MAKING SCHOOLS FOR CONTEMPORARY ART

CREATION MYTHS

IN CHINESE ART academies, there is no clear divide between traditional art education and “contemporary” art education. There have always been teachers who imbue the curricula of the traditional departments of Chinese painting, oil painting, printmaking, and sculpture (collectively known as “COPS”) with ideas from contemporary art, holding experimental classes or even establishing contemporary-leaning studios. This trend has been in evidence since the early 1990s.

Traditional art education— including the much-reviled training in realist painting, as well as traditional Chinese and classical Western art education— is not useless when it comes to creating contemporary art. In fact, with the slightest tweaking, the knowledge, technique, and aesthetics gained in these more old-school curricula become the contemporary artist’s most precious resources. Nearly all contemporary artists active in China today are products of this traditional training. And so it was that when Huang Yong Ping learned that his alma mater, the China Academy of Art, was opening a “School of Inter Media Art,” he remarked, “Don’t forget that we are all COPS alumni.”

The latent seeds of the contemporary in traditional art pedagogy formed an important preparatory period for our current discussions about how to teach contemporary art. This earlier pedagogy not only provided the baseline experience against which we structure more experimental courses, but has led to the deep feeling for (and not simple opposition to) the academic tradition that most contemporary artists active today display. Furthermore, the persistence of these earlier methods has allowed today’s academies to undergo a necessary period of psychological preparation before establishing dedicated “contemporary” departments.

Beginnings have a way of giving rise to creation myths. For the rise and establishment of contemporary art education in China, the same is true, but this does not mean we should overrate its value. Apart from experimental coursework within traditional departments, the first independent educational unit for contemporary-art pedagogy was the Department of Mixed Painting (zonghe huihua xi) of the China Academy of Art (CAA) in Hangzhou, founded in 1995. Next came the New Media Art Research Center, also at CAA, which opened with graduate students only in September 2001, and led to the establishment of a full-fledged Department of New Media Art and a Department of Mixed Art in 2003. During this same period CAFA established a Department of Experimental Art.

By now, the mythmaking period should have already passed. In the end, creating new majors is not an end in itself; nurturing talent is. The question now is not whether or not we should create new majors, nor whether or not we can. The question is how we should go about “doing” these majors. After these eight years, we at least know how to discover where the problems lay, and how to go about optimizing the design of the system, improving educational technique, and so on.

THE PEDAGOGY OF OPEN EXCHANGE

The earliest motivations for most art schools in China to establish new specializations grew, for the most part, out of discussions with their foreign counterparts. Every department, every academy has cultural exchange programs wherein foreign instructors brought to China relatively contemporary thinking, methods, and pedagogical styles. This practice is common in art schools worldwide, and important as it improves the abilities of teachers in the host country.

The flip side of these exchanges entailed Chinese educational officials visiting foreign campuses and observing how they design subjects and educational models. The interaction engendered by their experience leads to the administrative push for the establishment of new majors. Professors from art academies around China were sent to these foreign institutions on official exchange programs, upon completion of which they would return. The difference between what they learned there and the existing educational systems here was huge, and could be called an important reason behind the early establishment of experimental studios in traditional departments here.

Even today, at academies other than the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), CAA, and a few other leading institutions, contemporary art education still comes mainly from the short-term education provided by international visiting professors.

However, cultural exchange requires a subject position, and the more clearly that position is articulated, the better the subject’s ability to absorb and digest foreign cultures. Only when our own thinking on contemporary art (and particularly on art pedagogy) has become sufficiently refined will we have the ability to pick the best international instructors. These days, the number of good-for-nothing foreign teachers at our schools is not insignificant, especially as a stint teaching in China has become a valuable résumé line back in the West.

Only when our educational philosophy is clear-cut, and our systems complete, do students have the chance to compare the old and the new, and thus have a foundation for study. The healthier one’s appetite, the more different things one can sample. Against a healthy backdrop, visiting scholars can become an authentic source of nourishment. Otherwise, they end up lecturing to themselves alone. Many students, after taking part in programs led by visiting scholars, develop such an interest that they choose to study abroad after graduation, only to drown in the vast sea of art students studying abroad. Were our system of contemporary art education actually sound, then international visiting professors will be inspired enough to display their own true creativity in teaching. If not, then it is all too easy for them to be content teaching only the basics of their knowledge, while giving average lectures. And if there is no interaction with students, a good educator may quickly feel apathetic.

In other words, no art school should be content with the achievements of its foreign exchange programs. If no indigenous system of contemporary art education exists, there will be little room left for dialogue in the future. Only in establishing that system as quickly as possible will exchange programs actually begin to be useful.

SPECTERS OF TECHNOFETISHISM

In China, art academies are organized according to medium. The very designation “COPS” shows this primacy of material over concept. And even inside newer design departments, subdivisions are made for industrial product design, landscape design, textile design, and other media. Ironically, the only real exception is the “Chinese painting department,” perceived to be the most traditional.

If medium is the deciding factor in such differentiation, then the department of “traditional Chinese painting” should be called the “ink and wash painting” or “ink and color painting” department. During the early years of the People’s Republic, in 1950, it was at the behest of painter and educator Pan Tianshou that the name was changed to “traditional Chinese painting,” as a means of maintaining a sense of our cultural roots. It was under this banner that the name became standard at art schools across the country. Yet if we take this logic of cultural dissemination as the deciding factor, then the “oil painting” department should be called the “Western painting” department. Thus even in the organization of our traditional COPS specializations, this internal conflict of logic already exists.

Between these two logics, division by medium takes the upper hand, for it seems to avoid questions of ideology by relying instead on technology, making it an easy choice for school administrators looking to avoid sticky political questions. The other advantage of this system is that if division is by medium, then new majors can be based less on new pedagogical approaches than on major acquisitions of new hardware.

From 2005, art schools across the country— including the art and design departments of major research universities— began to establish specializations in new media or digital media, one right after the other. These new majors grow out of society’s blind faith in the need for talent in these fields, as well as the ease of attracting funding for anything technology-related. As far as school administrators are concerned, constructing a high-tech computer lab equates to no more than spending money; there is no political risk involved. To be sure, when Party leaders or foreign dignitaries visit the campus, making an appearance at these labs is something of a prerequisite. As far as I know, this expensive equipment in many schools ends up being left completely untouched. Some of it, even, remains in the box several years after purchase.

This kind of wastefulness has its roots in technology fetishism. When new majors are established, no one ever points this out, perhaps because they are not capable of offering any new pedagogy of their own. For the unthinking, buying computers is a good way to spend money and time. This technofetishism triumphs first because complete ideological openness has still not arrived, and second because very few people are actually capable of offering any substantive alternative. A third reason is subconscious, buried deep within the traditional departmental logic of division by medium.

By this prevailing medium-based logic, new media institutes should be divided into departments for digital photography, video art, sound art, and Internet art, with substantial outlays for the hardware necessary for each. When CAA established a Department of Mixed Art (zonghe yishu xi) in 2003, the erstwhile “Department of Mixed Painting” became the “Studio of Mixed Painting” (zonghe huihua) inside this larger department. Then came the “Studio of Mixed Sculpture” (zonghe zaoxing), which was actually a studio for installation art. When I was asked to return to Hangzhou to set up the new department’s third studio, everyone had already settled into this logic, and expected me to name it the “Studio of Mixed Visual Practice,” or at least something with this word “mixed” in the title.

Fortunately, I kept the ways of Pan Tianshou and Yang Jinsong in mind, and, standing up to the reliance on such a falsely thorough, I persevered and christened the studio as “Studio of Art in General” (zongti yishu). In this simple gesture of naming, we raised a whole system of educational philosophy, based on cultural studies, and heavily reliant on sociological inquiry. It is a philosophy that stresses intervention, participation, the social nature of art, the disappearance of the museum, and so on.

In this way, the “Studio of Art in General” became the only educational unit to offer a clear-cut alternative pedagogy. And our clarity, sometimes criticized as dogmatic, has in turn allowed students to have a concrete idea of what the studio is all about, and therefore the freedom to choose whether or not they study there. With these founding principles firmly entrenched, the concrete work of structuring the curriculum and programming of the studio becomes smooth, even simple. There are things we do and things we don’t, in keeping with who we are. Eight years on, the art studio hasn’t wasted a cent on buying needless equipment, and it still has brought a great number of projects to fruition, making for an obviously high performance-price ratio.

With a clear-cut educational stance, hiring visiting professors also become straightforward. Generally, the individual inclinations of these visiting faculty are in harmony with our studio’s basic educational philosophy. Where they are not, students understand that immediately, and adjust accordingly.

In this way, we created a tension between the Studio of Art in General and the mainstream logic of division by medium. Within an institution, however, the existence of this contradiction is not without its implications. When CAA’s Department of New Media merged with the Department of Mixed Art to form the School of Inter Media Art last year, the school had to face up to the question of which logic they should subscribe to in reallocating the studios.

After heated debate, our studio’s model triumphed, at least on the level of faculty organization. The new school required each studio head to propose a clear-cut educational philosophy with cultural inclinations, and studios were renamed in accordance with these directives. Here, division by medium persists, but it is confined to a “laboratory” system whereby technicians head individual workshops that teach the basic skills of photography, digital equipment, and video editing, and which are completely open to students from every studio. It seemed that we had come upon the best possible balance between these two schools of logic. However, realizing this plan was a process unto itself.

THE CHAOS OF NAMING

The naming of new departments and majors, it turns out, is the major battleground on which the struggles of logic unfold. We chose the name “School of Inter Media Art” quite consciously in an attempt to avoid technofetishism and convey some sense of our cultural approach from the very title of the school.

Art schools outside China rarely use the term “new media.” Normally, they would call such a school a “school of media art,” such as the famous Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. Photography has been around for 170 years, video for 60. Even the newest media of Internet and interactive already claim histories going back a decade or two. How new must it be to be called “new media?” Is it just that which is used in the research and development of new technology? Such endeavors aren’t the forte of fine art academies, whose resources can’t possibly surpass those of MIT or Bell Laboratories.

Art academies do consider the change that new technology and the culture of technologically driven media bring to our lives. It is more crucial, however, to confront the influence of media and technology from the perspective of their power for social transformation. Consider, for example, the history of photography: from a technical perspective, it is a story of how the view through a small hole was turned into a fixed image. But from a perspective of social transformation, we can ask how photography prompted a change in painting, or how reproducible negatives gave rise first to printed pictorials, and eventually to an entire age of visual culture. We can ask how the socio-cultural properties of photography turned paintings and drawings into images, and a whole range of other questions. These two types of inquiry are related, but there is a definite distinction between them. It is our hope that students of the School of Inter Media Art delve into the second category of inquiry through the first, and that at the same time, they only develop a deep understanding of the first category of inquiry by developing a high sensitivity towards the second, ultimately bringing about a truly valuable technological revolution.

It should also be said that CAFA’s Department of Experimental Art uses a name devoid of the ideology of technology and of the logic of division by medium. However, in terms of cultural direction, “experimental art” by default is not sufficiently programmatic. Apart from genre painting, all of art’s serious investigations could be called experimental. For the recently organized National Conference on Experimental Art Education at CAFA, a book was slated to be published, entitled The History of Experimental Art in China. When they realized that such a title meant writing the history of art altogether, they had no choice but to abandon the project. Beyond being excessively wide reaching, the term also too easily gives rise to objection from other departments.

This question of naming is being hashed out nationwide, as new schools and departments proliferate. At the Guangzhou Academy, the major in “mixed fine arts,” formerly housed in the Department of Education, was recently made autonomous and rechristened the Department of Experimental Art. A “new media department” is in the works at the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, and the Tianjin Academy’s School of Modern Art has been around for a few years already. As long as academies continue to add new contemporary art specializations, this mess of names won’t stop either; it will only grow more intense. Of course, the quality of education is still the priority, but there is also a way in which this dilemma of naming reflects the larger issues at stake throughout the system.

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Post in: Features | June 17 , 2011 | Tag in: LEAP 8 | TEXT: QIU ZHIJIE / TRANSLATION: MICHAEL EINAR ENGSTRÖM
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