Back to school

Sam Thorne – School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education (Sternberg Press 2017)

Sam Thorne’s School is not just, as its subtitle suggests, a ‘recent history of self-organized art education’, surveying the ‘sudden density’ of alternative of art schools that have emerged since the early 2000s. It’s also a timely contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of higher education, who should bear the costs – and the expected and desired outcomes for those who participate.

Implicit is the conundrum of the role an art school might usefully be expected to fulfil, given that somebody cannot be taught to ‘be’ an artist. Josef Beuys’ famous saying ‘everyone is an artist’ recurs again and again in the book. If everyone is an artist, then, the purpose of art schools is not to create artists, but to provide an environment in which artists might develop and realise their potential, meet other artists, have time, space and resources to test and experiment, and to challenge and be challenged.

For this reason, the overall emphasis of the art schools featured in the book is less on practical and vocational training and more about creating a discursive environment which is flexible, collaborative and self-directed. The school in this sense is less a place where the student is a fee-paying customer, taking on crippling debt in order to purchase an off-the-peg education delivered in expensive buildings, and more a place to go to learn and change through process and experience. This is an education which is not separate from the real world, but takes place throughout the everyday, and concerns not just knowledge and skills but thoughts and attitudes to life. It’s interdisciplinary: art schools are not just a place where one might find painters and sculptors, but activists, writers, cooks and musicians. This education does not end at the close of the school day, once students have left the building or graduate, but is something students take with them into the future. It’s less about giving students the keys to enter elite international art networks, and the ability to participate in global art markets, than about developing artists’ abilities to criticise, critique and suggest alternatives.

In School, Thorne explores the different approaches that have been taken to providing this education. He grounds artist-led education historically in initiatives such as the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, before presenting a series of interviews with alternative art schools around the world, from European case studies to projects in Cuba, the United States, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.

Sometimes these schools mirror the formal education systems, whether in language – several adopt the name of ‘school’, ‘university’ or ‘academy’ – or in their expectations of the students, such as writing a formal dissertation. These alternative schools may also have symbiotic relationships to the academy, through affiliation, funding or staffing. Often, too, students have already been through post-graduate education – the alternative art school is supplementary to it rather than a replacement.

Thorne shows that what does separate these schools from established institutions is their tendency to be small-scale, rooted in community and specific in their response to local context. Among the case studies highlighted are universities that are nomadic, moving to different cities, those which take place within the domestic space of the home, and those which suggest the atelier model, with students acting in a role that is akin to assistants within a studio system.

The more interesting interviews are those in which the challenges faced by artists and art students are most apparent, due to economic, social or political constraints, or which take place in areas with little tradition of mainstream non-academic art education: it’s in cities such as Ramallah and St Petersburg that alternative, critical education feels most daring, urgent and necessary.

Thorne made the conscious decision to focus on the founders of alternative art schools. In a book expounding non-hierarchical and collaborative education it feels a little odd that key, driving individuals and personalities are highlighted at the expense of those who have participated in, taught at or graduated from alternative art schools. The ideas and motivations behind the schools therefore come across much more strongly than the feeling of actually studying there.

These alternative art schools, too, appear as a series of experiments and one-off projects rather than long-term, sustainable alternatives to the market-driven system of higher education. However, as Thorne points out, even if they don’t offer an alternative route to the established system they offer ‘modest proposals’ for the type of education that might be delivered in the art school of the future.

– Natalie Bradbury

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