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Terms of Exchange: "Poverty of Sensibility" at San Francisco Art Institute with China Academy of Art
Brian Karl
Above: Xu Jiang, China Academy of Art president, hosts the keynote speech panel of the symposium “Poverty of Sensibility— Art/Education in the 21st Century III,” November 16, 2018.
Above: Xu Jiang, China Academy of Art president, hosts the keynote speech panel of the symposium “Poverty of Sensibility— Art/Education in the 21st Century III,” November 16, 2018.

As if transformed into the sort of uncanny, empty urban landscape one might encounter in a video game or VR simulation, San Francisco’s normally busy Russian Hill neighborhood felt ominously devoid of human life on a recent November weekend. The buildings and most of the parked cars were there as usual, but only a small number of people were out. An enormous dark pall hovered in the air—smoke from a distant, massive wildfire, overwhelming ordinary life. This set the exterior scene for “Poverty of Sensibility—Panel 21: Art/Education in the 21st Century III,” a two-day symposium held at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and cohosted by the China Academy of Art (CAA). Attended by two dozen art school deans, presidents, professors, and administrators, as well as critics and curators, the symposium grappled with the status of academically based art pedagogy through considerations ranging from the influence of technology to practices of international exchange. Serving as a backdrop to the symposium was “From/To: The Frontier of Chinese Art Education,” an exhibition featuring artists affiliated with CAA and held at SFAI venues in Russian Hill and Fort Mason.

While numerous institutions and workplaces were officially closed November 16-17 due to the hazardous air quality—including many Bay Area campuses—others conducted business as usual, which evoked the alarming possibility that such toxic events might become the new norm. Adding to the sense of the city as a setting for some soon-to-unfold catastrophe, many people who ventured outside wore breathing masks, prefiguring the barer life to come, post-apocalypse.

Inside the Art Institute, the symposium’s presentation format, in which papers were delivered one right after the other, allowed for very limited discussion and exchange. When one paper concluded and the next began, it often felt like a reset button had been hit somewhere. Taken together, the presentations felt less like an accumulating conversation than a series of disjointed individual statements, however articulate and engaging. Though ostensibly forward-looking, per its subtitle, much of the symposium reached backward to histories of art or to past programs undertaken by art schools. Other presentations were very much caught up in the present, with neither long-term goals nor developing methodologies for the future being clearly defined.

The increasing internationalization of art school programs was reflected in the sponsorship of the symposium itself. The formal relationship between CAA and SFAI dates to the 1980s and was a harbinger of the present state of affairs in US art schools, where international students comprise as much as 30 percent of enrollment. Chinese students in particular make up a significant proportion of this population. Though this situation encourages cultural exchange, there is an awareness among many educators of the financial concerns driving much current US art school recruitment, curriculum development, and student outcomes.

Among the more intensely theorized subjects discussed during the first half of the symposium were technological determinism, social media proliferation, data-fication, (self-)surveillance, and the collective impact of all this on not only students and the art world, but society at large. Only a few presenters identified the dominance of capitalism and the influence of the art market on education as issues of concern.

In his presentation “Poverty of Sensibility and the Art of Emancipation,” Gao Shiming, professor and vice president of CAA, sketched out an interlocking global network of technology, information, capital, and power, asserting that digitization and artificial intelligence have distanced people from the real world and narrowed perceptions of reality and imaginations of potential futures. Steven Henry Madoff, the founding chair of the School of Visual Arts’ MA Curatorial Practice program, proclaimed an equally dire warning with great force and subtlety in his paper “The Automaton,” signaling a desire shared among some of the attending pedagogues to encourage students to become more engaged citizens.

Many more presenters, however, unhesitatingly celebrated or only marginally qualified investment in new technologies as the future of art education. Dajuin Yao, vice dean of the School of Intermedia Arts and director of the virREAL Center for Art and Technology at CAA, for example, good-humoredly noted the continuing need for humans to act as coders and operators of AI programs and robots, in order to correct those that malfunction as autonomous creative generators. But his doubts about “smart cities” arrived as a sort of trailing thought.

Occupying a middle ground between celebration and skepticism, some participants attempted to thread the needle between technology’s capacity for creative expression and its more traditional uses. Ivan Gaskell, professor of cultural history and museum studies at Bard Graduate Center, and Zaixin Hong, professor of art history at the University of Puget Sound, presented analytical histories of drawing and calligraphy, respectively. Stephen Beal, president of the California College of the Arts, advocated for a reinvestment in books, one of the earliest human technologies. Gwen Farrelly, executive director of RISD Global, pointed to long-standing traditions of craft as essential to her program’s emphasis on fostering intensive, interactional, and long-term cross-cultural exchanges.

“Poverty of Sensibility” featured among its participants a startling lack of gender diversity or any significant cultural diversity beyond the dominant cultures of China and the United States. Though many institutions of higher education have pledged inclusion among faculty and students, it was apparent that greater changes remain necessary to substantially alter existing dominant modes of curriculum design and administrative functioning at art schools. Cristóbal Martínez, director of SFAI’s Art and Technology program and the sole presenter with any stated indigenous or Latinx heritage, walked out on the proceedings after delivering a presentation that questioned legacies of colonialism in prevailing systems of sovereignty and technologically based hegemonies. Aside from a passing mention of the Anthropocene by other presenters, Martínez was the only participant who called attention to the grievous quality of the air outside the building and to the long-term neglect and abuse of the environment. He explicitly challenged “perceptions of technology such as the towering utopian perspective that technology equals progress,” quoting academic and activist Lawrence Lessig’s observation that “we now live in a world largely governed by the laws encoded by computer code that is written every day in accordance with the values of those who write the computer codes.”

In his talk, Ulrich Lehmann of Parsons School of Design at the New School pointed to activist ideologies and methodologies from the 1960s to suggest how students could participate in the development of curricula and in the hiring of faculty and administrators. He specifically noted Joseph Beuys’ radical move of opening his class at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf to all, and also invoked the 1968 student strike at San Francisco State University and other student-led movements in Paris and Mexico City that same year. Elsewhere, in more informal moments, attendees made passing references to Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, wondering about the appeal and complications of applying it to contemporary art school classrooms.

Throughout the symposium, definitions of what art schools do or what they could or should do were rarely discussed. (Madoff’s concluding remarks raised the rare question of the academy’s centuries-old perpetuation through singular, built structures and floated the potential for dispersing pedagogy to more decentralized sites or distributed learning schemes.) There was no formal consideration of the desirability of pedagogy’s focus on practical applications for art (i.e., through design or craft programs) versus the disruption to the cultural status quo that creative praxis entails. Most symposium participants showed limited interest in making substantial interventions at their own schools, whether due to choice or circumstance. Proposed changes in curricular investments and different pedagogical approaches were ignored or deflected, and statements of support for decolonizing, feminist, and environmental initiatives were remarkably rare.

Contrary to the possible broader social goals of art pedagogy that were outlined by Farrelly, Lehmann, Madoff, and others, several participants identified vocational placement as the default outcome of art education. A neoliberal mode seems to have set in at art schools, in which existing industries and their ideologies are reinforced rather than challenged. Exemplifying this mode is the tech industry’s co-opting of the term “creative” to further its aims of efficiency, monetary accumulation, and market dominance. This narrowed vision of creativity deflects other possible humanist goals, such as how society might improve relationships among citizens, or even posthumanist ones, like revivifying the natural world beyond and including humans.

Almost two hundred miles north of the symposium site, the most destructive wildfire in California history raged on, a disaster severely exacerbated by climate change and human activity. Outdoors, air quality remained unhealthy. Leaving the rarefied setting of the symposium and reentering the reality back on the street, where pedestrians experimented with both the technical ratings and styling possibilities of their newly acquired air filtration masks, an irresoluble refrain echoed in my head: Who teaches the teachers who teach the teachers?

Brian Karl

Brian Karl has served as Artistic, Executive, and Program Director at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), Harvestworks Media Arts, and Headlands Center for the Arts, and consulted on curatorial and programmatic projects for Art-in-General, Creative Time, and the Kitchen, among others. He has taught at Columbia University, Fordham University, The New School, University of California, Berkeley, California College of the Arts, and the San Francisco Art Institute. His writing has been published in art-agenda, Artforum, Flash Art, Frieze, Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Migration Studies,San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space, and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. His media work has screened at the Jewish Museum, the Kadist Foundation, as well as in the Whitney Biennial, and the New York and San Francisco Film Festivals.

San Francisco Art Institute

location

San Francisco, California