Ethics of Knowledge: Education, Trans-Disciplinarity and Subjectivity

While the specific practices of art schools concern the author, the lessons should concern any academic who questions the ethics of knowledge production, transmission, and application. A review of Steven H. Madoff, ed ., Art School:Propositions for the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2009)

An ethics of knowledge, argues Steven Henry Madoff, in Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), is the foundation of any school. As Madoff argues in his introduction, the ethical complexion of a school may be particular, but all schools need to look at how certain knowledge is privileged, gathered, transmitted, and how that knowledge comes to form the reasons for being — and what learning means — in that particular place.

Former editor at ARTnews and senior critic of art at Yale University, Madoff has compiled a complex and challenging assemblage of articles, conversations, commentaries, and architectural descriptions into a contemporary manifesto on the art school and, by analogy, schools of higher learning. By art school, he and his contributors are talking about art academies and universities that train artists. The book is a departure from art education books that generally focus on elementary and secondary schools (with a particular focus on discipline-based arts education, e.g. Elliot Eisner and the Getty School). A burgeoning interest in the subject of art schools, education, and the knowledge constructed there has increased exponentially recently, in on-line journals (e.g., e-flux’s recent issue,  Education Actualized), conferences, and exhibitions (e.g., Between Art and Pedagogy, University of Toronto, March, 2010). One of only two recent books dealing with art in higher education settings (see below for further discussion of the second publication), Art School focuses on inter- and trans-disciplinarity, both within art media and,more broadly, amongother disciplines in the university and on the subjectivity of the student, teacher/artist in relationship to community and collectivity. 

While these questions are not unique to Madoff’s collection, or to current debates in higher education, Madoff offers a diverse set of proposals for how these debates can consider the values of traditional practices alongside the pressing changes demanded of the university of the 21st century. The variety of the contributions implies that a wide set of possible paths may emerge to transform the teaching of art and, indeed, other disciplines in higher education. However, I am inclined to see Madoff’s hand throughout the book, guiding the reader to an appreciation of his argument for an ethical stance and for the inter-disciplinarity that he argues should inform any new proposition for schooling.

In a chapter near the end of the book, Madoff expands on his theory of ‘service aesthetics’ (previous publication, Sept., Artforum, 2008). In contrast to the trendy notion of ‘relational aesthetics’, proposed by French cultural theorist Nicholas Bourriard, in which the artist and ‘the crowd’ produce together, Madoff insists on the responsibility of the artist to produce ethically in relation to his/her setting; namely,  to produce an art focused not only on the artist’s autonomy but also on the contested idea of the self in a post-Fordist era. As he puts it, service art offers its own distinctive insights into the possibilities of social praxis and the artist’s legitimation as producer (Artforum, Sept., 2008). 

At the heart of the questions asked about the ethical complex of such education lies the 20th century notion of disciplinarity that privileges floating islands of specialized knowledge in which methodology, history, and theory remain discipline specific. Students and teachers have tended to cultivate a culture that exists apart from community and larger social pressures. Disciplinary debates evade discussion of the subjectivity of the artist/student and responsibility for the kinds of knowledge/art produced and its impact.

The recent expansion of graduate programs in general in North America, and the corresponding press for PhDs in art, have generated  some recent conversation centering on the perceived value of art-based research and a great anxiety about the ‘intellectualizing’ of creative work (e.g. James Elkins’ polemic Artists with PhDs: Debates About the New Studio Art Doctoral Degree, 2009). Elkins, while regretting the advent of PhDs in art, takes the stance that, at least in North America, the degree should avoid the model provided by the example of over-legislated European doctoral programs in art,  particularly the British example, with its research assessment exercise (RAE) that quantifies a department’s research practice (and bases future hires on that number). 

Another new publication, Rethinking the Contemporary Art School, edited by Brad Buckley and John Conomos, is not yet generally available. However, from the few chapters I was sent by the publisher, this latest contribution also queries the arts-based research question as well as the relationship between discipline and ‘theory’. Buckley, an Australian, supports the PhD in art and questions the validity of the master of fine arts  as a terminal degree. He argues that the conflicts over the advanced degree are really symptoms of the unresolved placement and relationship of art schools in research universities (i.e., is art practice a form of research?).

Rethinking the Contemporary Art School also echoes a call to locate art education within an academic nexus of humanities, social sciences, and science and technology. Sara Diamond looks at how the Ontario College of Art and Design has turned to science and technology leaders to challenge the separation of art from its social reality. Julie Carson and Bruce Yanemoto call for a model of critical aesthetics”(as enacted in the art program at the University of California at Irvine). The various models proposed in the book speak to the editors’ assertion that  art educators, students, and individuals need to cultivate a self-questioning, ethical intelligence that problematizes the relations between class, culture, knowledge, power, and space. 

This returns us to Madoff’s argument that the art school is an ethical site of knowledge. Borrowing political theory’s description of ‘constitutional dictatorship’, in which citizens have fewer rights and government grants itself more, he describes the ’state of exception’ in which art schools exist: “[this state of exception] safeguards by force its own norms, its own rules of production.”  Does this not describe the current state of disciplinarity? For Madoff, the artist is granted the privilege of creative prerogatives over and above the norms of the state. Extending that analogy to other disciplinary norms, the entire academy can be understood as living in a state of exception. But we are not exceptional. We live with increasing market pressures and the need to take responsibility for our actions. Certainly my experience is that the university administration is increasingly demanding that departments, disciplines, and faculties respond to the market. However, that ‘market’ should not be confined to the economic balance sheet between cost and production value but understood as the larger public that consumes the products of academic research, whatever the discipline. Debates about the ethical subjectivity of teachers and students permeate, or should permeate, that public. What Steven Madoff proposes is that the nature of that response is open to much greater possibilities than the governing bodies may imagine. So as we look at the specific propositions of Art School, we – academics from disciplines as varied as humanities and social sciences, history and education – can begin to imagine ways of thinking about opening the academy’s state of exception in order to create a means of living productively with the marketplace rather than being driven by it. Art School draws attention to traditional skills training versus the conceptualism of modernity, the impact of architecture on education and an ethics of knowledge production and consumption that asks, “What is the goal that the [art] school as an institution should have in involving itself with its communities?”

The interspersing of 10 architectural projects throughout the book is a compelling strategy of cohesion that serves to resist the possibility of plundering articles from the book for course kits. Each project consists of two pages. One features photographs or sketches of the building/plans, while the facing page provides a brief description of the physical space and its impact on the education praxis within its walls. Each of the architectural projects demonstrates attempts to affect human interaction through constructed space. While this is no surprise to anyone who chaffs at walls that limit the size of a class, or ‘open space’ modules that make it impossible to hear your students, it is worth paying attention to how the disciplinary parameters themselves are reshaped by architecture. How does space affect the divisions of labour, of media, of subject area within departments, departments within faculties? 

The Beaux Arts model featured as Project 1 established what has become a traditional split between professional spaces for artists and places for the production of the art object. Museums, ateliers, and public exhibition spaces of professionalization were conceived as distinct and separate from studio classrooms, lecture halls, and offices. Other projects have attempted to address or revise this split in interesting and provocative ways. Project 2, the Bauhaus, built in 1926 and active until 1937, created architectural emphasis on collective workshops and de-emphasized classrooms and ancillary spaces. Project 5, the Yale Art and Architecture Building, promised a myriad of levels and spaces for artistic activity, implying inter-disciplinarity, while functionally separating media and prioritizing design.

Project 8, the Generator Project, 1978-80, was the, ultimately, unfulfilled conception of British architect, Cedric Price. Imagined as an artist’s colony on the Florida Coast, the Generator Project spoke to the ambitions of alternative educators of the 1970s and 1980s. Separate cubes that could be recombined by three types of social figures (artist, ‘factors’ and ‘polarisers’) aimed to facilitate artistic and educational developments in interdisciplinary practice. These projects make clear the ongoing separation of disciplinary practices from conversation, critical response, and history, a separation which continues to haunt the post-modern university. 

The more contemporary projects of Le Fresnoy (1997, National Studio of Contemporary Arts, Lille, France) and Zollverein School of Management and Design (2007, Essen, Germany) provide evidence that radical architectural spaces can shift from prioritizing traditional educational spaces to post-modern architecture without a corresponding loss of traditional knowledge. Project 9, Le Fresnoy, positions a high roof over a complex of buildings, providing integrity to the site without privileging one building or discipline over the other. Zollverein is a hybrid institution that aims to co-educate students of management and of design – a goal which emphatically removes the artist from atelier isolation and produces a hybrid educational program that fosters new forms of knowledge within an “aesthetico-economic interdisciplinarity”.

I have focussed on the projects interspersed between the conversations, essays and questionnaire as they provide the framework on which much of the writing hinges. They provoke the reader to respond to the intellectual spaces created by the contributors. Ernesto Pujol’s introductory essay on ways of regenerating art education points to the need for intellectual diversity that  the very nature of university disciplinarity continuously prevents (regardless of frequent claims of ‘interdisciplinary’ curricula). Curriculum planning is increasingly constrained by economic considerations; tenure-track hires are becoming rarer; and the community is an afterthought left to professional fundraisers. Art schools, Pujol argues, need to help students articulate their work both in their specialized context (the art world) and in the greater social context; namely,  students and artists/teachers need to understand their subjectivity within contemporary society and let go of their modernist anxiety about originality. 

There are three transcribed conversations also interspersed through the book. The first between John Baldessari and Michael Craig-Martin is almost an eulogy to the freedom each of them experienced as art students in the 1970s. The second conversation between performance artists/teachers, Maria Abramovic and Tania Brugera, speaks to the difficulty of teaching performance art and, ironically, reinforces the split among media rather than seeing performance as an interdisciplinary form. The last conversation, between senior artists, Dennis Adams, Saskia Bos and Hans Haacke, celebrates the distinctive nature of Cooper Union in New York, a privately funded,  prestigious, undergraduate college for the advancement of art and science. Cooper Union faculty do have to conform to accreditation demands but, with a highly selective student body, the conversation/debate about being able to foster social values in and outside the classroom seems somewhat indulgent in light of the pressures other schools face (especially so in light of Puljol’s introductory essay). Overall, the conversations seem more important in bringing recognized senior artists and educators into conversation with the book, rather than with themselves.

The questionnaire, designed by Brian Sholis and circulated among 12 prominent artists such as Ann Hamilton, Shirin Neshat and Mike Kelley, asks questions about the artists’ education. Significantly, of the six questions, one asked if the art school gave any sense of having an ethical commitment to the community it was in; another asked about discipline-based education; and a third inquired about market forces affecting the classroom. While Sholis states that he formulated the questionnaire, it would seem he designed the questions to open up Madoff’s notion of ‘service aesthetics’ and to establish where these artists stand on art as praxis, subjectivity, and disciplinarity. This section will undoubtedly be of interest to young art students, both the questions and the responses. 

The short essays by Thierry de Duve, Bory Groys, Ann Lauterbach, Charles Esche, Charles Renfro, and Daniel Birnbaum provide personal responses to the impossibility of teaching their subject. Not unlike teaching teachers, teaching artists to become professionals requires that students spend a particular amount of time as an amateur. While experience defines the professional, some skill-based training has to initiate that process. But how do we teach judgement, vulnerability, and ethics? What is the nature of the art world that defines this professionalism? De Duve offers a useful analysis of the ‘artworld’ as a constricted, modernist phenomenon that can be challenged by the art school, if it knows the public that it addresses has to exceed that ‘artworld’. In a similar vein, Groys talks about openness to exteriority, Lauterbach about teaching artists to think across and through the boundaries of discourse, and Esche about moving students away from specialization, isolation, and hierarchies.

Over and over again, the authors call for art schools to address their larger communities. Some attend to the specifics of the art-consuming publics, such as Birnbaum’s insistence that art schools need to do ‘job days’, as  other academic programs do. Other essays recount histories of art school experiments, including: alternative conceptualizations of art education such as Future Academy’s non-accredited, autonomous investigations in art and life; the idea of ArteReality that underpins the Stanford PhD in studio practice, which requires study in the humanities; and exhibitions that sought to become the art school like Unitednationsplaza (Berlin and New York, 2006). Most of these respond to local conditions in an attempt to make art practice more responsive to the academic and broader public they encounter. 

The address to the community is by definition inter- or perhaps trans-disciplinary. It takes responsibility for its affect in public and it refuses the iconic isolationism of modern genius. Dense and complexly woven, Art School has succeeded in proposing principles that can inform post-modern higher education and in providing teasers that suggest the principles can be realized.

Perhaps I can leave the last words to one of Robert Storr’s playful, yet entirely serious, set of axioms and rules. Rule: “It is not right to teach formalism while pretending that no one notices your political, social and cultural biases… It is not right to identify the Subject without recognizing yourself as a subject.”

Karen Stanworth is Associate Professor of visual culture at York University, Toronto, Canada. Jointly appointed to the faculties of Education and Fine Arts, currently Chair of Curriculum, Visual Arts, she has a keen interest in modes of knowing and the knowledges produced in the process of learning. She is currently finishing a book on visual culture in 19th century Canada, and doing research on the representation of the ‘bawdy body’ in 20th century Canadian visual culture.