Art: Changing Systems

November 3, 2014

When I speak with younger artists, I almost always mention that I didn’t study art (even though, since I was a child, I’d known I would be an artist), and that it was because I was arrogant—as I still am. When I was seventeen years old, I decided that art schools were worse than bad, and so I decided to study pedagogy, with an even sillier purpose: to change art education. To transform education: just that.

Luckily, I had the best professors at the university, and I was also allowed to attend elective courses within philosophy, history, literature, journalism and geography programs at my beloved Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, in the UNAM in Mexico City. Studying education theory—mostly curriculum theory, diving deeply into all kind of libertarian and utopian, active, constructivist, re-conceptualist, post-structuralist, rhizomatic models, including lots of baroque discussions on Ilich, Freire, and all their contradictory acolytes—led me to an unhappy realization. I understood, more than anything, that it was the institution that had gone wrong, that only in tiny little environments could things really change, following (or not) all those ideas and intentions from thinkers and pedagogues, and improvising according to the specific situation.

I struggled to find a subject matter for my final thesis paper, as I was a cartoon artist and a curriculum research fellow candidate at the Centro de Estudios Sobre la Universidad. Finally, I devised an easy detour to get the diploma as soon as possible, collecting all available material on the Free International University, Joseph Beuys’ education project, and not necessarily because I like the guy…ok: some of the sculptures, yes. I asked friends to help me to translate everything, because at that point, in 1991, there was almost nothing written by or about Beuys in Spanish. My criminal attempts at translation led to my inventing a version or a perception of whatever I understood, and I presented a notebook that linked Beuys to the real, sound and solid theory about interdisciplinary work, and why it’s necessary, which led me deeper into ecology, and even more so into epistemology.

After the formalities of graduation, paradoxically, I went to teach in the two art schools still existing in my city, just to corroborate—and maybe to add something to—their faulty shape. I was asked to propose a new program and curriculum at one of these schools, but it was just a political move by its director to be reelected, so the structure remained the same That is, the school’s program remained the same, based on teaching traditional technical skills, with lots of patches and additions that in time became contradictory, in terms of evaluation. A student could choose between a class in bronze casting, clay modeling, stone carving, engraving and printing, or something called ‘arte cinético’, as it was a technique. I was teaching an art history class and a research seminar, for older students approaching their own moment of instability as they faced the bureaucratic process of becoming Licenciados en Artes Visuales (B.A. in Art).

Later, in the second school I was teaching, I participated in many ‘academic’ meetings that pretended to be about increasing the quality level of the curriculum, but everything was based on statistics and their impact on the school’s qualifications, measured by the institution in terms of how many students got a job, and so on. Efficiency was the word, and after five years of absolutely inefficient labor, I left, only happy to have made great friends with former students who were now accomplices. During those meetings I always mentioned the word ‘ideology’ and it seemed as though I was invoking Satan, while some were arguing about relativist theories and positions, others about semiotics, others about aesthetics, these were the ones I liked.

Without idealizing my students—some of whom were troubled or produced things that only looked like art without yet being capable of generating knowledge or language with it or about it—they, and what I learned from them, were always the best part of teaching.