A Project initiated by the “Chto Delat” and with the support of Rosa Luxemburg Foundation
How does one become an artist?
Why should one become an artist?
What is art today and what role does it play in society?
We aren’t sure that we have ready answers for these and other urgent questions, and this is why we started the school—to meet the younger generation and work out together what is happening with art and the subjectivity of artists here and now, in contemporary Russia.
What do we want from an art school?
First of all, we have no illusions about the miserable situation in which contemporary art finds itself today. Least of all are we inclined to indulge the free play of “differences” (of little concern to anyone), which provides an excuse for withdrawing from any kind of responsible position. We want to go against the grain of things and insist that art remains essential for human becoming, that art is always a gesture of negation and a call for the world (and oneself) to become other. This is what defines the active position of the artist in society. Art, like philosophy, has always been and still remains a special space in which debates about truth can occur.
But how can one defend this position today, when all talk of truth is suspect, interesting only the marginalized, and the borders between art and life, art and media, art and the social sciences, art and activism have been effaced to such an extent that any desire or opportunity to redefine the meaning of art is blocked?
What knowledge should an artist possess?
How should such knowledge be evaluated?
Who has the power to judge whether an artwork is good or bad?
We are rather skeptical about the “academicization” of art education taking place in Western institutions of higher learning (perhaps because we—the artist-initiators of the school—never went through the mill of an academic education). And like all self-educated artists, we believe in the axiom that art cannot be taught but only practiced. This is why we humbly want to continue the good old tradition, in which artists of one generation try to share with the next generation their faith in art and its power, their doubts and hopes, their fears and passion.
The twentieth century produced many similar projects: Unovis in Vitebsk in the 1920s, the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College in America in the 1930s-50s, the unofficial circles that formed around a number of dissident artists in the late Soviet period, etc. (1). Some of these projects left an indelible mark on history; others, hardly anything at all. Even the most serious educational projects often became a force for change among only a very small circle of people, but their mere existence served to preserve hope in the darkest of times.
What kind of art education is necessary in the Russian context today—in a situation where basic democratic freedoms are under threat, and the level of violence in society has reached a critical level; in conditions that offer no support whatsoever for an independent, critical culture, and where there are no academic programs in contemporary art at all?
In our view, art can and must deal with all the painful processes of our transforming society. Today it is essential to practice art that does not hide in the safety of institutional and pedagogical ghettos. We want an art that will tear itself free of the formalist approach to political and social questions; an art that can appeal to a broad viewership (while still touching each viewer on an individual level), not a narrow group of professionals immersed in discursive and contextual nuances. To achieve this we need to accrue knowledge from the widest range of disciplines and use it in the most unorthodox ways.
We need a hybrid of poetry and sociology, choreography and street activism, political economy and the sublime, art history and militant research, gender and queer experimentation with dramaturgy, the struggle for the rights of cultural workers with the “romantic” vision of art as a mission.
The distinguishing characteristic of our school is its open declaration of fidelity to the leftist tradition of modernist and avant-garde art and the simultaneous rejection of a dogmatic approach to politics. We want to experiment with collective egalitarian and emancipatory practices, which are still alive despite all the traps of the oppressive political situation. In order to do this, we have to demonstrate a viable alternative to the private interests of oligarchs and corporations and to the senseless machine of mass entertainment. Art, like authentic politics, is a common task. The ten-year activity of Chto Delat and the position of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (the institution supporting our initiative) have always been based on these assumptions; the time has come to affirm them in education.
No one asked us or invited us to open the School of Engaged Art. On the contrary, we encountered a number of difficulties and obstacles that might have made the project impossible. Yes, our school is far from the standards of Western art academies with their wonderfully outfitted classrooms, studios, and teaching staff. But we’re not so bad ourselves, and we can already provide free tuition, a travel and living stipend for students coming from other cities, support for the realization of participants’ projects, and respectable honoraria for teachers.
The school works according to a modular structure. We meet with the participants for one week every month. We conduct all our seminars and tutorial meetings during this short, intensive period, including public screenings and lectures. The yearlong program includes five required courses: The History of Modernist Art (Andrei Fomenko), Aesthetics (Artemy Magun), Body Practices and Choreography (Nina Gasteva), Critical/Poetic Writing (Alexander Skidan), and English for Artists (Emily Newman). The remaining time is devoted to practical seminars led by three tutors: Olga (Tsaplya) Egorova, Dmitry Vilensky, and Nikolai Oleinikov. We also invite key participants in the Russian and international art process for thematic seminars and for the school’s public events.
A central component of our school is the idea of collective practice. We want to develop a range of models for collective art production while of course continuing to discuss personal projects. We are convinced that a community of learners emerging in this way will have no place for neutral, unengaged abstractions. And this is why we have called our project the School for Engaged Art. Such a school requires all participants to take a position in this world, where fundamental battle lines are drawn by developing a particular ideological/aesthetic movement.
In conclusion it is important to point out that our goal is not to teach students how to make a career as an artist. Instead, we practice art as a vocation. We are not going to provide students with all the right “connections”—we simply want to introduce them to interesting, wonderful people. We don’t promise anyone that they will become rich and famous—we want them to share an experience of that fullness of being, freedom, and becoming, without which no self-realization is possible in the world.
(1) An impressive list of such projects can be found in Anton Vidokle’s article: http://byanalogy.org/texts/02%20-%20Anton%20Vidokle%20-%20Exhibition%20as%20School%20in%20a%20Divided%20City.pdf