Art for Art's Sake

Sam Thorne, School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education

Sternberg Press, 384pp, $24.00, ISBN 9783956791819

reviewed by Bernard Hay

On 9 December 2010, the British Government narrowly passed a bill to treble higher education tuition fees to £9,000 a year, while simultaneously cutting funding for universities under the broader regime of austerity. Only a month previously, tens of thousands of students had marched on Westminster against the proposal, arguing that it would prevent many people from being able to attend university, and further intensify socio-economic inequalities. Passing Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament, the march ended with a rally outside one of the UK’s most venerable arts institutions: Tate Britain.

Two years later, the heightened tuition fees were introduced and new students faced debt levels comparable only to those found in the United States. As universities became increasingly reliant on student financial obligation for their survival, a small group of practitioners asked whether an alternative structure for artist education might be possible. In 2013, Open School East took on its first class of students, a mixture of arts graduates and creative practitioners. Situated in Bethnal Green, East London, the school operated as a free graduate arts programme, community projects space and public venue for talks, film screenings and performance. Now, five years on, the school is flourishing, having recently moved to the East Coast town of Margate in response to rising rents and redevelopment in the capital.

Drawing on his experience of co-founding the school, and ongoing research into artist-run educational projects, Sam Thorne (who is also co-editor of Frieze magazine and director of the Nottingham Contemporary art centre) has published School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education. The book contains 20 interviews with the founders of similar artist-led educational projects, and is a rich exploration of how arts education might develop in the future. Its publication couldn’t be more timely, especially for UK readers, where millions of pounds of EU research funding and the careers of up to 17% of academics from other EU countries hang in the balance, post-referendum.

The self-organised art educational projects that form the focus of the book come from all over the world: Latin America and the US; Palestine and Beirut. They range from ventures that originated in biennials such as the infamous Manifesta 6, to smaller projects hosted by universities such as Tania Bruguera’s Catedra Arte de Conducta in Havana. The initiatives take many different forms and have an equally diverse relationship to their social context. In spite of this, and well aware of the distinctive characteristics of each undertaking, Thorne suggests that they tend to share several distinctive features: they are ‘small scale and nomadic’, ‘collaborative and discursive’, ‘self-directed and anti-hierarchical’, and only a small number provide ‘formal accreditation’.

School begins with a short history of 20th and early 21st century arts education, including an examination of institutions such as the Bauhaus, VkhUTEMAS in Russia and Black Mountain College. Thorne charts a shifting model of arts education from one in which students take part in workshops (Bauhaus) to a fusing of art and life in communal living (Black Mountain College), before finally documenting the increasing commercialisation of arts education through the rise of the MFA programme and closure of free arts programmes such as the Cooper Union’s and USC Roski’s in the early 2010s. This is a history that makes no attempt to be comprehensive, but instead emphasises the importance of understanding the social and historical context of each project so that the motivations behind their respective approaches can be grasped.

Despite its opening chapter, School is neither a formal history nor an academic study of artist-led education; instead, it is structured as a series of conversations with the founders of different artist-led projects. This conversational format mirrors one of the most commonly shared traits of the ventures, a tendency to favour dialogue over the transmission of truths from teacher to pupil. A good example of this is Pablo Helguera’s School of Panamerican Unrest, a nomadic project in which the artist took a yellow carnival-esque tent and travelled across the United States asking participants what they took the idea of America to mean. Helguera, who is also Director of Adult Programmes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, moved the school across borders, both geographical and institutional, travelling from Alaska to Mexico, while being hosted at art galleries, universities and public plazas.

Throughout the book, Thorne, as lead interviewer, adopts the position of curious participant in self-organised art education, asking questions that range from the theoretical to the more practical. From the conversations we learn that Olafur Eliasson’s Institute for Spatial Experiments was inspired by the radical pedagogies of Jean Ranciere in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and that The International Academy of Art Palestine had to protect students from visiting curators who might appropriate or misrepresent their work as embodying ‘authentic Palestinian’ art practices. This openness to ask more quotidian questions is one of the strengths of School, providing insights, tools and historical sources that can be utilised by new and similar initiatives. Although the book is not an ‘instruction manual’, it nonetheless reads as a learning guide for those engaged in similar ventures, and also those within more formal arts educational settings such as universities, schools and museums.

One recurring feature of the projects is their commitment to hospitality as an essential ingredient for creating a space conducive to learning and shared experience. Initiatives such as Jakob Jakobson’s Copenhagen Free University, Ryan Gander’s Solid House and Tania Brugheria’s Catedra Arte de Conducta were hosted in the organisers’ own homes. This is reminiscent of earlier experiments in communal living at Black Mountain College, where cooking and eating together was an important part of school life. The Institute for Spatial Experiments, for instance, hosted lunches and experimental ‘taste’ performances in the studio. Some even went so far as to offer yoga and dance classes, with one school occupying a homemade Geodesic Dome in somebody’s back garden – a dance studio and a seminar room.

Almost all the projects in the book bear a different relationship to the formal structures of the university, museum and art world. Many see themselves inspired by perceived failures, most commonly the exorbitant fees of the MFA programme, opting instead for alternative models of fund-raising, good-will and self-generating expertise from the participants. The result is that the schools operate far more flexibly than their counterparts. As such, they become almost utopian proposals in an increasingly privatised educational sphere, operating as pragmatic alternatives that can guide future thinking about education.

It is a shared strength, however, that none claim to offer a grand vision for a universal model of higher education. One of the dangers of self-organised projects such as these is that they can be seen as a justification for the withdrawal of state funds. Why fund it when people can do it themselves? Although the projects are experiments in new forms, they at best seek to offer alternatives to historically specific formations of the university, and operate as survival strategies in unique circumstances. It is an open question whether we need projects like these at all, and how the ongoing loss of educational funding will provoke similar ventures.

School brings together an inspiring collection of different projects, offering powerful insights into setting up grass-roots arts educational initiatives. Moreover, the book tacitly raises two important questions: who is this education for, and what purpose does it serve? Whereas projects in Beirut and Palestine, for example, offer an arts education that isn’t available in a formal institutional context, most of the initiatives in the US and UK are mainly attended by existing arts graduates and other creative practitioners. Similarly, given the small scale of all the projects, the schools can only support up to a few hundred people at a time. When the art world is already seen as exclusive, and tuition fees add a further barrier, the attempt to democratise arts education feels as urgent as ever. Perhaps this is where a sequel to School might lie.