Since its origins in the 19th century, Western avant-garde culture has been based on the development of alternative professionalisms taking place outside of the traditional institutions of art.1 Academic curricula, aimed at the transmission of traditional skills and conventions regarding the making of art, were rejected in favour of innovation. ‘Movements’ succeeded ‘schools’ and, ultimately, movements succeeded each other at an increasingly rapid pace.2 Over the course of the 20th century, they redefined art itself as objectless and time-based, and gave birth, as the American art critic Harold Rosenberg once famously put it, to the ‘tradition of the new.’ 3
As the economy turned away from manufacturing to service production, the avant-garde moved from the margins of mainstream culture to its heart.4 It secured the permanent cultural rejuvenation needed by an economic system based on the necessary production of novelty and sensation.5 Like the character Neo in the Matrix trilogy, avant-garde culture strengthened the system it initially sought to overthrow: it acted in the manner of a virus that reinforces the defence mechanisms of its host once it has been overcome.6
In light of these developments, one can see how the history of art education in the 20th century might be understood as an attempt to grapple with the far-reaching implications of these profound economic and cultural transformations, which ultimately favoured lifestyle and experience over the making of objects.7 Attitude had indeed become form, and ‘autonomy’ was elevated from a basic premise to a moral imperative: everyone became an artist.8
Problems posed to education by the institutionalisation of the ‘logic of the new’ endure as of today. State-funded art academies in Europe struggle to keep up with a culture that relies on the necessity of constant change. Stifled by bureaucracy and a dependence on national and European political agendas, art academies often cannot keep up and are doomed to fail in their attempt to become the key players in the knowledge economy which they often promise to be.9
They also see, in specific national contexts, their own traditional, state-led support systems being dismantled in the form of public funding cuts and encouragements to seek previously untapped financial opportunities. Public art education is caught between a vanishing base that still largely determines its shape, and the absence of a replacement for this base in the face of a competitive market economy – not to mention the impact of the Bologna Process on further competition amongst universities in Europe and beyond.10
Partly as a response to these issues, individual artists as well as commercial galleries and museums have launched, since the early 2000s, a number of alternative educational platforms. In the UK, initiatives such as Open School East in Hackney offer free art education in exchange for students’ participation in collective work.11 B Academy in Rotterdam promises insider information about the local art world, presumably leading to institutional success.12 Art projects, as well, often take the form of educational programmes, with initiatives such as The Silent University and New World Academy by the artists Ahmet Ogüt and Jonas Staal respectively. They seem to exemplify what the contemporary art world has hailed as the ‘educational turn.’ 13
The economic models behind these alternative educational initiatives vary widely. Based on a combination of exchange economy and private funding, Open School East constitutes a straightforward reaction to soaring tuition fees in state-funded art education, and to a general discontent with established curricula.14 Initiatives in the Netherlands also seem to be a response to cuts in state funding for culture, though other factors also play a role, such as the inability of established structures to appropriately respond to the realities of the profession (B Academy) or to pressing contemporary issues such as the refugee crisis (The Silent University).15
In parallel to these alternative educational trends, art academies in the Netherlands are rebranding their programmes as ‘schools within schools.’ Consider, for example, the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, whose Dirty Art Department offers a programme called The Wandering School.16 The Sandberg has also hosted and accredited the School of Missing Studies from 2013 to 2015, based on an initiative which had started a decade earlier, as well as the University of the Underground17 (2017-2019). Though all of these programmes fall under the same jurisdiction, they also radically diverge from one another in terms of funding as well as in their educational goals and pedagogies, resulting in internal discussions about educational ownership and institutional credibility.18 Indeed, the University of the Underground attracts private investors and businesses to partly fund students’ tuition fee, whereas The Wandering School uses forms of civil disobedience such as squatting as pedagogical tools, in collaboration with local self-organised initiatives.19
The Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam also sees self-organised local initiatives as an opportunity rather than a menace to its own existence.20 Over the past year, it has been mapping self-organised local initiatives, including educational initiatives, under the name The Autonomous Fabric.21 In the long term, the Willem de Kooning Academy could set up partnerships and, ideally, make these alternative local initiatives responsible for part of its curriculum. The consequences for both parties, however, remain unclear.
The Autonomous Fabric arguably formalises a dynamic that is already at work. Self-organised local initiatives do indeed constitute a fertile breeding ground for teaching staff on an individual basis, as a result of an informal management culture that favours a non-official, network-based hiring policy. This provides the academy with part of its necessary flow of experts, and strengthens the links between the school and the city of Rotterdam. Close collaboration with actors in the local field is also to the advantage of students, who are thus brought in contact with potential local employers or mentors as well as future clients.
Many of the self-organised initiatives mapped as part of The Autonomous Fabric constitute true attempts to challenge the status quo and to create alternative forms of education. M/Other Voices seeks to counter the negative effects on women’s careers of motherhood-based gender inequality in the cultural sector.22 The New School Collective is a think tank that addresses critical issues in education with, as its ultimate goal, the establishment of an elementary school with art education at its heart.23 Most of these initiatives have sprung from an urge to act outside of existing institutional structures, with their confining hierarchies and potentially discriminatory dynamics. Often they are also in opposition to the logic of efficiency that is turning public cultural institutions into profit-driven businesses.
This is perhaps where the most critical issue of these potential collaborations between public educational institutions and their alternatives may reside: in the definition and type of exchange that can happen. Will it be a form of outsourcing? A one-directional process in which the academy will pay for the services it needs, when it needs them, towards a reduction of operating expenses and risks, as well as long-term savings in areas such as training and social benefits? Or will it be possible to instead establish strategic alliances towards common goals based on shared norms and values?
The answer to these questions is crucial, as it will most surely shape the future of the Willem de Kooning Academy as well as, potentially, that of its prospective collaborators. Collaboration may well constitute one more step towards the transformation of public education into a commercial enterprise with its myriad strategies for minimising costs and maximising profit by further harnessing local manpower and expertise on a more or less precarious basis. But it may also become the true birth of a school that is not a school: a continuous exchange of expertise, services and learning opportunities towards the collective creation of an equalitarian future.
This means that self-organised initiatives will have to make sure that they know what they want to get out of this process. And, in order to assess the likelihood of success, also to return the enquiring gaze. They need to map the internal organisation and institutional dynamics specific to the Willem de Kooning Academy. What might be the potential restrictions resulting from the academy’s dependence on the jurisdiction of the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences? And which aspects of its internal management style might stand in the way of, for example, the formulation of common goals? Alternative initiatives will have to equip themselves with such knowledge in order to act strategically.
They should then pause and evaluate the actual added value of the collaboration for themselves, beyond the obvious – and often much needed – extra income and institutional guarantees. May avant-garde culture, with its history of co-option, serve as a cautionary tale. Self-organised initiatives should hold their ground and turn collaborative partnerships into opportunities for achieving their own agendas, rather than simply going along with a system that may turn their autonomy into mere branding and cost-saving strategies. If they fail to do so, they will only have helped the rejuvenation of a system that feeds on its own critics, probably at the cost of their own reason of being. They must claim back the ‘autonomous fabric’ before it has even begun.
From the Critique of Art-Educational Institutions to the Institution of Art-Educational Critique
1. David Cottington, ‘Origins: Emergence and Consolidation 1820-1914’, in: The Avant-garde: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press), pp. 22-47.
2. Renato Poggioli, ‘The Concept of a Movement,’ in: The Theory of the Avant-garde (Cambridge, MA and London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 16-40.
3. Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New, 1960 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994).
4. Matei Călinescu, ‘The Crisis of Avant-garde’s Concept in the 1960s’, in: Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitch, Postmodernism, 1987 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 119-124.
5. Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (New York: Semiotext[e], 2004).
6. Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, ‘The Test of the Artistic Critique,’ in: The New Spirit of Capitalism, 1999, (trans.) Gregory Elliott (London and New York: Verso, 2007), pp. 419-482.
7. Steven Henry Madoff (ed.), Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2009), pp. ix-x.
8. Thierry de Duve, ‘When Form Has Become Attitude –And Beyond’, in: Stephen Foster and Nicholas deVille (eds.), The Artist and the Academy: Issues in Fine Art and the Wide Cultural Context (Southhampton, England: John Hansard gallery, 1994), pp. 23-40.
9. Jeroen Chabot, ‘Essay #1 / Reflections on Art Education’, in: Jeroen Chabot et al. (eds.), Reinventing the Art School in the 21st Century (Rotterdam: Creating 010 and Willem de Kooning, 2013), p. 5.
10 Pascal Gielen (ed.), Institutional Attitudes: Instituting Art in a Flat World (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2013), pp. 16-21.
11. David Batty, ‘Alternative Art Schools: A Threat to Universities?’, in: The Guardian, 21 Oct. 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/21/alternative-art-schoo…, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
12.B Academy, https://www.bacademy.nl/, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
13. Irit Rogoff, ‘Turning,’ in: E-Flux Journal #00, Nov. 2008, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/00/68470/turning/, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
14.Sam Thorne (ed.), School: A History of Self-Organized Art Education (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), p. 25.
15. Ogüt’s Silent University constitutes a knowledge exchange platform for and by refugees and asylum-seekers, allowing them to reflect upon their condition through academic formats such as courses and conferences. See website: http://thesilentuniversity.org/. Olafur Eliasson’s Green Light travelling workshop invites, as its website states, ‘refugees, asylum seekers, and members of the public to participate in a multifaceted program of creativity and shared learning.’ See website: http://olafureliasson.net/greenlight/.
16.The Wandering School, http://wanderingschool.com/, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
17. University of the Underground, http://universityoftheunderground.org/, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
18. UUGH! Or: Issues Regarding University of the Underground,’ 17 Sept. 2017, https://medium.com/@uugh/issues-regarding-the-university-of-the-undergr…, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
19. School of Missing Studies, http://www.schoolofmissingstudies.net/, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
20. David Batty, ‘Alternative Art Schools: A Threat to Universities?’, in: The Guardian, 21 Oct. 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/21/alternative-art-schoo…, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
21. The Autonomous Fabric, https://autonomousfabric.org/, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
22. M/Other Voices, https://www.mothervoices.org/, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.
23. The New School Collective, http://thenewschoolcollective.com/, accessed 26 Feb. 2018.