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An Infection with Art: Reflecting on the German Way

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Beate Geissler is a German-born artist and educator. She joined the faculty of UIC’s School of Art and Design in 2008, and is currently assistant professor of photography. In Karlsruhe, Germany, she taught at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, a school founded in 1989 on the premise of integrating the Bauhaus method with emerging technologies of computer and network industries. Geissler has taught studio art practices at the graduate level in both her native Germany and in the U.S. Below are excerpts from an email interview in which she reflects on the difference between art education in the U.S. and in Germany. Both countries have notably complex traditions of art education and dynamic contemporary art markets. (Jason Foumberg)

Higher education in Germany, besides a rather small tuition fee, is basically free, and most of the universities are public institutions supported by the government. There are only a few private institutions. This theoretically supports the idea of an equal education standard and quality level across universities and academies. But with an increasing demand for global education standards this system becomes more and more difficult to maintain and finance. I think it is possible to say that German students take a lower risk, which creates less pressure, and American students take a higher risk. The stakes are in general higher here, which in turn creates a lot of pressure on the part of the students and on the part of the privately funded institution. The reputation of an American university can provide an easy start on the job marketplace in the US, but the education itself appears to be more geared toward formulaic content, which in the arts can be counterproductive. On a master level, American universities seem to provide very good research environments because of their proximity to the industry, but this also dominates research goals, which seem to be more detached from their industrial applicability in Europe and therefore provide greater freedom.

I use the word “formulaic” to describe American education in regards to the circumstances of production of art. In general, and this has obviously more to do with money than with geo-political or historical conditions—after all, Europe actively adapted to a BA/MA system only in the last decade (!)—the more education costs, the more it is understood as an investment and thus subject to assessments of productivity, success and service. The more money is spent on an education the more the institution is systemically obliged to legitimize the expense by success in a market. In turn, a school or university has to apply parameter and systems of quality control, which ultimately create a formula for an artistic career and inevitably a prescribed pathway. I’m not necessarily talking about a stylistic formula, but possibly. That is difficult to do in contemporary art, again, unless this is geared toward a specific market, which is signified by specific expectations, like for example to get surprised, shocked, entertained, or amused. This seems to be the case in all western countries, in which innovation in art programs is programmatically expected and simultaneously excluded from the education system, simply because it represents the logical opposite of a vanguard position, which in art is synonymous with an independent, de-institutionalized position, which ultimately cannot be taught. Every art teacher I know is in one way or another aware of this and involved in actively attempting to abolish this schizophrenia, which defines the quality of an institution.

In the end it isn’t so much the national identity, which marks the difference among the educational models today, but the vernacular local experience that creates openings for culture. The grade of systemic involvement and functionality of an institution in a so-called “globalized culture” seems more of importance than ever before and in a way overrides and unfortunately, in many instances, homogenizes artistic potential. This happens on this side of the Atlantic like on the other, but it happens more where education is part of a monetary balance calculus. In contrast to that, Boris Groys speaks of an “infection” with art, which is passed on to students by teachers. That doesn’t sound very appealing in a university’s info leaflet… and yet that’s what is ideally happening. 

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