Ability to Reason : Beyond Senses and Techniques - The Future of Arts Education
I’ve been a professor for over 20 years, yet it’s not easy to predict the future of arts education. That is because it is surrounded by rapid shifts in not only art but also of the general society and under constant pressure to change accordingly. The social structure and roles of art change, thereby putting to shame the defensive logic that advocates the autonomy of art or distinctive characteristics of arts education. In that sense, a forecast of the future of arts education may end up becoming an empty justification. Then, what can we really predict?
In 1995, I had a chance to talk to the author Yiso Park(Korean installation artist. Mostly active in New York and has established Minor Injury, an experimental alternative space in Brooklyn, to advocate for immigrants and minorities) about the topic. I had just come back from Germany after studying and he from New York. Our critical views on the overall Korean art industry were incredibly similar, and, in short, this is how it is.
There are three central elements in art: the eyes that see the subject, the mind that reasons what the eyes saw and the hands that physically re-create the thoughts. The eyes are connected to the senses, the mind to thoughts, and the hands to labor and techniques to work with materials. A good artist maintains harmonious balance in utilizing all three. On the contrary, the Korean art industry has been obsessed with the eyes and hands and neglectful of our ability to reason. Art universities’ curricula provide art history courses and introductory aesthetics courses. Stories on the mind and character of artists are covered in practical courses. But more often than not, evaluation and interpretation of artworks have been heavily dependent on senses and intuition, with systematic analysis and discussion nowhere to be found in arts education. Back then, art universities were convinced that logical interpretation of artworks is the job of critics and art historians and artists should not rely on theory as it could interfere with their creativity.
Artists had this underlying repulsion or distrust of speech and text. “If speech or text provides enough explanation on an artwork, then what is the point of explaining it through art?” they argued. Critics were mocked for doing what they do. According to artists, critics have never drawn a thing, yet they judged as if they knew about art more than anyone else. “An artist who talks a lot is no artist, because good artworks don’t need explanation,” said artists. My generation was repeatedly told to put speech or thoughts aside; instead, touch, closely interact and communicate with materials, in calm, if you want to be a true artist.
To be sure, I do understand where this perspective comes from: it originates partly from modernism that attempted to establish art as an autonomous area independent from all non-art elements, and it had its own grounds and values. However, such view on art produced an imbalance that caused Korea’s arts education to focus rigidly on senses and techniques, treating intellectual reasoning as secondary.
But the collective art movement, which competitively pursued a single ideal under the slogan of modernism, came to an end in the western world in the 1960s and 70s. Since then, the question of what to do and why became unavoidable for individual artists. It meant each artist was pulled back to the starting point to define art in their own terms and come up with own questions. The new era asked them for intellectual reasoning more than any other times in history. Predominant discourse vanished, seemingly opening the so-called era of pluralism, an era where anything is possible. However, such post-modernistic pluralism did not acknowledge everything; rather, it denied everything, forcing artists to establish their unique legitimacy. It was pluralism strictly constructed with the logic of denial (Boris Groys). Art without arguments, art not critical of the traditional paradigm and norms of art lost its opportunity to join the contemporary discourse of art. It has now become an existential task for art universities to recognize the fundamental transformation in the paradigm of art and search for the goals and methods of new education.
For Korea, 1995 is a watershed year as contemporary art took a fundamental turn. The Korea Pavilion was created at the Venice Biennale and the first Gwangju Biennale was held, which increased global art exchanges, ushering in a new generation of artists who understand the context of globalized art and resist the Korean art industry’s practice. Alternative spaces and residency programs spread throughout the outskirts of the conservative art system, which was centered around art museums and galleries. The hegemony of art discourse was transferred from the older generation to the younger and it took less than a decade for the art landscape to be overturned. Arts education, the most timid area of art to change, eventually came under pressure to take action.
Participating in establishing the School of Visual Arts at the Korea National University of Arts, which claims to advocate ‘alternatives to arts education,’ I had a chance to actually put my thoughts into action. The School of Visual Arts has attempted to reform the entrance examination system and overall curriculum and it is fundamentally differentiated in that language is used as a vita educational tool. Language here does not refer to abstract and vague conceptual words; rather, it refers to presentations, critique and debate sessions that require all students to use practical, everyday words to explain their purpose and work process. Nowadays, more universities are adopting critique sessions in their curriculum. It is no exaggeration to say the School was able to produce a lot of new artists within a relatively short period of time, thanks to its discussion-centered curriculum.
Today, techniques are being taught on YouTube and Google; it means that focusing on teaching techniques does not secure competitiveness for art universities. Techniques that deal with image change much faster than school curricula and curricula become outdated by the time students graduate, even if they teach the latest techniques. As such, art universities will have to focus on the unchanging essence of art, instead of passing on knowledge on techniques and trends that do not cease to change. If art means mental labor and life where humans experience and reason the world, then artists are constantly required to ‘think,’ while art universities are required to teach ‘how to think’ with art as a tool. Artists will, for a long period of time, be asked to go beyond art and contemporary periods to view the society and history, to objectify and relativize oneself among different people, to question, define and choose values. The future of arts education hinges on what it can provide students to that end.
About the Author_ Kyuchul Ahn
Kyuchul Ahn studied at the College of Fine Arts at the Seoul National University and State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. He participated in individual exhibitions at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and Rodin Gallery, as well as special exhibitions at home and abroad, including the Gwangju Biennale. Since 1997, Ahn has been a professor at the School of Visual Arts at the Korea National University of Arts. Ahn has been using everyday objects, reasoning and reflections to question how we view the boundaries of art and our perspectives on them. He resisted the norms of the Korean sculpture industry, which usually values decorative artworks and landmark sculptures, turning everyday objects such as hammers, tables, bags, houses and doors into objects with metaphysical use. His works are rough on the volume, texture and surface aesthetics and focuses on intangible, often ignored images. They blur the borders between genres, pointing to his endless reasoning and reflection on distinguishing between art and non-art.
In Need of ‘Neighborhood Intellectuals’ - Readers, Writers and Talkers of life - Towards Local Communities Studying Alternative Life
‘Intellectuals are dead,’ and ‘universities are dead.’ Such declaration or argument has become overly familiar, even worn-out. Today, universities are closing and university professor as a career is nothing much special - what a change. In the past, professors were regarded as intellectuals who also served the role of prophets in times of need. But today, neither universities nor intellectuals serve such social role. New technologies introduced new platforms that enable the production, distribution and consumption of knowledge in a way that was unimaginable. A good example would be YouTube, the most popular platform today.
YouTube is in fact changing our daily life. Parents turn to YouTube to calm their kids down in restaurants and elementary school students want to be YouTube creators in the future. This is not just about contents, but also about the new platform that enables anyone to create, upload and watch contents. A revolutionary change is taking place in the production, creation, delivery and dissemination of knowledge. To put it in a nutshell, YouTube is pretty much replacing intellectuals.
But let’s take a look at local communities that we all belong to. These communities are, in fact, very distorted compared to the general Korean society. The Korean society has already given the general public or citizens most of its authority through democracy. However, those within a local community usually do not voice their thoughts or opinions. Why is this? Civil society has always been interested national and social problems, yet it has failed to settle in local grass roots communities. Why? At least those who cannot wait to bring change to the local level, and to the nation, must put some thoughts into this.
At this point, I would like to connect the problem of intellectuals to local communities. It’s all about the role of knowledge or intellectuals in a town or neighborhood. This is also linked to the recent issues of part-time instructors at universities - one that’s been accumulating in the Korean knowledg
It is now time for residents with a wide range of identity to come together, share their life stories and concerns and recognize issues, then take a step further to discuss how these will be unveiled and resolved within local communities. Participation of academic researchers can provide a new opportunity. These efforts must be connected to practical and categorized learning organizations and research efforts. Learning organizations need to be different from regular hobby clubs such as culture clubs or book clubs, and be centered around knowledge (learning/research) for local communities. It begins with examining and studying the local community we belong to. It’s about aiming to form a new knowledge community that starts from issues of our daily life to issues on culture (and/or arts), leisure, education, welfare, economy, politics and even more specified topics.
Korea offers community-based learning models that focus on continued learning, book clubs and cultural center programs centered around community service centers. However, they are more for administrative and facility purposes than the actual needs and wants of local residents. New knowledge communities must encourage participants to share their life experiences and establish new alternative forms of life. Examining the many elements of life and excavating and organizing more can also be another process.
Today, people are considered ‘useless.’ They are considered residual and irrelevant in the society; to make things worse, they live as shadows that cannot be part of the society. They are people who cannot catch up to the speed of change or those who do not want change. If we let social trends to take care of them, then it will go beyond economic poverty to cultural and knowledge poverty, exacerbating social exclusion and elimination. What are we going to do with those who are considered ‘useless’ in a society that judges you based on utility and efficiency? We need someone to recognize the existence of shadows in our everyday life and help them form a life as a community. Let us call these actors ‘neighborhood intellectuals.’ If there are any academic researchers constantly discouraged at school, I would like to welcome them to local communities, towns and neighborhoods. Imagine how local communities and towns will look like if neighborhood intellectuals share stories on philosophy, humanities and economics at town libraries and cafes, introducing alternatives to different aspects of life.
We see a plethora of people who identify themselves as academic researchers; yet their workplaces - universities and research institutes - are too small in number to host all of them. We need a new space for research: that is, communities and towns. We have libraries, coffee shops, bookstores, cultural complexes, theaters, restaurants, galleries and many more. How about encouraging part-time instructors to become neighborhood intellectuals, and transforming these neighborhood venues into space for knowledge, research and learning? The government, metropolitan organizations, self-governing organizations, public libraries, cultural foundations and other public agencies must secure workspace for them. The role of knowledge and learning communities is to allow each person to unleash his or her potential, and ‘neighborhood intellectuals’ must take on the role to form and help the communities. This will lead to better literacy skills and develop the many areas of communities, democracy, culture and arts (and education), which will eventually expand the horizon of ‘literacy of life.’
About the Author_ Kyungwoo Kwon
Kyungwoo Ahn published a magazine called [Mosaek] during his graduate school, with his interest in Korea’s knowledge society and the future generation of scholars. He’s been active in cultural critiques and policies based on cultural research and theories. Currently he’s working with the Seongbuk Cultural Foundation, playing a role in discovering new directions for local communities.