ESR 9 Blog June 2021: Sophie Mak-Schram

Of late, I’ve been reading more, speaking less. There’s a difference between writing and speaking that I’ve been conflating in my reaching out to you, and that I’m reflecting on now I’m so much quieter. When I asked you to read my words out loud, ingesting them and making them your own, back in April, I was looking for ways for destabilise the presumed (or, presumptive?) plinth upon which Texts come to stand. The printed word holds a lot of stature, given the value attributed to libraries, objects and preservation in what we might still call the West.[1]

One of the historicised events – by which I mean it has been written about, established as ‘fact’ – that lingers in my mind is an anecdote about John Latham, a British conceptual artist of the 20th century. In 1966, he invited his students, in the context of a party, to chew pages from Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture (1961).[2] Latham subsequently returned this book a year later, now in a masticated form, in test tubes, to the library. This action cost Latham his job at Central Saint Martins, an art school in London.

My feelings for Greenberg aside, there’s a lot to parse about this incident and its citation in books about art education. There’s the clear – and perhaps still funny – joke of eating a text, perhaps the most material thing one can do with a book that also happens to be by an author who argued for the materiality of modern art. There is the implication of ingesting; how it physicalizes the process of ingesting knowledge and questions both the forms knowledge takes (is the only knowledge in this book its printed argumentation?) and the ways knowledge transfer might occur. But there’s also the politics at play; this positioning of the artist-teacher sticking it to the system in which Greenberg is canonised and in which existing formats are deemed more important than innovation or experimentation. This action became a work of art and is currently owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A few years later, Joseph Beuys accepted every student who applied to study under him whilst teaching at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. He too was fired. This, like the Latham incident, is often cited. These moments are ambiguously framed as evidence that the artists in question were genuinely committed to alternatives to existing education or value systems, yet they also function to revalidate elements of these systems; the role of the teacher and the notion of the individual artist remain upheld. These gestures, which are in part playful, become in part painful: the teacher’s interruption in a wider structure is considered proof of their artistic validity – thereby reinforcing the ways art education sustains a logic of individual artists that they may have been seeking to refute. Whilst Latham might have been trying to shift the status of formal knowledge or question how it is transmitted, the artwork that resulted subsequently re-authors him as a knowledge producer without holding a space for those who ingested with him. So too, Beuys’ action, which was part of his wider claims that ‘everyone is an artist’ (again, often cited in arts education literature), served ultimately to affix his own position as an Artist.

Of course, this is a shallow sketch of the changing positions and sociological roles of the artist in the 20th century. But, I wonder, tentatively, how this plays into the rise in conversations about more active, student-led drop outs in recent years. Protesting against the rise in fees, or in the case of the Free Cooper Union, the instating of fees, and their mismatch with the education provided, students have begun to conceptualise their resistance into projects or collectives. Again, their role as artists gives them voice, a means of framing their action. They run the risk of becoming symbolic as much as real, abstracted into wider conversations about privatisation, inflation and education as a consumer good.

Here, the flip of course is that these are moments instigated by groups we might frame as learners, or more cynically – depending on your view of neoliberal subsumption – as consumers, whereas Latham and Beuys operated from the position of teachers. I am still mulling over the implications of many of these groups calling themselves schools or universities, but would suggest for now that these student-led alternatives are methods of de- and re-instituting themselves in excess of the institutional structures they were in.

[3] They play with a shifting of power, in a manner that is not as possible once something – or someone, in the cases of Latham and Beuys – has become historicized. In a broad sense, the radicality or complexity becomes singular, subsumed.

There’s also a surplus generated in many of these more recent educational actions/alternatives, a porousness between educational space and world that is reinstated or made visible.  I’ll be coming back to this, once I’ve sat with (or, ingested?) my recent readings on teaching, learning and curricula. For now, I hesitate in setting things down as writing, instating them as such as ‘opinion’ in the formal sense, and wonder how to maintain a more hybrid position of learning-teaching-neither-both.

[1] This is of course a generalization, but one can think here – to cite a few instances – of how the Library of Alexandria is mythologized, the ways in which embodied knowledge is not a widespread approach to pedagogy in schooling systems in the way written texts are, and how indigenous and oral histories are positioned.

[2] Greenberg was an influential American art critic, who argued that modern art was to be understood through its formal qualities (the flatness of the painting was uppermost) and was an approach to art that called attention to its own form.

[3] I am loosely drawing here on Marina Vishmidt’s notion of infrastructural critique, which expands or makes (re)productive the notion of institutional critique, which has long been reclaimed by art history.

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