eipcp transversal an-academy
10 2010

Cornelia Sollfrank: No, art education is not about the artists who are teaching. It is about the students

Boris Buden in conversation with Cornelia Sollfrank, Dmitry Vilensky and David Riff

Boris Buden


David Riff


Cornelia Sollfrank


Dmitry Vilensky




Sollfrank: Before I try to answer your questions, I have to make a general objection against your introduction. I absolutely do not share the notion of ‘innocence’ that art and art education allegedly had in earlier times. This assertion does not consider that art’s ‘autonomy’, an invention of the late 18th century, has always served a certain – highly political – purpose. The autonomous artist, the genius, was the glorification of bourgeois productivity itself. The creator ex nihilo corresponded to the vital, expansive and production-oriented attitude of the bourgeoisie. Within the logic of the economic division of labour, the artist was liable for providing the ‘truth’ – which also implied, more or less, salvific suffering. By accepting this role in society, artists fulfilled an important task. They stabilised the prevalent system of economic and political power. Thus, the correlation of art and the market dates back to the times when aesthetic autonomy was put into place – as has also been elaborated by Adorno.

By building the ‘institution’ of bourgeois art, art history has played a major role in constructing its grand narrative. This also implied leaving out or denying all attempts of artists and cultural producers to leave the ghetto of ‘generously granted autonomy’, including social and political engagement, for example, teaching. Simply declaring them as non-art or bad art, aesthetic attempts to seize other ‘material’, and ‘forming’ the traditional locations off-site, were eliminated.

A similar role can be ascribed to the art academies. They used to be the place where artists were ‘produced’, where 18th century notions of art were reproduced (and still are!). The disciplines were clear, education was based on the (male) master who would transfer his knowledge, either by some sort of spiritual assignment, usually accompanied by imparting practical skills.

Buden: Let me clarify my position on “innocence”. Yes, you are absolutely right. There has never been an innocent art or art education. Moreover, there is nothing innocent in this world, or better yet, “only a stone is innocent”, as Hegel once wrote. Clearly, in whatever proposition it occurs, “innocence” rarely generates truth-value. However, its cognitive value is often quite remarkable. In our case, I use it in terms of an “innocence lost”, to designate a change in the state of mind – an increasing awareness of the complicity of (art) education in the process of neoliberal transformation, or in broader sense, of the complicity of the knowledge economy in the reproduction of the global relations of exploitation and domination. Take the example of the promise of mobility within the so-called European Higher Education Area (EHEA), a strategic goal of the Bologna Process reforms. Although we know too well that mobility is a precondition for the very existence of today’s art system and for the general improvement of art education, we still cannot innocently identify with that promise. We also know that it is parallel to the regime of the severest restrictions of free movement for so many of our colleagues, artists, students, teachers and migrants from all over the world. In short, the EHEA is a Schengen Area at the same time. Or take the example of autonomy you have also mentioned – while earlier, the idea of autonomy of art was primarily understood in terms of an autonomous sphere of (essentialised) aesthetic or cultural values WITHIN society and as such provided relative protection from the direct political instrumentalisation of art, a quality that was often subjectively perceived and embraced as the “freedom of art” – although, as you rightly emphasise, this concept of autonomy was itself a form of political instrumentalisation of art serving the purpose of political and economic domination of, for instance, a particular social class – today’s idea of autonomy increasingly takes on the shape of an autonomy FROM society. It is society’s commitment to (art) education as a branch of public services that is under attack now. What is at stake is the shift from industrial to cognitive capitalism. In the time of industrial capitalism, the apparatuses of education and learning were believed to generate some sort of social (republican, national, identitarian, etc.) value and were therefore seen as completely external to the sphere of enterprise and the marketplace. Bildung was socially embedded and always meant more than individual subject formation. Cognitive capitalism, on the contrary, integrates the process of education and subject formation into itself. Its system of accumulation focuses mainly on knowledge and creativity. Bildung is now an entrepreneurial activity of atomised individuals, a matter of their – and not of the society they are members of – own responsibility. This is what autonomy of (art) education means today – not an illusion of artistic and cultural freedom WITHIN society, but a realised freedom of capital FROM society. Schools, universities and other educational institutions are now at the forefront of capitalist accumulation. They have become the main tools of what Y. M. Boutang calls the “apparatus of capture” (of human subjects) for cognitive capital. The old illusion of autonomy offers no escape from this complicity. Those famous words of Patti Smith: “I am an artist, and I have no guilt”, don’t make any sense today. Recent student protests, open resistance to the managerial pressure on education, occupations of universities, new forms of self-organisation, etc. indicate what I call the end of innocence – a worldwide politicisation of “education”. It is a historically new, highly contradictory and open-ended process. It is precisely this openness, this contingency of the actual historical situation that makes our particular experiences in the field of art education so important. This is where teaching art becomes learning history.

Sollfrank: Yes, I am particularly keen on discussing art education on the basis of my own experiences. I got to know several, highly different models as a student – plus the four years that I taught myself at different universities. The first three years were at a traditional academy, studying painting, in Munich. That was definitely the most annoying and unproductive phase. What used to be defended under the guise of ‘freedom’ was a highly ideological undertaking with the only purpose of sustaining a very limited notion of art – whilst avoiding a serious transfer of knowledge, i.e. working. After that, came four years in a more open-minded environment, which left teaching altogether to a sort of self-teaching, to the students. On top of that, until today, this particular art school gives honorary professorships to wealthy collectors… Interestingly, after 16 years of practice, I currently have the opportunity to continue my education doing a practice-based PhD in art at an art college, which is part of a university in the UK. Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur, having had the aforementioned 19th century art education experience in Germany, and then having been slung into the 21st century research-based art education at the university. To elaborate on the complex relationship between research, teaching and art practice, goes beyond the format of this little statement, but to put it in one sentence, in that environment teaching is far less prestigious than doing research here.

You also write that “teaching was simply a pedagogical supplement to the artists’ artistic mission”. I can agree insofar as all the art professors I had to bear with in my education were neither qualified to teach nor motivated to do so. Most of them were very frustrated because they had not performed well enough on the market and had only become professors rather than well-paid stars. And the most horrible thing was that they all had lifetime positions, no matter what they delivered in their jobs. I admit, that was 20 years ago, and things have slightly changed, even at the academies. One has even heard of female professors in the meantime, or professors who make an effort to actually teach! However, the ‘art academy’ is still an institution that works through inclusion and exclusion. As I have explained above, artists who want more than to just reproduce the notion of aesthetic autonomy – who, for example, understand teaching as part of their art practice, are thus motivated and engaged – cannot be included in the institution structurally, as they contradict its basic parameters.

But let me now answer your questions concretely. In the first one, you equal teaching with being a professor. This is a particular German perspective, at least a non-UK one, and is actually very much based on the notion of art education at the academy. Unlike in Germany, in the UK, art education is part of the regular university system. You have to work your way up in the pyramid, which involves being a reader first, then a lecturer, then a senior lecturer, then becoming an assistant or associate professor before you can finally call yourself a professor and get the corresponding responsibilities, workload and salary. Such a career may easily take 10–15 years, even after a PhD. Getting a professorship in art, after a few years of professional experience and a few prestigious exhibitions, beyond having any academic or didactic skills is unthought-of in the UK in the meantime. This may have to do with the clearly structured teaching system that introduced the bachelor and master degrees a long time ago (unlike in continental Europe) – which simply implies that a lot of teaching has to be provided. So, while in Germany, almost none of my artist friends have the opportunity to make their money by teaching art. In the UK, all my artist friends have a teaching job at a university. This is due to the different structures, and I have to say that I currently, and particularly in this respect, prefer the UK system. Generating a decent income by doing some teaching is a reachable goal for those artists who want it. There are not only a few professorships for which too many artists compete, but there are a number of jobs which are, though less prestigious and less paid, available. Thus, the notion of the few chosen ones who are able to teach that thing that cannot actually be taught becomes obsolete. In that sense, teaching art can be considered regular wage labour, yes.

My answer to the question of whether I would also teach without being paid depends on the circumstances. Generally, I find it more interesting at the moment to teach than to produce artworks for the exhibition economy. First of all, teaching gives  the teacher the opportunity to learn and provides the space for exchange with other artists, which is something very valuable. Then, when you have reached a certain age and maturity you/I feel the urge to discuss and pass some of my experiences on to the younger generation. That implies permanently recapping and rethinking one’s own attitude.

Whether teaching is a fulfilling activity depends on the environment. One good teacher alone can hardly achieve anything; he/she needs an inspiring environment where several teachers give different inputs and challenge each other and the students to not just become followers but independent-minded personalities. As I used to do a lot of my art-related (politically motivated) activities without any payment at all, for example the Old Boys Network, TammTamm and others, I could very well imagine teaching without payment, but not at a state university of course, rather in a self-organised, ‘autonomous’ context, i.e. I would be particularly motivated to teach without payment if I had the feeling that my work would have an impact and could lead to further powerful activities. I would also teach unpaid for people who – for whatever reasons – cannot afford to be part of or have no access to the very privileged art education system. And, of course, I could only do that if I would find myself in the position to be able to afford to do so.

To summarise, one could best say that teaching makes you part of a larger context, the institution or non-institution in which you are teaching. You have the opportunity to learn in that context by teaching, you can work to convince others to better understand your notion of art, and last but not least, you can help to educate a young generation of artists. I agree that art education is a battleground, in the sense that the art school, academy, college or university is one of the places where art politics are made; a notion of art is planted into the students’ heads. At the same time, one of the big misunderstandings of art education is that it is about the artists who are teaching. No, it is not. It is about the students. The time of their studies is a most valuable time; it should be taken seriously and instead of teachers fighting each other, I would prefer to see teachers who offer their knowledge to the students, share their experiences and put them in a situation where they can decide for themselves what path they are going to follow – the one of the artist entrepreneur, performing the genius for the art market, or the critical, socially and politically engaged artist who always has to struggle to find support for her work.

Buden: Do you really believe that such a choice is a matter of one’s own free will – nowadays, when it has become almost impossible, not only for an individual artist, but for the system of art education itself, to escape the market and the logic of entrepreneurship? Or it is rather a matter of collective political action? How far can a teacher go in the political mobilisation of her students? Just to remind you: Walter Benjamin (in “The Author as Producer”) urged intellectual workers to betray the apparatus of production – in our case, the apparatus of education – and stop supplying it. Rather they should find a way to organise the process of production by themselves. Does it make any sense for you today?

Sollfrank: I have do admit that I cannot think of any model that would exist ‘outside’ of any market logic. We know, for example, that socially and politically engaged art also has its own market where name branding especially plays an important role. While the conventional art market is based on buying and selling commodities, this branch of the market is based on buying and selling critical attitudes – which should, of course, not be so critical as to question the economic system that guarantees its own survival. I think it was Lucy Lippard who coined the term “museum-quality” resistance, which says it all. But she also left a field of agency open, when she wrote: “art that is too specific, that names names, about politics, or place, or anything else, is not marketable until it is abstracted, generalized, defused” (2001). And despite the changes you address, it is my experience that this is still true today.

That leads me to your Benjamin quote – which has accompanied my whole professional life. My personal ‘solution’ is a permanent balancing act in which I combine a critique of the apparatus – one might also call it ‘institutional critique’ –  from inside with experiments on structures outside. The critical inside-perspective alone is problematic, because it can easily be co-opted and eventually contributes to the revival of the institution. I appreciate the new possibilities we have through the Internet, for instance, for experimenting with new models of organisation. This is an ongoing process and we already have a lot of positive examples. But the model of self-organisation that you mention as a possible solution also has its limits, not only in terms of finances. I prefer to traverse both models to create a friction through the crossings. Betraying the apparatus does not mean leaving it alone, but making use of it for one’s own purposes, abusing it.

Regarding “collective political action”: I am not sure what you mean. Of course, you cannot do anything by yourself. You need associates. But how should “collective political action” free you from any market logic? You can probably build an alternative structure, but this will also have an economy.

A general boycott of tuition fees could generate a lot of trouble and discussion, and there have been great examples. As students are paying fees now, they are gaining power. And if students would decide to pay their fees to an alternative model, it could really be the starting point for a new teaching facility.

Political mobilisation through an authority (teacher) is a contradiction in my understanding. The task of a teacher is to rather procure that students gain self-confidence, that they know how to obtain information and to support discrete thinking. But maybe we are in the difficult situation where teachers are more critical than students?

The battleground situation you describe in your introduction sounds like an extreme, but it reflects the structural problem I already mentioned above. Artists who want more than to just reproduce the notion of aesthetic autonomy – for example, understanding teaching as part of their art practice, thus being motivated and engaged – cannot be included in the institution structurally, as they contradict its basic parameters. Finally, all these little genii have to defend their ground and fight each other. The competition between artists may be the worst, yes. Envy and disfavour seem to rule, carefully implemented in the heads of artists as part of a long tradition of individuality, i.e. politically motivated unsolidarity. In my mind, that is part of what you called ‘innocent’ earlier on!

I have consciously worked against that notion all my professional life, building networks, creating and experimenting with forms of getting organised – specifically for artists. And over time, you get to know your crowd! You learn to distinguish between the artists who work in the spirit of mutual support, and those who only use your invisible work to promote themselves. My strategy is to ignore the latter and focus on the ones who understand the quality and necessity of mutual support. It exists – even in the completely corrupt and evil art world! And isn’t it always the successful projects that fail?