This text was commissioned for, and originally published in, the degree show catalogue of Central St Martin’s 2014, Fine Art BA cohort.
MONOCULTURE, WHO NEEDS IT?
Perhaps identity was not a building for which one had to find foundations, but rather a series of impersonations held together by a central intelligence, an intelligence that knew the history of the impersonations and eliminated the distinction between action and acting.
Edward St Aubyn
At a packed, daylong round table convened earlier this year by Collective Creativity – a group interested in critically exploring subjects pertinent to queer, trans and intersex people of colour (usually abbreviated to QTIPOC) – I found myself being called to account. My offense? I had written an article for the well-known UK publication ‘Art Monthly’ and a fair amount of people didn’t like it. What’s more, they all seemed to be in attendance.
To give an indication of why people were so incensed by the text, my argument, broadly, was that the shaky alliance held between marginalized socio-cultural, racial, and sexual groups across the 1980s and 90s had disintegrated. This disintegration had in turn led to an uncritical preservation of reductive community specific identity categories within the art world (black art; queer art; feminist art etc.) that were used to keep members of those communities on the margins. Finally I argued for a return to solidarity beyond cautious intersectionality and that this should begin with the liquidation of all essential cultural, racial and sexual identities, seeing as how race and identity were fundamentally cultural – that is to say linguistic – constructs. Pretty basic stuff really.
As the hours limped by, I was struck by the neoliberal conservatism of one of my interrogators. Let’s call her Margaret. Two assertions she made really stuck in my mind. The first was in response to an attendee’s anxiety over having to take on massive amounts of debt in order to gain access to higher education. Margaret countered by asserting that debt needed to taken on and she knew this because – and here came the thinly veiled narcissism – she’d done it herself. Debt accumulation, Margaret continued, was the way of the real world and questioning this reality was tantamount to a kind of whinny defeatism. What was needed in the 21st century was robust entrepreneurial individualism. Against the claim that working class and black British youth were, despite diversity gains, increasingly underrepresented on arts courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level, Margaret maintained that the amount of black British youth in art schools were proven to be proportionate to the amount of black British youth in Britain.
I don’t think the social classes [in British universities] mix in the way they used to. It used to be easy to take on each others struggles because you met lots of different people […] even though people go on about diversity a lot they do stay in very tight groups socially, and very few of them mix with a wide variety of people.
The subject of proportional representation in art schools raises some thought provoking questions. For example, let’s consider that the amount of black youth in art school is proportionate to the amount of black youth in Britain – it isn’t by the way. Would it then be fair to assert, that the amount of Chinese, Japanese and Scandinavian youth in British art schools was disproportionate to the amount of Chinese, Japanese and Scandinavian youth in Britain? If so what does this proportionality actually tell us? Is it a question of desire? Do black British youth simply lack the same artistic sensibilities and ambitions of their Chinese, Japanese and Scandinavian peers? Do Chinese, Japanese and Scandinavian youth have a stronger culturally produced desire to study art? Are they just a naturally more artistic people?
This is the sort of unsophisticated debate proportionality produces. But in leading us towards the bastion of essentialised cultural and national identities we at least arrive at some of the restrictive problems caused by these constructs. It is my belief, founded on empirical evidence gathered through life experience – I am a so-called (because race is a construct) mixed-race, working class British male who grew up on a council estate and has watched many intelligent and artistic friends fall by the wayside –, that the scarcity of black, or black and white working class students in art schools in Britain is a result of cultural and economic conditions, that result in the subconscious adoption, by such individuals, of various psychological schemas that exclude art education as a valid life course. In terms of cultural ideology in Britain, the arts have always been seen as a bourgeois occupation and pursuit to be patronized and misunderstood by aristocrats and oligarchs and to be brutally misinterpreted by the working class masses, with their unsophisticated love of kitsch and the popular. In addition to that perhaps oblique cultural bar is the very real economic barrier that £9,000 a year represents.
At this point in the proportionality debate, it can begin to feel like the villain of diversity is everyone who happens to be middle-class and white. That is a ridiculous idea that leads to petty factionalism and inter-group resentment. For me the point in agitating for diversity boils down to this: the more heterogeneous an art school’s population, the richer and more beneficial the art educational experience will be for everyone. Monoculture, whatever race or class or sex or nationality predominates, and for whatever reasons, always narrows the possibility of developing complex theoretical, interpersonal and empathic knowledge by producing reductive sets of conditions, practices and behavioral norms. Why should all of this be especially detrimental for an art-based education? What can monocultural institutions miss? Two elements I found lacking stood out during my time at art school: iconoclasm and irreverence.
Any work of art that perfectly complies to the canon and to standard practice – it’s not bad, it’s not good; it’s not there.
My postgraduate experience at art school was facilitated by an equal opportunities scheme devised by Arts Council England in collaboration with the Royal College of Art. The initiative, saddled with the blandly blue-sky, managerial moniker of ‘Inspire’, was designed to address the scarcity of black and minority ethnic students within professional roles in arts institutions. So, in 2009, eleven fellow students and I gained access to the Royal College of Art’s Curating Contemporary Art MA.
What surprised me on arrival was that the institution, specifically a large proportion of the department’s faculty, where not ready for the reality of actually dealing with my cohort. It seemed a shock to them that here were black and minority individuals who were living, breathing subjects with agency and not bloodless statistics used to shore up some postcolonial debate or position on multiculturalism. While I can’t speak to the experience of everyone, I myself found the majority of staff unable to deal with the disdainful casual racism that the programme drew out of arts professionals and some of our peers, both then and now. They were also unprepared for the way the programme effectively ‘othered’ us against the department’s non-black and minority ethnic ‘official’ intake. But above all else I was shocked by how the department could not handle questions and opinions that deviated from the, at times, dry curricular orthodoxy they were pedaling. Being the branch of a discipline that prides itself on ‘criticality’ the Curating Contemporary Art department found itself unable to deal with students who had not been intellectually neutered by art historical enculturation and who did not adopt a reverent, unquestioning attitude towards canonical thought. As such, I often found myself in a position of accidental iconoclasm and irreverence by simply asking why some state of affairs were so and then doubting whether the speculative explanations offered as incontrovertible facts were still useful or valid.
While I’m drawing on personal experience as a student at the RCA, I have, since graduating in 2011, taught, tutored, curated and worked with undergraduates and postgraduates at art schools across London. At each institution I have met intelligent, talented and astute individuals. I have also encountered a certain amount of fear. Fear of what the future holds and fear that what is being said or thought by them, in art institutional contexts, is the wrong thing. In some ways this is the result of the proffesionalisation of contemporary art and the double-edged idea that art practice, art writing and art curation can be taught. On the one hand these courses help to focus raw talent in a scholarly environment; on the other they also steer that raw talent towards a pre-defined destination, using standardised means so that learning outcomes may be assessed.
Criticality or speaking truth to power isn’t a cultural or a class specific trait. However I’ve always found that environments in which differences of opinion are produced are ones in which heterogeneity thrives. When you gather together a group of similar social background, dress sense, accent, physicality and beliefs, what you get are the conditions for adamantine group cohesion. This produces a collective whose predictable dynamic flows move around a set of shared behavioural norms and procedures. Within that environment the last thing anybody wants to do is be perceived as deviant; the last thing anybody wants to do is ask a stupid question.
In that sense the most radical arts education that I have experienced was as a young student studying at the BRIT Performing Arts and Technology School in London. The BRIT is unique in that it is the only place in the capital that you can study performing arts without paying. Because of this the students who studied there when I attended were from radically different socio-cultural, ethnic and economic backgrounds all united by their common passion for the arts. So in a lesson about Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht I could be arguing about cruelty and distanciation as technical strategies within political theatre with Afro-Caribbean rude boys, East End cockneys, middle class kids from Richmond, super posh Chelsea rahs, nouveau riche suburbanite teens, young Jewish becks or any other racial and cultural stereotype usually used to refer to the ‘diverse urban tribes of London’. This is the sort of discursive environment that outreach arts education initiatives and arts institutions are desperate to construct post the ‘educational turn’, but consistently struggle to convincingly produce. What I found in my two years at the BRIT was that within this environment, although it was far from perfect, debate was stimulating and idiosyncratic and, precisely because there were so many divergent subject positions and personal histories, orthodoxies of performance practice that had ossified over the years were constantly being questioned. It is my feeling that British art schools would thrive under such conditions and that as long as any class, race or socio-cultural group disproportionately outweighs others, then this won’t happen; critics will decry the production of institutional art, arts professionals will decry the descriptive and uncritical work of art critics, and we’ll all bang on about how standardised curated exhibitions in London seem to be. These are of course all generalisations, but I’m pretty sure they’re generalisations we’ve all heard. Here’s one on the uselessness of party-line contemporary art criticism.
During the pluralistic postmodernist era there are no longer riveting polemics that absorb critics. Instead, critics tend to be reduced to choosing artists they admire (and in rare cases, dislike) and deal with each individually. Art world discourse has become unfocused and undramatic, and has fallen into a kind of disarray, and in the minds of many, irrelevance.
I’d like to finish by saying that I am fully aware of the contentious and subjective nature of what I have written above. That said, when I was approached by the student body to write a text on race and arts education I explained to them that I would necessarily have to come at the subject from an anecdotal perspective and that they would have to rely on other voices for a sober, academic and objective dissection of the current state of play.
I should also say that everything I write comes from the belief that first and foremost I am a human being, and that therefore I enjoy a fundamental communality with every other human being that walks across the face of this earth. While additional things I have in common with other people may mean that, in certain contexts, we share certain life experiences that such commonalities produce – I am talking here of my sex, my skin colour, my nationality, my occupation as an art critic, my musical taste, my status as a South Londoner, etc. –, these commonalities are all contingent and mutable. It is disconcerting, then, to think that for vast swathes of society they still form the foundations from which cultural, national and racial identities are produced. It is for that reason that I see liberatory possibilities in theoretically doing away with identity.
So, to put it simply, my response to the question of diversity in arts education is that we need more of it. Not because I am arguing for any particular side, nor lobbying for any particular race, class or sex, but because heterogeneity benefits us all and collectivity is really the only serious way forward.