrograde developments to collaborate in formulating positive alternatives. We want to reclaim the questioning and creative spirit of the Enlightenment, especially the idea that human beings can make their own history. This is not a call to go back in time – it is a call to recognize that each of us actively makes history. Most people have the strength and courage to think and act for themselves independently, that’s why we’re here this morning. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant put it like this: ‘Enlightenment is humanity’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity. Dare to know! Have courage to use your own understanding!’ That was in 1784, when Francisco Goya was painting the fabulously rich and Jacques-Louis David was painting historic scenes, but even though so much has changed since then, each individual still needs to realize this courage for himself or herself. That’s also something that we need to realize in the way we think about organising society; and that includes art schools, which should be the first place to think about what art means and what art can do.

But art schools today seem to be in a lot of trouble. At a time when more students than ever are enrolling on Fine Art courses, and at a time when art has a higher cultural status than ever before, there’s a sense of confusion about the purpose and aspirations of learning about art. At first glance, the trouble in art schools seems to reflect the shift to a consumer-led culture in higher education, where budgets take priority over teaching: fewer tutors, teaching more students, for less time, in studios that shrink from one year to the next, with tutors spending time on assessment paperwork, time that could be better spent teaching students.

But it’s not simply a question of resources; it’s rather a question of how they are used. Whether art schools are publicly funded or privately funded, or whether you pay tuition fees or have them paid for, experimentation and exploration can’t happen if energy is wasted on administration and the continuous over-assessment of how art schools function. There are some who argue that without constant regulation and scrutiny art schools would become the worst kind of anarchic free-for-all, as if artists themselves are too unreliable to teach, or to organize themselves effectively.

Against this, we say: for a free art school, self-direction and organizational independence are essential. Artists need to be able to organize art schools the way they think is best. Trust artists to shape art schools for themselves and they will do it. Use resources to make that happen, rather than to perpetuate time-consuming bureaucracy.

This is what Richard Wentworth wrote when we asked him about what goes into a good art school:

Art schools are made of people. Some mix of premises and gumption is the fire lighter. It’s a sentient being thing, not a correspondence course or a chat room. It needs buckets of goodwill and trust to work, because without, you can’t generate the essential atmosphere of vulnerability and the pleasure of risk. Lots of give equals lots of take equals a perpetual motion machine. Art Schools are places of desire amid the occasional wonders of recognition. There needs to be openness to get the necessary frankness. The verb ‘to confide’ leads to the warm noun ‘confidence’. The useful people are probably often not artists in the hidebound sense. Reliability helps a lot if it doesn’t recoil into jobsworthiness. There are terrible models to witness. It can be contagious so wear a mask. Cowards should not be tolerated. Art school should be a testing place, not an assault course.

Richard is right, art schools should be a testing ground. Yet increasingly, students are encouraged to adopt a pragmatic professionalism and so see art-making as a career like any other, spending time and energy proving themselves through modules on ‘professional development’. Rather than recognizing their time at art school as a free-spirited and open-ended period of investigation, students are increasingly cautious and conservative in their attitude towards the education they receive, and the purpose it serves: preoccupied with perfecting their work as a product to be brought to the market when they leave. It’s a risk-averse approach that reinforces tried-and-tested habits and conventions, both in art schools and the art world.

Towards a free art schoolWe say: reject art as a career-path, champion art as a space in which to challenge conventions. Art education should be a site of creative synergies and experimentation, free from career anxieties.

Currently, some fee-paying students in the UK are campaigning to be treated as if they were consumers of education. This ignores the noble history of free education and the idea that you go to university because you want to learn more. You are being trained to think – if you want to be trained to earn money you can go to work or to business school – but not art school.

Art’s history of experimentation and exploration is now comfortably assimilated into the norms of art school education, and no longer appears as a challenge to either the commercial market or the culture of publicly funded art.

We say: Learn to identify contemporary conventions and actively challenge them. Paradigms are there to be shifted.

The increased visibility of contemporary art does not reflect an increased confidence in art as a discipline, and in its potential.There is a narrowing of ambition that indicates a retreat of the adventurous avant-garde attitude toward art’s place in society. The idea that culture, in its most dynamic form, can contribute to our sense of what is progressive and valuable in human society, is something many are uncomfortable with declaring explicitly.

Why is it that such a forward-looking culture seems so difficult to achieve today? We think that the problems that affect art school culture stem from today’s wider sense of unease and pessimism with regards to experimentation and change. Contemporary society’s risk-averse and bureaucratic culture has encroached on the ambitious, experimental and progressive spirit that informs the best art and art teaching. Let’s face it, if you can’t experiment with unsafe sex and smoking, and if even freedom of speech becomes a no-no, then the culture of art is bound to be constrained by society’s wider fears about honest disagreement and risk-taking.

We say: reclaim the spirit of risk and experimentation more broadly. Art is often concerned with the wilder reaches of knowledge and experience, which brings it into conflict with social and cultural norms. Questioning and challenging today’s conventional thinking shouldn’t stop at the door of the art gallery or the museum.

Sonya Dyer and Emma Ridgway

There is no text book for how to be an artist. As a result, art school training should be about the development of truly inquiring, independent subjects, whose formation cannot be simply defined by the assimilation and reproduction of pre-existing disciplines. Art is a mixed-up, multi-faceted engagement with our living culture, and its truly creative edge is led by those who have the confidence and insight to push it beyond its conventional languages, forms and attitudes.

We say: celebrate the many forms of knowledge, both inside and outside of art.

Beyond the problems of funding and educational and cultural policy, we all need to rethink what it means to have a special place in which to develop the potential of the artistic imagination in all its social and cultural forms. A sense of risk, experimentation and unforeseen possibility isn’t something that you can just teach in lectures and seminars – it’s something that you make happen. Art thrives when it has a special place that connects with cultural and social life as something to be questioned and transformed. Art education needs a free space, with a sense of what might be achieved beyond the pre-existing frameworks of careers and institutions.

But this can only make sense if a society understands that exploring the unknown is a principle worth pursuing. Our society, however, seems more concerned with maintaining the stability of things as they are, rather than risking the consequences of any leap into the unknown. If this is the case, then artistic experimentation will always be constrained by the limits of the individual and by the pre-existing forms of commercial and institutional life. There may be a lot of fear and apathy out there right now, but there are also effective historical models, existing solutions, and a desire for change.

From the conversations we had with a broad range of artists, teachers and students there are a lot of good ideas out there. We need art schools with enough spaces for students to organize displays of their work and for established artists to be able to experiment. We need to get rid of the obsession with gaining a qualification and rethink the nature of assessment, so that free experimentation can happen without fear of failure. Overall, there needs to be more mentoring, more interdisciplinary research, more self-direction and more independence, so that the artists and thinkers who shape art now can share their knowledge with the next generation of artists.

Instead of accepting the limits of an individualised, professional and career-centred attitude to artistic practice, we can start to think about what a genuinely free art school might look like, what it teaches and where it leads, and how we might go about making it happen. Because in the end, the shape that a free art school takes is for all of us to decide.

You’ve been listening to me, Doug Fishbone, presenting the ideas of the Manifesto Club’s Artistic Autonomy Group.

Towards a Free Art School manifesto has been generated for the Serpentine Gallery Manifesto Marathon and we are grateful to all the people who contributed. Including Carolee Schneeman, who proposed this alternative art education premised on collective effort:

[What doesn’t work in art schools?] Their delusional attempt to provide a Utopic autonomous art school.
[What does work? And How could it work?] Art school classes will require student groups to research and locate small farms in need of seasonal labor. Art students become responsible to the art community and active within the farming community for 6 months of subsistence farming. The artists commit themselves to the full schedule of farm demands: those repeated, constant labor intensive and particular seasonal requirements. (Agricultural, dairy, fruits, vegetables, plowing, planting, weeding, picking, harvesting, sorting as well as possible milking, shoveling manure, turning compost, haying, combine preparation, feeding livestock; moving rocks, insulating coops, building shelters, assisting with artificial insemination (dairy), castration (pigs)).
At night or during work breaks, each artist maintains notes and drawings and possible photographs in a diary responding to the textures, aromas, light, shadow, mud, manure, grasses, water, etc. of their daily environment, which can include the organization of their meals, sleeping provision, hygienic accommodations. Will they be paid?