Like an antelope through a python…

Is art education in Australia focusing on producing an epidemic of mediocre PhD theses that nobody reads, at the expense of vibrant artists well prepared for a lifetime of creative work?

Debate in and around art education in this country and therefore its impact on our culture and support for retaining art schools, particularly in Sydney, is important and needs input from all those who truly care for a serious ongoing vibrant culture in the visual arts.

This essay’s heading of “like an antelope through a python” are words I have never forgotten. They’re from an article written or maybe typed by Robert Hughes (who else?) in 1985.

The article in Time magazine, titled ‘Careerism And Hype Amidst An Image Haze’, gave me the first inkling that American universities had made a shift to add another string to the academic bow, and as a graduate from two art schools here and in England, I was bemused and somewhat taken aback at the implications for American art.

This interest came, on the back of the alarm I sensed as a young painter, confronted with the statistics also in this article, and what I would have to contend with as I struggled to be a painter, and maybe a teacher. According to Hughes there were approximately 90,000 artists living and working in Manhattan at that time.

“The post war baby boom, whose mass, having moved, through the art schools like an antelope through a python, arrived in the art world at the end of the ’70s. American art teaching swelled in the ’60s and ’70s. Every university had to have its own art department, and that art department had to be full. The National Association of Schools of Art and Design guesses that about 900 institutions offer fine-arts degree programs; its own 138 member schools had 45,000 students in the fall of 1982, of whom some 8500 graduated with BFA degrees in the spring of ’83. So the annual output of all American art schools is probably around 35,000 graduates.”

Remember this is in 1986, but the implications for art schools have more than reached our shores. Graduate students are one thing and this is Australia, but education has moved on; now the budding artist has to have a PhD and at the very least a Masters, but the subject of art schools in universities continued to play on my mind even as I later joined academe in Australia, from an earlier position within the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) system.

Numbers in universities is a worthwhile topic in its own right although it must remain outside the scope of this article. My concern here is regarding the problem of what comes out of the python, now that any worthwhile budding artist must have an unfailing grasp of branding, the art market and most importantly a PhD from a university. (Try getting a position teaching art at a university, even as part-time lecturer, without a PhD.

It is my argument that not only do we need to question the quality of these so called PhD programs and the graduates that they produce, but in some way take the debate further. In order to best address this problem first in quantitive terms, I hope to shed some light on the underlying condition that dogs this debate and therefore the loss of what art schools were (I thought) set up to do, prior to being taken into universities.

To do this more succinctly I would introduce the reader to a quote from George Steiner and his book Real Presence, which places visual arts (which most directly concerns me here) in the broader heading of “Humanities”. He writes of the implications for education particularly in regard to the written thesis and/or exegesis and its impact on art, art education and its primary maker, the artist.

Steiner writes, “At the level of critical-academic interpretation and evaluation, the volume of secondary discourse defies inventory. Not even the computer and the electronic data bank are able to cope. No bibliographies are up to date. The mass of books and critical essays, of scholarly articles and dissertations produced each day in Europe and the United States, has the blind weight of a tidal wave. If I give a number of summary examples, it is only because the reader-consumer outside the academy and the art and music worlds has little idea of the pertinent dimensions. In the field of modern literature alone, Russia and the Western universities are thought to register some thirty thousand doctoral theses per annum.”

This was in 1989 and 1990, and the PhD epidemic in Australia is now in full swing. It now reaches such in impost, a Byzantine assortment of mostly barely read, barely legible, never to be read again, slosh, as to be of no importance to the primacy of making the artist or the PhD student in visual arts, for that matter. Most art students have had to contort their interest to satisfy “research” criteria which often have little worth and indeed are often a deterrent to real responses in front of any serious art. This has even less importance to art outside the university, except to funnel another antelope of research students through the python and its need for government funding.

Now I know that there are those in academe who understand this and have fought for balance. However, they are the exception and have been overridden by the majority who have much to gain to promoting the status quo and the branding and promotion that goes along with it, and of course their own position. The odd scholarly Masters or PhD does come out of university art schools, but try holding back a prospective PhD graduate on the grounds of written incompetence and see how far you get.

So let me quote from Steiner again, who at the time of writing was an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and the Professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva, as to why this may be so, especially given the effect it is having on education and particularly art education and the position of art (as the primary source) and the artist.

He writes: “This translation out of the inarticulate and private into the general matter of human recognition requires the utmost crystallisation and investment of introspection and control. We lack the right words for the extreme energising and governance of instinct, for the ordered enlistment of intuition, which mark the artist. The readings, the interpretations and critical judgements of art, literature and music from within art, literature and music are of a penetrative authority rarely equalled by those offered from outside, by those propounded by the non-creator, this is to say the reviewer, the critic and the academic.”

It has become the case that the whole system has been turned upside down (no, inside out), and might be better considering our python. The secondary and the parasitic (Steiner’s term) has now become the dominant form with which the art student has to grapple. In the light of this it may be worth considering Picasso’s remark, “You don’t ask a bird what song it is singing,” when questioned about his paintings moving away from a more digestible approach to the more inarticulate one.

Much more could be said about this topic and should. Indeed I cannot think of a better ending for this short essay than introducing you to a much more informative, new source. Clive James’ starting point is Vienna, in his book Cultural Amnesia (the title is pertinent). Here he reminds us that even though Jewish scholars were often cruelly excluded from the academy, that did not stop learning from progressing.

Indeed, as he writes, “‘In Vienna there were no exams to pass, learning was voluntary, and wit was a form of currency. Reading about old Vienna now, you are taken back to a time that could come again; a time when education was a lifelong process. You didn’t complete your education and then start your career. Your education was your career and it was never completed.”

Illustration by Eric Lobbecke.