Life Study

by Sam Thorne

Seven of the ten most expensive degrees in the United States are in arts subjects. Black Mountain has given way to manufactories of debt — but art school is, at last, being reimagined

Jacobus Johannes Lauwers. Life Drawing in an Old Building. c. 1780. Ink and pencil on paper. 17¾ × 20½ in. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This article appeared in Even no. 2, published in fall 2015.

I. From Weimar to North Carolina
Many of the 20th century’s best-known teachers of art have maintained that art cannot be taught. A significant achievement of art education in the modern era has been its persistence in the face of this belief, put forward by everyone from Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to longtime CalArts professor John Baldessari. For places that teach an allegedly unteachable subject, art schools have expanded and professionalized dramatically over the last 100 years — transformed from fusty redoubts of academic training to central nodes in a global art system. Yet in the last decade, the story of art school has become a tale of spiraling debt and standardization, and an emergent reaction of self-organized alternatives.

It has been a while since art schools have been the incubators of radical art movements. Things were very different back in 1919, the year that Malevich founded the UNOVIS group (an abbreviation of the Russian for “Champions of the New Art”) at the Vitebsk People’s Art School, in modern-day Belarus. Only months later, Gropius opened the doors of the Bauhaus in Weimar — marking a definitive break from the academic model of the preceding century, which inculcated technical skills through observation, life classes, and imitation of the masters. This was the moment when the credo of talent was usurped by the valorization of “creativity,” however nebulously defined. Imitation was replaced by invention. Painting, sculpture, or the graphic arts were no longer conceived of as métiers, to be mastered the way you might master entomology or locksmithing; each was instead a medium to be probed, interrogated, and remade. The Bauhaus wasn’t just a school but a proposal for remaking the world: “Art and technology — a new unity,” as László Moholy-Nagy’s slogan put it. And it wasn’t just one school, but several: after opening in Weimar, it moved to Dessau and then on to Berlin, where it was forcibly closed by the Nazis in 1933.

Although Moholy-Nagy briefly resuscitated the Bauhaus in Chicago, this beacon of rootless cosmopolitanism found its true successor not in an American metropolis but in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Black Mountain College opened its doors the same year the Bauhaus closed, but disdained the very idea of a school or academy. One year’s prospectus describes Black Mountain as “heretical,” in that its first principle held “that the student, rather than the curriculum, is the proper center of a general education.” When co-founder John Andrew Rice was asked whether Black Mountain was to be an art school, he is said to have replied: “God, no! Schools are the most awful places in the world!”

Two exhibitions this year — at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston — have reintroduced the utopian experiment of Black Mountain, where students studied as well as farmed in splendid isolation. The school’s legendary status is in spite (or more likely because) of its tiny size: over the course of its 23 years, fewer than 1,200 students enrolled. Convivial scenes are familiar from photographs, where we see a loose faculty — John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Clement Greenberg, and Buckminster Fuller among them — hanging out with students, who included Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and local kid Kenneth Noland. One photo sees former Bauhausler Josef Albers looking professorial and distinctly mitteleuropäisch, surrounded by students in the middle of a cabbage patch. In a departure from the Bauhaus’s rigid curriculum, Black Mountain students could leave whenever they felt ready. Community life and “cooperative intelligence” were the aims.
II. The MFA Complex
A decade after Black Mountain College’s closure in 1957, certain art schools began to accrue an unprecedented level of influence. In Europe the leading example was the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf: though founded in the 18th century, it became a crucible of progressive art teaching in the 60s, with Joseph Beuys among its faculty members and Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Blinky Palermo on the student roster. A decade later it was photography’s turn. Under the tutelage of Bernd and Hiller Becher, Düsseldorf’s mid-70s alumni include Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and Thomas Ruff, still grouped today into a “Düsseldorf school.”

Around the same time, at CalArts, a faculty that combined the conceptual (Baldessari, Michael Asher) with the feminist (Judy Chicago, the late Miriam Schapiro) gave birth to a generation of ambitious young things nicknamed the CalArts Mafa, who would go on to make up the Pictures Generation’s west coast chapter. When CalArts held its first classes in 1970, its faculty was united by the belief that every student is an artist. This is not the same assumption as Beuys’s famous credo “Everyone is an artist,” as Howard Singerman, the most perceptive historian of modern art schools, has argued. The CalArts approach was not a celebration of innate creativity. It was based rather on an understanding that being an artist means not only creating works of art, but also speaking and performing in certain ways, a principle that today underpins most graduate studio programs in the west. As Singerman has put it, “Speech is now a requirement for the MFA.”

Some of the outcomes of this shift were surveyed in the 2001 exhibition “Public Offerings,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Curated by Paul Schimmel, it surveyed the first works that artists — from Rirkrit Tiravanija to Sarah Lucas — presented after graduating from art school, with an emphasis on UCLA and the London college Goldsmiths, alma mater of the then-fashionable Young British Artists. The professionalized socializing of the MFA complex had, by this time, become the norm. In a catalogue essay, the art historian Lane Relyea remarks, “Hanging out, talking shop, and making connections with faculty and visiting artists have replaced the systems and codifications of pedagogy, of syllabi and seminars.” Wondering what might be to blame for the rise of relational aesthetics? Relyea directs our attention to the art school, where “hanging out has likewise become a paradigm for artworks.”

You can make a show about Black Mountain College; you can make two, actually. But the idea of a museum survey focusing on specific art schools today would feel quaint. Commercial galleries now hold more influence than most studio programs, and we are much clearer on what a “47 Canal artist” means, say, than a “Goldsmiths artist.” For better or worse, few art schools now retain a recognizable house style. The exception here may well be the Städelschule in Frankfurt, whose situation is unique. As the previous rector, Daniel Birnbaum, has noted, few art schools have both an exhibition space (Portikus) and experimental canteen (the Mensa). However, he might be closer to the point when he says that “the individual artist is more important than any educational program or doctrine.” The school’s current faculty is well respected and well connected: Douglas Gordon, Michael Krebber, Tobias Rehberger, Amy Sillman, and Wolfgang Tillmans among them. Correspondingly, in recent years, graduates — Yngve Holen, Jana Euler, Simon Denny — have made works about the pleasures and perils of social networks, often their own. Ultimately, Birnbaum wanted the Städel to be two things at once: a monastery, providing sanctuary from a predatory market, but also a bazaar, making deals with that same market. This tension is just one of dozens that the art school of the 21st century must navigate.
III. School Is a Factory
Another tension: debt. Bloated university administrations, inflated fees for top-ranking staff, vainglorious building projects — all have led to ballooning tuition fees and student financial liabilities. In the US, a two-year MFA program at a top-tier school can cost in excess of $100,000; indeed, it’s now entirely possible for a young artist to graduate with a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of debt. Total student debt in the US currently stands at around $1.2 trillion, which, to give some context, is even more than US credit-card debt. We are now realizing, perhaps too late, that the student-debt crisis could be nothing short of the next housing bubble.

In the last two years, these factors have seen major crises engulf two venerable American art schools, one on each coast: Cooper Union in New York, and USC Roski in Los Angeles. Cooper Union, an art and engineering school founded in 1859, offered free education to all of its students for more than 150 years by living carefully on the funds generated by its endowment. Until recently Cooper had the most selective undergraduate art program in America — the acceptance rate was under six percent in 2009, the same as Harvard — and ambitious students gladly tolerated less-than-gleaming facilities to be part of a unique educational institution. But in the 2000s, Cooper Union undertook a dubious $167 million building project, financed by unsustainable sales of college assets. When in 2013 it was announced that annual fees of $20,000 were to be introduced, the news sparked a two-month student occupation of the president’s office. It was for naught. Cooper’s founding principle became collateral damage in an ongoing educational fiasco. In September of this year, a brutal investigative report by the New York attorney general slated Cooper for “overcentralization,” “unreliable budget assumptions,” and worse.

And this May, the 2016 intake of MFA students at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design dropped out en masse. Protesting the school administration’s changes to promised funding, curriculum and teaching assistantships, they published a passionate public statement, describing USC’s tactics as a “classic bait-and-switch.” An open letter of solidarity followed, signed by such prominent alumni as Elad Lassry and Amanda Ross-Ho, voicing dismay at the actions of the school’s dean, Erica Muhl. Soon after, another letter was posted by the graduating class of 2015, calling for Muhl’s resignation. All of this came after the resignation last December of Frances Stark, a tenured faculty member, who cited the administration’s “lack of transparency or ethical behavior.”

Surveys by the activist arts organization WAGE confirm that the average period of financial success for an artist is roughly four years, and that only ten percent of arts graduates make a living as a working artist in the first place. Nevertheless, every year in the US schools award another 100,000 students with arts-oriented degrees. (By comparison, in the year the Bauhaus closed some 350 Americans earned an MFA.) Seven of the ten most expensive schools in the US are art schools, moreover; these are graduates with unprecedented levels of debt. All of this shapes not only the kind of art that is made, but whether any art is made at all. “What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?” asks the New York collective BFAMFAPhD. Answer: in the age of six-figure student debt, art is more and more a form of loan repayment. Increasingly, it’s going to be the product of default.

In western Europe, the issue of student debt might not yet be so dire, but austerity-level funding cuts to arts budgets have wrought their own special havoc. This is the backdrop to the well-documented “educational turn” in contemporary art — a term describing artists’ and curators’ embrace of pedagogical formats and strategies, such as lecture series, workshops, and night schools. Consider the curious case of Manifesta 6 (2006), whose curators proposed an “exhibition as school” to be hosted in the divided capital of Cyprus, on both sides of the UN-enforced Green Line. Politicians got involved, and the exhibition was abruptly canceled, three months before it was due to open. Various lawsuits followed. Aside from providing a lesson in the limits of curatorial interventions into real-world politics, Manifesta 6’s lasting influence has been due to its considerable afterlife. Soon after the biennial was canceled, its co-organizer Anton Vidokle — with Martha Rosler, Liam Gillick and Walid Raad, among others — opened unitednationsplaza (2006–07) in a nondescript building in East Berlin. This one-year school comprised a series of public seminars and an informal residency program involving more than 100 artists. It would later find homes in Mexico City and New York, where it nestled on the top floor of the New Museum as Night School (2008–09). The biennial that never happened had been absorbed into the museum, but only after proving that it didn’t need an institution to survive.

In the wake of these projects, many museums and galleries began to adopt the guise of a school. Over the summer of 2012, London’s Hayward Gallery renamed itself the Wide Open School, an “experiment in public learning” staffed by a rolling group of more than 100 artist-tutors, from Susan Hiller to Thomas Hirschhorn. A year later, at MoMA PS1 in New York, a daily talks program organized by Triple Canopy was also José León Cerrillo. Last summer, tuning into the institution’s mid-60s roots, the Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibition “The Possible” reconceived the building as “a site for creative convergence,” its galleries recast as classrooms and libraries. This continues: this year, Okwui Enwezor’s 56th Venice Biennale hosted a three-day edition of the annual Creative Time Summit themed around “the curriculum,” with a section on “educational institution as form,” while the 14th Istanbul Biennial included a section titled Open School, housed in a former Greek primary school. These projects are always temporary situations, closer to summer schools than to full-blown institutions. And how much is learnt by participants? Who can say? Whatever their relative successes or failures, the bottom-line attraction of these programs is clear: they combine dwindling education and exhibition budgets into a single program, happily turning the school into a spectacle.
IV. New Schools
Over the last decade, however, another field of activity has begun to coalesce. Not quite captured by the educational turn, and yet not unconnected to it, dozens of self-organized art schools have emerged around the world, from Ramallah to Copenhagen and Mexico City. If one convention of postwar art schools has been an acceptance that all students are artists, then these independent initiatives in critical education take it for granted that every student (or, more usually, “participant”) is also an active citizen.

I came to be closely involved with this shift through a project called Open School East, a study program in London which I co-founded in 2013 with several friends. Housed in a former public library in East London, OSE was a response to several questions we had been discussing. How could you make an art school that was rooted in its neighborhood, where education was free regardless of background or income, and where learning happened collaboratively rather than on an individual basis? OSE’s structure is relatively straightforward: twelve to fifteen people (referred to as associates rather than students) are selected via an open call and receive free studio spaces and tuition for the course of one academic year; no qualifications are required, but the teaching is at an MA level. In the first year, there were almost 100 visiting tutors — artists, curators, and art historians, but also theorists, musicians, activists, and broadcasters. In lieu of fees, each associate volunteers one day per month of their time with individuals and groups from the local community. Where possible, classes and workshops are open to anyone.

For me, OSE represents an attempt to produce an art school that is flexible, self-directed, sociable, and free. These aims are shared by the many education platforms that have been founded over the past decade, many of which style themselves as schools, universities, and academies, even though they are often initiated by artists and curators. Surveying these self-organized schools, it becomes immediately clear that their economies and means vary wildly, from the grand to the domestic. Two important early artist-run schools were actually hosted in the founders’ homes: Tania Bruguera’s now-fabled Cátedra Arte de Conducta (2002–09) in Havana, and Jakob Jakobsen and Henriette Heise’s Copenhagen Free University (2001–07). While several are geographically remote, far more are clustered around prestigious art schools, where they are likely as not founded and attended by MFA grads. In Los Angeles, for example, there has been a special density of education projects, from Fritz Haeg’s Sundown Salons (2000–06) and Sundown Schoolhouse (2006–), in a geodesic dome in Glassell Park; and Piero Golia and Eric Wesley’s Mountain School of Arts (2005–) in Chinatown, “the oldest continuous artist-run school in California”; to The Public School (2007–), a “school with no curriculum.”

Vidokle has claimed that, if there is a crisis of education, it is one of distribution, with prestigious programs based in North America and Europe. Yet many of the more established and respected independent art schools are on what was once thought of as the periphery of the art world. Look to the Home Workspace Program in Beirut, or to International Academy of Art, Palestine in Ramallah, or to artist Wael Shawky’s MASS Alexandria, the last two of which were included in the most recent edition of Documenta. These new schools and education projects are often nomadic, changing their form and focus from place to place, as with Asiko (2010–), run by CCA Lagos, which has hopped from Lagos to Accra to Maputo; Pablo Helguera’s School of Panamerican Unrest (2006), a roadtrip from Alaska to the southern tip of Chile; or Ahmet Ögüt’s Silent University (2012–), a polyglot education platform run by asylum-seekers. Rather than monolithic and slow-moving, the school today is always in motion.

In 1957, during the final weeks of Black Mountain College, the poet Charles Olson attempted to predict the institution’s future. He typed “The College” at the center of a quickly sketched diagram. In each direction, as though propelled by a centrifugal force, arrows pointed to a range of possible new incarnations: a theater, a publishing house, a magazine, a networked academy. The experimental art school wouldn’t disappear, Olson suggested, so much as dissolve, migrating into new spheres. Sixty years later, some of this has come to pass, as the art school comes to be reimagined once again.

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary and co-founder of Open School East, London. His book School: Conversations on the Future of Art School is published by Sternberg Press, Berlin.