Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Imagine a world run by the right-brainers
Elizabeth Farrelly; Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning, architecture and aesthetic issues for the Herald.
CREATIVITY is in. Not only is Richard Florida still pushing out a book every nine months on the so-called creative classes. Now ex-Al Gore speechwriter Dan Pink is also on the arts birthing-wagon. Pink’s tome, A Whole New Mind, switched subtitles between its eighth and ninth paperback printing, from “Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age” to the marginally sleeker “Why right-brainers will rule the future”. Fortunately, having read that much, you’ve got the picture.
It’s this: just as industry yielded to the information age, information is yielding to the conceptual age. Artists will be the management consultants of the future; influential, aura-clad and extravagantly overpaid.
For the beleaguered National Art School, walled into the old Darlinghurst Gaol, this sounds like good news. Sounds, in fact, like every artist’s core fantasy; to be recognised, revered and rewarded for left-field problem-solving and mind-play.
Is it, though, good news? Even if business did start plucking artists from their garrets, plying them with inordinate recompense for doing precisely what they love, is this what artists really want, a permanent reservation on the corporate treadmill? More importantly, is this still how we measure art, by its dollar contribution?
Well, yes, apparently. A millennium hence, Sydney mythology will be dominated by tales of Artists versus Philistines, just as Periclean mythology is dominated by Lapiths versus centaurs, or Greeks versus Amazons. The Opera House will be one such, the National Art School another.
The National is Australia’s oldest school of art, alma mater to our Olleys and Olsens, our Sheads and Cullens, our Mombassas, Storriers, Dupains and Hugheses. And yet, over the years it has suffered repeated ritual bleeding and dismemberment at the hands of the educrats, producing first the City Art Institute (now the University of NSW’s College of Fine Arts), then the Sydney College of the Arts (now of Sydney University).
Over the next 20 years, the National Art School was rhythmically absorbed into TAFE, freed, re-amalgamated and re-freed, and a major design competition held, won and canned.
Then things got serious. The government, seeking cheap foster parents for the school, conjured two: Macquarie University and UNSW. Of these, Macquarie was overwhelmingly the arts community’s favourite since, lacking its own arts school, it was seen also to lack the urge to obliterate. UNSW’s College of Fine Arts, by contrast, was suspect. Even among the College of Fine Arts colloquium, few thought the National Art School would survive such a takeover, or regarded the college’s interest as anything but a land grab.
So when Macquarie withdrew, citing its focus on “research” (read funding dollars), the arts crowd dusted off the placards and prepared to walk the streets once more.
Why so angsty? And why, moreover, should we care? Answer: because this isn’t just another petty skirmish in the long-running Ratbags versus Educrats. The National Art School’s survival-struggle joins two central issues. What is art (and why does it matter)? And what price education?
The shame, for us as culture-making creatures, is that we cannot elect governments competent to make either decision wisely.
A century ago, modernism staged its revolt against the dead air of the academy; against the arts institutions’ determination to suck the juice from these essentially exploratory disciplines, wrap them in rules, and mummify. Now it’s the re-run, as conceptual art ossifies into orthodoxy.
Of course, conceptual art – in the hands of a Duchamp or a Judd, a Turrell or a Zhang Huan – can still generate intense excitement. More, conceptualism has changed our expectations of art, probably forever. Art without thought is boring; we scrutinise the object and, through it, the meaning. This has become a habit from which we are unlikely to resile. A Gainsborough or even a Rembrandt painting now would likely remain a nobody.
But concept alone is not enough. That’s the problem. For most of us, most of the time, art is as much sensual as intellectual. We still love a good tune, a good plot, a good picture. And quite rightly. Sensory creatures, we respond viscerally to the visual and textural qualities – the thingness – of art. And yet tune, plot and beauty are despised by the academy, the conceptual camp. Generations of students are taught to conceptualise, but not how to transform concept into opera, stage set or opera house.
This approach suits both the warmed-over Marxism still under-pinning Australian academia and, ironically, the Thatcherite funding regime running it. No surprise, then, that here, as in Britain and the United States, the best art schools (and often, the best architecture and music schools) are the independents. In the US, it’s Rhode Island, Pratt, Cooper Union and the like; in Britain, St Martins, Chelsea, Wimbledon, Camberwell. These, like the National Art School, maintain small atelier-based classes and intensive tutoring in order to teach not just art theory, but art practice; to teach that art concepts arise not through thinking, but through making.
What, then, should happen to the National Art School? The best solution by far lies not in a university, but in the Australian Roundtable for Arts Training Excellence. This, despite the educratic nomen, is a loose gang of institutions like the National Institute of Dramatic Art and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (the Sydney Dance Company would be another strong contender). It’s federally funded and designed around creative independence. If Pink is right, and especially if he’s not, we must nurture our right-brainers, not freeze-dry them in the academy.
PHOTO: Photo: Ben Rushton