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April 8, 2021

School Watch: On Divergent Art Education: A Case Study in Dark Study

Art & Education

Left: David Hammons, African American Flag, 1990. Canvas and grommets. 59 × 94.5 inches. Right: David Hammons, Slauson Studio (detail), 1974. The Studio Museum in Harlem. Photo: Zalika Azim. From Caitlin Cherry, Divergent I Miro Board.

From Caitlin Cherry, Divergent I Miro Board.

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books, 2013). From Caitlin Cherry, Divergent I Miro Board.

Andrea Fraser, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics (MIT Press, 2018). From Caitlin Cherry, Divergent I Miro Board.

Lela Welch, Investment, 2019. Durational performance, Vaseline, washed silica sand, casting plaster, wood, water, plastic buckets, mixer, Masonite, projected image, and self.

From Caitlin Cherry, Divergent I Miro Board.

On Divergent Art Education: A Case Study in Dark Study
by Andrew Woolbright

“We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming. What we want after ‘the break’ will be different from what we think we want before the break and both are necessarily different from the desire that issues from being in the break.”
—Jack Halberstam, introduction to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study

A wave of writing on radical education appeared in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and surfaced again three years later during the Occupy protests. Both moments rehearsed our current one: increased economic inequality, dramatic disinvestment in public goods, and an accelerated dependence on debt to access education. These inequalities, while addressed polemically, were rarely addressed materially. Voyeuristic appraisals of programs like AltMFA, the Black School, Mountain School of Arts, and Bruce High Quality Foundation University often positioned these radical alternatives more like novelties than serious replacements of the established art education institutions and, in turn, regulated a cruel optimism of those institutions and their promises. Much of this writing was sensory, first-person, and romantic: the reader might be informed of what a seminar room smelled like but not what the students did there nor how they came to education, let alone any discussion of the institution’s pedagogical ideology. The establishment crowded out the alternative and cast these radical schools in narrow terms of opposition rather than as possibilities to serve the artists that traditional institutions often excluded. The MFA, then and now, perpetuates professionalization, offering access and art world visibility for considerable debt-backed fees instead of an education that empowers artists to challenge the system’s fundamental inequities. This exchange was commonly accepted and influenced what was written about and how, what was seen and what was buried.

Critical attention confers legitimacy, and while a lack of a sincere engagement with the alternative is not the only problem faced by radical programs, it contributes to keeping new, divergent forms of education suspended between launch and long-term viability. For radical and utopic models to develop, they are in need of a new kind of evaluative writing, one that enables prospective students to understand the definitions of an education that encourages a deep, investigative, and expansive art practice. This writing must be material rather than idealized; embodied rather than voyeuristic; and focused on subjects (the students and their work and the teachers’ articulated pedagogies) rather than subjectivities. It ought to answer not only how but what and why. Most importantly, it must be patient, rigorous, and observant. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney outline in The Undercommons, their collaborative exploration of a divergent space for study and the development of a new, free commons within society, “We owe it to each other to falsify the institution … We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.” Significant criticism of the MFA system certainly exists, but for all of the signaling, why has no divergent program established itself as a serious replacement of high-debt higher education?

Enter Dark Study. Developed by Caitlin Cherry and Nicole Won Hee Maloof, Dark Study is a new para-institution launched in January that operates beyond the traditional structures of education to counter the inaccessibility and weaknesses of art school that make it an unrealistic, and inhospitable, place for so many artists to make their work.

Read the full text on School Watch.

School Watch presents critical perspectives on art education. Featured profiles and conversations survey programs in fine art, curating, critical theory, and other related disciplines, as well as the ideas and conditions that influence their practice.

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