The popularity of fine art university training over the past few decades (thanks to various factors such as the G.I. Bill and the promise of success through an inflated art market) has been blamed for the cool impersonal wave of conceptual ideas that has taken over practical technique. Workshop or atelier training is now something of the past and contemporary art has become as specialized and esoteric as the sciences. The current financial downturn will likely have an impact on the number of graduate fine art students and it is at this point that it seems appropriate to question the function of the art school and its effectiveness for artists.
In its defense, experimentation can still take place within the art school, with more focus placed on multidisciplinary learning and process than the final object (although this learning and experimentation is often based on that of the prior generation so there are certainly limitations). The school can also be a place where academics come together in lectures, symposia, etc., providing further cultural mediation so it is not just dedicated to advancing the education of younger generations. However, the school is, for the most part, inaccessible to the general public and these events simply perpetuate an exclusive, rigid academic system.
Believing that the social structure of art should reach the needs of everyone, Joseph Beuys was one of the first artists to advocate a radical reshaping of the art school system. With an anthropological understanding of art, it is necessary for everyone to participate creatively and equally, according to Beuys, in order for a change to take place in our economic behavior and our political systems.
However, art audiences (those who attend galleries and museums) have very little political agency for the most part. The artwork is passively observed but rarely engaged with, particularly on an actively participatory level, so spectators become consumers much like in the film theater or in front of the television. Attempts to provide a transformative function have occurred recently with artists and art projects such as Tino Sehgal, e-flux’s unitednationsplaza, Mark Leckey, and Terence Koh. Beuys’s utopian theory has influenced a number of these artists, but most recently and possibly most demonstrably his influence is evident in the work of the Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF).
Using the gallery/museum space as a springboard to provide them with recognition and the means to fund other projects, BHQF aims to regenerate the agency of art by creating more interactive models of art production. Addressing the financial strain placed on students at art schools and the debt that follows, as well as questioning whether art students are getting their money’s worth (importantly noting that the number of successful artists or teaching positions far exceeds the number of graduates), BHQF University believes that artists themselves can figure out how arts education should work. Attempting to go against the “hegemony of critical solemnity and market-mediocre despair,” BHQFU believes in the egalitarian and collaborative practice of art regardless of economic standing and stands in opposition to any bureaucracy or accreditation as well as against the hierarchy of institutional distinction. Much like the Public School, the curriculum is developed by those who participate as teachers or students or both within the school. The curriculum therefore creates itself with classes such as “Occult Shenanigans in 20th and 21st Centuries” and “What’s A Metaphor.” All of these elements were facets of Beuys’s thinking for his social sculpture.
As BHQF states in its lecture, “Explaining Pictures to a Dead Bull” (riffing off the title of Beuys’s first solo exhibtion), despite ironic attempts to avoid discussions of the art market, “art pedagogy today remains willfully indebted to the contemporary art market as it was understood at its inception.” Similar to Beuys, whose works were “relics of his activities as an educator,” BHQF is fully conscious of the dependence that arts education has on the art market and take full advantage of the latter to build on the former. Blackboards covered in aphorisms appeared at Susan Inglett Gallery a few months after the opening of their university, further clarifying Beuys’s idea of the “waste product.” Instead of avoiding the mainstream, BHQF embraces it and brings everything else into bed along with it; the commercial conspicuously holds hands with the not-for-profit. So while it goes against the big-business educational model, BHQF is not utopian about the possibilities of escaping socioeconomic reality.
BHQF certainly hasn’t been without its critics, however. Questions have come up regarding its appeal to a wider public audience when it appears like a group of art school kids from the outside (and even the inside). It’s possible to argue that this issue could be overcome with age and persistence. And the criticisms that it is adept at working the publicity machine seem redundant — is this not the route that many artists take when rising to success? Why is it so deplorable? The debate over whether its success depends on the help of wealthy and well-connected friends, on the other hand, is perhaps more of a valid one. Vito Schnabel (son of the artist Julian Schnabel) has been closely associated with a large amount of the Bruces’ projects and his involvement calls into question the element of non-elitist egalitarianism that it promotes. Although this has allowed it to put on exhibitions with a wide range of well-known as well as unknown artists, how successful would it have been without this support? And, despite their education, how many people graduating from art school would have the equivalent support?
Further arguments that reconsider not only BHQFU but also Beuys’s whole undertaking are those that question whether art should address everyone (although a negative response would seem to recapitulate an elitist vision) and, more importantly, how useful the art school is for the advancement of the artist. To what degree is a class such as “What’s A Metaphor” going to further the production of an artist’s own work (other than perhaps the artist giving the class)? We are at a point where education plays a crucial role within the development of an artist, one that may be irreversible, and this may not wholly be a bad thing. Creating a free school run by artists is certainly an impressive start and, if we judge it by Beuys’s standards, is an art form in itself. However, the content (of classes) is as important as the context (of the school) and the most effective content for the development of an artist still needs to be addressed.