Each issue the New Art Examiner will invite a well-known, or not so well-known, art world personality to write a speakeasy essay on a topic of interest. Richard Siegesmund is Professor of Art and Design Education at the School of Art, Northern Illinois University. He has served as a Fulbright Scholar to the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, and the Faculty of Sociology at KU Leuven, Belgium.
The New Art Examiner, when first founded, was distinctive for recognizing the social, economic, and political contexts in which the visual arts existed. Art was not a rarified world of visual excellence. It was a messy, contentious, humanly fallible process that was susceptible to self-aggrandizement and greed. Powerful forces benefited from what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called cultural commodification. the New Art Examiner promised to challenge this world head-on without fear or favour.
Much has changed since the New Art Examiner first went to press. The principal art world has abandoned its older buildings that leant to staid Greek columns and Brutalist architecture and replaced them with the flash and whimsy of Frank Gehry fantasy. The deconstruction of Modernism has held to the triumph of spectacle. Art is no longer concerned with form; it’s all about experience. And with attention spans running at about five seconds, experience can be fast and furious.
In this age of hyper-aesthetic taste, issues of substance, training, and pedigree get pushed to the side. This is bad news for art academies. The idea that you need six, seven, or more years paying tuition for a degree seems increasingly irrelevant. How does an academic degree prepare you for the networking and marketing that drive the art world? In this sense, the art world is far more transparent than it was when the New Art Examiner was founded. The pretenses have melted away.
There is more bad news for art academies. The neo-liberal policies of the European Union have largely decided that the idea of stand-alone national art schools is obsolete. Efficiency demands consolidation, and independent art schools have been swallowed whole into research universities. How does this get digested? Several peculiar permutations have resulted.
First, as research universities regard the PhD as the terminal degree, European art schools have abandoned the MFA and introduced the PhD in studio practice. What does this mean? It’s anybody’s guess.
Second, as art schools arrive in research universities, they can lay claim to university research funding. What does research mean in art? It’s anybody’s guess. Some universities, trying to force progress on these issues, now require that internal research funding proposals include collaboration with the arts. How do our arts of spectacle and limited attention span contribute to other
disciplinary forms of research?
This is all chaotic, but chaos can provide opportunities. It’s a time to allow for some rethinking of what art is and might be in the future.
To begin, perhaps assimilating art schools into research universities offers a new opportunity to imagine what art can be, by cutting it loose from the spectacle of the contemporary art world. There could be a decisive separation from an economically speculative commercial art market. The biennials and art fairs could stand alone for what they are: trade shows. Markets have their own history — like the Dutch tulip boom of 1637. In contrast, art schools inside of research universities could focus on philosophical progression and forms of substantive social interaction. These efforts could be held to rigorous standards.
Of course, museums get caught in the middle. Ostensibly run by scholars, museums are ultimately controlled by boards of trustees who are heavily invested in the art market. Inevitably, trustees exert pressure on the scholars to put their connoisseur’s thumb on the scales to subtly manipulate evaluation to the trustees’ economic advantage.
There is no solution to that problem. But the assimilation of art schools into research universities presents an opportunity for a place where art could make a clean break from market forces and rethink itself in new aesthetic terms.
Volume 34 no 3 January – February 2020 p 6