EXHIBITING GRADUATES: OBSERVED AT CLOSE RANGE
TRANSLATION / David East
A FEW MONTHS AGO , when I started planning an exhibition of work by graduates of Chinese art academies with fellow curator Luan Zhichao, we agreed to work by observing first and choosing a theme only later. After reviewing the graduate exhibitions of the major academies, we focused our curatorial work on the signs and symptoms of problems within the art education system itself. Rather than adding yet another exhibition to the graduation show season, or providing young people with yet another—perhaps excessive—opportunity to show their work, it seemed more urgent to discuss the ways and mechanisms through which we foster artists.
Several years ago the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts held a ten-year retrospective in Paris. In an exhibition showcasing ten years of the acclaimed academy’s educational achievements, why did they choose to display the work of only 29 artists? When an exhibition has no theme, how does one choose artworks from over 1000 graduates? Curator Guillaume Désanges provides an unexpected answer: through investigation and research, his curatorial team first filtered out those graduates who had been disengaged from art-making for a number of years, as well as those who had received no exposure. The result was that less than 10% of graduates remained under consideration. If that left only 100 or so students, then choosing 29 of them to include in an exhibition would not have been an impossible task.
Whether or not this filtering process was fair, it is important to question how the numbers that emerge from this investigation represent concrete facts. The results show an obvious but often overlooked premise: that is, being a professional artist is a job with a high dropout rate, and this holds true all over the world. In other words, although not all artists are products of an art school education, there isn’t an art school in the world that can guarantee that its students will become artists. This is not tied to general employment rates, because the cruel nature of the art industry comes from an intrinsic quality of the process of creating art: namely, what Kant termed “purposeless purposiveness.” With one’s head held high, one invests time and money into becoming an artist, but it is almost impossible to receive immediate, effective rewards. We cannot criticize the ineffectiveness of art education in the traditional sense because, as long as it is based on the premise of cultivating artists, this kind of high dropout rate is inevitable. On the other hand, using this rate as a basis, we can look into how an art school education can be made more effective.
This endeavor has become increasingly relevant due to the continuing expansion of student numbers at art schools in China over the past ten years. Is it the responsibility of art educators to make students aware of the profession’s high failure rate? For someone who has long wanted to be creative, four years of university education does not guarantee that they will develop the skills required to be established in society, but instead leads to an education in how to become a professional artist. Currently, the educational direction and specialized appraisal standards of many art schools often exclusively emphasize technical training and skill. The result is that, during their many years of study, a majority of students find that their goal is to be able to paint well, while very few are told that this is only one element of making a career in the art industry—and could even be unnecessary. When art school graduate exhibitions become a competition of technique, most graduates still don’t realize that their first step outside the school might be a mistake.
Educated or self-taught, they have not learned how to make the transition from art student to professional artist. This training involves not only mastering technical skill, but also developing an understanding of the art scene and the necessary psychological preparations it requires, both of which have long been lacking in fine arts education. At the same time, in terms of technique, the flaws that current programs instill in their students bring about a serious imbalance in abilities, the most notable being misplaced priorities that cause deficiencies in conceptual thinking, leading to the absurd belief that creativity is only possible once one has reached a specific level of technical competence. Though many students have an excellent grasp of sculpture, few have the awareness or opportunity to develop their own creative practices, a basic necessity for an artist. This is reflected in the graduate exhibitions of every large art school. We discovered that even at these graduate shows—a crucial career step—few students are capable of looking beyond the idea of getting their work on display. A reflection on or critique of the mechanisms of the contemporary exhibition is sorely lacking in art school education.
Another practice that urgently needs rethinking is the disciplinary division of the academy into categories of traditional Chinese painting, oil painting, printmaking, and sculpture. This logic has roots in the Soviet school of educational organization that accompanied the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. By prizing technique above all else, it forces artistic thinking into narrow channels differentiated only by medium. At the same time, preserving this system of classification means that later additions—new media and experimental art, for instance—are swallowed up even as they seek to make up for the old system’s flaws. For many students and even teachers, oil painting, printmaking, sculpture, and new media are not methods by which to achieve a creative goal, but have become artistic activity in themselves. The result is a shortcoming in creative capability and serious damage to the scope of the imagination.
No art school can guarantee that it can turn an art student into an artist. There is no person or platform that can grant greater legitimacy or security to the careers of aspiring artists, and this is perhaps the greatest issue facing any system of fine arts education.