NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Edition 38, 2021 – The rise of the alternative art school

By Professor David Cross — School of the Damned is not the type of anodyne name we usually associate with international art schools. With faintly Hammer House of Horror overtones, this alternative educational programme was founded in 2014 by a group of UK-based students “as a reaction to the increasing financialisation of higher education”.[i]
By Professor Cat Hope — I am always glad to hear a representative from the Australian Academy for the Humanities (AAH) in the media, speaking so articulately for better support of the humanities in higher education and demanding recognition of the humanities as key to a healthy society.

One of the noticeable disconnects between creative arts higher education and industry is that we train many more artists than our sector can support. For our graduates, this situation is often experienced as a personal failure … Recent research on musicians’ mental health and well-being tells us that training and industry cultures can be detrimental to musicians’ health both during their studies and after graduation. We might have continued to gloss over these limitations were it not for COVID, which has highlighted how unworkable many people’s creatives lives became without the option to work as normal.

In Australia we train artistic Higher Degree students in the creative arts – it is one of the things we do best … As part of this process, we sometimes work with critical theory, applying it to the making of creative works. The exegesis which underpins this process offers the chance to be both convergent and divergent at the same time. The Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium offers a compelling example of an approach to research and post graduate study in music practice.

“What is to be done?” is a provocative demand employed by a number of diverse actors to call for change. Vladimir Lenin’s political pamphlet (1901), Barry Jones, our own former politician on the state of modernity (1982), and the Russian art collective Chto Delat, with a mission to combine political theory, art and activism are a small smattering of manifestos calling for change.

As the landscape of higher education continues to shift in response to COVID-19, alternate art schools have become a competitive option for prospective university students. Comparisons between alternate art schools and Australian university degrees may focus on economic and structural differences, yet another key consideration necessitates that education systems support and protect students’ wellbeing.

Reflecting upon the current state of higher education in the arts, the pre-COVID lyrics from Inertia Creeps, a song by Massive Attack in 1998, come to mind. As the songwriter, Robert “3D” Del Naja, explained of the lyrics, “It’s about being in a situation but knowing you should be out of it, but you’re too fucking lazy or weak to leave”. The inertia of online learning has been “creeping up slowly” on creative arts programs for more than 20 years; indeed, the University of Phoenix Online offered the first online degree program as early as 1989.

This text is an edited transcript of an interview between Swedish-based academic and artist Maddie Leach and David Cross. It specifically examines differences between the Swedish and Australasian art school models and questions whether the pre-conditions exist in Scandinavia more broadly for alternative education models to flourish at the expense of the current university-based system.