A critique, a manifesto, and.. a bad joke

In making his bid for the leadership of the Conservative party in August 2022, the former UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised to crack down on those university degrees that do not improve the ‘earning potential’ of graduates. The art world is up in arms, expecting that the axe might fall on the art school. Such concerns are not unwarranted: in 2020, I predicted that the calls for the university’s accountability to their customers, ahem, students would be tough on the liberal arts. In 2021, I critiqued the arts’ response to the first round of cuts because it largely consisted of incorrect accounts of their economic value to the wider economy. This game of chess will likely continue. If the recent announcement of the closures of humanities courses at the University of Roehampton is anything to go by, some UK art schools will close before long, too.

But beyond the financial cost-benefit calculation, are we not overlooking a much more important question that relates to the purpose of a liberal arts education for the individual and to his or her society? Defenders of the arts insist that what we need is more ‘critical thinkers’. I answer this demand with a question: where has the mass overproduction of arts and humanities graduates taken us so far? 

I recently argued that, rather than help us overcome the challenges of the neo-liberal project, the arts are now crucially complicit in propagating its ideology because they have become largely indistinguishable from the professional-managerial complex. In advocating for reckless abandon in the face of capitalism, the arts continue to make unreasonable demands on their workforce, shepherding generations of art school graduates into careers marked by fierce competition, low earnings, and sometimes horrific work conditions. The pay-off? A promise of free expression. Walter Benjamin, in a text which every art school undergraduate is asked to read, proposed that such a trade-off is synonymous with fascism.

The situation is urgent, for two reasons. One is the likelihood that governments will restrict funding for the arts as economies weaken. For the industry, this may mean that supply of opportunities at the art school and in the art world at large will be restricted to those who are economically advantaged enough to endure the low pay that an art degree predicts. In other words, the arts will likely become even more middle-class. I don’t set store by the industry’s existing plans to prevent this: for all their talk of diversity, the visual arts have an appalling track record of distributing resources equitably, and the art school is worse than many others. Even if it recruited entirely from deprived demographics, as a university I recently worked with did, the idea that art-schooling more youths from disadvantaged backgrounds would lead to the expansion of the creative industries and, therefore, to the economic emancipation of those ‘working class artists’, is self-evidently false. If it weren’t, artists wouldn’t be as poor as they are. The silver lining here is that, in theory, limiting the supply of art workers could create better economic conditions for those who remain part of the workforce.

The other pressing dilemma relates to the ethics of educational choices and the values that they reproduce. What will it mean for this summer’s school leaver to become an artist, a plumber, a nurse, or a historian? What will it mean for their society? How should we treat the imbalance in these future professionals’ ability to accurately assess, but not symmetrically respond to, the differences in their economic and expressive agencies relative to their value to their communities which often end up footing the bill? In other words, can we charge art education with the responsibility of holding itself to account in front of us all?

The art school is a metaphor for so many things that have come to a head. This is my call for rethinking the meaning of art education as an individual and a common good, rejecting the refrain of ‘more is better’ that has brought us where we are. This revaluation will need to be aesthetic, critical, intellectual, and instinctive, collective and hyper-individual all at once. It could take place in the art school but if it does, it will need to destroy its host first. So, join me and Say No to Art School.