GIVEN the emphasis on corporatising universities and commercialising research, today's art schools face a bleak and unpredictable future.
Since the forced amalgamations of art schools with universities in 1990 and the decade-long drive that followed to have them mirror the rapidly changing management and funding models of their host institutions, various problems have emerged and, it must be said, various benefits have also been realised.
There is a flaw that these arranged marriages have brought with them as an unwelcome dowry, a flaw that has dramatically swung the balance against individual artists working in universities and art school faculties.
This flaw is the vexed issue of funded research. Art schools and their academic staff - who are contemporary art practitioners - lead, at the best of times, a shadow life in the eyes of their colleagues in other disciplines. In addition to this, and despite some recent (and much appreciated) attempts to ameliorate the situation, they are severely handicapped when applying for Australian Research Council grants.
Artists are behind the proverbial eight ball because the ARC funding model does not adequately address their creative and pedagogic attributes; to put it another way, creative work is not recognised as a legitimate field for funded research. It is almost as if C.P. Snow's “two cultures” debate of the 1960s never happened.
To understand why the ARC continues to resist the recognition of creative work 15 years after the amalgamations, it is necessary to examine the Anglo-Australian-US tradition of art education. Until quite recently, this tradition located the education of artists in “institutions with a strong vocational mission [the principles of art applied to the ‘requirements of trade and manufacturing’]”. This statement is taken from an early 20th-century document outlining the pedagogical future of the Rhode Island School of Design in the US. The school's primary function was to produce artists and designers for the local textile industry. This privileging of the utilitarian, making the development of hand skills, rather than the discursive qualities of art, the principal focus gives the statement a particularly contemporary ring today as well.
This residual prejudice - that art is essentially a manual activity or only about personal expression, not a legitimate outcome of research - is at the core of the ARC objections to applications from artists.
Art is more than just decor, more than a well-designed object. It is central to our society's cultural and political discourse, an essential part of how we can know ourselves and better understand the society we are living in and creating.
Since Oscar Wilde's time, art has also been acknowledged as a tool for criticising society; this precept is axiomatic in the visual arts today.
Shouldn't funded research at university level reflect this? Somehow, the lexicon of what constitutes valid research still excludes all this.
What is the result of this 15-year embargo on the funding of creative work in art schools? As well as the obvious disadvantage that individual artists face through not having their creative work funded, a manipulative climate has grown up in which they are encouraged to develop research projects that do not represent their primary intellectual concerns as artists but do fit neatly into the ARC funding categories.
Art school faculties are also being penalised in terms of block grants, which are tied to the successful awarding of ARC grants. Fewer ARC grants means a reduced level of funding to the faculty's overall budget.
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