25/04/17 | By Mike Watson


The Wheel of Disappointment (On Arts Education)

Most people start out studying an art degree with some idea of why they are doing it, or at the least, of what art is. This idea may be hard to articulate, not least due to the low self esteem of the average late teen. It may be expressed more as a feeling, an aspiration, a strong intuition—the kind of things one is encouraged to quickly overcome. By years two and three of a bachelor’s degree a feeling perhaps best expressed as ‘freedom’ or ‘self expression’ is replaced by a desire to ‘interpret the world’ to ‘entertain’ or to expose political injustice.

Smart students by year three will have learned to pander to the exigencies of the market, while those who go on to study a masters and then—with all the luck in the world—get a reputable gallery, will have hardened into agents able to cope with the cynicism of the contemporary art world. Somewhere deep inside of them there will be a kernel of sentiment which remains unchanged from the day they entered art school, yet it will be in spite of their arts education, and not because of it. University, in preparation for a life spent working in the contemporary art world turns our notions of what art is on their head. Though, all the while, ‘art’ remains unchanged. It is the contemporary art world which has arguably lost its way. This essay aims to trace the origins of the problem in the dialectic battle between art as a form of self development and art as mirror of the world which the artist maintains and presents, complicit with its economic and political forms.

Neither of these two visions of art can dominate. In the former case art would be cut off from the world—indecipherable to all but the individual— while in the latter it would lack independence and become a mere objective reflection of society for good and bad. The University is a battleground upon which these two extremes compete for domination with the former approach representing the spiritual-revolutionary path and the latter the materialist-conservative path. However it is only in combination with the other that either can achieve its aims. In the neoliberal era that path veers overwhelmingly towards art as a mirror and subdivision of finance capital and its political correlates.

The genesis of this problem can be seen in the educational policy making of the 1980s and 1990s and the tendency in the UK and the West as a whole to homogenise teaching and accreditation across subject areas. In Britain a national curriculum was established in 1988 to ensure a standardized delivery of content across schools, a policy much in line with the bureaucratic tendencies of 1980s conservatism, which marshalled Britain’s morals via the establishment of objectives and tables. Following this, the conversion of Polytechnics into Universities and the introduction of tuition fees (in, respectively 1992 and 1998) did for University level education what had already been achieved at the primary and secondary level: it introduced a bureaucratic monitorisation worthy of a socialist state yet conducted in the name of free market economics. Such a hybridisation has blunted the teeth of both socialism and libertarianism leading the way towards a society governed by a financial system backed by a complacent but pervasive state. The above mentioned policies mark the closure of the binary between academic and practical (i.e. mental versus manual labour) and a steady squeeze on the creativity of the teacher or tutor, who must become less the pied piper and more the drum major.

The educational system—with the individual tutor as it hapless mouthpiece—aims to convey a sense of dutiful marshalling. Individuals are moved jauntily through their early development and on to adolescence and adulthood as if they are all doing our bit to keep a well oiled machine running. This image of functionalism was barely credible in the machine era when industrial work processes at the least chimed with the clunky utilitarian analogy of education as an industrial process for the production of worker-citizens. Though it is the digital age which really exposes this cosy myth, for what the digital economy tells us above all is that society and its attendant economic system are fluid, unpredictable and composed of random interactions across blurred borders, as can be seen in the fluid interactions of social media. This being the case, why are students filtered via systems of accreditation which grade students the like cattle being pre selected for industrial processing, according to a set of inflexible criteria?

However, a society run according to the principles of a data economy is hardly more conducive to the development of young creative thinkers. If a functioning society means one with a basic level of respect for the principles meritocracy, freedom of speech and democracy, 21st Century society presents an abstraction of this notion which serves to confound these very principles thereby maintaining the political status quo. The flow of information conveyed via screens on a constant basis so far jilts our understanding that we are unable to put our finger on what it is about society that does not fulfill our expectations. We know what it is, but we’re too distracted to physically pinpoint it. The problem with all this tech is that it is brilliant at providing info and delivering check ups and procedural guidelines and yet unable to counterweight this with the complex qualitative decision making required of the individual tutor

A data society exacerbates the negative traits of a mind numbing bureaucracy leaving us still wondering how a universal system with so many safeguards in place to assure meritocracy appears to reproduce the power structure generation after generation. The problem is that the system isn’t geared to helping us think about how to make the system itself any fairer, but only how to allow some disadvantaged people to rise up the class ranks within that self same system. In this sense, art’s position within the education system is unique precisely because art is perfectly adapted to creatively rethinking society and either mimicking its mechanical processes via figuration or its absurdity via abstraction. It also equips individuals with a personal sense of cognitive and expressive freedom. For these reasons art education is being skewered towards market values and measurable outcomes, lest otherwise it creates headaches for the bureaucrat. Self expression and feeling are no longer the avowed driving motives of the young artist, so long as they have been following their lessons attentively.

In the lecture room teachers do their best with the guidelines handed to them. Yet by that point damage to the notion of a humane cultural education has already been done by the nannying strategies adopted by the University watchdog, the Quality Assurance Association (QAA), a body set up in 1997 to oversee tertiary level education in the UK. The name of the body in itself evokes the values of industry as does its slogans, which reflect a self-image indebted to corporate management. The QAA is, we’re told, “the reference point for quality and standards in the UK”, evoking workplace signs telling employees to smile at customers. Indeed, the values of the QAA are transmitted directly and indirectly through a series of subtle to overt signs taking the form of meetings, emails and memos conveyed from University departments to members of staff on a near constant basis. This constant level of communication, which enforces the fairly vague values of the QAA, is guaranteed because the association’s regular reports are made publicly available, but also because University’s are given several years notice of an inspection leading to a near constant level of vigilance. Lecturers and professors live in a perpetual state of readiness to deliver a quality educational experience, a situation amplified by the fact that students pay for their time at university and, as such, demand a certain level of tuition (however far fetched their expectations might be, as will soon be discussed).

As a guideline for higher education institutions the QAA lays out a quality code which their website says, “has been developed with the higher education community, and sets out the expectations that all providers of UK higher education are required to meet”. This code, as embodied by the “19 Expectations” laid out by the QAA repeatedly links the success of a given university to their ability to adhere to “the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland”. Though aside from the circular nature of the assessment process—whereby the QAA’s 19 quality ‘expectations’ are cross referenced to a framework of further quality expectations—the guidelines themselves (when finally found and penetrated) are woefully vague. Indeed, it is as if an unspoken universal standard of ‘quality’ is being evoked with the precise intention of tapping into psychological tropes which exert pressure on the educational professional. ‘Quality’ or lack thereof is a major concern of anyone who lived through the consumerist culture of the 80s and 90s, although it is just one variation of an ingrained personal interest in success, goodness and competence which understandably constitutes a major motivation for the average worker in any field. In this sense the pressure to fulfill vague but vital objective (i.e. vital for job security and career progression) is not exerted by the QAA but by the hapless individual professor, tutor or administrative worker at the university. The education worker strives to be ‘worthy’ of a standard so loosely defined as to be unfulfillable. Yet this vagueness just does not offer the option of not-giving-a-damn. On the contrary, it creates anxiety as each piece in the higher education tuition machine strives to ensure they don’t bring the whole blessed standard of ‘quality’ down around their proverbial ears.

For example, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland stipulates that “Bachelor's degrees with honours are awarded to students who have demonstrated”, amongst other things: “an ability to deploy accurately established techniques of analysis and enquiry within a discipline.” Yet the nature of this analysis remains unclear necessitating that the teacher uses all of their resources to reach an unspecified and unattainable level of ‘quality’.

Of course, with particular reference to arts education, definitive notions of quality are elusive and belong to elitist notions of art as being something one is either very good at or not. Indeed, such a notion of genius runs contrary to the notion of education as a service paid for by the client and assured via a series of systemic checks. This in itself goes hand in hand with a society which appears to want to give everyone a chance to shine on the big stage—whether by dint of some level of musical ability or due to a quirky individual talent—and yet submits that talent to a public vote in order to find just one winner. This Pop Idol mentality is prevalent in art school, leaving teaching staff haplessly having to balance the need to provide a certain level of quality education to as many people as possible whilst having to simultaneously pick off winners. Somehow the materialist-conservative path must deliver moments of brilliance as students are set aside from their peers via the awarding of high grades, scholarships and choice internships. Yet the student must not be allowed to shine brightly in the manner of a spiritual-revolutionary thinker, even though the standard version of art history teaches is full of examples of the latter archetype. Indeed, the arts education system is so stacked against the possibility of being an artist in the sense that bought both lecturers and student to the field (i.e. being a creative visionary, expressing oneself freely, etc) that the most interesting students are frequently given middling to lower grades. What’s more, the mental states often associated with creativity, from depression, anxiety, inebriation and mania to just plain scatty-ness, originality, aloofness, etc., are treated as oddities. These natural states, conducive to the outside-of-the-box thinking apparently valued in business entrepreneurialism (not to mention in the arts itself) are often politely overlooked as students are steered down paths more conducive to the attainment of a much sought after but ill defined ‘quality’. Although more worrying levels of divergence from whatever precisely it is that the QAA, the university and the individual tutor is looking for might be dealt with by recourse to university medical and welfare facilities. Here it is necessary to find a balance between turning a blind eye to the quirky, lethargic, melancholic, dissolute, or downright wrongheaded behaviour of a given student and condemning them to psychological diagnosis, with its often attendant downward spiral.

The difficulty in making such decisions is exacerbated by a sense of culpability felt by the educational professional who carries the responsibility of delivering a quantified yet undefined standard of arts education to the student, who is not only a young person in need of an education, but also a customer. The stakes are so high and the human materials so delicate that a tutor will often play a dual game of discouraging abnormal behaviour by humouring it on the one hand, and rapidly passing the buck on the other. In the latter case a simple email often suffices in making the early signs of trouble the responsibility of a higher-up department colleague, Dean or welfare officer. From there the game of pass-the-hot potato begins, in part as the entire educational structure is peopled by a staff scared stiff of litigation from students.

Such a game has the effect of preventing rebellion by nullifying the powerful effects of free creative thought experienced as individual expression of a negative or positive kind (and it is the negative kind which is often more incendiary and, arguably, therefore more useful). Heightened mental states are not treated as an anomalous issue ripe for artistic philosophical or psychological consideration. Rather they are subjected to the nullifying processes of a bureaucracy terrified of any kind of extreme response or happening which might contravene the banal standard of ‘quality’.. What if, instead, the common conditions of depression and anxiety were discussed openly in class, thereby uniting students’ discontents and locating their root in a world of failed institutions and societal practices?

The avoidance of such a possibility means that grievances against the system (educational and political, both on a macro or micro level) are often expressed inadequately. This can lead to a reinforcement of the idea that today’s generation itself is of ‘poor quality’ by lecturers who somehow imagine themselves as having been more incisive and critical as students, even if history does not reflect this mentality (far from it, it is our historical lack of incisiveness in opposition to capital which has in part created the problems we face as educators).

A student’s confusion as to what exactly they are supposed to be doing on an art course—if it isn’t to express themselves—can lead to isolation and despair. Further to this, confusion at the incongruence between these feelings—expressed by artists throughout history such as Van Gogh, Kahlo, Pollock, to name a few—and the barely perceptible, lukewarm, or clinical response to them. The rebel without a cause who enters art school to find direction quickly becomes a rebel without a clue at the hands of the university system.

Within the Western arts education system this phenomenon does have its flipside, though it is one that reinforces the general thrust of a system designed to maximize the materialist-conservative over the spiritual-revolutionary path in the arts. This flipside manifests when students themselves are overly compliant leading tutors who have been schooled in a different generation—one in which rebellion and madness were tolerated and even encouraged—to attempt to coax them into taking critical positions or to accepting more open social and sexual value systems. This process shows the extent to which even rebellion has been co-opted to the cause of quality, such that a certain amount of political critique is encouraged but only in that the outright inertia of the bewildered contemporary student is in itself a sign of malaise which may produce unpredictable consequences. The 21st Century student must neither be manic nor depressive, promiscuous or prudish.

Needless to say, planning tuition around such exigencies is like walking a tightrope, especially in a climate of constant assessment, both of the students and their tutors.

In light of the above one has to interpret quality backwards based upon the vague signs left over by the tepid form of instruction which emerges as a result of following quality inspection guidelines (either first hand or passed down via faculty superiors). Quality, it seems, is a mark of mediocrity (or vice versa). Gone are art world high jinks, in favour of ‘core professional skills’, presentation skills, courses on copyright law, lessons on pricing your artwork and advice on how to ingratiate oneself to the art establishment. This has had a visible effect on the art world, although it is clearly a two-way street. Gallerists, who are expected to come up with novel young artists on a daily basis, can only work with the tools a monetised education system provides them with.

One cannot help but feel the art world has become a trap for ensnaring bright and alternative thinkers and turning them over to the interests of capital. If so their tutors, however unwittingly, are in some way complicit. Those of them who can recall what art meant before they themselves were processed through the education system have therefore some responsibility in restoring ‘art’ to art education. Though before considering how this might manifest it is necessary to enquire into the nature of the ‘generation gap’, with particular reference to the ‘millennial’ generation.

We are All Millenials Now

In the fast moving times we live in our fate is entwined with that of our students more than at any previous point. We cannot take the attitude that certain year groups or generations are simply a lost cause as they have failed to grasp the knowledge of which we are the guardians. The set of skills necessary to working life are changing at such a speed that quite often the students are ahead in utlizing technologies and communication techniques. Though this has often been the case historically, the entrenchment of individualism as a worldview makes it imperative that we heed the messages coming from our students, rather than ignoring them as superfluous to the language of a wider academic and artistic community to which they must adhere. Since neoliberalism has hollowed out community there is no sense of a historical imperative towards a shared value system with which to berate students who have not done their reading. For this reason we have to listen to our students in order to better understand them, lest they rip up the entire leftist-communitarian project and dance on its grave (which would then also be ours). Art, the medium of self expression, is arguably central to a reclaiming of the ‘individual’ such that the notion of community can be strengthened.

Yet of course, one cannot know what the current generation of bachelors and masters students would do if they were liberated to the point of being able to freely express themselves. Though here the folly is perhaps that we tend to see generations in terms of ‘us and them’. For sure, educators need to understand ‘them’, though that is a lot about ‘us’ and how we position ourselves historically.

An article on the Atlantic states that "In October 2004, researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss called Millennials ‘the next great generation,’ which is funny. They define the group as ‘as those born in 1982 and approximately the 20 years thereafter.’ In 2012, they affixed the end point as 2004," though some researchers give the start date for Millenial births as 1978, meaning many lecturers fit into this category.
Whilst debate continues on the start and finish date for the last generational cohort to be named (people born today do not yet fit into one), it is safe to say that these things are less than scientific. Indeed, rather than choosing a date upon which generations begin it may be more fruitful to pinpoint specific events or technologies and their impact on the individual. In this sense we could group together all people who were old enough to witness live or near-live footage of the Twin Towers collapse and understand its consequences, just as we could group together all people who don't recall a period pre-internet. However, here there would be very little overlap and for this reason it arguably makes sense to see two major generations having been born between the late '70s and the early '90s: One who digested the implications of both globalization and global terror using a framework of thought developed prior to the mass use of mobile and internet communications and one consisting of people developed a framework for understanding these challenges since then. For the former, globalization— which once held the promise of global peace and prosperity—has gone sour. For the latter it is a reality in which they are embedded and which they deal with like they deal with contemporary dating: the trials, tribulations are dealt with, tears are shed, then they move swiftly along. Though to be fair a failed romance can still be utterly traumatic, as can a harrowing news item. The problem is not that today's undergraduates are unfeeling. To the contrary, they are hypersensitive, often taking geopolitical events very personally. The problem is that events don't take hold long enough to sustain a lasting political sentiment so long as there are endless other distractions to hand. Things to like, to swipe at, to poke at.
In cultural terms museums have never been more accessible, and foreign travel is like popping to the shops for a generation of Masters students habituated to hopping from city to city like only international Statesmen did prior to some very recent point in the 21st Century. Yet what can these students know of these cities, which pass them by like candy on a conveyor belt? One wonders if the failure for left wing uprisings to truly ignite in the wake of the Crisis may be due to the fact that a section of the generation necessary to revolution is unable and unwilling to take root within a territory long enough to fight for it. Cities, communities, and political cultures are picked up and put aside at whim.
This is not to doubt the intelligence of undergraduate students in 2016. Quite to the contrary, their aloofness in class is often matched by occasional moments of brilliance which indicate that their seeming detachment is a facade, though not a practiced one. The information goes in and comes out, more or less eloquently depending on the particular student. It is what happens between and after that is a mystery. The major question on the minds of many lecturers is how a cohort so well equipped to understand the media and cultural environment they live in (if not the staid language of the critical theorists they are asked to read) stops so far short of any meaningful rebellion or even vocal disdain for the status quo.
And here Howe and Strauss's characterisation - cited above - of Millenial's as 'the next great generation' may be entirely correct, though not for the reasons they give (which include their hard working and party-shunning credentials). Indeed, they may be great in the Nietzschean sense, and not in the sense that the baby boomers were great, having been weaned on a post war welfare system they later sustained and developed. That is to say, the capability to know, to understand but to forget—the capability of the overman or 'superman' to overcome the kind of existential resentment which holds the herd back may make a truly great generation of psychopaths. That is, if older generations don't reach out to them and pass on something of our historical perspective and thought patterns so that empathy does not die out with printed books, the radio, welfare, free education and incendiary subcultures.
Though one must hasten to add at this point one glaring reason for the disinterested approach of contemporary arts and humanities students towards counter-capitalist and otherwise rebellious cultures: they are aware of the problems of neoliberal culture as equally as they are of the fact that there is little we can do to resolve them. It is they, after all, who are rigidly confined within an education system that seems unable to define what it is that it wants from them beyond a vague call for ‘quality’. It is they that have to navigate the requirement that they behave in a culturally conservative manner, whilst demonstrating an awareness of the impassioned spiritual-revolutionary path of their cultural forebears. It is little wonder that they seem caught between a kind of paralysis on the one hand and a effusive capacity for expression on the other.
This is not to say that the millennial generation is hapless, but rather that they were not given the tools to achieve what is required of them if they must counter decades of neoliberalism. The art student of today cannot perform the balancing act needed to be either a sane seer, or a financially savvy artist starving in a garret, because they have not been equipped to do so. A retreat into consumerist psychopathy is a choice made in light of the utter confusion conveyed to the student by their elders within the university system.
It must be noted at this point that the studied apathy of the contemporary art student has its correlate in the practice of the university lecturer, who goes through the motions of teaching without even hoping to convey what needs to be said in order to restore the possibility of there existing a free community of individuals capable of self expression. Though this is the cultural and political format most conducive to teaching and learning—i.e. the activities a university is supposed to embody. Now, the generations teaching today do recall a time prior to globalized internet use and to the exponential spread of neoliberal values, yet they are unable to act outside of a globalized neoliberalism and the restrictions that such a system puts on artistic creativity. If students today lack an incendiary subculture, so do their lecturers, at least outside of a distant memory held onto as a defence against the reality they inhabit daily. In short, both students and lecturers are longing for an art form more reflective of the ‘art’ they entered into art university to study. The question they ask is how the voracious appetite for enquiry of the spiritual-revolutionary can exist alongside the practical and diligent path of the materialist-conservative: In lieu of an answer their attentions turn to keeping their jobs and earning their degrees, whilst cleaving to safe substitutes for the radical culture they lack, whether they be tried and tested theorists or clothing brands.

Casting the First Stone
It would be easy to get into questions over who should throw the first stone, or who should lead the formation of an incendiary creative subculture: students or lecturers? Arguably each generation should be allowed to choose their own way to fail at making a revolution. Though perhaps this is just the problem: what has blighted the leftist-communitarian cause for the entire modernist period (and arguably prior to that) has been the logic of a battle which needs fighting and which subsequently consumes the energy of those who enter into it (be they student protester, worker, or policeman). The dialectical system of thought which underpins marxism (and, indeed, the major part of Western philosophy) tends to lead us in this direction as we find it impossible to think outside conflicts. Applied to visual culture this problem can be defined in the following way: whilst we know that the history of image making is the history of the wealthy dominating the poor via the production of commissioned symbols this knowledge does not set us free. It merely sets us in conflict with symbols which we for the large part (especially today) cannot avoid looking at. We are blighted on the one hand because we are being manipulated by propaganda images, and on the other because we know this to be the case and can’t stop thinking about it. The latter point erects a prison of thought within an open prison maintained via the dominance the powerful exert over cultural discourse. The question both for the lecturer and the student is how to think aside from this discourse: how to weld the rebellion of the spiritual-revolutionary with the practical approach of the materialist-conservative in such a way as to surmount the internal problems of society without being drawn into a conflict which will destroy the energy of the spiritual-revolutionary path.
In this sense an incendiary subcultural movement is one that can burn the divisive tendencies of previous movements and what it requires is a ripping up of the philosophical and artistic canons which led us to the impasse we’re at. As such, we would do well to acknowledge the apathy of students today as a reflection of our own and to equate their consumerist psychopathy with our complicity with a failing education system. Only then might we rediscover the sense of enquiry that we entered into the arts field to pursue..


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