[English text below]
The Art Academy and Critical Practice
Fresh Visions 2013: Graduate Painting Exhibition
7 September – 7 November, 2013
OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Shenzhen, China
I should preface this text by saying that although I have some years experience with the contemporary art world in China, the research made in preparation for this exhibition was my first sustained contact with the art academy system in this country. This text is a preliminary response to that experience.
The selections for this year’s Fresh Visions exhibition came from works in the undergraduate and postgraduate degree shows of the painting departments at the top nine art academies in China. I was inevitably hoping to see interesting work in these degree shows, from artists who one hopes will form the future for the art world in China. Although such work existed (some of which is on display in Fresh Vision), it was unfortunately in the minority. Broadly speaking, it seemed that the work on display in the degree shows was fairly conservative in its approach to artistic practice. I surmise that the environment of the art academy within which these students have developed their practice plays a role in this conservatism. One significant aspect that I felt was generally lacking, and which I believe should have been demonstrated in the results from these institutions, was evidence of a critical artistic practice amongst their students.
For me, “interesting” artwork would be work incorporating an intelligent approach to medium and/or subject matter, coupled with a demonstration of creativity beyond formalism or technical mastery. These approaches would try not to make assumptions about their medium or subject matter, but would be asking why these exist and why they are being applied to their particular contexts. The important thing, for me, is not media, subject, or technical skill, but the development of an idea through those media, subjects, and skills. Technical skill without the development of an idea is not sufficient – it tells the viewer little productive about the world. This I would say is an aspect of critical thinking, and can take many forms: from the ability to develop traditional modes of art so that they remain relevant in contemporary contexts; to thinking outside of and beyond traditional modes such that new forms of work can be developed which may be more relevant to contemporary art and life.
My attitude, though, seems at odds with the results in evidence in the degree shows I visited. While I walked into many of those shows and had positive reactions to the generally high level of skill on display, this kind of reaction is thin gruel to any long-term appreciation of an artwork in my opinion. This technically impressive but critically lacking work could, of course, be due to any number of reasons, not all of which have anything to do with the art academic system. The art academy system serves its purpose as a formal teaching environment that aspires to reach certain standards of judgement of its subjects. However, precisely because of these formal aspects and standardisations the academy system in itself may find it difficult to accommodate the criticality that it seems to me forms the basis for effective art, a criticality which naturally puts into question that art’s own forms and standards and by extension those of the contexts within which it acts.
The art academy may choose to focus on more quantifiable factors of the students’ work, institutionally focusing on the technical skill that I saw in the degree shows, for instance. There is much to be valued in technical skill, and one might even say that a focussed pursuit of technical skill is an archetypal “academic” stylistic trait, ultimately becoming a self-sustaining pursuit of technical perfection, or of innovation within a limited technical context. Looked at from the other direction, the academy is perhaps the natural result of such a pursuit, an institution that satisfies a narrowing of attention to these aspects, pursuing their internal demands with little opening for critically addressing those demands.
Looking beyond the art academy, the contemporary art world is a broad and varied environment that can accommodate strict academic productions as well as work that seeks to play a more critical role in its relations with art and the world. The academy sustains and is sustained by one part of that contemporary art world, feeding into a social and professional set of people and institutions that are built on its end products.
On the other hand, there is another—arguably more important—part of the contemporary art world that has broader concerns than just academic standards. One of those concerns I would suggest would be the aforementioned critical thinking. Based on this claim I would hope that art academies could provide an environment to nurture critical faculties in their students, recognising and promoting this as an important part of their artistic practice.
The art academy is and should be an important part of the art system, providing training and experience that builds into a strong grounding for its artist-subject. Academic qualifications have fittingly come to be seen as a desirable thing, with each art academy gaining their unique reputations that transfers onto attending students: educational background serves as a certain reference regarding their practice. In China the top nine academies (the subjects of Fresh Visions) have historically developed as the traditional set of “top” art academies, institutionalised as the pinnacle of an arts education, and—having been institutionalised thus—are now a self-sustaining system of the granting of value to their students. If an artist has not been to one of these academies, there may even be an implicit judgement as to their status and value, and certain sections of the art world or artworld activities may be closed to them. A system of affirmation based on attendance at particular schools is possibly a universal truth. As with all institutionalised systems, there will have usually been good reasons for their initial institution. If this is the case, the question then becomes: do these academies still deserve this institutional and social power to confer affirmation? And the proof will be in their results – in this case the art on display in the degree shows.
My activity as a curator for Fresh Visions is based on this “simple” fact of the end results in front of me when I visit those degree shows. And as such, much of what I saw in the degree shows was lacking the critical aspect that I have mentioned. Whatever the reasons the results speak for themselves – and the results are generally lacking.
The artist and founder of e-flux Anton Vidokle writes in the e-flux Journal about what he sees as the problems with the professionalization of art practice through MFA degree programmes in the US and elsewhere. At the end of the MFA course that he attended, Vidokle found that every students’ dissertation had to be submitted in a standard “black plastic folder,” of a certain format and only purchasable at a certain store. Vidokle never purchased this, and subsequently never completed this MFA.
Vidokle’s “black plastic folder” is a very clear indication of the restrictive systems of judgement that an academic system can come to institutionalise. If you do not fit into these systems you are not visible and you do not succeed. As he says: “systemic and logistical needs often demand legibility according to predefined terms. In the process, the folder replaces art itself.”1 This “folder” represents a convenient and consistent system for assessment of the student’s work, but this consistency comes to serve the purpose of the academy more than it serves the student. The degree shows I have seen in preparation for Fresh Visions are perhaps similar to those “black plastic folders,” where performance in this defined context becomes a criterion for success (and certainly it equates to “success” for the visitors).
Nevertheless my colleagues and I have been able to select a set of works that we feel are interesting and have been included in this exhibition, so it is obviously not a hopeless situation within the art academies. The fact that these works exist in the art academy environment in China means that there is room in there for work that does not simply serve a system, and that system—to look at the situation positively—can accommodate some leeway. Vidokle, in his text, compares the work of Marcel Duchamp to “a repeated act of offering the folder back to the art establishment,” and whose “folders” acted as a kind of “bomb” – an action that could serve to upset the system: “they were capable of bringing down the shelf they were stored on.” Although this is too destructive a reference for this activity, I see this as a characterisation of a critical practice: however the critical path is subtler than a “bomb,” but potentially just as devastating an activity. The works that we present in Fresh Visions begin to move beyond the strictures of the academic system, performing their critical acts of creativity within the regulated spaces of the degree shows, and proving that there are still interesting approaches within this apparently conservative environment.
Art academies are at the nexus of the emergent art world both here in China and internationally, and as such have a profound effect on the future of art production worldwide. If they want to live up to those possibilities, they have a responsibility to create a productive environment for their students. I believe that critical thinking in its many forms is key to this. I then might characterise a “good” art academy as actively promoting paths of thinking that incorporate such critical thinking, instituting it as a method as important as technical skill. Such critical thinking would inevitably question the academic and artistic principles that form the foundations of the art academic system, but at the same time it would allow that system and its students to become more integral participants in the future contemporary art world.
Author: Edward Sanderson