From Maintaining Traditions towards Shaping the Future -

Redefining the role of Art Universities.

Beijing, Tsing Hua University 15 October 2012



The arts do not exist in the categories "either – or". In the arts progress does not invalidate prior positions – unlike in the fields of science:  Kopernikus invalidated Ptolemäus and his geocentric model of the universe. But Jeff Koons does not invalidate Andy Warhol, like Picasso did not invalidate Leonardo da Vinci.

Artistic expressions always were and still are dominating factors of giving identity to any society, country, nation or civilization. A certain style often constitutes social identification and sometimes even social unification. But on the other side we also have to realize, that artistic expressions, cultural styles at any time were used as a tool for social differentiation or even demarcation - towards other social groups, countries, nations. Only our music, only our architecture, only our painting is pleasant, fascinating, exciting, relevant, important. Only our culture is the real one which deserves this name. Not what the barbarians do, the strangers, the … you might fill in any names of nations or ethnic groups you like.

We can read the names in our history books as well as in our recent newspapers.

It always amazes me, that the same people who are fascinated by ancient foreign cultures at the same time are frightened, worried or at least disturbed by different contemporary cultures or by contemporary art in particular. Of course there are a lot of reasons for that – political, psychological, economic ones. But nevertheless we must not simply accept this as a given fact.


 “Art must leave reality, it has to raise itself bodily above necessity and neediness. But in our day, it is necessity and neediness that prevails, and bends a degraded humanity under its iron yoke. Utility is the great idol of the time. In this great balance of utility, the spiritual service of art has no weight. And the frontiers of art are narrowed, in proportion as the limits of science are enlarged.” Friedrich Schiller wrote this more than 200 years ago in his letters, “On the Artistic Education of Man”.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the social and political value system finds itself perched at the height of a dramatic transformation:

In place of the needs of individuals, a seemingly anonymous, even abstract and depersonalized shareholder value is at the center of economic and political processes. Educational institutions are relegated to the role of supplier firms for the economy. Education becomes redefined as mainly vocational training, the curriculum reduced to statistically measurable modules, in the service of creating employability rather than visions and ideas. 

What we have to ask now is: How can culture successfully compete with economics?

Is it possible to change the political positioning of the Arts from a servant of economic growth towards a leading factor of societal progress? Can the arts be brought back into the very center of peoples life – where art is of personal relevance not primarily to a small group of experts.

For a long time, art was primarily an instrument of social communication as well as the representation and protection of authority and power – be it prehistoric cave paintings, the Biblia Pauperum, Baroque propaganda paintings of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, socialist realism, or even the work of Damien Hirst. Despite the proclaimed autonomy of art since the modern era, the interesting question remains as to which parts of society have the right and the opportunity to fortify and to communicate their social meaning through art.


The answer to that question has been – and is still today – most revealing for the pragmatic constitution of a society.

In the assertion of the “primacy of the mode of representation over the object of representation,” Pierre Bourdieu ultimately recognized the last stage of a process of the conquest of artistic autonomy, in which the reception codes for works of art become indispensable.

The mastery of these reception codes also functions as an instrument of social distinction, because art and art consumption “are predisposed to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.”

Ironically, then, the de-functionalization of artistic production in the course of the autonomization of artists leads to a new kind of functionalization of artistic production.

It reaches its current culmination in the artwork as equity, traded like any trading good and stored in private high security vaults at Swiss banks . It is interesting in this context that the commercialization of the art system also leads to a retroactive autonomization in terms of this de-functionalization. Artworks tend to be liberated from their original meanings and significance:

Drastic Baroque paintings, for example, of the Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, are no longer received under the religious and political aspect of the evocation of terror, but only under the aesthetic and stylistic-historical aspects. The separation of the work of art from its originally intended effective force – or rather the transformation of its effective force into a personal, harmless and socially stabilizing aestheticism – in turn makes art history museums into artistic zoos

and auction houses into kind of pet shops, which grant safe access to the originally “wild” animals.

The “Massacre” painting of Rubens and the Last Judgement of Hieronimus Bosch you can find on big billboards on public spaces, while the work of Marina Abramovic on the war in Jugoslavia or Oliviero Toskani’s photographs, or the work of Herman Nitsch – all still living contemporary artists - was banned from public viewing. Why? What does this fact tell us?


All over the globe the economically orientated art industry is enjoying a boom: Art-Biennials, Art-Triennials, art fairs with the main focus on party and selling (like a visitor of the Art Miami told me), music- and theatre festivals open air concerts of three or more tenors for ten-thousands of visitors each.

And yet, in spite of all that, one sometimes gets the impression, that randomness and a lack of focus are becoming widespread.

Obviously the dynamics of our times are damaging the capacity of our perception. The speed of new developments and the trend towards economy-driven aesthetic uniformization on the one hand and extreme sub cultural fragmentations makes it increasingly difficult in our societies to distinguish between important, long lasting movements and stylish products of a hyper-active vanity fair.

We all know that images frequently are more powerful than reality itself. When realities or facts emerge from their “normal” and familiar surroundings and are placed in another context, they suddenly gain fresh regard and significance.

In fact it is the ideas behind the artistic act of transformation and translocation of realities, which find the recognition and significance.

Theodor Adorno wrote that, “Art is magic, liberated from the lie of being the truth.”

Art exists in a dimension that is beyond truth and falsehood.  However, with this approach does art not adopt a position outside of social reality? Moreover, if art regards itself as being free of a claim to truth, does it not also remove itself from the fabric of social development and influence? Or could it be the case, that due precisely to this intentional severance from a dogmatic claim to truth, or let us say empirical verity, art first achieves validity and effectiveness in a society in which so many calumnies are uttered in the name of truth, goodness and beauty?  


And isn’t the art’s power to effect people the very reason that art and artists were and are at least observed with care and concern by the representatives of any state power at any time?

The Arts are litmus papers and correctives with regard to “social acidity levels”, i.e. the apathy of societies towards their members and environments. In order to fulfil their social roles, the arts should never be pretty, cuddly, entertaining, amusing, decorative or aesthetic for aestheticism’s sake. The true beauty of art lies in its ability to move us intellectually, motivate us to follow new paths, shape awareness and character, demonstrate interconnections and teach us to employ all the things that surround us in a conscious manner.  The achievement of social effectiveness can neither be the aim nor the purpose of art.


Nonetheless, art has a social influence, either in the sense of change, or in the spirit of affirmation and conservation.  

However, even more is at stake because art and art institutions always were and remain some of the most powerful breeding grounds for critical analysis, social utopias and the will to contribute to a life full of meaning, empathy, social consideration, thoughtfulness, innovation and creativity, rather than shallow technocratic indifference.

For Walter Benjamin art was the governor of Utopia. In our days it seems, that the utopias in he field of the arts have been exhausted.

Once, the domain of art (and philosophy) was to formulate utopias, which were transformed into realities by later scientific and technological developments.

Today, science and technology formulate their own utopias and work on turning them into reality.

What is now being thought and subjected to experimentation in the fields of medicine, biology and natural sciences is more radical, more provocative and packed with more explosive social force, than artistic approaches and actions ever were.


While biology, medicine and natural sciences deliver imaginations of a brave new world and while they are about to realize these imaginations, using the term design in connections like genetic design, artificial intelligence design, health design or even brain design and human skills design,

while these disciplines are dominating not only the present reality but also the world of ideas about the future  perspectives of our societies –  while all this already happens:

What is the intellectual and emotional contribution of the arts in this competition of concepts for the times to come? All history is a history of ideas. Money only reigns, if there is a lack of ideas!

In the face of these clearly dramatic scientific, and therefore social, future perspectives, the arts must avoid being pushed to the margins of society.

How did Schiller express this situation? “The frontiers of art are narrowed, in proportion as the limits of science are enlarged.”

Saying this, does not at all mean any kind of hostility against science and scientific research. On the contrary I believe we rather need collaboration than hostility. I will come back to this later.

I am just trying to express, that the arts have responsibility to involve into the development of our societies with more intensity.

What matters, is to forsake defensive positions, to strip off randomness and to open up new fields of perception and consciousness.

The mission of universities – and particularly of art universities is not to hand down traditions, but on the contrary, to advance and develop traditions, and even to break them. The mission of universities lies in the production of change. Indeed, it is the creation of new realities, the transformation of intellectual structures and perceptive patterns, critical reflection upon personal thought and action that actually constitute the idea of a university. And following this idea, universities succeeded and still succeed in shaping societies.  If they don’t succeed in this, the production of change,  they will get frozen in the ices of self –referential irrelevance.

The new, the exciting, the surprising has an essential meaning both for the arts and for science. It is not about consuming and checking off isolated teaching modules anonymously, but living the process of developing individual artistic positions and scientific discoveries. It is about analyzing and thinking beyond existing realities. It is about fostering curiosity and courage for the unexpected, as an experimental field, as an antithesis to the pragmatism of utility.

This requires the kinds of free spaces that universities are supposed to represent.

With the crisis of the market – or, as many believe, the crisis of our market-oriented economic and social system – the chance may arise for a repositioning of art within society as well as arts universities within the art system – not in terms of a re-politicization of art according to historical examples, but rather in the sense of a “re-socialization” of art understood as a non-coded social means of communication and identification. Therefore, social impact cannot be the dogmatic justification of every art production, but instead means the reality of reception. Art and the production of art will not disappear from a society in which a commercial art market has come to a standstill.

Never in history has there been a society without art.

More than that: If you try to call to your mind the history of mankind - what is it that comes to your mind at first: from Stone ages, from Babylonian history, from Egypt history, from  ancient Chinese History, from the history of the Americas, from ancient Greek history …? Pieces of art are appearing in your mind.

And even now, when we see a TV-report about the recent Greek financial crisis we see the Parthenon.

And if we see a TV-Report about the global financial crisis we see this (>> NYSE) no this is not a greek temple, but it is NYSE at Wall street. Amazing isn’t it? A temple.

If we look at the forecasts regarding the allocation of the world’s population, the forecasts regarding the  world’s economic performance and the forecasts regarding the perspectives for our natural environment, there is no way out of changing paradigms in education and in economy. There is no way out of heading towards a creative society.

But what does this really mean for Higher Art Educations.

The increasing complexity of the issues relating to our social, economic and natural environment strongly suggests the probity of synergetic teamwork between science, humanities and the arts, even if academic traditions and the university power and career mechanisms still place a powerful damper on the realisation of such integrative strategies.    

It doesn’t make sense to realize the complexity and interdependency of our world – and keeping Universities in their traditional construction along disciplinary boundaries.

Although it is evident that the mastery of the real issues of the 21st century will only be possible through the interplay of various scientific disciplines and the synergetic networking of apparently independent specialist areas, the lone wolf principle continues to predominate within the scientific community. An idea inspired by the romantic concept of the genius.   

The issue at stake is whether cultural, economic and societal progress and welfare can be initiated in the scientific, not to mention the artistic, community that no longer focuses upon the isolated publications of individual researchers, but leads to project-oriented, interdisciplinary working and transdisciplinarity as the paramount guideline for inventive activity. Such a cultural shift would also define success through a focus on other integrative parameters rather than performance in the art market.

All of these aspects have consequences for the architecture of study programmes, research support programmes and linguistic culture. Communication mechanisms have to be created between the representatives of various disciplines and semantic and methodological walls must be torn down.  The matter in hand is the shaping of universities as an antithesis to disciplinary fragmentation and scientific and artistic isolation, or in other words, universities as central institutions for socio-cultural development. The “general education for the 21st century therefor will have to focus on creative skills: the ability to think unconventionally, to question what already is familiar, coming up with new scenarios and producing amazement with his or her work.

Higher Art Education provides students with a wide range of skills that reach further than the arts itself.

The deep involvement with the processes of art making sharpen critical abilities, bring out the intuitive quality of decision making, foster a high quality of self management and managerial skills, support independent thinking and enable to see and show the world in new and unexpected ways.

Higher Art Education tests and prototypes forms of education that differ from other Higher Education and Education in general. Not isolated specialised knowledge is the basis for success, but creativity, flexibility and the ability to think and act in interdisciplinary and intercultural contexts.

The arts have the capacity to persuade, subvert, celebrate and confront; to challenge the status quo; to act as powerful cultural agents; to help people learn to appreciate differences and to construct coherent value systems.

The arts constitute a distinct network of knowledge, with its own language and procedures, which enables us to describe, understand and engage in different forms of experience."

So the art universities – aside their role towards the art markets – art universities and academies will necessarily have to be an inevitable and integrative part of this “general education” for the needs of the creative societies of the 21st century – just like reading and counting were the basis for the needs of the industrial revolution.

In the 21st century, the potential for the renewal of art and art education lies in the synergistic coupling and integration of university instruction and art education, research and artistic development, art production and new forms of artistic presentation and reception.

Similar to the system of the sciences, with their scientific community, the impact potential of artists in the development of the arts will also depend on how far we succeed, with the support of market-independent arts universities and other arts institutions, in creating something like an artistic community. A division of powers between institutions, disciplines and professional fields, between theory and practice was never and can never be the leitmotif for the future of the arts and its institutions. When has progress in the arts ever been interested in boundaries between institutions, responsibilities and disciplines? The purpose of universities is not to hand down traditions, but on the contrary, to advance and develop traditions, and even to break them.

We live in a world in which boundaries are being blurred to an increasing extent, in which apparently different things flow into one another, and therefore the redefinition of inherited thinking and behavior patterns is possible. The natural sciences have taught us for decades that the crucial ideas do not come into being along a predictable timeline of causality, but such factors as intuition, the unplanned or even “accidents” have a major impact. It is not by chance that paradigm-braking experiments in quantum physics were shown at the DOCUMENTA, the world art exhibition this year.

The new, the exciting, the surprising has an essential meaning for art and science. It is not about consuming and checking off teaching modules anonymously, but living the process of developing individual artistic positions and scientific discoveries. It is about analyzing, thwarting and thinking beyond existing realities.

It is about fostering curiosity and courage for the unexpected, as an experimental field, as an antithesis to the pragmatism of utility. This requires the kinds of free spaces that universities are supposed to represent.

Above all, arts universities must be associated more than ever with the development of the arts and the emergence of new artistic approaches, and not be perceived only as places where artistic traditions are passed on, or where students are merely prepared for other places outside the University of Arts …

The university must now and then react to something that does not yet exist. This is not paradoxical, but rather the core of innovation. To consider and implement this productive contradiction is therefore a challenge.

Because we must recognize – as institutions and as individuals – that the real goal of this effort is not the management of an output that yields some product, but a process of change and thus the production of the future – an indispensable prerequisite for a living society. That is why there are universities, and why we study at universities.

In this context Art universities and academies are currently fulfilling a dual role: on one hand they must prepare graduates for the demands of the current art market in order to give them enough chances in this market; on the other hand, they inevitably serve the market’s demand for formal and substantial renewal, for thought-provoking, convention- and taboo-breaking opposition – this is truly a crucial test for arts universities.

In fact, arts universities today are primarily suppliers of new personnel for the art market in the fields of fine arts, music and theatre - and for the creative industries  in the fields if design and architecture.

A look at the scientific universities points to the recent deficit of arts universities: Naturally, scientific universities also spend time on professional education or vocational training. But the training of doctors, technicians, natural scientists, lawyers, and scholars in the humanities, economics and social sciences for the economy is only one part of their activity spectrum. “Scientific development” means that scientific research towards scientific innovation  is recognized as an task that is equal in importance to the training and education of students.


No one would seriously argue that the advancement of the chemical sciences should be left entirely to the chemical industry and to the chemists employed therein after their university graduation.

Nobody would argue, that the quality of a scientific theory - for example in quantum physics or in ancient history - would be measured by the number of sold books where these theories are published and by the price of these books.

Yet in the arts this is precisely the rule. Of course there is the argument that art schools have never influenced the course of art – that such a thing is impossible in a globalized art world – and it cannot be the role of arts universities and academies to steer the development of art, which would be the exclusive concern of the artists and collectors. Some say that one can neither teach nor learn creativity, or the will and the capacity for artistic forms. Underlying this, the existence of art education at university level would be questioned.

If art universities as institutions neither contribute to the development of the arts nor to the development of society, they will have to justify their social necessity, or rather the extent of their funding from public budgets. When the role of arts universities is reduced to the transfer of knowledge and skills that are needed for entering into the art market, and can be measured by employability and the production of the number of artists that the market requires, it will be sooner rather than later that the question will be asked if there are not more effective and efficient – that is to say, cheaper – forms of narrowly-construed artist training.

Arts universities and academies will have to decide quickly whether they will continue in the future to be merely a supplier of human capital for the art, architecture and design market, or if they themselves want to claim the organizational rights to the art system and attain effective power. Of course, such a goal will require not only a change of consciousness, but also a change of contents and structures.

If arts universities, in their function as aesthetic research laboratories, are to develop into an effective force beyond the university walls with an impact on the arts system and on society, if they are to have even more of a social presence when it comes to contemporary art, architecture and design as well as music, then the existing institutions must be prepared to expand and intertwine their traditional roles and spheres of activity.

To my mind, the actual existential question for the future of the universities of arts, relates to the social value of the arts. In short, what role will these universities play in the process of producing progress? The predominant aspect is: who has the power to define progress; or in other words: who possesses the greater innovative strength?

In current social perception, which is colored by the media and politicians, the term innovation is more than ever associated with technological and economic progress.

Of course, it is correct to say that the arts have become massive economic factors and that art education at the universities must refer to practicality and requires contacts, projects and co-operation with the economic sector .

But, at the same time, practicality is not the primary task of universities. I sometimes have the feeling that the universities and the people connected to them are steadily submitting to economic pragmatism, when in fact, they should be generating the courage to experiment with regard to thought, design and action. A courage, which  - paradox enough - in the final analysis, is also in the interests of economic prosperity. 

What we need now is targeted cooperation on projects involving all kinds of artistic expressions: fine arts, performing arts, architecture, design and media arts . Innovation in a complex societal environment  needs interaction and communication between different disciplines, including transdisciplinary in research and in social, political and economic action.

And not only this: The arts have to take up cross links to scientific disciplines like biology, perception theory, neuro-science, physics etc. – without giving up their clear dedication to the system of arts.

What we need, are places where such networking can occur, places and structures that fill the vacuum in inter-institutional and intersectoral collaboration.

We require young women and men, who embrace radical thought and radical design, people with indomitable intellectual and creative quality and with courage to be utopian.

And therefore, we require art universities that promote and demand such attitudes.

We must not leave the field of the evolution of societal progress to the scientists, nor to the futurologists and certainly not to the stock market strategists.

Progress will happen, either here or elsewhere, sooner or later. We can follow the events as spectators - or we can intervene actively, by claiming for the arts and for arts universities definitional sovereignity over the concepts of “progress” and “future.”

Let us enlarge the limits of the arts!

And let us make the universities of the arts places, where all this will happen!