The art school brochures, inevitably, tend to waffle about tolerance, and diversity. I hope I have shown that this diversity is not lauded for its use in the artistic development of students, but primarily because it is an effective weapon in the decimation of artistic traditions, and this seems to be one of the unstated, and perhaps even unconscious, aims of our art schools now. It is so effective because it is stealthy. Undermine, subvert, and displace traditions on their own terms, and few will be bothered to notice — fewer still if you use more jargon; an outright assault would at least cause some debate.
Not that an outright assault would be on anyone's mind today. The teachers' attitude is casual; they themselves are not radicals, but they are the complacent heirs to very successful radicals. One need only read the passionate but cynical manifestos of the early Modernists, developed over a century ago, to find the modern art schools' ideological heritage; in those manifestos there is no pretence of tolerance, and there is boasting, instead of denial, of the most destructive ambitions. In 1909 Marinetti wrote: "We wish to destroy museums, libraries, academies..." and "What on earth is there to be discovered in an old painting other than the laboured contortions of the artist...?" And: "Divert the canals so they can flood the museums!... Oh, what a pleasure it is to see those revered old canvases, washed and tattered, drifting away in the water!... Grab your picks and your axes and your hammers and then demolish..." It would be absurd for our art schools to make or support such exclamations now — not just because tolerance is fashionable, not just because they would risk losing their funding, but mainly because many of the manifesto's calls have, at least sentimentally, been satisfied far more thoroughly than Marinetti would really have hoped. Today's art teachers are young; very few over 45, and they were taught just as they now teach. They are not, like their forebears, agitators for ugliness, because ugliness has won. It was one thing to be ideologically opposed to aesthetic pleasure (Marinetti: "There is no longer any beauty except the struggle."); it is quite another to assume dispassionately that such pleasing was regular and easy; the favourite saying of a teacher of mine was "Beware of beauty!" — as if beauty lurked round corners ready to pounce. This is much more disturbing than any mere provocative pose, like Marinetti's, because it suggests a profound distance from our tradition and the values it once embodied, and that those values now seem so foreign as to be not worth understanding at all. These teachers are sentimentally radical, and by ethos anti-traditional; rebellion may as well be their motto, but they have never had anything to rebel against, having for long been in authority themselves. In order to go on, they have to blind themselves to the fact that what is rebellious now is to love old art, not to ridicule it. In discussions I tried to argue the absurdity of their position, that there is nothing left for them to subvert; that all I had ever heard was from them and others like them, so for me to think differently must be a sign of independence and imagination, not indoctrination — I was alone, they were legion. Couldn't they see? No, I needed to "open my mind". And there are all sorts of snobbery at play here too. For them it is only a certain sort of person, or class of person, that still bothers to look at old art. And surely this sort of person only does it to reassure himself of natural privilege. As far as these teachers know, there is no such thing as an honest response to art. They will already be suspicious if you achieved good grades in academic subjects, and if you speak in competent sentences. They are not that sort of person, and they loathe that sort of person — unless, of course, he has come to buy their artworks.
How has this come to be? There is a well-known anti-historical tendency common to all the humanities. When art schools began to move into universities and offer degrees, certainly they were more exposed to a post-modern contagion. But there is also something special about the symptoms shown in art faculties. We have seen that they cultivate a now tired rebellious pose. How has this pose been held for so long?
Modern art had always been flirting with outlandish theories, through its many blustering -isms. By the turn of the 20th century the appreciative vision was no longer available to the modern artist; instead he had to shatter and shunt spaces, distort forms impulsively according to his darkest submerged feelings, or aspire to the condition of a machine — all this done to assert his convictions. The move of art into the university, mid-century, was then a consummation: there was no going back to that innocent age of smiling paint on canvas; art was now grown up, and it should be argumentative, political, commanding. To justify this new position of responsibility, the art curriculum has tended to exaggerate its intellectual claims. A brochure declares that the teaching staff's duty is "to help you understand how [your work] contributes to, and challenges, the critical debates that exist in the study area and beyond". It is not, then, their duty to teach painting, say, or sculpture, but to convey to you your vital place in a series of academic quibbles, and if possible ones which extend beyond art into grander spheres of subversion. This is important, this desire to escape the land of art, because it betrays a certain anxiety about art's status, or at least about its lowly artisanal ancestry. When another school proclaims to "support the discourse around painting, sculpture and fine art media", it really wants to say that it exorcises this anxiety. Supporting that discourse is not the same as supporting painting or sculpture; quite the opposite, since the discourse will be a deconstruction of the very worth of painting or sculpture, a disqualification even, in order to announce the new "fine art media" which have little to do with art, nothing fine about them, and, to the uninitiated, wouldn't seem to be media at all.
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