Some thoughts on an alternative arts education

4 Aug 2017 - 14:15

Houghton Kinsman follows up on Thuli and Asher Gamedze’s article Calling for Better Curated Spaces for Knowledge Production.

Author: Houghton Kinsman

There are two things in particular that I respect about Thuli Gamedze: her seemingly unwavering confidence in/deft articulation of her thoughts on various art world matters and the fact that she wants to place the topic of experimental arts education at the centre of local cultural discourse. For to have opinions is one thing, but to work within and write engagingly about a topic (arts education) which many people aren’t really interested in is a real labour of love and to actually teach as well, is possibly about as unglamorous as one can get in the art world (for some reason here the old George Bernard Shaw maxim “those who can’t do, teach” just seems more malicious). Yet, Gamedze continues on unperturbed. Her master’s research at Michaelis is concerned with arts education, its history and future in countries across Africa; she recently developed and hosted a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that dealt with a similar topic in an art-cum-education project – one that draws comparisons to Creative Time’s “Art of the MOOC”; she participated in the “Parliament of Bodies” public programme at Documenta 14, which focused on art, activism and education, and her four recent articles “Calling for better curated spaces for knowledge production”, ” Old Buildings, New Conversations”,  and “Concerning Museums”/”Parliament of Bodies.”  published on the Centre for Curating the Archive’s blog, Contemporary And, and Adjective respectively, attest to this will to place experimental arts education at the forefront of mainstream South African cultural discourse.

Gamedze’s insistence on experimenting and finding alternative education solutions is something I strongly connect with (Disclaimer: this article was originally meant to be an interview). It formed the basis of my philosophical approach in the education department at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (MoCANoMi) and it continues to inform my work as an independent art museum educator. Whilst Gamedze tends to deal with the topic in relation to decolonization, I approach the topic as a way to work through the boundaries of what is possible with (and in) teaching. What we agree on, however, is that this is a subject that is urgent and the discourse around it must continue to gain momentum and widen its scope.Understandably, the current education climate in South Africa has engendered this urgency. The higher education sector has weathered two turbulent years of #Falls protests and education in general seems to require a rethink in accordance. And we haven’t even got to arts education yet. So what might seeing these issues from a new arts education perspective entail?

Based on the four aforementioned articles, Gamedze’s contribution was to highlight a few issues that require attention at the nexus between art, the real world, art institutions and arts education. A key issue from “Calling for better curated spaces for knowledge production”, written in conjunction with Asher Gamedze, was the concept of hidden curation – the way social patterns are consciously constructed and are not always made visible to us. In “Concerning Museums” and “Parliament of Bodies” Gamedze dealt with the frustrating disconnect between the artworld and society as well as the dichotomy of real versus perceived action within this relationship. Here, she drew on the recent Zwelethu Mthethwa controversy at Iziko SANG’s Our Lady exhibition and her frustrations with the outcomes of the “Parliament of Bodies” public programme. And, finally, in  “Old Buildings, New Conversations” Gamedze ruminated on the age old issue of what to do with problematic and underutilized art museums in South Africa?

These issues raised by Gamedze are, however, by no means new. She refers to the way critical pedagogues, such as Paulo Freire, Antonio Darder, Shirley Steinberg, Henry Giroux and Peter Mclaren, dealt with the hidden curriculum in the 70s and 80s (in South Africa, critical pedagogy was a key dimension of the anti-apartheid struggle in education). Meanwhile, frustrations over the division between art world and the real world (perceived vs real action) is a debate almost as old as art itself and is epitomized, locally, by the cultural worker movements in the late 80s, early 90s and art museums globally, as well as within this country, have been theorized, discussed and critiqued at length. But, what Gamedze’s articles do make evident is that these issues, in this current pedagogical and political context, require immediate attention. Institutional landscapes are under immense pressure to change. More people need access to higher education, recent political events (“Guptagate”) have shown that citizens need to become more aware of the way the country operates and local galleries continue to grow increasingly stronger and more dominant of the local art scene, while art museums stutter along.

My contribution then is to consider how these issues raised by Gamedze may be used to develop a new alternative form of higher arts education. One approach is to combine these issues in order to create a framework for an expanded arts pedagogy. In this case, such a framework must fuse the academic intensity of the university experience with art school’s rigorous creative thinking. It must be made relevant to those both interested in art and those who aren’t, and it should be offered through the art museum. But why this avenue?

Most importantly, Gamedze’s articles demonstrate how these issues are connected to and affect us all in everyday life. Hidden curation is not limited to the artworld. It’s an everyday, every person phenomenon, from the way gender roles are taught and imposed to the way we learn through school. Then there is the notion that culture is something we all understand and buy into – albeit that we do so differently. Whilst we may not all be interested in art, we all consume/participate in culture through things like television, social media, music, advertising etc. Moreover, creative/critical thinking and problem solving skills are used by everyone, in varying degrees, in their respective contexts and occupations. And, as Gamedze points out, “despite pretending not to be”, the art institution (and by extension the artworld) is indivisible from the real world, as ” it is in fact solidly reliant on, contributes to and importantly profits from it.” Like it or not, art/life and life/art are connected.

Gamedze’s frustration with the disconnect between the artworld and the real world also highlights another reason for this type of framework: the need to address the narrow definition of the possibilities of arts education – that dilemma between what is done with it and what could be done with it. Historically art education has been predominantly thought of as training for a career in the arts and the premise in South Africa still remains much the same today. The academy, the master-apprentice and community arts centres are all traditional pedagogical models that are prefaced on the student learning skills, such as painting, drawing, weaving, printmaking, carving or sculpting, to become some form of an artisan. In South Africa there is a complex history of universities and community art centers training important local artisans. The impact, in this regard, of places such as Rorkes Drift, Polly Street, Mofolo Art Centre, Community Arts Project and the Ndaleni Teacher Training College is evident and our arts education practices today are still largely based on these traditional models. Yet, when this definition of arts education is considered against the work of artists such as Rikrit Tiravanija, who serves Thai meals to his audience as dialogue starters; or David Hammonds, who sold snowballs in New York, as a way to interrogate informal economies in the USA or our own Jody Brand, who records youth culture through photos posted to Tumblr, and Bogosi Sekhukhuni, who deals with topics such as cyber security/health and identity in the digital sphere, it becomes evident that these specific types of contemporary practices are very far conceptually from the traditional arts education experience of painting, sculpture, printmaking etc. Arguably, they are actually more deeply connected to the way different, non-artworld audiences operate in the world.

Therefore, if this much is true, then why then do we still have such a narrow, one-dimensional definition of the possible application of arts education in South Africa? Why do only people with creative aspirations go to or are allowed/sanctioned* to go art school?

I insist it relates to the other reason for experimenting this particular framework for arts education: tackling the failure, purposeful or not, on behalf of both the artworld and non-artworld to acknowledge the possibilities of an expanded arts education for fear of jeopardizing their respective status. Status and vulnerability in this case are closely connected: we want to know things in order to achieve status (fitting in with others or knowing what others don’t) but we don’t want share our knowledge because if too many people know what we do (or do what we do) we become vulnerable. Hence, we exclude. On the other hand, sometimes we refuse to attempt to know because by admitting not to know (or failing to understand) we make ourselves vulnerable. Hence, we refuse to be included. Admittedly, there are other points to this dialectic, but consider these two points through the relationship between the artworld world and those outside of it. The artworld, as an abstract idea, is a notoriously closed-off and paranoid space. People within it are constantly jostling for power and position. This is all predicated on cultural habitus, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s term for a type of sanctioned cultural capital that infers status. This approach is evident in the use of concepts such as the artist as genius and art-for-arts sake. These two examples, used as cornerstones of modernism, are a perfect example of the way the artworld consciously works to close itself off from the rest of the world. Those within it are privy to a knowledge those outside the artworld don’t have and as a result the outside world is kept at a distance. This is also one reason why art education is about becoming an artist. It ensures the cycle. Thus when art is opened up to the rest of society it is done in a largely superficial way. View the artworks in the museum, visit the galleries, party at first Thursday’s but that’s where you as an outside audience stay. On the other hand, the outside audience often display a hesitancy, and/or refusal to get involved with art for fear of not “getting it.”  The same goes for the seeming benefits of  arts education. “Art is a luxury”; “arts education doesn’t get you a job”; “the gallery/museum is intimidating/uncomfortable”; ” I don’t get it,” ” my kid/I could do this” etc are all tropes associated with the field and give this audience an excuse not to get involved. In both situations, the relationship between each side and their willingness/ability to see the benefits of an expanded arts pedagogy is hampered.

With all these reasons considered, how then could this framework manifest itself?

Firstly, an alternative arts education must work consciously to bridge the divide between artworld and realworld. The philosophy of an alternative in this vein should take the elements of the creative process, I.e design thinking principles: curiosity, understanding, ideation, prototyping and testing in relation to unusual problem solving, and demonstrate to students how they can be used in their relevant fields and occupations (this is art essentially becoming a “toolbox” to think more rigorously about their work, their position in society etc). For example, in addition to the regular art school dimension, how might design thinking and the creative process become tools for scientists to see their research in new and different ways, or open up unexpected avenues for the way people run their businesses? Secondly, this framework must develop a pedagogy that is multidisciplinary, multimodal, and informal. It must forego the emphasis on the skills-orientated dimension of traditional arts education and instead allow for flexibility in teaching methods, the fostering of new perspectives,and demonstrate to students how to approach everyday situations from various philosophical positions. Thirdly, it must simultaneously preserve status and encourage vulnerability. Educators need to propose a rethink of the artworld’s insularity as well as change the non-artworld audience’s perceptions around art and its benefits. This situation is less about getting both sides to buy into the Beuysian spirit that “everyone is an artist,” the true democratization of art, and more about making its methods and modes of thinking relevant to more people. And, finally, it must perform real (trans)formative action. It must have practical, tangible benefits and encourage worthwhile development.

Which brings us to the art museum and the role of art museum educators in South Africa. In her articles, Gamedze has made it clear that art museums in South Africa are colonial relics with a problematic history and today they occupy a sanguine position. They are loaded with a violent history and are woefully underfunded and underutilized. They are maligned and marginalized institutions yet they still possess much potential. Gamedze insists that “rather than destroy them, maybe we need to think about shifting the educational relationship the public has with them.” If that is to be the case, it is already evident that art museum educators at these institutions continuously perform thankless tasks. For example, SANG has one educator and WHAG doesn’t have an education department etc. but still these institutions cater to a wide array of visitors by curating curriculum themed exhibitions, organising national curriculum framework advisor meetings, offering school tours, developing outreach initiatives and hosting teacher training workshops. But, if the art museum is to become a site for this form of an alternative arts education, these institutions must be made indispensable to those who do not or cannot use them. And in order to do this education practices within our art museums must change.

To begin with, there should be less of the traditional focus on art as content, and more emphasis on it as a vehicle through which to discuss an array of topics. Moreover, educators must address their tendency to as Gamedze puts it “submit students to truth of objects, that contrary to their supposed neutrality, are loaded with violent ideology.” Educators must thus become less reliant on transferring knowledge from the collection on display and more intent on critically interrogating exhibitions with students. Educators must also deal more rigorously with “the structuring of the world” by becoming more politically-attuned, daring and open to risk-taking. This is a process that requires educators to make themselves more vulnerable and question what they teach. Some educators in the USA and Europe, are already utilizing this approach: pedagogical philosophies such as critical multiculturalism and critical gallery education, work with students to deal very intently with social and organizational power dynamics, the hidden curriculum, the idea of the museum as purveyor of objectivity/truth and they interrogate how these institutions fit into the scheme of globalised capitalism. Within these pedagogies, the work of educators such as Joni Boyd Acuff, Nora Sternfeld, Carmen Morsch, Kaija Kaitavouri and Felicity Allen, is worth mentioning. The key then in the case of South Africa, is how to adapt these approaches and make them relevant to our institutional contexts and social needs.

Therefore, whilst we may not be able to turn our museums in higher education institutions just yet, there are possibilities for an alternative pedagogy that is applicable to those in the arts and those who aren’t at the nexus between art education, the art museum and curating. This is a belief founded not only on the benefits of what each of these spheres has to offer, but also on what they stand to benefit themselves: blue sky thinking, this sort of approach could position the museum as a central learning institution and aid in attracting more visitors and consequently more funding, perceptions around art and art education can change and both fields can become more accessible to more people without jeopardizing their respective status and position. Undoubtedly, there are many ways to critique this idea, but that’s a consideration for another time. For now the onus must fall to educators to change their thinking and approaches. We need more radical educators like Gamedze who want to challenge what is possible with teaching and we need to make better use of the possible applications of art and art museum education. Who knows where this conversation may head? But for now, let’s hear your thoughts.

*By this I mean why is the portfolio of drawings or photographs etc still the main entrance requirement for an art school at undergraduate level? Why don’t ideas or creative thinking count as much as a naturalistic drawings?