Book Review

Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, the PhD and theAcademy.
Brad Buckley and John Conomos (eds) (2009). Halifax: The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, pp 234,
ISBN 978-0-919616-49-3 (paperback) C$25.00


This is an anthology of essays by 15 art educators from five countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and USA) who draw on their experience to reflect on the contemporary art school (or art department). Apart from one fascinating chapter by Luc Courschene about industrial design at the Université de Montréal, all the others are about fine art. All the authors appear to share a perception that they are working away from the centres of the art world. Some of the chapters are little more than descriptive, some more reflective and scholarly while others are more polemical. Many contributors are concerned with what should be taught in the art school, but only Su Barker with how. To a greater or lesser extent many authors express disquiet about the state of the contemporary art school, the editors in particular.

Various themes run through the essays, sometimes to the extent that there’s a lot of going over the same ground albeit in slightly different words, which can sometimes tax the reader. Many discuss aspects of interdisciplinarity. (When writing about art, academics have a particular fondness for words that end in ‘ity’.) Underlying this discussion is the expansion of art practice from its traditional disciplines (such as painting) into a wide range of 2D, 3D and 4D media and the challenge this poses to any art department. With such diverse outcomes, what should art students be learning? If skills, which skills? Should there be, therefore, as Bogh claims in his essay, no set curriculum, since every student’s needs will be different? Authors present many suggestions for what could be taught, such as critical skills, the professional art world, contemporary art practice, while others advocate branching out into other disciplines such as science, social science or history. Only Lauren Ewing ventures the view that there is something which all art students need to learn and that, believe it or not, is ‘English composition and writing’ (p. 162). The trouble is that if there is nothing exclusive to art which art students need to learn, then as Edward Colless puts it, ‘to teach art is to teach a non-subject’ (p. 103). It does seem that art education remains in a postmodern dilemma from which other disciplines have been managing to extricate themselves. As Gary Pearson points out in one of the best contributions to the book, if there is nothing that art students have to know, then the danger is that attending art school becomes nothing more than a semi-religious rite of passage into obtaining the mantle of being an artist.

Linked to this theme of interdisciplinary education is one of generational change, which is mentioned by several of the authors. There is a clear view that there is an unprecedented difference in students now coming through university, who have been brought up using digital technology and networked communication. As Ewing puts it: ‘The twenty-first century art student is a browser, inter-actor, co-author, producer, and nomad’ (p. 160). Existing structures, constraints and borders within fine art courses and programmes, it is suggested, need to be demolished in order to accommodate this new kind of student.

Another theme that runs through various chapters is qualifications. In Europe the offering of different countries is being adjusted to a uniform framework, in accordance with the Bologna agreement. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of the practice- based PhD, which is now well established in the UK (albeit still controversial in some circles), is beginning to creep into north America, where the MFA had been – and in most cases still is – considered the terminal qualification in fine art. It would have been more interesting to read views about the how the PhD in fine art should be operated, rather than warming up the argument of why it should exist. It might be more pertinent to ask whether, in its present guise, the process tends to inevitably lead towards staid, failsafe work accompanied by a rather indigestible thesis full of words ending in ‘ity’. If so, what should be done about it?

The theme that seems to be closest to the hearts of the editors of this book - Brad Buckley and John Conomos - is the fate of the art school now that it has, for the most part, been absorbed by a university culture where ‘university bureaucrats and senior managers demand that the art school mirror the organizational structures, curricula, and prudent use of space that are the conventions in other disciplines’ (p.24). Many art educators are likely to say amen to that. However, Buckley and Conomos fail to make a case for why art should be the sole exception, nor do they acknowledge the privileged position akin to the court jester that art has for so long staked out for itself within the university. By adopting this stance, art education has gained admission to the hallowed court circle, enjoying all the privileges that accrue from being in a university, while at the same time being outside the normal constraints and rules which apply to all other disciplines. This has allowed it to have its deviance indulged. If, as is asserted, art is now suffering by being misunderstood, then perhaps this follows many years when it gained by enjoying the benign neglect from those who found it incomprehensible.

If the argument instead is against the trend in higher education to what Conomos calls ‘managerial rationalism’ (p. 107) then perhaps art educators need to find common cause with those from other disciplines. The art school shares with other disciplines the almost impossible task of constantly having to do more for less to a higher quality and lives in constant fear of the next ‘waving of the dreaded fiscal axe’ (p. 172), as Pearson puts it. Although this book would appear to be a vehicle for art educators to communicate with other art educators, it would have gained if these views had been put into a broader social, policy and historical context.

The fact that one argues with some of the contributions in this book is not a criticism. It is stimulating to find out what a variety of other art educators are concerned about and to be challenged to consider both the philosophy and the nitty-gritty of contemporary art education. The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is to be congratulated for bringing out this volume.