“art thinking doing art: Artistic Practices in Educational Contexts from 1900 to Today”

“art thinking doing art: Artistic Practices in Educational Contexts from 1900 to Today”

Berlin University of the Arts

November 17, 2023
Sandra Neugärtner
Berlin University of the Arts

Contemporary art is becoming more and more focused on the pressing issues and current problems of society. Anyone who consumes it in museums, galleries, biennials, on the street, within visual culture, or in the digital realm will have witnessed that, in order to respond to social and environmental challenges—such as rapidly growing inequality or increasingly extreme environmental conditions—art production employs progressively rational thinking. These new demands on art have collapsed its disciplinary boundaries with science and are consistent with the general trend of the scientification of art. This phenomenon has been observable since the 1990s and has shifted art’s parameters considerably—for example, in the direction of research work.

In 2004 the historian Hal Foster introduced his theory of the “archival impulse,” which concerned art that undertakes an idiosyncratic exploration of certain figures, objects, and events in modern art, philosophy, and history. 1 Whereas Foster’s theory was about artist archives that are subjective, fragmentary, and material, new developments point in the direction of a machine processing of general knowledge. Subjectivity is increasingly removed from processes of selection and interpretation. 2 “Research-based art” is a buzzword adopted from Great Britain in order to bolster scientific credibility. Berlin-based scholar and curator Tom Holert introduced the term “knowledgization” to describe this process within the context of hegemonic epistemological power structures. It underscores the significance of this trend, including the changing relations between science, the academy, and their encompassing polities and economies. The question of the nature of knowledge within art, which is now increasingly phrased in terms of “truth” and “evidence-based” scientificity, is also related to hegemonic constellations of power. An important agent within the knowledge-power construct is the university, which institutionalizes the scientification of art and develops corresponding study programs and degrees.

The critical examination of this development is not new. Following the 1999 Bologna Declaration, which promised to reform higher education in Europe, the scientification of art was scrutinized during the educational restructuring phase in the first decade of the 2000s. 3 Dieter Lesage and Kathrin Busch have been analyzing the overhaul of education systems in Europe and its effects on arts education since 2007. 4

Although the arts were free to resist the Bologna transformation, the scientification of the arts began rapidly in Great Britain, Finland, and Belgium. In other countries, such as Germany, the conversion to the tripartite system of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees also began, albeit belatedly. The consequence of the Bologna Process—which runs counter to traditional studio studies in art, where classes encourage a pronounced master-pupil relationship—was a steady increase in “artistic research,” almost serving as the highest qualification level within the hierarchical university structure. Whereas Lesage still argued in 2009 that the Bologna Process, instead of homogenizing the educational systems in Europe and beyond, had instead highlighted their differences, today we observe an alignment. 5 Whether at the Ruskin School of Art in London, Bauhaus University in Weimar, the Institute for Contemporary Art Research at Zurich University of the Arts, or the School of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts, advanced-level programs have become largely interchangeable.

Occupation of the rectory of the University of Valencia against the Bologna Process, 2008. Courtesy of Joanbanjo/Wikimedia Commons. 

Doctoral programs typically expect artistic practice to be supplemented by written research, either in the form of a separate dissertation or as part of an art practice itself. The University of Leeds was perhaps the earliest of the universities to offer such an art degree, introduced by Adrian Rifkin and Griselda Pollock, both of whom are art scholars, not practitioners. Leeds awarded the first such doctorate in 1998. Art historian James Elkins has taken it upon himself to document the growing number of institutions in Europe offering doctoral programs in studio art. 6 But the trend toward doctoral degrees for artists is being reflected upon more critically than ever. Claire Bishop writes: “There are many reasons to be skeptical of the Ph.D.-in-fine-art boom.” 7

The economic implications of fine-art PhD degrees are perhaps what is most worthy of criticism. The art market is not the only place in the art world where the growing economic inequalities of our society are reflected; these inequalities have become obvious in organizations that are nominally nonprofit, such as universities. BFA and MFA programs rely on cheap adjuncts who accept precarious employment for career reasons; those who do not fulfill their teaching obligations lose, for example, their venia legendi (authorization to teach). 8

The uncertainty of artists’ future prospects has fueled the systematic academic hierarchization of the arts, which was not exempt from higher-education reform after all. In the struggle for enrollment numbers, hardly any art school has resisted the tiered higher-education system, which apportions earning potential and social prestige according to degree. 9 If art is institutionalized and oriented toward the parameters of science, this has consequences for its status and function within the hegemonic social order. How can the fundamental dynamics and transformational potential of arts education avoid being absorbed by the machinery of methodological normalization and economization?

This past June, a conference held at the Berlin University of the Arts focused on the past hundred years of art education. Titled “art thinking doing art: Artistic Practices in Educational Contexts from 1900 to Today,” it convened art historians, artists, art lecturers, and art students from all over the world to consider crucial moments in the twentieth century when art education and art were significantly transformed. Panelists introduced many historical case studies that prompted critical reflection on the current trend toward scientification in art. These case studies provided essential context for the current state of art education by making us aware of what has been lost in contemporary art and pedagogy. They were a much-needed corrective to the notion that art is merely another way of doing intellectual work in an information economy.

The conference revealed that something once fundamental to art production has fallen by the wayside: its critical capacity vis-à-vis its own practice. Although today’s art education structures its curricula around critical subject areas—above all the interrogation of society—the critique of its own subjects, its own methods, and its own institutions has been lost. This deficit is particularly visible within education, because of its unique potential to transform (knowledge) production. As the case studies showed, this capacity has been historically exhausted.

According to the scholar Peter Bürger, author of the highly influential Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), art carries a potential for transformation only when it attacks the institution of art: “Both principles go hand in hand, indeed they mutually condition each other.” 10

Bürger writes that for the avant-garde, art practice has been a matter of liberating aesthetic potential from institutional constraints. It is clear that for art education today, however, the framework and aesthetic of “institutional critique” are no longer viable. Aesthetic valuations along the lines of formalism have been left behind since conceptual art; institutional critique has been absorbed by the art market and assimilated into the mainstream. Ultimately, the neo-avant-garde and the generations that followed confirmed that the institution of art had become unassailable. The artist Andrea Fraser demonstrated how the practice of institutional critique was defined by its very target: “Far from becoming less elitist, ever more popular museums have become vehicles for the mass-marketing of elite tastes and practices that…are ever more rarified economically as prices rise.” 11 And Foster has described how this critique was incorporated into the institution from a primarily economic standpoint. 12

Despite this failure, the critique of museums and galleries has been the driving force of the avant-garde, the neo-avant-garde, and subsequent generations. Understanding institutional critique as a transgressive and antiestablishment practice requires a closer look at another institution of art: the academy. Unlike galleries and museums, it has been able to maintain relative autonomy from the art market and remains essential to the formation of art practice and knowledge production.

In other words, while galleries and museums have historically assimilated their own critique, a critique of the academy has been able to assert itself. It is precisely here that we find the potential for the transformation of art (knowledge) production. Despite art education’s vast transformations in recent decades, the ability to critique has, in a sense, remained a constant at the academy. The “art thinking doing art” conference mapped the dimensions of this criticality within education and used them to structure its two-day program.

The conference’s opening evening featured several case studies of artists and art educators who defied authoritarian, normative boundaries. The case of John Cage, introduced by Jeffrey Saletnik, an associate professor of modern art in the Department of Art History at Indiana University Bloomington, showed that a single protagonist is capable of producing a critique that can set several wheels in motion at once. As an exceptional example: Cage’s Musicircus (1967)—which welcomed musicians to perform any musical composition, in any manner, simultaneously—encouraged interruption, distraction, simultaneity, and the interpenetration of ideas and experiences. Saletnik explained that Cage defied disciplinary boundaries and hierarchies within the art-educational establishment despite having been trained within a very conventional context himself.

Benjamin Buchloh was among the “art thinking doing art” participants who contributed experiences and observations from their own practice. Before he became a renowned art historian and critic—not least because of his writings on institutional critique—Buchloh taught artists. His talk, “Learning from Students, Teaching Artists: Düsseldorf, Nova Scotia, CalArts, Whitney ISP,” described how he failed out of the Düsseldorf Art Academy in the 1970s because of its conservative standards in a traumatized postwar Germany. These institutional barriers eventually prompted Buchloh to start over at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada. There, and at CalArts in Los Angeles, he found conditions that allowed for not only critique, but critique that could also function as the starting point for artistic education.

Benjamin Buchloh: “Learning from Students, Teaching Artists: Düsseldorf, Nova Scotia, CalArts, Whitney ISP,” at “art thinking doing art: Artistic Practices in Educational Contexts from 1900 to Today,” Berlin University of the Arts, Berlin, June 23, 2023. Photo: Bernard Akoi-Jackson.

The following day, as part of the panel “Questioning Approaches,” Rebecca Sprowl, who graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna this year with a dissertation on the pedagogical approaches of twentieth-century artist-teachers, presented a case study about the CalArts teaching career of John Baldessari. For an artist who strongly believed that art could not be taught, Baldessari had a long and respected career as an art teacher. His “Post-Studio Art” class, which he created at CalArts in 1970, was a nonhierarchical think tank in which the divisions between teacher and student were dissolved. A prime example of how artistic and teaching practices can inform and cross-pollinate one another, the class trained students to challenge what art “is” by being skeptical and asking questions. The generation of artist-teachers that emerged from Baldessari’s classes demonstrated the transformational potential of critique at the academy. Here, artistic production not only formulated a critique of galleries and museums, but also—and much more effectively—probed the environment of the academy.

The “Questioning Approaches” panel also offered perspectives from artists and educators. Drawing from her own experiences in both roles, Noa Sadka questioned the approach to photographic education at the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem. She argued that there is a discrepancy between what photography actually records and the meaning ascribed to the medium. This, Sadka explained, stems from an aberration in which photographic education since 1900 has taken its cue from the ideas of Western modernism, adopting corresponding terminology.

Here, critique concerns the epistemic violence involved in the transfer of concepts and artistic knowledge—a theme that art historian Isabel Seliger also examined in her lecture on East Asia in the next panel, “Alternative Epistemologies.” The export of Western academic disciplines to Japan and China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries displaced Eastern branches of knowledge. Seliger showed how the “authentic history of Oriental art” would ultimately function as a counterpart to the modern civilized subject. The examples from other cultures that she offered made clear that the pattern of then-colonial, now-neoliberal Western art education cannot serve as a universal model for artistic knowledge formation, even if in reality this transfer has already taken place.

Raqs Media Collective is an artist and curatorial collective founded by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta that works at the intersection of contemporary art, historical research, and philosophical speculation. They brought to the conference a non-Western perspective that had not been shaped by art education at all. As self-taught artists, the members of Raqs have countered establishment education with self-directed, individual forms of learning, understanding, and knowing. Their “Intervening Lecture,” a philosophical contribution, addressed the loss of individual creativity and critical autonomy in the dominant regime of knowledge production, even beyond an institutional context. The lecture was complemented by a fifty-minute video essay featuring a collage of found footage. A meditative voice-over by Narula was interrupted by dialogue between all three Raqs members, generating tension between the dueling urges of personal expression and conformity. Ultimately, their lecture mounted a melancholic critique of scientific determinism and techno-fixes.

Nicola Foster presented a noninstitutionalized strategy of knowledge production focused on defeating gendered exclusions and the resulting mechanisms of oppression in the patriarchal system that governed Hunan, a southern province in China, prior to the Communist Revolution. During this period, literacy was not generally available to women in China, so the women of this region developed a script within their artistic practice that allowed them to continue communicating with each other after marriage. Foster, who supervises doctoral students at Solent University and the University of Suffolk, asserted that the transmission of artistic knowledge has no other purpose than to overcome oppressive social practices.

The case studies presented during the panel “Counter-Institutions” focused on critiques of the academy geared towards institutional overthrow rather than reform. The presentations addressed how art schools, as part of a dispositive linking institutions, discourses, and ideologies, have historically attempted to liberate themselves from their fixed place in this network. In his lecture, Tom Holert, who has written extensively on the formation of knowledge in art and its sociopolitical implications, addressed internal mechanisms at the former Hornsey College of Art in London. As part of institutional reforms, the art school liberated itself from authoritarian teaching methods and pioneered a total recalibration of the discipline. Jake Watts, program director for the master’s program in contemporary art theory at Edinburgh College of Art, spoke about oppositional forces within Roy Ascott’s radical “Groundcourse” at the Ealing and Ipswich Art Schools. British academies have a long tradition of both forming and institutionalizing the discipline of art studies, so their subversion was particularly relevant.

Visual from Tom Holert’s presentation “The Concrete Tasks of Transition Must Supercede the Aimless Wanderings of Fetishism: Art Theory, Knowledge Politics and Organizing in Art and Design Education in the UK, After Hornsey.”

The art historian Isabel Nogueira presented a study of an activist art circle at the traditional University of Coimbra in Portugal—a circle whose critique sought to bring power back under democratic control. In their case, the impetus to break down boundaries—whether elitist, disciplinary, or traditionalist—was not confined to the margins or to tinkering with institutional methods. It focused on the overthrow of the institution itself. The critique did not target specific policies, but instead called for the complete reconfiguration of the institution. This and other case studies made conference attendees all the more aware of the self-affirming character of art education today. In contrast to the historical examples provided, it became clear that art is no longer developing emancipatory forces.

As became increasingly clear at the conference, the critique of art education was once a fundamental element in art production. Today’s art education, uncritical of its own methods and institutional framework, lacks transformative force. The artist Bernard Akoi-Jackson, who was educated at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana and now teaches there, described how he reactivated strategies of institutional critique as an artist at the Danish National School of Performing Arts in Odense, Denmark. In the classroom, Akoi-Jackson draws inspiration from fundamental questions of human existence and ethical responsibility, introduces issues such as climate change and migration, and prompts students to analyze art-critical discourse. But Akoi-Jackson’s interventions remain the exception rather than the rule. Andrea Fraser has observed a different longstanding reality at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, which behaves critically towards the outside but does not offer any possibilities of self-critical intervention within. 13

Art is not a fixed concept. It constantly renegotiates and reexamines its relationship to the social system. The formation of artistic production begins with the transmission of artistic knowledge, but the systemic implications and preconditions of an educational context usually become comprehensible only in retrospect. The integration of art education into the Bologna Process is one of the final stages in the neoliberal capture of art education. Even artists born outside the West have usually attended art schools in Europe or North America. And even if they don’t have a doctorate, the intellectual milieu of the programs that artists attend will inevitably shape their work, as will neoliberal value systems that flourish inside the academy. The scientification of art, art’s tendency toward topicality, and especially the loss of art’s critical capacity all run parallel and interpenetrate each other.

Decisive moments of upheaval in higher education are often accompanied by the introduction of new concepts. In the late 1990s, art historian Howard Singerman showed how the term “visual arts” began to displace “fine arts” at American Ivy League universities in the 1930s and ’40s. Singerman suggested that it had become necessary to reevaluate ossified and ingrained assumptions about art, particularly backward-looking fixations on representation and the figurative. 14

While the “fine arts” were formalized in the École des Beaux-Arts of the nineteenth century and followed a principle of representation that painting, sculpture, and architecture had in common with poetry and music—that of imitating beautiful nature—the term “visual arts” embedded art-making in seeing, and heralded a turn toward theory.

While the “fine arts” defined themselves historically, the “visual arts” were characterized by a decided presentness. As the artist and curator Peter Weibel states, artists intended not only to represent reality but to shape it. 15 Studio art was now about participating in the give and take of one’s time. Instead of being a branch of the humanities, art was linked to science and analysis. The “contextism” that was thus born resulted in an analytical critique of the institutions of art. 16 Very few reflected on the fact that this brought together two disciplines that, in principle, do not belong together. Marcel Broodthaers was one of those few. “As a definition of art, I very much appreciated the one given by a scientific friend: art and science, they don’t mix,” said the Belgian conceptualist in an interview in the late 1970s. “For me, art is a whim. Which of course doesn’t rule out the possibility of a scientific reading of art.” 17

It is crucial that such a reading remains a scientific view of art, without art itself beginning to function according to scientific parameters.

Author’s acknowledgment
I am grateful to Brigitte Weingart for her support in realizing the conference Art Thinking Doing Art: Artistic Practices in Educational Contexts from 1900 to Today at the University of the Arts, Berlin.


Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October, no. 110 (Autumn 2004).


On this, see Claire Bishop, “Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media,” Artforum, September 2012, 438.


The “Bologna Process” refers to a transnational higher-education reform program that aimed to standardize courses and degrees across Europe and foster the international mobility of students, with the goal of creating a single European Higher Education Area. The term originates from a political-programmatic declaration signed in 1999 by twenty-nine European education ministers in Bologna, Italy.


Dieter Lesage and Kathrin Busch, A Portrait of the Artist as a Researcher (Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp, 2007). This publication was preceded by two conferences and an exhibition in Lüneburg and Vienna: in Lüneburg at Leuphana University under the title “Verflechtungen zwischen künstlerischer und wissenschaftlicher Forschung” (Interconnections between artistic and scientific research); in Vienna at the Akademie der Künste organized by Sabeth Buchmann under the title “Künstlerische Forschung und der Bologna-Prozess” (Artistic research and the Bologna Process).


Dieter Lesage, “The Academy Is Back: On Education, the Bologna Process, and the Doctorate in the Arts,” e-flux journal, no. 4 (March 2009) .


James Elkins, Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree on Studio Art (New Academia Publishing, 2009).


Claire Bishop, “Information Overload,” Artforum, April 2023 .


In higher education and research in Europe, teaching is largely carried out by so-called “Lehrbeauftragte” (lecturers). They earn between 22.50 euros and 35 euros per hour. Only the actual teaching hour is paid; preparation and follow-up, correcting papers, and so forth are unpaid Since they do not have a permanent employment relationship with their institution, Lehrbeauftragte are not entitled to sick pay and have no legal protection.


Ulf Wuggenig, “Es ist angerichtet: Der Bologna-Prozess im Spiegel der Sozial- und Künstlerkritik,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 53 (2004); U. Wuggenig, “Art Schools, Universities and the Bologna Process,” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Researcher.


Peter Bürger, Bettina Brandt, and Daniel Purdy, “Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde: An Attempt to Answer Certain Critics of Theory of the Avant-Garde,” New Literary History 41, no. 4 (2010): 696.


Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum, September 2005, 104.


Hal Foster, “What’s Neo about the Neo-Avant-Garde?” October, no. 70 (Autumn 1994): 23.


Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions,” 105.


Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University (University of California Press, 1999), 71.


Peter Weibel, Vorwort (Preface) to P. Weibel, Kontext Kunst (DuMont, 1994), xiii.


Peter Weibel, Einleitung (Introduction) to P. Weibel, Kontext Kunst, 1.


Marcel Broodthaers, “‘C’est l’angélus qui sonne’: Interview von Stéphane Bonna mit Marcel Broodthaers” (1976), in Marcel Broodthaers, Interviews & Dialoge 1946–1976, ed. Wilfried Dieckhoff (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1994), 162–163.

Education, Avant-Garde
Institutional Critique, Science, Europe, Knowledge Production

Sandra Neugärtner is an assistant professor (akademische Rätin) at the Institute of Philosophy and Art History (IPK) at Leuphana University Lüneburg. Her scholarly interests focus on the history of art and culture from the Industrial Revolution to the present, with an emphasis on philosophies of technology and media, theories of the avant-garde, materialities of everyday life, and aesthetic forms in late capitalism. Neugärtner has studied design, economics, art history, and cultural studies.


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