What We Learned in Art School
Of course there are many art school programs that address these issues. However, few have altered micro-political modes of learning to orient artists toward work in direct solidarity with projects of social justice. Much of this is related to art education’s individuating ideology and obsessions with both novelty and ambivalence. Artists are not often taught to build solidarities amongst themselves, let alone those within in the social context in which they may be operating.
What artists learn about critique of the conditions of the art world is often that they are a motif, to be settled neatly into a consumptive cultural platform. Take Andrea Fraser’s “Museum Highlights” from 1989, for example, an “artistic intervention” into the mode of production of the gallery tour. While performatively illustrating the enthusiasm and expectation of entry level cultural workers, neither the artist nor the presenting institutions address the actual conditions of tour guides themselves, many of whom are recent graduates who have not begun to think of themselves as workers. The issues have been presented by virtue of an address but not in terms of the materiality of labor practices, or at least not for any others than the artist who herself performs. While Fraser’s performance and the era of institutional critique of which it was a part were important in raising a number of issues, they also became, as many have suggested (Holmes 2007), (*1) isolated excuses for institutions to carry on with the status quo. Cultural organizations felt that they had been open to dissenting opinions, offered “platforms” for their discussion and symbolic actions, but spent far less time engaging in the uncomfortable processes of institutional change that might be provoked by taking critique seriously. Economies of artistic production in the form of short-term performances and commissions structurally disable follow-up on the consequences of their actions, if the organizations that commissioned them were even inclined to do so. Further, they position critique as that which was hermetically directed within the processes of the arts without finding grounds of solidarity between these issues and those outside of the “world” of cultural production.
Such is the case that two decades later the great artist interventionist Marina Abramovic could stage a performance at a MOCA gala fundraiser, making use of the heads of minimally paid young performers as dramatic table dressings. In her open letter to the director of the institution and the artist, Yvonne Rainer compared this idea to a scene from the movie SALO, in which young teenagers are abused and sodomized by members of a powerful elite in a palace outside of the city. It is only recently at the hands of Rainer, WAGE, Precarious Workers Brigade, Art Leaks and others that questions around labor rights and the perpetual precarity of the cultural industry are being flagged and acted upon by collectives in and outside of the art school context.