In response to the ongoing economic crisis and the slow erosion of public monies dedicated to higher education in California, research institutes such as the University of California Institute of Research in the Arts (UCIRA) are focusing on the state of education in the arts and humanities, and how critical pedagogy in these departments is affected by impending pressures on these departments to demonstrate their revenue-generating viability. As Grant Kester posed in his keynote address at the recent UCIRA conference, these pressures have manifested in two strands that complicate the autonomy of the university, “on one hand, seeking to integrate it more seamlessly into the circuits of commercial development, to make it more subordinate to the demands of the market, and on the other to expose this creeping integration as a symptom of the erosion of the university’s raison d’etre and the growing pressure to place dwindling public monies in the service of private development.”

This pressure towards integration has, in part, thrown traditional Enlightenment notions of humanistic education [as outlined by Emmanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller] into crisis, in which Socratic dialogue and argument in the sequestered realm of the University lose legitimacy when proposed as actions that attempt to change the existing social order – insisting instead that ideas refined in the forge of the classroom be utilized only to bolster the existing capitalist system.

Art departments in particular have struggled to reconcile their pedagogical development since modernism with these new pressures and current social contexts – in many cases by withdrawing themselves further into hermetic and insular discourse. As Kester proposes along with theorists and teaching artists such as Ernesto Pujol and Boris Groys, “[The University, especially departments of art and humanities] has evolved a curious symmetry with modern notions of art and the aesthetic as sequestered realms dedicated to the preservation of certain utopian impulses, carried over from our religious past in desacralized form. These include the harmonious reconciliation of the individual and the social, the cultivation of an ostensibly intrinsic ethical impulse, and a projected notion of humanity striving towards perfection or improvement.” Art education in this country, along with modern notions of art and the aesthetic, seek to cultivate new forms of consciousness in the passive receiver, inevitably emphasizing the division between the enlightened expert/artist and the ignorance of the student/viewer.

There is a value in preserving the university (and specifically the Arts and Humanities) as the one place where new ideas can be proposed and discussed for their own sake – [ostensibly] not driven by the forces of the market, capitalism, and neoliberal politics. In a way, art departments must become the “conscience of the art world” – and universities the conscience of our broader social context. Criticality and an educated public opinion is necessary for democracy to function and for social change to occur – according to educational theorist John Dewey, “education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.” The tools of critical thought lead us to a more functional democracy. Yet making the connection between the sovereignty of ideas within the university and the application of research fluidly in actual social context remains a deep gulf to bridge when social context (specifically within art departments, but throughout the humanities) is held consistently at arm’s length.

The rejection of professionalism in the arts as related to modernism has left art an open field where both positive and negative liberties can occur – though art schools preserve a surface appearance of openness and self-actualization, it is unclear whether they are actually providing the tools to students to either successfully function commercially or become critical thinkers and active citizen-artists. What situations are we preparing students for? To be teachers? To be commercial artists? To be critical thinkers? Ernesto Pujol claims that “In the United States, we are not graduating artists, we are graduating teachers right and left, and we should finally admit it.” If this is the case, how do we rearticulate theory and practice within art departments, recast art as research and practice as the development of theory, and theory as a critical tool to aid in the formulation of engaged action in the social context? This is not to make art necessarily the site for social change, but not to recognize the important and rapidly dwindling space for “social consciousness” within art departments spells their doom.

Almost despite their pedagogical context, art students are paying more attention to audience, and rejecting the vestiges of modernism. Many are searching for new methods of synthesis (built upon the immediate and universal access to information), more criticality, and the elusive possibility for social relevance. This change is emerging from the passive student/viewers rather than the artist/experts at the helm (though in some cases the teaching cycles turn over so fast that last year’s MFA grads end up teaching this year’s adjunct classes, bolstering Pujol’s claim), as well as increasing numbers of non-accredited artist-run pedagogical spaces that seek to explore new paradigms. This “pedagogical turn,” including projects like the Mountain School for the Arts, SOMA, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, and the Public School is not new (Allan Sekula’s School is a Factory and the pedagogical activities of Joseph Beuys are excellent precursors), but many have reached quite unexpected entrenchment and longevity. One could even argue that these ground-up shifts have resulted in experimental new programs emerging from within public universities in California and elsewhere that focus specifically on art’s relevance within social contexts (UC Santa Cruz’s Digital Arts/New Media MFA program, CCA’s concentration in Social Practice, Otis’s Public Practice Program to name a few). It remains to be seen whether such programs represent any structural pedagogical change that translates to an increased flow of ideas and action into real social context, but the enduring value of the public university and its art departments demands increased relevance over stagnation.