by Alex Wisser
Originally published 2010-01-23 on carnivalaskew.com
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.