During the last couple of years, in various countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, art & design schools were demanded to take an explicit political stand. They were asked, for instance, to show solidarity with marginalized groups, to take a side in international conflicts, to oppose the dominant economic system, or to actively join environmental groups. We can think of this period as an accelerated reshuffling of political urgencies. We can go even further and say that politics, as understood within art & design academies, is a process of prioritization of such urgencies.
These days I’m reading Bourdieu and I believe that his work can be useful to understand some implications of the political art & design school. One of the questions that Bourdieu helps framing is an apparently obvious one: what is a school? The French sociologist urges us to think of the school not just as a context where knowledge is acquired and shared, nor as a merely repressive institution that disciplines future white collars, but also as a market where cultural capital is formed, exchanged, sanctioned and legitimized.
Speaking of culture as a capital is crucial: it means highlighting the fact that culture can be converted into economic capital, namely, money. Scholastic capital, the amount of knowledge acquired at school, is a subset of cultural capital, but one can argue that the art & design school is slightly exceptional because the student explicitly brings in their preexisting cultural capital (interests, passions, readings, etc.) and the school helps turn it into a “practice”, which is the activity through which culture is converted into money. The art & design academy turns cultural consumers into cultural producers.
The art & design school is also a particular place also because it encourages individual self-expression. It is, in other words, the place to “become who you are”. But how can one become who they are when a set of urgencies or prepackaged political leniences steer their development? This is the paradox of political art & design education: on the one hand it promises autonomous self-realization while, on the other hand, it encourages certain urgencies, while devaluing others. A course director stating that “the climate crisis is the most important issue of our times” (as I read recently on the newspaper produced by a prominent academy) necessarily implies that other urgencies are, simply less urgent, less important, and therefore less valuable.
It’s important to point out that the delegitimization of less urgent urgencies doesn’t have to happen explicitly. Instead, it can many forms: lack of excitement in the teaching body, longer time to simply explain why something matter, less or no peers to develop the work with, etc. Less urgent urgencies will generate more friction.
It’s also crucial to remind that a certain educational institution negotiate its urgencies anyway, even when it professes its neutrality. In this sense, the explicitly political school has a quality, that is, it makes the students aware of its own process of legitimization. But if it wants to be itself aware of it, it might have to drop the liberal model of full individual self-expression by narrowing down the area of intervention within which students can express their own urgency. The political art & design school should, in other words, learn to become what it already is.
Also published on Medium.