Embrace Ambiguity: COFA v NAS

Stuff Nov 21, 2005 No Comments

Just over a week ago we received an email alerting us to the news that the National Art School was in danger of being taken over by either Macquarie University or the University Of NSW College Of Fine Arts. A few days later an article by Sharon Verghis appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in advance of a public meeting to protest the proposed merger. It would be hard to imagine a more one sided story. Rife with inaccuracies and a disregard for balance, the real concerns of the NAS were ultimately expressed as a difference of philosophies:

“There is a bigger battle afoot: it’s not simply a case of arts luvvies slinging paint at each other. There are deep and genuine concerns that the type of teaching the National Art School espouses – the atelier, or studio, method based on the historic model of actual paint and easels, and students learning their craft from artists – will disappear. The school’s head, Bernard Ollis, railed publicly last year against the type of teaching on offer elsewhere, which he claimed was producing generations of artists who couldn’t paint, sculptors who couldn’t sculpt, and potters unable to fire a kiln.”

What we have here is anecdotal evidence masquerading as fact. Apparently students from other art schools – who never learned the basics – sign up at the NAS for a real education to be taught to paint and draw properly. Never mind that artists from COFA and Sydney College of The Arts teach at NAS, the real fear is about being subsumed by the vague and indistinct philosophies of other art schools. What the NAS wants is its independence and that’s fine. More art schools with varied teaching philosophies makes for a better art world. But in the current political climate where funding is continually cut, not increased, being amalgamated is a choice between existence and oblivion.

The NAS staff recognise that another art school “taking over” will mean that their cherished atelier model would quickly disappear. They’re hoping for a merger – if they must have one – with Macquarie University because, since it doesn’t have an art school already attached [like Sydney and NSW universities], the NAS teaching philosophy will prevail. To this end, the school is bringing out the big guns, to wit, The Esteemed Critic, Mr. John McDonald. This is how he introduced last Saturday’s art reviews:

There are extraordinary things out there in cyberspace, even a piece of propaganda for a proposed art-school merger, written in the language of the Woodstock generation. Last week, an anonymous posting on the website of the UNSW College of Fine Arts urged students to “share the love” with their peers at the National Art School, who are resisting the idea of being swallowed by their rivals from the other side of Oxford Street. “This is a merger,” it whispers, “a sharing, caring, beautiful thing.”

I spoke at a rally last week at the National Art School, in which the posting’s blissed-out vision of a “huge art and design institution” was seen to give a pretty clear indication of the college’s plans for the school, should it become supreme ruler. It would spell the end of the school’s hard-won independence and a unique educational philosophy that emphasises the value of drawing and a grounding in art history.

If this doesn’t sound revolutionary, it is really a mark of how far the other Sydney art schools have departed from these standards. Every institution will tell you of its commitment to drawing and art history, but the school practises what it preaches. The school has had 10 precious years of independence, since it was prised from the clutches of TAFE by the then incoming Premier, Bob Carr, who last week launched Deborah Beck‘s history of the site, Hope in Hell.

Shifting political tides have left the National Art School on the verge of being sold to one of two remaining suitors: the University of NSW and Macquarie University. Macquarie University is the obvious choice -it is the only major university in Sydney not affiliated with an art school and it has a good record of allowing satellite institutions to maintain their identities. It is also financially healthy. On the other hand, if UNSW had another art school it would be a mere administrative convenience to turn two into one and call it a great opportunity. Last week’s bizarre web posting virtually admits this is the plan. Rumour has it that Macquarie’s offer is superior to that of UNSW, so the choice does not seem difficult. So if UNSW manages to win the race, supporters of the National Art School have every right to feel agrrieved.

There are just a few things we’d like to say about this little diatribe. First off, you’d have to be a fool to have been taken in by such a post – it is clear from the excerpt quoted that it was a pisstake, an ironic overstatement. Since we can find no trace of the actual post that McDonald is refering to [and was probably removed by COFA from their message board ], we’re assuming that it is not the official line of COFA and is therefore not “a pretty clear indication of the college’s plans for the school.”

Clutching at straws is a classic strategy of the Esteemed Critic, as is misrepresenting what the other side of an argument is actually saying. It’s a handy and easy way to make an argument. Another classic strategy is to not actually state your vested interest in the status quo. McDonald neglected to mention in Spectrum that he is an employee of NAS and is listed as a member of staff in the Art History and Theory Department. Being an employee of the institution is fine, but readers should know that the argument is being staged by someone with an interest in maintaining their income. We can only assume that such an admission was cut for space.

The last thing we’d say to the NAS is that they should really be careful of what they wish for. Macquarie University may or may not have “a good record of allowing satellite institutions to maintain their identities”, we don’t know, but what we do know is that the University’s humanities philosophy is light years from the cloistered 19th century teachings of NAS. Macquarie was the home of radical feminism and cultural studies in the 1970s and the home of art crit stalwarts such as McKenzie Wark in the 1990s and remains a hard core bastion of philosophical relativism and progressive cultural studies today. It would be naïve and self serving to imagine that Macquire University staff would look at their new acquisition and leave it unchanged. For a taste of what’s in store, here’s just a little tidbit from the web site of the school of Critical and Cultural Studies:

About CCS

Critical and Cultural Studies combines the study of culture with a focus on the critical theories we use to describe and analyse culture.

Units in Critical and Cultural Studies ask:

• what kinds of frameworks can we use to think about the operation of our society?
• how can we understand different cultural practices and products?
• how can we conceptualise our own roles as individuals in today’s complex society?
• what does it mean to be an individual social subject?
• what are the social and cultural implications of the ways we read and view texts of all kinds – TV, video, film, books, magazines, multimedia?
• what meanings do we make when we produce our own texts?
• how might people from different sociocultural backgrounds read or view texts differently?

About CCS Students

Our focus is on producing students who are:

• critical thinkers
• excellent communicators — orally, verbally and visually
• independent and resourceful workers, who are also
• able to work effectively in a team
• sensitive to cultural differences
• flexible and embrace ambiguity and complexity

Ambiguity? Complexity? View “texts differently”??? Aieeeeee!

Andrew Frost

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