The Pedagogy of Failure in the Global Art Market
Published essay available through Wiley Online Library.
‘Frustration is one of the great things in art, satisfaction is nothing ... My whole life is based on anxiety-where else does art come from, I ask you?’ Philip Guston (Wetzteon 2002, 542)
During my lectureship as an art professor at the American University in Cairo, there was an exasperated discussion about the function, methodology and quality of contemporary international art education. Many students expressed a state of mind that might be described as culturally anxious concerning their art making. Students felt they were required to perform a balancing act the origin of which was the evaluation of their authenticity as Egyptian artists. Authenticity was tied to questions about local artists’ integrity, and integrity was determined by the artist’s affiliation with the contemporary art trends of the West (El Shakry 2009, lines 37–43). This debate was a conglomeration of the opinions and judgements of the local and international art scene, as well as those of students’ peers, teachers and mentors. The dissonance was that artists were unable to define exactly what authentic Egyptian art is at this point in history, and due to the obvious need for economic advancement and cultural influence, artists wanted international recognition for their work. Students were worried that they need to acquire a souq (Arabic for small market or bazaar) mentality; they want to trade in the art bazaar, attract foreign interest and money, and hope to retain their uniquely Egyptian aesthetic. This situation manifests as an assertion of local culture and the integrity of national culture to counteract a sense of engulfment by the global; now national cultures are seen to offer a sense of secure identity in a fragmented world (Duncum 2001, lines 92–9). The echo of these conversations continues to provoke me because it reflects the complexities between art students, artists, notions of globalization and the global art market.
My art education, at the California Institute of the Arts during the mid-1980s, was influenced by critical theory and the dialectical method. In studio critiques we referenced the writings of authors associated with the Frankfurt School, in particular, the writings of Walter Benjamin and, also, the work of the post-structuralists, such as Roland Barthes. These philosophic inquiries challenge the concept of a fixed, coherent self and permanent, authoritative cultural values. I was asked to consider how identity is socially constructed and to understand the significance of the political context in which artwork is produced. From this perspective, I know that it is important to question essentialist ideas and, therefore, as an art educator, I believe that we must be careful when we use terms such as ‘authenticity’ as a litmus test to simplify aesthetic problems. Local peers, teachers and mentors need to realise an agenda of legitimacy does not serve students because it can impede their openness to experimentation and artistic adventure in the classroom.
Part of the job of an art educator is to advance the curiosity of students, and to help them navigate the myriad of information that supports their philosophical and artistic development. However, at the AUC, course offerings for theoretical inquiry were limited. Although a broad range of historical and contemporary scholarship is available from the books, magazines and electronic texts at the AUC library and on the internet (and services such as the Egyptian Libraries Network, launched in 1998, have strengthened art students’ access), their use is not an integral part of the curriculum (Education Encyclopedia 2010, lines 66–72; Elkoussy 2005, 3). The AUC Art Department was weak and underfunded, and employed a transient work force. This is symptomatic of an ambiguity about the importance of fine art, something that art educators encounter around the world (Drinkwater 2010, lines 29–52, 429–34; UNESCO 2006, 16). Money is spent building the signifiers of a flourishing Art Department, with some lip service paid to produce art as capital, but investment in students to become strong artists is another matter (Binder & Haupt 2004, lines 83–90). The AUC is simply following a pattern similar to that in the United States, where many fine art departments are eliminated or restructured according to the pressures of the labour market. Practices that are perceived as more utilitarian, or vocationally secure, shape curriculum development. Organisations such as The World Alliance for Arts Education and events such as the UNESCO World Conference of Arts Education and the World Creativity Summit express a commitment to transform this paradigm (Cohen 2009).
Egyptian art students, like those in many other countries, idealise the act of making art as an opportunity for self-expression. In Egypt, the stakes are high in an atmosphere of state censorship and high unemployment. Because of this, their anxiety moves from abstract questions about their own authenticity to the acquisition of skills for jobs, to the realisation that there is no arena in one’s life free of politics. It is as if ‘the art object has no autonomy, and there is no art world whose redemptive functions decouple it from political life’ (Tradowsky 2004, 94–7). This is discouraging to emerging artists in Egypt who are already overburdened by a history of political oppression, and want to truly get away from politics because of systematic intimidation by the government. It is no small task to actually make art in Egypt, and those whose work is challenging, or critical, struggle with internalised social pressure to suppress their own efforts, have almost no audience for their work and face the possibility of government intervention (Elkoussy 2005, 8–9). Government sponsored events and galleries place severe restrictions on an artists’ work and a handful of favoured artists dominate the local scene. Curator Mai Abu El Dahab comments:
Egypt’s Ministry of Culture is the country’s second wealthiest ministry after that of Defense, and, as a result of the country’s socialist era, Egypt has quite a complex infrastructure for supporting cultural production and activities. This infrastructure, however, is only accessible through what have become institutionalized channels of cronyism and nepotism. (Binder & Haupt 2005, lines 51–9)
Art students see their projects immediately circumscribed with the discourse of political polemics about East, West, traditional, contemporary, global, developing, post-industrial, Islamic, secular and so on (El Shakry 2009, lines 30–37). Some eventually do bring their work to the global market, but many find their efforts labelled as outdated, irrelevant or acknowledged to the extent their work can fit into Middle Eastern or Arab Art categories (Talaat 2010, lines 12–27). This situation is confusing at best, and breeds a passive cynicism and a lack of motivation in the local art scene (Wells et al. 1992, 52–8).
My students and I attended a panel discussion, entitled Visual Culture that was part of the 2003 PhotoCairo event at the Townhouse Gallery. The brochure for the event states:
This multidisciplinary panel brings together members of diverse visual fields, aiming to deconstruct what images are in fact deemed worthy of representation in Egypt, while also mapping the development of the dominant ethos concerning images over time, given issues of censorship, contact with the outside world, and concerns rooted in notions of identity. (Azimi 2003, 25)
During this discussion, it became clear that the speakers were extremely disappointed, to the point of resignation, because of the strong censorship laws still in practice in Egypt, and because of the limited distribution systems for their work (Azimi 2004, lines 12–30, 135–48; El Shakry 2009; Hamza 2009, lines 62–115). The Townhouse Gallery itself is a major exhibition space and because of ample funding has a bit more autonomy than most other independent galleries – but there is always trouble. Townhouse curator William Wells reported that his gallery has survived despite the many attacks by the media and he cited his experience of raids by state security forces, who allege that the gallery was a threat to national security because of a photo exhibition that depicted poor citizens (Ursula 2004).
Egyptian artists feel compelled to participate in the global market, where they believe they have more opportunity to show their work. And, as artist Yinka Shonibare has noted, ‘globalization has produced a fantastic opportunity; let’s take the next step’ (Griffin 2003, 154). But, according to the panellists from Visual Culture, they come to the realisation that their work is not as urgent in the global context as it is in the local context. For example, the panellist Reem Saad worked as an anthropologist for Joanna Head’s documentary, Marriage Egyptian Style. The film focuses on Wiza, an Egyptian woman, who works as a house cleaner and lives in Cairo. Abandoned by her husband, who lives with his other wife, Wiza lives in a one-room house with her daughter and sons. Wiza talks frankly about the problems of her own marriage, and the problems of finding a suitable partner for her son and daughter. The film’s release in 1992 at the Ismailiya film festival in Egypt provoked a furore, with charges that the film sullied the nation’s reputation, in particular people were outraged by the filmmaker’s decision to focus on a woman who earns a living as cleaner (Sakr 2001, 119). Yet, outside of Egypt, in the global art market, the film’s subject was less interesting to international distributors. Reem Saad continued to discuss her experience of how international art markets may actually offer limited opportunities for artists whose work is ‘overly local’. In response, the panel discussion rapidly disintegrated into a free-for-all complaint session about exhaustion and a lack of resources to deal with the impasse. My students analysed these arguments and left the event deeply suspicious of their future.
An Egyptian student made the salient point that all instruction at the AUC is in English. She made it clear that because I, their instructor, am a native speaker of English; this heightened the students’ awareness of their own social status that is related to their mastery of the English language. She wondered what would happen if neither of us knew anything of each other’s language and, nonetheless, we tried to communicate. This suggestion was intriguing because as a student of Arabic, I found that many native speakers of Arabic have a low tolerance for the verbal floundering of non-native speakers. There is mutual impatience and misunderstanding. The relationship between power and language mastery reminds me of the relationship between art markets and artists. Art markets and distribution systems may defeat those who have not yet learned, or perhaps will never learn, their languages.
I believe that wherever I teach, I must present an art practice that supports individual creative growth. Artistic quests are worthy for many reasons, and should not be so determined by labour and cultural markets. Art students must be able to work and thrive in conflict and contradictions. I ask myself what lessons I have learned from my own education and art practice that can empower art students.
For my class at the AUC, An Introduction and Exploration of Installation Art, I decided to explore anxiety, frustration and failure as regenerative concepts. I wanted the classroom to act as a ‘life room or debating chamber’ (Burgin 1986, 160–1) and to be an arena for critique of assessment criteria. How can the classroom prepare a student for the uncertainties of being an artist? Can art making emancipate and how could I realistically promote an idea of creative freedom? I emphasised process, risk-taking, and encouraged students to discover art making as an open-ended question, or as an unresolved action, rather than as a product to be judged and sold. If I believed that art students are creative individuals who must develop ‘the confidence, the self-belief to take intellectual and intuitive risks in the cause of innovation, breaking or pushing back the boundaries of what is known or thought possible, or in achieving new aesthetic conjunctions’ (Steers 2006, 3), then I had to model these qualities and even be willing to lose my appointment at the AUC.
For example, at the beginning of the course we created an experimental, collaborative classroom installation initiated from simple prompts such as ‘draw a self-portrait’, ‘make an object that represents you’, ‘and create a nametag with your nickname’. I intended this experiment to bring forward issues of self-representation and stereotyping. The student response was an installation combined of drawings, paintings, found objects, sculptures and a web of strings; it captured the incongruities of their personal identity, lifestyle and psychosocial connections in varied hues of hesitation, stumbling and artifice. Also, contrary to their previous definitions of success, mostly based on formulaic execution of teacher’s instructions, the students said they became engaged with the project as they learned to trust art-as-process, and they became more confident and more autonomous because they could react spontaneously and unselfconsciously to each other.
I also encouraged a non-policing atmosphere. ‘Positive interpersonal relationships matter between teachers and students: constructive discussion is important in creating an ethos that supports students’ feelings of self-worth and effort – students will not take creative risks unless they trust their teachers not to crush their endeavours at the first sign of any deviation from some prized lesson plan’ (Steers 2006, 6). In order to facilitate constructive dialogue between students of extremely divergent lifestyles meant carefully negotiating potentially volatile conversations within an institutional and social structure that had strong restrictions regarding appropriate public speech. Students agreed that if any of them chose to discuss taboo subjects, those who were offended would not file reports to institutional authorities, but would communicate grievances directly in the classroom. Argument was to be seen as an opportunity to understand each other. They protected the classroom as a safety zone, with the intention of affirming the pluralism that existed in their daily life, which was not necessarily socially accepted.
During the execution of a collaborative installation that was later installed in the AUC gallery, entitled Exchange Minis, some students chose to voice their bisexuality and struggles with suicide, both topics that are controversial in Egypt. After much discussion and worry, the students agreed to include these topics along with others such as madness, religious devotion, adultery and belly dancing, because, as one student said, ‘that’s the way life in Cairo really is’. Along the gallery walls, each student designated individual, equally divided areas, similar to cubicles, or rooms, without separating partitions. The viewer encountered each room as an environment based on a student’s fictional character. This piece presented interesting questions and contradictions about constructed identity and cultural restrictions. Was the installation authentically Egyptian, international or global? Was it successful and by whose criteria?
The day before Exchange Minis’ opening, the students held a special meeting about their parents’ attendance of the exhibition and the potential judgements and even scandal. They were excited about the show and proud of the results; they congratulated each other for their hard work, and were pleased with the collaborative process, yet there was an acute sense of exposure. During production, there had been a charged atmosphere in relation to some of the more controversial themes of the students’ work, and there had been several discussions between my supervisor and me where she communicated the department’s concerns about the parents’ reaction to the work. If the show was received poorly, she said this could impact parental support of the curriculum, and she hinted that if the situation became too heated this could affect my future employment at the university. So, my students and I were in a similar position in that we had taken artistic risks that could have negative effects on our families, careers, and the reputation of the school. The significance of the piece increased as it became more about the anticipation of its reception. However, the exhibition ran with minimal controversy and with some positive reviews and consequences; one student from that class has gone on to gain international recognition for her installation and video work.
Embracing frustration and failure allowed students to discover their work in the gap between their art education and their projected anxiety of becoming professional artists in the global art market. This is analogous to the existential reality of most artists worldwide. As the American composer Morton Feldman (1973) said, ‘In life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it. This is difficult.’ Students have an almost pathological unwillingness to fail, which is reinforced by educational systems embroiled in grading and reward-allocation schemes. Given the challenges to maintain and grow an artistic vision, students must learn an intrinsic motivation to do their work outside the institution and find satisfaction in the pure enjoyment of exploring new things (Steers 2006, 6).
On reflection, I believe my own grappling with the need for artistic success and satisfaction fuels a desire to support and understand art students wherever they live. From this struggle, and in particular from my experience teaching in Egypt, I try to be adaptive, flexible and seek strategies that are constructive for art educators who are increasingly employed in global contexts and given minimal debriefing, preparation time and supporting resources. Trying conditions often challenge art educators, and yet, what we do in the classroom can remind us of those creative moments not corralled by art markets, by social agencies or by self-censorship. Satisfaction comes from temporary liberation.
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© 2011 The Author, Janet Silk
iJADE © 2011 NSEAD/Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
iJADE 30.1 (2011)