To train not only for, but also against something!

A plea to think politically about the interdisciplinary art academy

Student strike at Hornsey College of Art, 1968.
Film still from The Hornsey Film, Patricia Holland, 1977, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Art colleges where the fine, applied and performing arts are taught under one roof often refer to the historical Bauhaus. Although the institution possessed no separate workshop for music, the experiments on the Bauhaus stage are regarded as prototypical for the further development of interdisciplinary art approaches later in the twentieth century.1 For example, Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s Reflektorische Farblichtspiele (Reflective Colored Light Plays) can be understood as a result of long-term interactions between “Zeitkunst” (time-based art) music and “Raumkunst” (installation-based) painting: Instead of merely simulating temporal musical movement—as many paintings had done before—Schwerdtfeger wanted to make the canvas more dynamic. In a similar spirit, artists such as Oskar Schlemmer and László Moholy-Nagy imagined the stage itself as a canvas to play with abstract elements (of light or flesh and blood). Nowadays, those who enter the experimental laboratory of the contemporary art academy often witness aesthetically similar experiments. However, not only are the technical circumstances different, the social circumstances are as well.

This text deals with the interdisciplinary art academy on the slide of a deregulated present. It reviews a number of developments to which we have already become accustomed. It is precisely for this reason that we should recall the opportunities offered by interdisciplinary education in both an artistic and political sense.

1. the art academy in the control society

One hardly dares to quote the essay, so often has it been cited. But what good does it do? In his short text from 1990, “Postscriptum über die Kontrollgesellschaften” (Postscript on the Societies of Control),2 the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze made an inimitable distinction between the factory and the company. Citing Michel Foucault’s earlier work, Deleuze describes the factory as an “environment of inclusion”3: the workers are distributed throughout the space and arranged in a temporal sequence, only completing one tiny part of the production process, which absorbs all their attention. Their being disciplined—through predetermined, repetitive movement sequences—is economical in two respects: it can be monitored through simple means and at the same time serves productive power. This model reached its peak at the beginning of the twentieth century and permeated society through being replicated in other institutions: school, hospital, barracks, prison—all of which function according to the same principle of division and arrangement in space and time.

The most progressive art college of its time worked differently. When Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919, he gave his interdisciplinary laboratory a far-reaching slogan: “Art and craft—a new unity.” This slogan can be understood as a reaction to the division of labor in the production process, which resulted in a pervasive blindness throughout the work environment. Gropius's utopian counterpart was the Gothic building industry, in which an ensemble of manageable workshops contributed together to the construction of magnificent cathedrals. According to Gropius, the new designers should (again) be able to understand comprehensive processes from A to Z—in terms of craftsmanship, intellect and emotion, and, of course, through all of their senses. The aim was to prepare students for working in an increasingly complex environment. That Gropius wanted to place the arts under one roof was therefore not only a purely aesthetic undertaking. It was also a political project.

According to Deleuze, since the end of the Second World War we have been dealing with a creeping change in society and work. The factory has been replaced by the company, where the production of goods has given way to the sale of immaterial services. Here the internal behavior of the company is regulated by implicit guidelines—self-control replaces the more obvious forms of repression. The seemingly freer form of work “constantly spreads an inescapable rivalry as an excellent motivation.” It manifests itself through “comic title fights, selection procedures and conversations.”4 The work interspersed with social micro-politics bears the traits of leisure time, but it does not know any end to the workday: people remain accessible and ready to talk even outside the workplace. The discontinuous principle of discipline liquefies into subtle, continuous control.

This is also how employees work in the contemporary art academy—naturally, because they are part of the service industry. Deleuze’s forecasts are reflected on another level, however, since the Bologna Process has essentially turned all participating universities into companies. The European Credit Transfer System requires students to undergo continuous performance reviews: the (discontinuous) final examination loses weight in this process. The performance of the lecturers is also constantly evaluated by quality management. Control becomes an integral part of everyday life. What is required is the continuous optimization of teaching through continuing education, a development noted by Deleuze nine years before the Bologna resolutions.5 In contemporary agencies and consulting offices he sees only “deformable and transformable figures of one and the same company, which only know managing directors.”6 Accordingly, it is negligible whether the offer in question consists of advertising, personnel consulting or art education. Mind you: The postmodern service is located, preferentially, on converted industrial sites and in former factory buildings. These former containment environments are often conspicuously organized in the same way as Foucault describes the perfect surveillance model: through open spatial situations and the establishment of advanced visual axes:7 Nobody knows for sure whether she or he is currently being observed, and behaves accordingly—in a “controlled” manner. The only difference is that guard personnel were needed in the factory, while the open-plan office manages without them.

For art students, after attending academy a more or less fluent transition to the free market takes place. Here it soon becomes apparent that entrepreneurial logic has a thoroughly conclusive place in education. Deleuze notes: “Even art has left the closed milieus and is entering the bank’s open circuits.”8 It can be added that not only art itself, but also freelance artists circulate economically. They are self-entrepreneurs who are constantly responsible for their own self-optimization.9 Their capital is the application file, the dossier in which their curriculum vitae is condensed into a closed narrative. This development is not an invention of the twentieth century, but an outcome of the “mutation of capitalism”10 towards the increasingly symbolic dimension of exchange value, leading to a way of life in which the boundary between the public and the private disappears.

2. crisis and universality

The Bauhaus is not the only art school worth mentioning of the last 100 years whose orientation can be understood as a reaction to a time of crisis. In the 1930s, Black Mountain College responded to incipient doubts about democracy by establishing a close relationship between art and everyday life at the school. From 1953 to 1968, Ulm’s Hochschule für Gestaltung took on the project of restoring political consciousness in the Federal Republic of Germany. In both of these institutions, imparting broad knowledge was regarded as a general tactic in preparation for the changing demands of the world of life and work.11 Can this starting point also apply to the contemporary art academy, which serves the free market as a service enterprise?

Art colleges have become places of permanent media change. Without explicit guidance on interdisciplinary farsightedness, freelance artists combine their forms of expression and representation in early semesters as a matter of course. Their everyday life is accompanied by the smell of solvents, but also by the wiring of digital technology, the rehearsal of performative elements and the roar of sound tracks—it does not always happen for the good of art, but it does happen. The picture loses all clarity when we turn our gaze from free art teaching to classical music education. To choose a career playing an analogue instrument still leads to over-concentrated and (mostly) lonely studies, while the idea of an engagement beyond the interpretation of the classical-romantic repertoire still seems obscure to many music students. Accordingly, disciplinary boundary crossing for students of different art disciplines basically entails a disparity in the distribution of interdisciplinary learning among students: for some, it is natural; for others, almost unthinkable. Explanations of the meaningfulness of genre-spanning works appear superfluous and redundant to some, while for others they present a challenge to the concept of art and work. In a structuralist sense, we are confronted with different languages (in other words, approaches to the world). It is therefore no wonder that universities where visual art and music meet are places of permanent misunderstanding.

The arts lack knowledge about one another; about their difference, but also about their profound lines of connection. The same problem is known to the university sciences. Those interested in Humboldt’s intellectual heritage promote institutionalized farsightedness as a means of forestalling the idiocy of specialists: general-education liberal arts programs are taken for granted within American universities; in France they are the hallmark of the grande écoles.

Today, some art academies have their own structures for disseminating bourgeois educational knowledge and the interdisciplinary spirit. Admittedly, the tried and tested means to counteract professional routinization cannot be the prescribed crossing of borders. It is about promoting mutual respect. This, however, is not achieved through mutual imitation.

3. dialectic of the border

In 1965, Theodor W. Adorno’s essay “Über einige Relationen zwischen Musik und Malerei”12 (On some relations between music and painting) was directed against superficial analogies, which he dismissed as “pseudomorphosis.” In dilettantism, he not only locates the danger of dissipated art, but also the threat of the collapse of ideology and commodification as soon as concentrated work on one’s own material was neglected. Art would relegate “zum Für anderes ”13 a piece of service. In it, Adorno seems to support the model of self-referential music or self-reflexive art. In fact, the unconsidered use of media in all the arts suggests a plea for withdrawal to one’s own terrain. However, the proximity of the arts does not necessarily have to be synonymous with their mixing. In this respect, Holger Gutschmidt’s current definition distinguishes between interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.14 The latter means the exchange occurs on the basis of a pronounced disciplinarity. Transdisciplinarity offers an opportunity to sharpen one’s view of one’s own actions in the experience of each other’s discipline: to thematize non-reflected facets of representation and to identify the unconsciously unformed. With the ability to locate oneself in the field of the arts, at best an awareness is created that every material deserves the same seriousness in its treatment—the sound of the art installation as well as the pianist’s eyeglasses. Knowledge about one another leads to knowledge about oneself.

So, if we discover with Adorno that from an artistic point of view falling borders are not a positive value in themselves, the same applies to politically motivated interventions. While the Bauhaus could refer to holism as a model and Black Mountain College to the levelling of the boundary between art and life, the unbroken transfer of both principles to the contemporary moment presents problems. Not only are the demands of the 1968 student strike at Hornsey College of Art somewhat closer to us in terms of time, but in self-organized seminars the students practiced for weeks what they expected from a contemporary university: lessons that were networked between the various disciplines, that reacted to current developments outside the university, and in which the process stood above the result.15

In addition to being an impressive act of self-empowerment, the example of the Hornsey College strike testifies to another aspect in the horizon of meaning of the now somewhat worn out concept of transdisciplinarity: reality poses tasks that can only be solved by taking into account different professional perspectives—it requires manual, academic, political and artistic knowledge. Not everyone is familiar with everything, but everyone must be heard, because no sign system has the potential to explain the world exhaustively from within itself.

Interdisciplinary work can create a forum for comparing different points of view. At the same time, it has to function as a method of critical borderline science: who installs or removes boundaries and for what purpose?; does a hierarchy emerge or is another one concealed? Even in the Renaissance, the separation of the arts was associated with the allocation of certain ranks. Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, for example, can certainly be seen as an attempt to write up the market value of his own art. In the contemporary art academy, the gaze wanders through an open interior architecture that nevertheless entrenches itself behind protective walls. The highly subsidized infrastructure is only accessible through higher education. Even today, in less privileged segments of society work does not look like leisure and, in a figurative sense, the guard is still sitting in the tower. If we enlarge the radius of observation, we can state that borders are always dismantled when they impede the flow of capital, but they grow by leaps and bounds when exclusivity seems to be endangered. Accordingly, Deleuze notes as a constant in the transition of social forms that “three quarters of humanity live in extreme misery.”16 The historically variable borderlines between peace and war, life and death, health and madness, etc., can be described with the same ambivalence.

But how can the boundless mechanisms of the neoliberal control society, such as the situation of the self-driven freelancer whose individuality dissolves in self-control, be dealt with institutionally at the art academy?17 An obvious suggestion: the thematic opening of the institution accompanied by a structural demarcation to the outside. The art academy has to dedicate itself to maintaining a protected place beyond the reach of economic means. This does not mean the exclusion of extracurricular realities—for the preparation of students for the free market does not take place through the “optimization” of external processes and realities according to administrative requirements—but through the creation of an autonomous legal space. Even within the new university system it must therefore be possible to launch teaching formats that allow experimental self-understanding to seep in sustainably while at the same time imparting knowledge of power processes that also tend to be present in the unconscious. Only in this way can the Kunsthochschule be a forum for the negotiation of aesthetic and social questions concerning the future, which play a role in all areas of life. In this sense, cross-disciplinary teaching might help to bring back to the university something that threatens to be lost in full-time study carried out according to the rules of the Bologna Process credit transfer scheme. Namely, the encounter with an uncertain outcome.

To put it in a nutshell, and with reference to the publication context of this article: the Bauhaus was a counter-model to the factory, but the contemporary art academy functions structurally like a service company. The Bauhaus wanted graduates who would transcend the system—while the contemporary art academy teaches students how to go with the flow as best as they can . But like its historical role models, it is certainly time for today’s academy not only to train for but also against something. Raising awareness would be a first step, one we want to take in the autumn semester. Students will then learn strategies of dealing (such as appropriation and self-invention) in the continuation course. Attending the two consecutive project seminars rewards students with a total of eight credits. (Just kidding.)

  • 1 Self-quotation may be an unsympathetic strategy, but please allow me to mention: Andi Schoon: Die Ordnung der Klänge, transcript, Bielefeld 2006.
  • 2 Gilles Deleuze: “Postskriptum über die Kontrollgesellschaften,” in: Unterhandlungen 1972 – 1990, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1993, pp. 254 – 262. Published in English as “Postscript on Control Societies” in: Gilles Deleuze: Negotiations, Columbia University Press, New York 1995, pp. 177–182.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 254.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 256f.
  • 5 „Denn wie das Unternehmen die Fabrik ablöst, löst die permanente Weiterbildung tendenziell die Schule ab, und die kontinuierliche Kontrolle das Examen. Das ist der sicherste Weg, die Schule dem Unternehmen auszuliefern.“ Ibid., p. 257. (“Because just as the company replaces the factory, permanent further training tends to replace school and continuous monitoring the exam. This is the safest way to deliver the school to the company.”)
  • 6 Ibid., p. 260.
  • 7 cf. Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Pantheon Books, New York 1977.
  • 8 Deleuze: “Postskriptum über die Kontrollgesellschaften,” p. 260.
  • 9 This phenomenon has now spread to the field of music, so that fewer and fewer classical music students can hope for a permanent position in an orchestra. Many of them are preparing for an existence in the free market.
  • 10 Deleuze: “Postskriptum über die Kontrollgesellschaften,” p. 259.
  • 11 EDITOR’S NOTE: While technical training at the college level in Europe and the United Kingdom responded to a host of social, political and economic exigencies, Black Mountain College in particular and the American liberal arts college were explicitly concerned with producing well-rounded citizens sufficiently knowledgeable to participate in the political process. It could be suggested without controversy that the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, as a project supported by the American military occupation of southern Germany, was largely inspired, or at least colored, by the ideological component of the latter.
  • 12 Theodor W. Adorno: Musikalische Schriften I-III: Klangfiguren. Quasi una fantasia. Musikalische Schriften (Gesammelte Schriften, Band 16), Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, Frankfurt am Main 1978.
  • 13 Literally “to the for others.” Ibid., p.639.
  • 14 „Transdisziplinarität bezeichnet somit primär ein Verhältnis, das ein Wissenschaftler zu seiner eigenen Disziplin oder diese zu sich selbst ... hat.“ ("Transdisciplinarity thus primarily denotes a relationship that a scientist has to his own discipline or to himself ...") Holger Gutschmidt: “Multidisziplinarität, Interdisziplinarität, Transdisziplinarität,” in: Frank Brand, et al.: Transdisziplinarität. Bestandsaufnahme und Perspektiven, Univerlag Göttingen, Göttingen 2004, p. 65.
  • 15 cf. Tom Holert: “Art in the Knowledge-based Polis,” the e-flux journal # 3 (February 2009), (Retrieved: September 18, 2019)
  • 16 Deleuze: “Postskriptum über die Kontrollgesellschaften,” p. 260.
  • 17 This question has arisen anew since the quarrels over Frank Castorf’s successor at the Berliner Volksbühne during the 2017/18 season, when interdisciplinary guest performances (planned by new artistic director Chris Dercon as the main focus of the Volksbühne program) became a symbol of a neoliberal cultural scene. So are we training the students for freelance work—the polemical slogan at the time—“event booths”? This would certainly be a topic worthy of an additional article.
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