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Sam Thorne  School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education  Sternberg Press [ 2017 ] : photo : author. 

Sam Thorne School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education Sternberg Press [ 2017 ] : photo : author. 



critical reflection on art and education, prompted by reading Sam Thorne's book School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education (2017) 💀

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | December, 2017


Every young artist should know 3 things:


[ John Baldessari, from the short film A Brief History of John Baldessari, narrated by Tom Waits ]

I always say that you have to be very vigilant to not turn into what you critique.

(Tania Brugurera, from School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education, by Sam Thorne, 2017.)



These thoughts, these words, were prompted when reading Sam Thorne's School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education (2017), a generous survey on the subject of the free art school, proffering thinking and imagining beyond the institution.*


Perspective was my first lesson.

Just before Mam lost her voice and life to Motor Neuron Disease, she asked to have a moment with me in her bedroom. Bed ridden for months, she gestured me over by neatly folding the blanket that covered her tiny body. The gesture seemed slow and huge, like the slow curve of a huge wave before it crashes in on itself. Later I would experience the same slow and huge in anticipation of my first kiss or last breakup. What Mam had to say that day was slower and huger than all the kisses and breakups that were ahead of me and behind her. 

Thing is, as I walked toward her bedside, Mam could see Death coming over my shoulder. At the age of 13 death is nothing more than a drawn monster. But terminal disease is different; it gives you time to unpack the black cloak and scythe. Mam had been unpacking for months in her bedroom. What she had for me was simple: 'Mind your sisters and brother. Do what makes you happy.’ I icily took the last bit as licence to be an artist because…well, you’ll see.

Perspective is a strange thing. Youth is eyeless to it; old age is lidless to it. Having that nebulous black cloud on the horizon gave Mam premature perspective on her past and my future. Truth tell, I wanted to get out of Mam's bedroom as quickly as possible. I was 13. I had things to do, and the unfathomable wasn't one of them.  

Mam's bedside advice to do what made me happy was given at the time when I was obsessively drawing and colouring on my school text books: drawing monsters to scare the real one out of my mother. Winning an art competition at age 12 and meeting the then Minister of Education Mary O'Rourke in Dublin, with my mam and dad in attendance, was enough validation to become an artist for a lifetime. It did two things: it made Mam happy and Dad patient; patience being the best thing for everyone in the long game of art.

Years later I was listening to a woman on the radio whom was being interviewed about her previous life as a fashion model. She looked back on modelling from a position of sobriety in her current role as a quantum physicist, or some such profession that places the graceful intellect above the drunken body. She talked about how she was criticised in the beginning by photographers and designers for thinking too much on the job, but as soon as she left her brain at home the job became easier. 

Mad Men  Season 1 [ 2007]

Mad Men Season 1 [ 2007]


The American TV series Mad Men is not about 1960s fashion and design as I was led to believe by the media when it first came out in 2007, it's about the sowing and blossoming of feminism in the 1960s. Watching Mad Men today against the weirless floodgates of sexual abuse scandals by Hollywood royalty and others, Mad Men's style bears real substance, as if the phalanx of maxi-dresses and mini skirts were just a pretty parade for the rear guard of female discontent to rear up and revolt. Mad Men's men are narcissistic dicks in a trouser-society where women have no choice but to be slim and dim. The only equality is that everyone is chained in tendrils of cigarette smoke. 

My mother and father came from the Mad Men generation; Dad worked, Mam did the house and us. Even though Mad Men is a closed portrait of professional and familial relationships against the backdrop of a 1960's Madison Avenue advertisement agency, I ask myself time and again while watching, how did my father treat my mother and vice versa? I remember – felt – respect and love in our home of three boys and three girls. If anything it was a matriarchal home. But of course, a man reflecting through the eyes of a boy might conclude that on the basis of petty wars won in the household by Mam. But outside, it was still Dad's world.  

Mam & Dad [ The past. ]

Mam & Dad [ The past. ]


I am a product of many things, my father, my mother, my experiences, including all the sociological stuff that doesn't need repeating here. But art and education have been my mainstay. I dropped out of school at 15 (because of all the above) to haul cavity blocks and mix cement and plaster. But education was always there for me when I was trying on life. But education was never work. Work was work. 

Work for my father was physical and long – it was day in and day out. Dad spent a lifetime harvesting the land with gnarled hands and soot on his face as a coal miner, a forester, a security guard, and finally, a gardener. For the physical worker, work punches the daydreamer awake, and is something you cradle in your bones at night. Work suppresses the anxieties and excitements of the past and the future because you're compelled to relax into the tiredness and aches of the present. Work floors you. Work grounds you. 

Mad Men  Season 1 [ 2007]

Mad Men Season 1 [ 2007]


Words in contrast to work, seduced me. Words filled my head with anxieties and excitements that I never fully plastered over in the day in and day out of work. Words spun dreams; desirous utopias that could never be built with bricks and mortar. Words were rhetorical, but somehow answers weren't what I was looking for. What I was looking for was something that existed between work and words; something that demonstrated to me the invisible labour and beauty of, let’s say, a spider's web. It was always art. 

Self-organised art education is something I have been interested in since 2009, when I came across an article by Roberta Smith in The New York Times about the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) based in New York City. The anonymous group of artists had this motto that made sense to a lost art graduate: "Professional Problems, Amateur Solutions." Sam Thorne's School is the first book I've read on art education that gives real examples for real possibilities for self-organised art education, and possible futures for the art school and beyond the art school.

Because the topic of free education naturally confronts and challenges the status quo of paid art education, especially how art education has been professionalised in recent decades, a natural criticism runs through the 20 interviews with initiators of art and education projects. Of course there's lots of rhetorical language and ideologies at play here, appropriated from the very thing that is being questioned, the institution. Such pronouncements make me think that ideology is born out of the loss of the very thing you end up critiquing. Something that is taken from you, or corrupted in some way. A damaged ideal or belief becomes an ideology; Institutional Critique becomes the institution. 

Thorne’s interviewees are mostly socially-engaged artists, for whom art and eduction is transformative. Even though I don’t want to be sweeping, I always feel that socially-engaged art fells lots of trees to produce lots of pulp and pronouncements, but no one is around to hear them fall. Throughout School criticisms are made against the exclusive language of the art school by the same socially-engaged artists, even though, a lot of the time, socially-engaged projects adopt and mimic the academic language of the institution. 

I did a HDip in Further Education. I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Mexican artist Pablo Helguera’s elegant ideas and ideals about education via art are sourced from Freire. In Thorne’s School Helguera comes across as very open and refreshingly critical of the ‘reputational economy’ of the artworld. He puts a positive spin on the institutional mimicry that dresses his art and education projects with the phrase LEARNING TO BE INSTITUTIONAL, through which Helguera proposes we create systems to replace the system. It all sounds like it's coming from a good place, a good heart, but there is a bit of the slippery language of American 1970's foreign policy about it all – the echo of Henry Kissinger's "creative systems" and "constructive ambiguity" can be heard crashing in the woods. In the end they are all systems; in the end they are just words; in the end we are all human. But, as Dave Hickey asked: "What's wrong with being seduced?" And more specifically in relation to art making, what's wrong with being seduced by words? Well, if you take my example, I gave up art making for words. 

I realised I liked to talk the talk very early on. First there was the unsolicited essay I wrote for my 5th Year art teacher on the life and painting of Raphael when I returned to school at 19 to complete my Leaving Cert at Pearse College, Crumlin. The teacher gave me an embarrassing A+++ due to, I believe, disbelief rather than distinction: I was all poetry and little prose in those days, but I had a work ethic. Then there was the 10,000 words I wrote for my MFA when 2,500 was all that was needed. I knew no one was going to read it, never mind count it, or open it, so it was for me rather than them

Some time between my Leaving Cert (when I received a D- in Art) and my MFA, I came across the academic language that was being proliferated by new theory-heavy MAs and PhDs in Dublin, like Art in the Contemporary World (NCAD), MAVIS (IADT) and lateral institutions such as GradCam (NCAD and various institutions). Time-lapse Ivory Towers were sprouting up all around me as if the world were growing teeth. But I always chose the art-making route, no matter how seductive I found the language in the prospectus, believing that you needed to physically 'do' before you could theoretically 'speak'. There was also the whole work complex courtesy of my dad complex.

Mad Men  Season 1 [ 2007]

Mad Men Season 1 [ 2007]


In the early days I went along to the symposia on multidisciplinary art practice where some subject or another seemed to be always taking a 'Turn'. The phraseology had the concision of a Mad Men advertisement but lacked the charm and heart of Ed Ruscha. In the end the phraseology started to bother me. I became burdened by lightbulb messages that flickered to reveal phantom solutions that you couldn't work with as an artist in the studio. The exclusive message became the medium.

In 2000, when I took the first steps into third level art education, real transformations were taking place in terms of art education and the art school. On the ground, however, where all this theoretical touting was (I assumed) meant to manifest into art, little was shifting in terms of new territories for art making and its display. Sometimes fledging institutions – artist-run spaces or art collectives or art groups formed in the art school – would shake the foundations, but it was always transient or fragmented, artists and curators moving on to the next thing, the next institution.

Without the possibility of a peer group forming in my BA or MFA years, I would have given anything to avoid sliding off the cliff into this real world of limited art resources and opportunity. The art school supplied me with a critical community that, day in and day out, challenged my own sense of taste in the making and doing of art. Inside the walls everything was good. But after graduating there was a perspective shift in me because of the insecurities of being an artist in the world. Like a bouncing castle the sealed air that was being pumped into the once soft art institution looked bloated and vulgar and alien from the outside. In the following years when NCAD bulged with its inflated student numbers, and at the same time the physical art scene fluctuated between staying the same or getting smaller, the idea of self-organised art education promoted and executed by the likes BHQF became really seductive as an idea, but never a reality.

Thorne observes how in 1957 there were 350 MFA graduates, compared to the 100,000 art-related (BAs, MFAs, PhDs) today “in the United States alone”. Reading through Thorne's correspondence with artists who have built big reputations (or not) by taking the back-alley route of self-organised art education, you get the sense that the whole movement was, and still is, a rebuff against the professionalisation and "collegiate capitalism" of the contemporary art school at critical mass (It's only two years since ‘NCAD students staged a mass sit in to protest against senior management over claims it is “damaging the quality of their studies.”’). Two years before the NCAD sit in, New York’s Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, a free school for over 150 years, announced that it would be introducing annual fees of $20,000, which “sparked a two-month occupation of the president’s office… the longest student occupation in American history”.  

I wonder how this proliferation of words has helped art making; or how it has changed the thinking behind the art object. What would art look like without the theory, without education, without the institution, without the curator, without words? What if there were no bureaucratic middlemen? If in their stead you had artists and studios and self-organised art spaces? Does talking the talk help walking the walk? Are we all just saying the same shit? Are we convinced by words over images? I’m sure the answer is found some place in between – a typical answer from an art educated me. I have come to believe that artists depend too much on their master and minion institutions. 

When I was an MFA student at NCAD Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics was a book that was always kept, or hanging out on the kept shelf just beyond the librarian's shoulder – including the copies. I was absolutely seduced by the facilitation of words and text in the work of Liam Gillick et al. Still am. Thorne mentions how art historian Lane Relyea defines relational aesthethics in relation to the contemporary art school, where "Hanging out, talking shop, and making connections with faculty and visiting artists" has replaced the curricula and syllabi. But what about beyond the art school? Helguera chimes in on the criticisms of relational aesthetics, one of many in this book, by saying that relational aesthetics was less about the public and more about the artist. Thorne mentions Theaster Gates as an example of an artist who manages to skate across the rough and smooth of socially-engaged art practice and artworld/ art market. I personally loved Gates' work at Documenta 13 in 2012; but as an object rather than a message. I wanted to take it home, the songs and smells, even though it was a building that housed working humans and working art. 

You do get a sense from the artists in Thorne's School that the sophisticated language and materials of art is as important, if not more important, than the message. Not in the Marshall McLuhan meaning of ‘the medium is the message’, whereby the medium influences how the message is perceived. But in terms of how language is in excess of the medium, a medium that has nominal effect on its viewership or, more to the point, readership. That failure is its success; the clichéd lesson of art education. 


Said in a matter-of-fact way, Anton Vidokle, the founder of e-flux and coeditor of e-flux journal, responds to one of Thorne's questions on his unitednationsplaza 'school': "It started with mainly artists and curators, particularly curators, who tend to be very active. That's because there's some kind of entrepreneurial component to this profession; you need to be visible and you need to engage in a network." Later in the conversation Vidokle admits to wanting to put art back centre stage where it obviously belongs, and magnanimously admits that e-flux is partly to blame for the generalised theories that permeate the artworld today. 

If relational aesthetics is the bad guy in all this, then Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which “opened its doors the same year [ 1933 ] the Bauhaus [ School ] closed”, is the mythological hero. At Black Mountain artists learned by doing, with no curricula, courses or grades, just the gathering of experience. Black Mountain didn’t become an inflated bureaucratic castle: “Over the course of its twenty-four years, fewer than twelve hundred students enrolled”, with Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly  two of its students. And work played its part at Black Mountain too, in the way the artists harvested the land, something my father would have understood. 


Strict yet nebulous themes produced a wide variety of forms that attempted to break the standard triangular and circular or square arrangements. They often did, perched on pews or swarming in a crowded corner of gravestones. 


*Sam Thorne's School: A Recent History of Self-Organised Art Education is published by Sternberg Press [ 2017 ] 

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