by Alex Wisser

Orig­i­nally pub­lished  2010-01-23 on

Since my last post was spent rail­ing against the ineluctable, silent effi­ciency of that jug­ger­naut of insti­tu­tional change, Anita Tay­lor and her plans to turn a dinosaur into a jet air­plane with no other tools than a cal­cu­la­tor and a carv­ing knife — I thought it only appro­pri­ate to ded­i­cate this post to the other side of the argu­ment.  The argu­ment for change that is.  I know how to but­ter my bread on both sides, and burn my bridges from both ends.

I knew the nature of the National Art School long before I went there.  My part­ner suf­fered 3 long years in the Land That Time For­got and I suf­fered beside her.  The con­ser­vatism of the school is long famous, and while I won’t bore you with all the absur­dist minu­tia which was our daily din­ner con­ver­sa­tion, I will treat you to a few. Per­haps my favorite was the sug­ges­tion that Richard Bell was a racist when he made the claim that Abo­rig­i­nal Art was a white thing.  Or then there was the time that Christo­pher Allen raised his glass at a fac­ulty party to toast the fact that the National Art School had avoided post mod­ernism all together.  Frankly I found NAS to be post-modern in the extreme, if only for its blithe capac­ity to encom­pass con­tra­dic­tion and log­i­cal incon­sis­tency with­out feel­ing at all obliged to resolve them.  It was at the NAS library that I read from David Antin that “From the mod­ernism you want, you get the post­mod­ernism you deserve”.  I couldn’t think of a bet­ter motto for the school, and sug­gest now to its new man­age­ment that it be ren­dered in bronze and hung above the entrance to the school, per­haps trans­lated into Latin just to impress people.

If that weren’t enough of a warn­ing, I had friends, estab­lished artists, who cer­tainly knew bet­ter than I, dis­cour­age me in force­ful terms from my pro­posed course of study, sug­gest­ing cofa or sca and rec­om­mend­ing I write to such and such head of depart­ment who they were friends with.  Still, I was deter­mined… as all young fools (ok mid­dle aged fools) are, to have my own way in life, and go in the direc­tion that I had decided was best for me.  And to tell you the truth, after all is said and done, I believe I made the right decision.

This deci­sion was based on the fact that I had a my under­grad­u­ate degree from Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity with a triple major, choco­late sprin­kles and a cherry on top. I had been play­ing with the pos­si­bil­ity of an aca­d­e­mic future, but had grown dis­il­lu­sioned with the poten­tials of con­tem­po­rary the­ory and the dis­course pro­duc­tion indus­try.  So I had the­ory; what I had no expe­ri­ence of and no idea about, was the prac­tice of being an artist.   While COFA and SCA cer­tainly had bet­ter cre­den­tials than NAS and the cur­ricu­lum seemed to be focused on far more con­tem­po­rary cur­rents of art mak­ing, I was attracted to NAS because it would give me the kind of stu­dio based edu­ca­tion I needed, includ­ing sub­stan­tial con­tact hours with work­ing artists.  The under­grad­u­ate course my part­ner went through required a 40 hour week, either in stu­dio or in lec­tures and I was attracted to the prospect of being required to treat art mak­ing like a proper occu­pa­tion.  If you com­pare this to cofa and sca where con­tact hours are as low as 12 hours a week in large classes and the oblig­a­tion placed on stu­dents are from what I’ve heard, ambiva­lent at best — NAS had some­thing going for it that couldn’t be got­ten any­where else.  While both cofa and sca have their strengths, as I was inves­ti­gat­ing my options, I came across a good per­cent­age of their stu­dents com­plain­ing that while they were learn­ing a lot of the­ory they weren’t learn­ing the practice.

NAS was the exact oppo­site.  While you got a truly gen­er­ous num­ber of con­tact hours and stu­dio time, the aca­d­e­mic expe­ri­ence was pal­try to say the least.  I had to explain to fourth year stu­dents in the break of our Art His­tory and The­ory lec­ture what semi­otics was.  I know that up to 2008 at least Christo­pher Allen was still tor­ment­ing his stu­dents with 19th cen­tury style rote learn­ing in the form of slide tests for which you were required to mem­o­rize the sta­tis­tics of famous paint­ings.  The library was minute and had sig­nif­i­cant gaps in its col­lec­tion.  I couldn’t find a copy of Lyotard’s “The Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion” (appear­antly because the con­di­tion didn’t apply) and while there were some excel­lent lec­tur­ers, lets face it, as an aca­d­e­mic insti­tu­tion, NAS was a joke.  Any art school that would pro­duce an hon­ors level grad­u­ate who could in all good con­science claim that their work was uni­fied as a body because they were all made by the same per­son, has some seri­ous prob­lems (and pos­si­bly needs to give that stu­dent a refund).

But for me, who had enough the­ory (and I mean enough already) — what the National Art School gave me could not have come from another envi­ron­ment.  I entered hon­ors year with absolutely no prac­tice as an artist what­so­ever, and within a nine month period, to everyone’s sur­prise, I pro­duced a pretty pass­able stu­dent show.  I look back and won­der what the hell they were think­ing, let­ting me in in the first place.  I should have fallen flat on my face, and yet, through the near con­stant, and very con­sis­tent guid­ance of some excel­lent teach­ers, I com­pleted my course and left the National Art School with the one thing a stu­dent can and should expect to have when they leave art school: a begin­ning.  I under­stand that my case can­not be taken to argue the rule: it was an excep­tion, and it is the fail­ing of an art school if it trains its stu­dents in their craft with­out giv­ing them a real­is­tic under­stand­ing of the intel­lec­tual con­text in which they are meant to prac­tice it.  That said, the pre­dom­i­nance of the­ory at the expense of prac­tice cre­ates its own malaise in which the mak­ing of things becomes equiv­a­lent to illus­trat­ing ideas, and as an activ­ity comes closer to writ­ing than to the think­ing that can only be done through mak­ing.  We all under­stand this.  What the National Art School did, even if it was from a reac­tionary posi­tion, was to offer a model of prac­ti­cal edu­ca­tion that is slowly becom­ing extinct (for eco­nomic as much as ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons).  It will be to our loss, if in reform­ing its flaws we fail to improve and build upon its unique qual­ity and instead tear it down and rebuild it in the image of what we already have enough of.