Art as University Discipline

Howard Singerman’s fine account of the development of art as a university discipline analyses the effects of this institutionalization on art’s products. Universities work to separate professional artists from Sunday painters, and do not expect of art students that they be manually skilled, take recreational pleasure in their work, or wrench it from their tortured souls. Rather, they must produce a distinct and certifiable knowledge, in a theoretical and esoteric language, guaranteeing the exclusivity and status of the art profession. Artists are not only trained in universities but sometimes come to inhabit them – as part-time teachers, or as touring performers accompanying their work. The art of the academy which Singerman compellingly describes – comprising video, film, and performance – usually requires the presence of the artist at least for exposition, appeals to academic audiences, and is built on grants, fellowships, and residencies. This escorted art may sell, but it achieves an independence from the commercial market, since the artist’s time is purchased rather than the work. It, too, achieves autonomy from the general run of mass culture, at the price of adapting to another set of institutional concerns, those of the increasingly audited and professionally administered university. Its main purpose is to generate dialogue among professionals, but the effects are far broader than that, influencing much of the discourse around art.

The first effect is that for there to be an art department there must be a unified and bounded thing, called ‘art’. The second is that it can be researched, and that much of what artists do can be described as research. The third, that the field requires description in a specialized language, the acquisition of which defines art professionals. All these effects tend to produce an art that talks most effectively to art insiders, and seals out the wider public.

This autonomy is not static, unitary, or unchallenged. The specialist world that serves the markets is quite different from that connected to academia. To get a rough-and-ready understanding of this, contrast two prominent models – the magazine Flash Art (look at the quality of its paper and colour reproduction, the number and character of the adverts it carries, the accessible style of writing) to the journal October, with its restrained visual style, monochrome illustrations, complex, elevated prose and arcane theoretical canon.

Furthermore, as we shall see, the professionalization to which academia aspires is directed against a populism encouraged by the state and – to a limited degree – by business. Highly trained museum professionals, who have spent years arduously acquiring specialist art-world discourse, are enjoined to lose it when communicating with the public. Displays in public spaces must be understood by the uninformed.