A Note on Graduate Education


Dr Hilary Robinson with a 3D model of her thesis proposal.

A Note on Graduate Education


I’m aware that I’m enormously privileged to work with arts practice-led Doctoral and Masters students – something I’ve now done regularly over the last fifteen years – within the larger research exchange that briefly became PLaCE (England). Practice-led Doctoral education has the potential, when conducted in the context of such an inter-disciplinary context, to be one of the most radical areas in the British university system. That is to say it is particularly well-placed in terms of meeting the need for developing the joined-up – ‘ecosophical’ or ‘inter-disciplinary’ – thinking we now desperately to meet the future, particularly when it is combined with working in small heterogeneous groups (see, for example, http://www.land2.uwe.ac.uk/transect.htm).

The consequences of this privilege are significant. One is that I have to accept that I have internalized an understanding of Higher Education that, in the present context, is very far indeed from the norm. Another is that, to borrow from Maurizio Lazzarato, I now know that art or culture have just the same “potential and ambiguities’ as any other activity”, particularly given the fact that in our culture art is now primarily:

“a dispositive of the production of specific relationships (artist / public / institution) with specific techniques, an economy and specific processes of subjugation which are linked to the full range of instruments at the disposal of the governance of norms”.

This has led me to step back from visual arts education and to focus on such hybrid activities as deep mapping.

Consequently it is hardly to be wondered at that some people, particularly professional artists, look at me askance when I insist that education – rather than art – is at the heart of all that I do. I think in part this is because they have an unrealistic sense of art’s value (forgetting its now primary function in our culture of possessive individualism); in part because they assume that teaching is a menial hindrance to research or art making; and learning something best left to students. At best of course teaching and learning are inseparable, an imaginative and performative engagement in being-as-becoming that, for a number of reasons, I see as prior to (if finally inseparable from) the activities of art-making.

One reason for my holding these views is that, in late February 1972, I spoke with Joseph Beuys during his participation in the Tate’s Seven Exhibitions. Our conversation ended with Beuys saying: “Always remember, education is more important than art”, a statement that has challenged and animated me ever since. Another this that, despite the fact that many people insist that good art is ‘useless’ (has no utilitarian function), this seems to me – and I speak simply for myself – nonsense. At the very least I engage in the techniques and practices of art because to do so constitutes a rewarding and demanding form of embodied self-education that, for me, is intimately enmeshed with education as a social act. Then there’s Cornelius Castoriadis’ extraordinary discussion of psychoanalysis, pedagogy and politics as the three impossible professions, ‘impossible’ because the ideal aim of each is to render those who practice it redundant by attempting to help in creating autonomy for their subjects by using an autonomy that doesn’t yet exist. A position that might be understood as distinguishing these professions very sharply from that of the artist – depending, of course, on what we think art ‘does’.

This issue is important to me because of the transversality – to borrow Guattari’s term – that can be generated by the tension between working as an artist and working as an educator, a tension Jon Thompson characterizes as being caught between the necessarily self-centered and self-seeking partiality of an artist and the careful solicitude and studious impartiality of a scholar priest. That tension is further enriched and complicated if, as in my own case, you become involved as an artist/research in a hybrid practice such as deep mapping, with its uncertain and indisciplinary status located somewhere between the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Of course all this assumes an understanding of education that acknowledges and, as far as possible, privileges something now increasingly under threat – the open or experimental aspect of teaching and learning without which any form of education risks becoming little more than a means of learning unthinking conformity ‘by rote’. By the ‘open’ aspect of education I mean those experiences – formal or informal – where the orientation of all involved is weighted towards ‘being-as-becoming’ rather than employed to facilitate the instrumental acquisition of the means to a ‘life as’.(That is as the means to deliver a pre-established categorical understanding in which a person’s being is understood as predetermined by a given role, set of conventions or presuppositions – whether these are professional, cultural, or religious). A somewhat similar distinction is made in terms of the tension between the ‘academic’ and ‘experimental’ aspects of the learning process.

The curator Paul O’Neill has identified as fundamental the relationship between art and a conversation that is permitted by those involved to remain open so as to await what is unforeseen, allowing ideas to remain open to time itself and without being subject to any end that would foreclose on them in advance. Something very close to this view is set out in recent research that indicates that the current orthodoxy on evaluating research in the arts and humanities bear no relation to how innovative work or creativity actually take place. Contrary to the dominant orthodoxy, the real value of such research lies in it being undertaken by and in people, as expert knowledge, as confidence, as a particular understanding of or orientation to an issue, a problem, a concern or opportunity, as a tool and an ability, and so is best seen as residing in as sense of responsiveness. This responsiveness might best be understood as an aspect of citizenship, one that privileges those spaces and opportunities for discussion, argument, critique, reflection in which collaboration becomes a basis for evaluation.

These thoughts are the starting-point for much of the work I’m currently involved in and point to concerns central to the work documented on this web site.