Nicolas Bourriaud: How I Tried to Renovate an Art School

Courtyard of École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, 2011. Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra; Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

‘It seems to me that a twenty-first-century art school should endeavour to find a balance between theory and practice.’

From the ArtReview archives: writing in 2015, the curator (and former director of École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris) revisits the ‘educational turn’

At the dawn of the 2000s, the idea of an ‘educational turn’ in the artworld was everywhere. On paper, this evolution seemed irresistible, logical, even profound. So much so that, back then, curators such as Hou Hanru, Maria Lind, Okwui Enwezor and Ute Meta Bauer started to occupy significant positions within art schools. But none lasted too long. Indeed, all returned to their prior activity: curating or directing exhibition spaces. Time will tell whether Marta Kuzma, vice-chancellor of the Royal Institute of Stockholm since 2014, will be the exception to this rule: it still seems that instead of being the sites for ambitious projects and educational renewal that they could have become, art schools are for now (and despite that celebrated ‘educational turn’) nothing more than parentheses or temporary homes for international curators who have managed, in other situations, to create new contexts and renew the functioning of art institutions.

But who among those curators I mentioned ever really had free rein to reinvent the educational and curatorial models of these schools? Who might have been able to reform, root and branch, their administrative structures or their recruitment models? Who could have actually devised an art school that was as contemporary as the spaces in which its students would show after graduating? Caught in rigid power structures and pressed to conform to the university systems of their respective countries (as well as, in some cases, European norms), art schools haven’t really changed over the past 30 years. Art, by contrast, has.

But it isn’t by renouncing artistic practice in favour of ‘knowledge production’ that we will solve this problem: all that does is to defer the problem, while art schools become further aligned with the university model, without being able to mount a critical examination of the model itself.

It seems to me that a twenty-first-century art school should endeavour to find a balance between theory and practice, the academy and the artworld, knowledge and know-how, between the analysis of the contemporary world and a reflection on art history. It should constitute a hub of all available knowledge and reinstate that fusion of intellectual disciplines which is so particular to art. Because if a young artist really wants to develop a genuinely personal form of thinking, he or she cannot simply content themselves with theory while neglecting practice, if by practice we mean the process of formalising thinking via the use of any available technique. It is a matter of reconnecting the two, in a thousand possible ways; and with that in mind, an extremely individual route should be offered to art students right from the start. Since an art school’s purpose is to create ‘producers of singularities’ (whether collectively or as individuals), the ‘core’ of the curriculum is necessarily narrower than that for other ‘professions’.

Learning how to produce such singular thinking suggests following personal paths, often intimate, sometimes even neurotic. How to integrate these individual givens into a teaching structure? It also implies the mastery of a great diversity of techniques, which in turn raise new theoretical perspectives: an art school should offer the greatest possible spectrum of skills, even if some of these are merely touched on by students, since nothing can ever allow us to affirm that a technique is definitively obsolete. (Who could have foreseen the return of ceramics to exhibitions that took place a few years ago?) It is, of course, impossible for most schools to make the entire range of techniques available to their students, but forming links with external studios and workshops is feasible. In the same way, art schools could further connect themselves to other schools of theoretical knowledge – the autarchy in this area is becoming intolerable. But the most important thing, in these circumstances, is to know what discipline an art student should pursue, because here old assumptions die hard: the division of teaching along genre lines – painting, sculpture and multimedia – that still reigns in many schools now appears profoundly out of step with the reality of art today. After all, into which of those categories would we place Mike Kelley, Pierre Huyghe or Laure Prouvost? Why should anyone have to choose between ‘pathways’ that are no longer relevant?

Another turning point in the development (or lack of it) in art schools was the failure of Manifesta 6 in 2006, which was abruptly and acrimoniously cancelled following disputes about whether or not certain activities could take place in northern Cyprus, but had been intended to take the form of a giant art school involving almost 100 artists. The complexity of the political situation in Cyprus robbed us of what would have been a decisive moment: presenting itself as ‘a whole range of possible models for educational institutions’, the exhibition-school created by Mai Abu ElDahab, Anton Vidokle and Florian Waldvogel could have embodied this new relationship between exhibition and transmission and could have had an impact on art schools.

Because what is clear is that even if the educational turn has not produced a significant upset in art schools, it has allowed for a change in the world of curating and art institutions, introducing processes of knowledge-sharing while orienting diverse forms of knowledge towards the protocols of education and dissemination. Hundreds of art centres and museums around the world now articulate their programmes around discussion platforms, theory courses or arthistorical study, leading us to conclude that the art school no longer has a monopoly on education. But what if it was precisely the loss of this monopoly that explained the traditional art school’s reticence about opening itself up to the artworld?

After having founded the Palais de Tokyo, worked as a professor in Venice and spent three years as a curator at Tate, it seemed to me logical, if I returned to Paris, to turn my attention to the source of its art scene: the École des Beaux-Arts. An art school is, let us not forget, a womb. It sets the theoretical tone, valorises practices and know-how, and organises the foundations of primary information from which young artists take their cue. An art school has a discreet but decisive influence on the art scene it feeds. Having known many artists of my generation, and those that followed, from the time when they were still students, or very soon after they graduated, it was clear to me that this initial environment was key.

At the Palais de Tokyo from 2001, we initiated, with the artist Ange Leccia, a postgraduate programme called Le Pavillon. It was directly integrated into the life of the art centre, and brought together a dozen young artists from around the world every year. These students-in-residence were integrated with the programming, and developed as part of the Palais de Tokyo. This school, installed as it was within an exhibition venue, functioned well for ten years, before becoming a residency programme for young artists. Above and beyond the postgraduate student context, which had its own particular features, this experiment allowed us to investigate the dynamic created by bringing together art training (following an initial period of education elsewhere, in the case of Le Pavillon) with the site of art’s production and dissemination. This organic link between exhibition, presentation and distribution of work is nevertheless still a persistent and ongoing taboo; it is as if students are supposed to see themselves as ‘protected’ from an exterior world that their studies are nevertheless supposed to prepare them to face. This ideology of autonomy is, in my view, a means of preserving pedagogical authority in its most retrograde aspect.

When I took over as the head of the Beaux-Arts de Paris, my project consisted of creating a pedagogic synergy between all the elements that made up the school: its exhibition spaces, its collections, its publishing house and the studios the students worked in, led by an artist. It was a return to the source, to the DNA of an institution that, during the nineteenth century, had developed around the presence of artworks within its bounds: a museum of copies was at that time permanently on view in the Palais des Études, while exhibitions of works by Manet and Japanese prints were organised. The school has a rich collection comprising thousands of original artworks, and the architecture of the school itself constitutes an encyclopaedia of styles and ornamental motifs. The presence of art and artists among the students was the signature of the Beaux-Arts de Paris, a pedagogic project in itself – it was a model that had slowly disappeared over time and which simply needed to be reinstated.

But as it turned out, everybody wanted to keep their particular components isolated in order maintain their area of authority. One of the professors at the school who persistently opposed this project, Jean-François Chevrier, explained his position very honestly in a recent interview in Le Journal des Arts: ‘Education is the key to everything, and pedagogy is today more than ever the vector of cultural transmission. That is why I mobilised against Nicolas Bourriaud, who wanted to make an art centre of the school, to the detriment of the education that I consider so fundamental.’ This ‘education’ of which Chevrier speaks is, of course, his: and more generally, the authoritative role of the master to dispense ex cathedra pure theoretical knowledge. From this perspective, the art centre cannot, for him, be a space that produces skills useful to students, nor can it be a true ‘vector of cultural transmission’, but represents a branch of the market, much too ‘contemporary’ to be honest, because it is not validated by the authority of particular narrative. Now, a horizontal art school, open to the teaching of artists (who may not be staff), and to the presence of artworks, brings an end to this monopoly over value-production. The voice of the master, alone in front of the students, with as its only horizon the museum and society in general, constitutes by contrast a vertical political model, reproducing the old protocols of the French university system.

The old masters of the school knew, nevertheless, what they were resisting in opposing my plans for the Beaux-Arts de Paris, because getting rid of the functional and symbolic servitude of the art school to the university was at the heart of it. Their rejection of ‘a school become art centre’ actually marked a fierce negation of the discourse of the curator (who orchestrates polyphonies without fear of dissonance, organises multiplicity and gives a platform to heterogeneous voices) in favour of the historian, who speaks the Truth on the history of art by structuring its narrative. The increased fluidity of transmission provoked by the educational turn, which implicates other models of communication and puts in question existing models of authority, certainly represents a threat. “The school must remain a school,” I was often told: that is to say a specific formatting of knowledge established by the denial of curatorial discourse.

While we criticised the symbolic influence of the academic world on the study of art, we multiplied the links with faculties in France and internationally. It is not a question of breaking ties with the university model, but to draw gently from it the necessary resources while still affirming the singular character of an art school. Let’s not forget that since the ‘Bologna Process’ almost 15 years ago, European art schools have had to incorporate certain norms imported from the university system: for some, this was a simple matter of realignment. Some, however, refused this protocol – as did most of the German schools – but the price was a certain isolation in relation to academic culture. The Beaux-Arts’ choice was to position itself halfway between the artworld and the world of academia; but this move closer to the artistic milieu was quickly trumped up as the ‘arrival of the art market’ in the school. The first statement of my successor, Jean-Marc Bustamante, focused on his commitment to ‘close the school to the market’. One could ask how it is possible to keep a school open to the world, and to the artworld in particular, while simultaneously excluding the economic infrastructure through which works and knowledge are diffused. Doubtless we should ‘close everything off’ in order to better protect each student from the disastrous influence of our vile era… And yet, the ‘market’ was never present at the Beaux-Arts de Paris except for those graduates who had entered into active life. ‘Professional life’ wasn’t represented there except for a few annual events to which gallerists, collectors or institutions were invited. Where, then, did this idea that the ‘market’ was going to erupt into education come from? No fact, no action can attest to it: we are here in the presence of incantatory thought, which conjures up evil in order to exorcise it with words.

My first priority had been to return students to the heart of their school, while developing strong links to the graduates, thanks to a plan of support that is now among the most comprehensive in Europe, comprising a dozen bursaries for production, prize awards and external exhibitions organised by the school. Paralleling the traditional exhibition of exemplary graduates, nominated by a jury of professionals, a counter-exhibition realised by students of Paris IV La Sorbonne (that is to say, by people of the same age) was held for the first time this year. The creation of work groups, the reform of the ‘second cycle’, the creation of a practice-based doctorate, the creation of a café as a project space (it was to open in October this year) and of a web radio, but above all of a policy of active support for student initiatives, formed the bases of a more creative school. It’s this energy – which should rightly be named curatorial – that changes the atmosphere of an art school: a spirit of ongoing dialogue with the students, analogous to that which energises a group exhibition.

At this present time, the autonomy of art education will soon become a major issue; I fought for this autonomy because I don’t believe, when it comes to the education of young artists, in a blind alignment with the university system. I tried to construct a hubschool, a school as the tip of a network, midway between the academy and the international artworld; a school in which administration would be at the service of art. And I am certain that this idea of the school has a future. But I remember too the definition that Christian Boltanski (who was for many years a professor at the Beaux-Arts) gave to his professorial role, citing François Truffaut’s film Baiser Volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968), in which Jean-Pierre Léaud joins a private detective agency. The novice asks the advice of an old professional, who gives him the address of restaurant serving the best cassoulet in the neighbourhood. And that’s also the role of the professor of art, admits Boltanski: to point out the place where they make the best cassoulet. 

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue. 

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