Polemic: The End of Art Schools as we know them?

Art and sport both attempt to construct value and meaning within our lives. For art this is a likely outcome. For media sport it is a contrived ingredient. Artists and art schools have perpetuated a myth about the importance and value of art objects. Suggests possible answers to the issues of teaching art in art and design schools.

If I hear another Great Sporting Minute, as broadcast on ABC Radio since Olympic fever gripped us all, I will simply scream! It's not that I undervalue the prowess and achievements of our top sportsmen and women, it's just that sport, more than anything, is a 'doing thing' and hearing details and statistics about fraction of a second, long gone feats by rare individuals leaves me feeling strangely moribund and empty. The fact that time was so critically of the essence in achieving greatness in most competitive sport milestones somehow mitigates against any sense of urgency or relevance remaining. And as an early reader of George Orwell's 1945 essay The Sporting Spirit, I admit that I have been permanently prejudiced against the 'innocent individual physical body' theory of sport in favour of the 'institutionalised demonstration of superior power' model.

I mention all this because it appears that the 'institutionalised demonstration of superior power experience' is the most pervasive and strongly promoted quality of our time. Promoted either as real, if you are tough enough, through Nike sweat-to-win ads, visceral if you are part of a Mexican wave at a day-night cricket match or more likely, by electronic remote association if you are a mere weakling majority couch potato tuned in via cable to Fox Sports. Doing exciting things is the bait, satiation on a corporate construction of fantasia, not sport, is the result. Although not wanting to fall for conspiracy theories, the hyped commentary, compulsory commerce and superficially at least, apolitical nature of these experiences make for a potent cocktail of profit, on their part, and passivity on ours. You are drawn in by the glamour, serviced by the commentary and left unsatisfied, and so, redirected through the sports-pay-media-spectacle turnstile again.

What, you may be asking, does this have to do with the practice of art and artist education? On the one hand nothing and on the other, everything. Firstly, if sport is a 'doing thing' then the arts are a 'thinking, expressing and feeling thing' and in their purist forms there is little relatedness here. Secondly though, there is a realm of absolute mutual cohabitation between the greatest levels of art and the greatest levels of sport, if you define great as a ratio of quantity and quality. This mutual ground is the vehicle through which the majority of us experience both art and sport, that is, personal and broadcast electronic media. Within this electronic media the topic 'arts' is more fulsomely and appropriately titled 'arts and entertainment'. Further relatedness of the arts and media sport is found at their deepest level, that is, as they both attempt to construct value and meaning within our lives. For art this is a possible and even likely outcome. For media sport it is a contrived ingredient, essential to achieve box office success which necessarily must be convincing at point of advertisement but highly likely to fail on the field.

I am not here suggesting that the traditional role of gallery and museum art is of no importance, it just happens to be of very little importance within the scale of things. The vast majority of the world's population (including China's 1.3 billion) have done their recent thinking, expressing and feeling in direct consultation with the values espoused by the cinema and television industries. Paintings, sculptures, dance and theatre are increasingly relegated to fringe elites. This is not because artists are less in contact with the big issues of feeling and values but rather because individually and collectively they are actually ultra-conservative, that is, unable or unwilling to change in a changed world. Creative in content maybe but surely conservative in product. Artists and art schools have perpetuated a myth about the importance of art objects and inflated their value to achieve few sales, little impact and widespread incredulity. Whilst all other goods and service industries have dramatically improved their products and lowered relative costs over recent decades, the visual arts seems contented, its outmoded practices even perversely vindicated by the ever diminishing number of true believers.

In historical terms for example, artists in previous centuries were amongst the most highly skilled within society, and their products the most valued and sophisticated. Consequently their labour commanded premium prices. Conversely today, artists' skill levels are amongst the most basic of the professions and yet after subtracting material costs from a work of art there remains what must be an inflated value for labour. All this at a time when for example, everyday IT electronics are as cheap as (their) chips, powerfully seductive in their capacity to intellectually stimulate and offering spiritual arousal, in the sense of virtual reality and simulation theory, unseen in any other manifestation of a material product.

I am not arguing that the Arts and Entertainment industries are anything but central to our lives. My point is that they are, yet artists have very little to do with them and as well, they are susceptible to poaching by sports story policy and scripts. The plot of Saving Private Ryan for instance begins as a complexing dramatic tragedy and quickly moves to a white team prevailing over the black team scenario.

Popular, electronic media Arts and Entertainment should not be an artist-free zone. There are urgent demands in two areas where throughout the centuries, creative artists have played pivotal roles in the then popular and advanced communications media of the day. The first is in content generation, (ideas about life) and the second is technology development, (the ways we can see and understand).

If we agree to abandon the last twenty years of artist education as being pretty much a failure in this regard, (and I have been party to this failure), where do we go from here? Despite our worst efforts, there are graduates emerging from art and design schools that are highly skilled, sought after and very well paid. These are the techno kids who from an early age only knew that Nintendo meant fast forward and conte crayon meant stop and reverse. Ironically it is near impossible to secure these students for post-graduate study, in order to test the validity of their insights and have them hang around long enough for staff to catch up, because they are urgently attracted and attractive to the IT industries. Accepting that these students are lost to us and leading somewhere else what should be done about mass artists education into the next century?

Training in computer and digital media skills is easy and can be done with extra resources (1st. problem) within a conventional art school.

Teaching for content generation that is critical and recognises the political dimension of information and entertainment is demanding yet possible, requiring appropriately experienced staff, (2nd problem).

Researching simultaneously and with imagination into the hardware, software and culture of the digital age and attempting to position the artist effectively within it (3rd. problem) is a daunting task.

Educating an individual student and artist to be at one and all times technically savvy, cognitively critical, politically astute and culturally prophetic, not to mention good old fashioned aesthetically sensitive (4th interrelated and exponentially difficult problem), is a gargantuan enterprise.

An alternative to facing this challenge would be for art and design schools to retreat into the still respectable and perhaps even residually defensible domains of oil paint and canvas, bronze and wood museum pieces and graphic, industrial and interior design product outcomes. However quite rapidly the place of these objects and things, unsustainable in any environmental reading of an economy, will be more and more comprehensively replaced by the most desirable, the best affordable, the easiest watching and the actually virtual experiences of Sport and Arts and Entertainment. Sport as a doing thing which it won't be and art as a thinking, expressing and feeling thing that it can't be within an industry and medium which currently requires the highest levels of conformity. Dictated by massive scale of enterprise and investment and launched across a globally complex audience, it becomes essential that productions contain only the most refined of subjects that by necessity are at once highly sensational, inextricably profit driven and singularly and comprehensively meaningless.

Would be artists beware, enter not only at your own risk, but rather with the support of art and design schools that are unequivocally charged with a responsibility to prepare students, and their likely audiences, for uncertain futures.

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