Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century

Jesi Khadivi


Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century)
ed. Steven Henry Madoff
MIT Press
373 pp


The Public School [TPS] is an educational experiment that began in Los Angeles six years ago as an exercise in self-organization and gradually expanded to include platforms in Philadelphia, New York, Finland, and Belgium. The school lacks any curriculum and describes itself as “a framework for the autodidactic process.” The basic idea is that anyone can propose, teach, or attend a class. The classes range from hands-on courses like Making Furniture to seminars like Neoliberalism and Human Capital.

The Public School is an art school,” explained co-founder Sean Dockray in an email back in 2008, “but it is an art school that asks students: what should we be learning now? How should we be learning it? What should we be doing when we’re educating ourselves? What does that look like?” According to Dockray, the classes are the “words” that comprise the program’s conversation, a conversation that mutates depending on participants’ interests and, presumably, the interests of the rotating board.

The questions that Dockray proposes also form the basis of Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century, a compendium of reflections upon the current state of arts education edited by Yale University’s senior critic, Steven Henry Madoff. Madoff has assembled an ambitious text, featuring contributions from nearly thirty prestigious contemporary artists and educators including Mike Kelley, Marina Abramovic and Paul Chan. The book’s structure mimics the same kind of exploratory dialogue that it hopes to elicit: contributions include essays, conversations, manifestos, architectural projects, and with the help of art critic Brian Sholis, questionnaires.

The perspectives that Madoff assembles are as diverse as the solutions they proffer. Of course, some common questions persist throughout the text: Can art be taught? What are the implications of the professionalization of art? Most importantly, the contributions attempt to articulate the role of the art school within the greater cultural discursive field.

The timing is perfect for a critical reinvestigation of the art school. Not only has the increased professionalization of contemporary art over the past decade led to a proliferation of MFA programs, but ideas about education and learning are receiving more and more play in the curatorial and artistic fields. The pedagogical turn in contemporary art and curatorial practices has highlighted not only the age-old urge towards knowledge, but also the collective practices and structures that facilitate its dissemination. Curators, theorists, and artists alike have proposed that these structures are most efficacious when they are temporary.

Artist Anton Vidokle, whose essay in Art School outlines the development of the one-year “exhibition-as-school” United Nations Plaza, describes the fragility of self-organization to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in a conversation about the various projects undertaken by the international art network, e-flux: “We are not at all interested in public service,” Vidokle says, “but by addressing our own needs and interests, we sometimes find ourselves touching on certain things commonly lacking…it’s very important not to turn this approach into another methodology or an academic structure, because that would just kill it.”

This temporary model doesn’t necessarily bode well for institutions, which by their very definition require some semblance of permanence, whether real or perceived. A conversation between artists John Baldessari and Michael Craig-Martin points out that despite the rich history of progressive institutions, the critical force thereof tends to remain only for a few years at best, articulated through the work of a specific group of students, teacher(s), or ideas that seize the institutional body. Craig-Martin notes, “…it’s like all the planets surrounding you have to line up in the right way: the right students, the right time, the right faculty, the right city. Everything just aligns for a few moments.” According to this logic, the most dynamic school or training program is one that continually reinterrogates its parameters.  As the curator Charles Esche points out, this does not always need to be officially sanctioned and need not come from the administration.  According to his essay “Include Me Out,” there is no ideal art school. It cannot and should not exist because in its imperfection lies the ability to “inspire resistance,” which can challenge and reformulate critical and ideological boundaries.

Some institutions have responded by incorporating this type of impermanence into an academic setting. Drawing upon Jacques Derrida’s notion of difference and its relationship to the “vast global interconnectivity” of our current age, poet Ann Lauterbach explains how the Bard College master’s program, which meets every summer over the course of three years for eight weeks, seeks to create a school “in which the sites of ‘authority’ are multiple and mobile.” This open arrangement allows its students to continue to engage in local dialogues and every day life, making the school a platform or a meeting point where these local dialogues intersect.  According to Lauterbach, this notion of community is integral to “fostering the elements that endow art works with the power to alter the way that we think about ourselves and our world.”

One of Art School’s greatest successes is the polyphonous voices that it assembles, including art schools as we commonly understand them, as well as programs that are itinerant or unaccredited. Some of the book’s most engaging moments come from its manifestos (Liam Gillick and his class wrote an especially impassioned plea for “enormous wooden headphones” and “an increasing exposure of power and dynamics” in their ideal school) and detailed accounts about the development of projects like the Future Academy and United Nations Plaza.

As the definition of artist has changed over the past fifty years (and many times before that), so must the definition of a school that educates artists. It’s slippery to define anything, especially in this cultural moment in the arts, which privileges ambivalence, open-endedness, and works in progress. Art School both addresses and suffers from the scope of this challenge. While a clear future for the ideal art school cannot be defined, Madoff offers readers a well-developed matrix of possibilities.

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