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Hornsey: Students, Theory, Practice

In 1967 the situationist group at Strasbourg University began the pamphlet 'On the Poverty of Student Life' with the following line: 'It is pretty safe to say that the student is the most universally despised creature in France, apart from the policeman and the priest.' Today this might be appropriately updated as 'the art student is the most universally despised creature in Britain'. The art student is the one today who is least understood and most resented. Resentment comes from the taxpayer (pre-top up fees) who moans - these people get funded to fiddle around with paint and paper, and they make nothing practical, nothing of use - and nothing of beauty. What good is it for? And worse, they get an education in pulling the wool over our eyes - they'll make some piece of dreck that any child or psychotic could have thrown together, and make a fortune. The art student is a cheat, a trickster. Of course resentment is close to envy. The art student is envied his or her idle life of play and experiment. The art student is simply in training to become something to be all the more envied - idle and possibly wealthy - an artist. Tom Stoppard articulated something of this attitude in his 1975 play Travesties: In one scene Henry Carr, the British consul, is speaking to the dadaist Tristan Tzara:

When I was at school, on certain afternoons we all had to do what was called Labour - weeding, sweeping, sawing logs for the boiler-room, that kind of thing; but if you had a chit from Matron you were let off to spend the afternoon messing about in the Art Room. Labour or Art. And you've got a chit for life? (passionately) Where did you get it? What is an artist? For every thousand people there's nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist.

The art student enjoys the situation of all students, but redoubled: always armed with the perfect excuse for staring out the window or watching daytime TV. All is a possible source of 'inspiration'. There are no skills to be honed - artmaking today is al about the conceptual trick, the ironic mimicry of mass culture, the botched effort of a gag, the video-film that would never cut it as a movie, the dullness that passes for profundity.

These were the sentiments summoned up recently on early evening TV as Endemol's celebrity-reality series 'Art School' unfurled. Some minor celebrities went through the motions of a contemporary art school training, with its emphasis not on life drawing, but more, post-conceptual, on formalist tricks to rattle and rejuvenate perception: using blindfolds, left-hand drawing, chance and error, loosely grasped techniques with which to experiment. What was unleashed in the wannabe artists was gruesome - anger, miscomprehension, hatred, arrogance, pity and embarrassing sentiment in the name of self-exploration. John Humphrys thundered with rage as he failed to 'learn something' and uttered the phrase that is a phrase of choice for today's art haters: contemporary art is a case of 'the emperor's new clothes'. Humphreys is the one who'll demask and denude, daring to point out its nudity, its crudity, its deceptions. And the talking heads of celebrity hobby-artists such as Anneke Rice or Vic Reeves reassured us that art critics and art tutors were all rubbish. Art is a mode of relaxation for the artists and a tool for generating pleasure in viewers. It is simple. Any other claims are pretension. Art is one of two things - a delight for the eye, produced by safely dead people from long ago, before the avant garde arrived on the scene, or a hobby for the living and there is nothing to say about it but banalities. Art means nothing today. To this end it need be representational or it is nothing. The programme did what all programmes on art do - despite the best efforts of Mathew Collings or Tim Marlow - it made those who talk about art look pretentious, for there is no popular language of art criticism, except for the line: 'What is the point of that - I could have done it!'. This line's seeming self-assertion masks a fundamental alienation. In the desire to witness a reified form of skill, the viewer longs to have his or her own abilities and potentialities negated. As such it is impossible for the student to exist - for the student is the artist without skills fully formed, already skilful. No wonder the art student is so despised. The art student should not exist. The art student is the artist manqué - the not-yet artist who is having too good a time. Remember this is a world where, for some reason, self-indulgence is a crime.

But the art student does exist, and there is another reason to hate him or her. The art student not only makes bad art. The art student, and the army of fawners who surround him or her - the tutors and critics - are all supposed to be trained in the use of a hermetic language that justifies the output in intellectual terms, that talks the crap up a storm, that pads out the deception in dense protective layers of cotton-wool befuddling discourse: they have theory. Theory justifies the artwork after the fact. Theory impels the artwork before the fact. Theory sometimes substitutes for the artwork. Theory is the language that needs to be mastered if the art is to make any sense. Theory is the artwork's crutch. It is not the art students' fault that they are force-fed theory - this situation was impelled upon them as part of the change in art education when it became degree level. But the colleges failed to pursue an independent route in terms of theoretical investigation. They failed to find the theories that could express the truth of their own practices. Indeed, sometime in the 1980s, on art degrees, just as in the other various disciplines of the Humanities, there emerged a common set of theoretical approaches. This shift has been associated with the larger development known by the term postmodernism, characterised by a foregrounding of gender issues, questions of sexuality and ethnicity, the mechanisms of power (especially as power manifests in visual aspects such as the 'gaze' or surveillance), and the divisions of 'high' and 'popular' culture, whereby popular culture became the privileged area of investigation. A super-sensitivity to questions of oppression, exploitation, marginalisation, inequity in terms of gender, sexuality and race, a critique of the exclusion of the other, an examination of relations between so called 'centre and periphery' developed across the Humanities. This has put pressure on Art History too, which now yields to a new formation called 'Visual Culture'.

The self-hatred towards innate creativity engendered by capitalism means that art cannot be spoken popularly. But it also cannot be spoken academically either any longer. The theories of choice for art analysis are precisely the ones that have no place for art. Yet this does not stop them pervading the art schools. The chosen theories are the ones that state that art is elitist, irrelevant, a pretentious embarrassment. Art is theorised according to the preoccupations of cultural studies. That means: art limps behind cultural studies - adopting its concerns of race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality - in short, identity. Or it adopts Walter Benjamin, parsed through Baudrillard, and incorporates into itself technological reproducibility and media savvyness, largely in the name of amusement, irony, spectacle - though all this does not prevent it from being property. Art can only be justified as illustration of one of these concerns. Art needs cultural theory in order to be. Otherwise it remains irrelevant - apparently. For art as 'relevant' makes sense only when the cultural theory is wheeled on as supplement. If art's viewers remain sceptical or innocent of the language art appears incomplete, half-assed, half-hearted - partial. This raises a wider question of art and meaning.

Who believes that art means anything meaningful any more? Who adheres to the notion that art has a relationship to the totality, to truth, that it is a placemarker for utopia or non-commodified, non-instrumental modes of life? In short, who has a theory of art anymore or, perhaps better, an aesthetics? No-one, anymore, seems able to claim that art possesses a truth content, and that such truth content of all authentic works of culture indicates utopia, the desired destination, or the distance yet to be travelled. Instead, art - that is in fine art, the sort of art proud to be cut off from relevance in its llifestylist form - has retreated back to the margins where the elite connoisseurs congregate, while much contemporary art takes up the challenge of cultural studies, seeking relevance, non-art reference. Fine art, cult-studs identity art and post-media art are dead set against philosophical-aesthetic examination, though the latter two might adopt political guises at points, and the former, fine art, might evince a politics in its all-too loudly asserted autonomy. This is not to say that cultural criticism has evaporated. There is more of that then ever before, but it is not much directed at art, and, in its emergence as Cultural Studies, adopts for itself a deployment of theory straight out of Foucault's 'toolkit' (read eclecticism): instrumentalist and anti-systematic, which translates ultimately into anti-specificity, a challenge to artistic particularity, in the name of relativism and populism.

An example of this is visible in the recently rewritten Open University Art History course. This course has long been famous for importing theory into art history, chasing out the cobwebs of connoisseurship and art appreciation, making art interpretation political, critical, even revolutionary. Such was the ambition of TJ Clark, Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and co, as they introduced concepts of class and power into art history, and thereby formed the approach known as the Social History of Art, codified in an array of course books and graveyard slot TV programmes. The course got a rewrite and was relaunched this year. There are elements consistent with earlier versions of the course, which set benchmarks for the social history or art and the new art history more generally. The faint traces of structuralist, feminist, anti-racist Marxism are now more heavily and differently aerated by new art history's concern with a more sociological formation, gender, and then sprinkled by post-new art history's concern with race, while class falls away. High value is put on 'an expanded concept of art might be'. This is expressed elsewhere in the following way in one of the chapters in the volume 'Art of the Avant Gardes', on orientalism:

…This raised questions about the criteria by which one may judge the value of a work of art, for example, about whether aesthetic judgements on the technical radicalism or conservatism of a painting should be balanced by an understanding of the social relations in which the art practice is embedded.

The word 'balanced' is a weasel word. This is social history of art as little supplement, un-bouleversing addendum that opens a field without overturning it. In the same essay we are given unexamined truisms: 'But as globalisation spread towards the end of the (20th) century, art historians began to look again at the relations between western art practices and indigenous values'. A classic bit of cultural studies cant - quite apart from the fact that globalisation, this spreading disease, is so empty a term to be vacuous, what appears to be so politically correct is in fact reinforcing the very thing it thinks it challenges - the art historian is of course never indigenous, siding only with art itself. Which may indeed be true - but then perhaps the problem lies in assuming the role of art critic at all, and then insult on injury, padding it out with some feel-good factor of other-orientedness.

Why criticise this one course? Because it is an expression of a wider dissipation of critical integrity within art and the analysis of art. The dialectic, if it is one, is clear - art means less and less as more and more meanings are piled on it. And furthermore, the moves that it makes are peculiarly appropriate for today's neo-liberal environment - a word more on that later.
Perhaps there was something absurd in the project of the social history of art - with a foregrounding of class and social relations, in that most incongruous of areas - art history? Perhaps - it was a contradiction too far - except it wasn't - because it opened up the modernist avant-garde to that which it always was but which, from a British perspective, was often obscured: its politics, its proximity to the desire for social revolution. In fact, social history of art and the new art history opened up all art to a new set of fascinations - it gave it life again. Charles Harrison represents the view now that the social history of art project destroyed all that was art in art, replacing it with sociology. It represents for him a philistinism that is akin to the anti-elitist philistinism of Rupert Murdoch, in his assault on the privileged echelons of British culture. But did the social history of art or the first OU course on new art history - which led to questions in parliament and panicked management memos at the OU - did this courses really set out to destroy art - not at all - and nothing like the real destruction of creativity represented by Rupert Murdoch's media machinery, which of course is the property of a true elitist, an elitist of capital. No, it re-invigorated art - or at least the study of art, making it porous, open to the world in which it took place already anyway. But did the porosity extinguish finally all that was artful in the art? Did its object get filled with so many holes that the gush it absorbed and echoed back was not that of the world itself but its wishy-washy trace as cultural theory flooded in.

Lost from art for art students and humans in general
What is lost in the turn to cultural theory in art? Precisely the thing that art schools were set up to teach and do teach in practical terms, more or less. .In the postmodern, linguistic, identity turn, the thing that slips from the frame is labour, the role of production, not necessarily as act - students still labour on obects - but as theorisable component of their prsactice.. This is reinforced especially with the recent focus adopted from cultural studies on audiences and consumption. The very materiality of the process of cultural production is lost, or cannot be spoken - even though it is through art's specific materiality, understood in its broadest senses as its substance, its material presence in the world, its 'madeness', that a properly social and formal analysis of art might be made (this absence of labour fits with the idea of artist as idle, dreamer, non-productive leech in a social world of workers). What type of labour art is is a fascinating question, and it is one that cannot be disconnected from the notion of alienation. That art exists - or culture more broadly - as a specialised activity practised by the few means that it may be an alibi for the mass's non-cultural life. In this sense, art justifies exploitation and oppression.

Karl Marx notes that human activity constitutes social reality through praxis; and truth is gained through process, the process of self-development; or, as Marx more famously put it, the rounded individual of mature communism is a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a critical critic at night - without being defined socially as either a hunter, a fisherman or a critic. It is an unfreedom characteristic of class society that some people are charged with the task of being an artist, and bear that social role, while others are excluded from it. Conversely, marred by commodification, artistic practice today is a deformation of the sensuous unfolding of the self that indicates real human community. The reification of human activity into the separate realms of work and play, of aesthetics and politics must be overcome. The aesthetic must be rescued from the ghetto of art and set at the centre of life. That is a critical politics of art, politics in art and through art. All culture might be assessed according to how it imagines all lives to be liveable. Alienation sets in specifically and crucially in relation to contemporary culture. Contemporary audiences - that is mass-mediated contemporary observers - are recipients of the contradictions of contemporary culture, which continues, despite postmodernism's protestations, to be a divided culture sustained by social division, or the class system, as such. People learn to love their separation, their specific identities that compete with other identities. Art production needs to be faced as a one part of a totality - held up as separate, because its separateness is part of that totality which needs art to seem autonomous. A creditable stance insists on reinvoking a full-blown totality with all its moments of negation intact, and on terms that refuse to provide ameliorating solutions through theory, but rather expose the contradictions and woundings, the 'primary alienation', the split in species being occasioned by the division of labour, which accompanies the unequal division of cultural access and benefit. It takes culture seriously, holding on to culture as culture, that is as something in certain ways autonomous, and yet, also, seeing cultural as slashed by, negatively formed by or located in relation to social division, social determination. The insistence on negation - ironically mediated, uncompromising, the refusal to theorise away the contradictions and the pain - refuses turning difference into a badge of pride, and holds onto division as a split in the social totality.

I began with the detourned quote from the situationists: 'It is pretty safe to say that the art student is the most universally despised creature in Britain'. The situationists go on to say that 'the reasons for which he is despised are often false reasons reflecting the dominant ideology, whereas the reasons for which he is justifiably despised from a revolutionary standpoint remain repressed and unavowed.' For the situationists the student is justifiably despised because: the student is being trained to take on a role as a 'conservative element in the functioning of the commodity system'. Worse though, the student does not recognise this, believing that he or she is free and independent, even though he or she is subjected to 'the two most powerful systems of social authority: the family and the state'. The situationists hiss:

As their well-behaved, grateful and submissive child, he shares and embodies all the values and mystifications of the system. The illusions that formerly had to be imposed on white-collar workers are now willingly internalized and transmitted by the mass of future petty functionaries.

And, with their eyes directed to a better afterwards, the situationists insist that:

The future revolutionary society will condemn all the noise of the lecture halls and classrooms as nothing but verbal pollution.

But it behoves us to analyse why and what for the current verbal pollution of the art college exists. I sketched out a story of the shift of radical art theory into postmodern cultural theory, designed to talk its artefacts up a storm, to justify them - but where - in the marketplace. Theory provides the excuse for empathy with the artwork. The situationists noticed that the modernisers of the Left in the 1960s demanded 'a reform of the university structure' so as to 'reintegrate the university into social and economic life', which is the same as making it relevant, which means, as the situationists gloss it, 'to adapt it to the needs of modern capitalism.' Here theory comes into its own. Consistent with the rise of management in the neo-liberal epoch, when we are far from the end of ideology, given its over-bearing omnipresence in the new capitalist moralism, theory hit it rich. Cultural theory theorises the identities that marketers love to fantasise in honing the appeal of their commodities. In the armoury of the art student who is now also taught to be business-minded as part of the curriculum, cultural theory provides the blah that marketing needs to sell its object

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