Theory in Art Education. The French example.

In line with our investigations about Art & Research interactions, we asked French sociologist, Jérémie Vandenbunder, to describe this relation within the French educational art system. Step by step, we try to understand how institutions, and their transformations, impact on how artists deal with theory.

AB: Jérémie Vandenbunder, you completed a Ph.D. thesis in sociology that analysed the educational system in French Fine Art Schools. Can you come back on the genesis of your research and its major points?

JV: Indeed, I started a thesis in sociology in 2008, which dealt with higher artistic education in France, what is known as “les beaux-arts”. I chose this subject, first and foremost, out of interest in visual arts and contemporary art. Then, from a sociological point of view, I was curious to study schools where students and teachers assume no one need to go to school to become an artist. Sociology has a long standing interest in gifts, vocations or natural talents issues, often to show that what is considered innate is in fact acquired through "socialization". My goal was to understand why students register for five years of studies, while believing one is born artist, not trained. However, I did not want to show that they were wrong, I just wanted to understand their standpoint. In the end, I pointed out that taking up the image of the self-taught artist was a way for students to claim this identity for themselves, to become artists. By studying art schools, I tried to show how a student gradually becomes an artist.

My study led me to enter art schools. I conducted observations into studios and classrooms, as well as interviews with students and teachers. This allowed me to describe precisely how teachings in art schools work. Sure enough, lessons are very different from what is known in other types of schools, in universities for instance. In Fine Art Schools, students are self-directed, free to build their studies as they wish. The school operate as a platform of resources, such as a menu in a self-service restaurant. This may be difficult for some students who are more "academic" but, above all, it matches the forms of work those young artists will know in the professional world, once they leave school.

AB: Why is the articulation between practices and theories so present in your work?

JV: Because it is of paramount importance in fine art schools! A large part of the teaching is devoted to theoretical knowledge: art history, philosophy, aesthetics, semiology, etc. One can even say that the Academies, the "ancestors" of art schools, were created with the desire to bring theoretical knowledge to the artists. Closer to us, contemporary art places great emphasis on theory and discourse. Since Duchamp and the ready-made, artistic production pay less attention to technical considerations while committing increasingly into theoretical field. If Conceptual Art is a paramount art movement of this dynamic, it is not the only one. That is why, in art schools – directly related to contemporary art – theoretical teachings are crucial, students are required to talk about their work. Nowadays an artist must be able to develop a critical discourse on his work, his approach have to "explain" his work. This is what students learn to do: to build an artistic approach, and not only to draw or to paint.

AB: In our description, Bologna process seems to have generated lots of dilemmas; did it lead to the development of original pedagogies?

JV: I would not necessarily speak of dilemmas but rather of tensions to describe Bologna process. In French context, Fine Art Schools and University Artistic Departments are clearly separate. European harmonization, through Bologna Process, challenge this separation which is very badly received by art school teachers. They have three main concerns: the reevaluation of their specific position as visual artists and teachers; the exclusion of a diversity of student profiles which often choose art school by rejection of the conventional school system; and finally, teachers and students showed a great concern regarding the research paper introduced by the LMD reform (Bachelor-Master-Doctorate).

Indeed this imperative of the LMD reform to write a dissertationin order to justify the Master level, is a focal point of the tensions. Based on the university model – as asked by the builders and evaluators of the reform – this type of dissertation does not really correspond to art school practices. As I said earlier, if theory is present in art schools, it is always at the service of a plastic realization; if an artist develop advanced theoretical research, he is above all an artist. Here is the key issue. Academic world does not know how to evaluate works of art in the same way as written submissions. Nowadays, most art schools have come to an in-between compromise: students carry out a research work in relation to his/her art practice which can pass through writings or not, but it is always supporting his/her art. In such a way, I saw a student doing a performance as her Master degree dissertation. Therefore, we can definitively speak of original pedagogies, or at least of original works.

AB: In that case, is the separation between paths in university and art school still relevant?

JV: As I said before, art schools are largely distinct from the academic world. As a matter of fact, line ministry of art schools is not the Ministry of Education, but the Ministry of Culture and Communication, along with schools of architecture or music conservatories. Thus, their diplomas offer a license and a master ‘level’, but are not, strictly speaking, license or master degrees. This separation has a meaning. Despite the convergence of the two systems through Bologna Process, art schools members still claim the specificity of their institution; university is often view as a counter-model in art schools. Even if more and more university Doctors are recruited to deliver theoretical teachings, art school dissertations are still very far from those made at the university. However, it should be noted that the current trend in France is towards a rapprochement between institutions of higher education. Large structures are being built to reduce costs and compete with foreign institutions. There is no doubt that art schools will try to join these structures, if only to continue to exist in an increasingly competitive world. But I think that they will always be attached to their difference and their autonomy.

AB: Are these debate a French specificity, or is it shared with other European countries?

JV: We can certainly speak of French specificity, even if I am not so familiar with other high art education systems in Europe. This may be due to the ancient history of Fine Arts Schools in France going back to the creation of the Academy of painting and sculpture in the 17thcentury. This legacy is still very vivid, especially in the best known art school: École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris. What is certain is that integration of higher art education within universities in France cannot be compared to what is occurring in United States, Canada or United Kingdom. The German system, which is often cited as a model by French teachers, seems to be very different too, can it be because of is strong history linked in particular to the Bauhaus? I do not know it well enough to talk about it and to my knowledge comparative studies still need to be done.

Interviewed by Dr Annabelle Boissier, April 2017

Jérémie Vandenbunder is Ph.D. in sociology (Université de Versailles – Saint Quentin en Yvelines; Laboratoire Printemps – Professions, Institutions, Temporalités) with a thesis entitled: Pedagogy of creation, a sociology of higher education in art.
He also published in scientific journals, including:

Revue Française de Pédagogie