Laboratory of opportunities
Elīna Dūce, Visual Arts Theorist
Reflections on studies and practice in art history and theory
“If I were a teacher, I would make the students constantly write, take the floor, and analyse every exhibition and event in the art world. We were extremely detached from all of that.”1

I am sometimes asked – what is happening to us students and newly-graduated arts theorists? Where do we stand? What are we doing? Artists are almost offended, because no one takes an interest in their exhibitions and writes about them, apparently. And I cannot unequivocally assert that none of the art theorists of my acquaintance is interested in contemporary artistic processes or art as such. But how can a fledgling arts theorist, critic, gallery employee, curator or art student “catch that train” of art, to know their way around and understand its processes with-out feeling completely adrift? At one moment, I caught myself thinking this is something that only a select few, i.e. those who have already been exposed to the artistic environment, will be able to understand.

During my studies, there was no shortage of interesting activities and subjects to get carried away with or, even more so, fascinating teachers. But in parallel there was also this sense of waiting – when are we going to get taught the “real” things, so vital for professional work and growth? “Instead of going into depth and gaining an understanding and analysing 20th century art, in the final semester of our last bachelor year we just raced through the whole century. This kind of course should be run concurrently with the rest of art history throughout the whole four years of study, because it’s a period that we should have perfect knowledge of in order to understand what’s happening in art today.”

Whether the volume of information acquired during studies (in art history) was adequate for training contemporary art specialists was an issue that nagged at all those who received their degree, and then felt as if they’d been dumped on the street. Today – i.e., 20th century art – had been kept waiting far too long, and was only covered shortly before the hectic state examination and thesis writing period began. Furthermore, it turned out that there would be homework, too, because art from the 1980s and 90s, in both Latvia and the world, was left for the students to discover for themselves. The understanding of contemporary art fell into a mosaic-like, fragmented system – if it formed at all, because the inner drive to observe, understand, analyse and comment on what was happening around us had either failed to awaken or had managed to fall asleep.

“Criticism as a field interests me, but at present I don’t feel strong or erudite enough in contemporary art theory, or art in general, so I prefer to stay away.” There are quite a few people like this. Isn’t the statement: “I didn’t get what I was looking for [at the academy – E.D.]” an argument substantiating the fact that only two out of the 15 (not counting those who didn’t get past the first lot of exams) who passed the first year of Art History at the Latvian Academy of Arts ten years ago are currently working in their area of expertise?

“It’s hard to understand where the focus was in the training of art historians. It was neither one thing nor the other [it prepared neither historians nor critics]. Of course, everyone makes their own choices. But is there enough [from what was studied] to choose a comprehensive professional career? [..] If there’s not enough practical training then this education is just for fun and cannot really be considered as professional training. Knowledge isn’t enough – you have to know how to use it. The school should provide this kind of training, otherwise it risks becoming a club for art lovers instead of a foundry forging young professionals.”

We could assume that this particular graduating class was affected by confusion, and a distinct lack of imagination and initiative. Yet, when back in 2009 Studija extended an invitation on its website to students of the academy to share their views on developments in the visual arts – a clear opportunity to gain a foothold on the art scene – the response was somewhat lukewarm. Only two students, Zanda Jankovska and Šelda Puķīte, were relatively active participants, between them producing half of the articles submitted over a two year period. OK, let’s accept that the others simply have other interests besides current events (although it would be interesting to find out why), but I have the persistent feeling described by art historian Alise Tīfentāle in a review as “a kind of leap into the unknown” (which I would apply not just to students’ efforts to curate exhibitions, which was discussed in said review)2.

Some changes in the art history programme of study allow for more optimism about the on-going situation in understanding contemporary art. A few years ago, I noticed that a new course for masters students ‘Latvian art in the 21st century’ was on offer, in which artists, art historians, gallery managers, designers and others had been invited to take part in lectures and seminars. I do think that undergraduates also should have the right to “get a feel” for the 21st century, to find at least some markers to guide them and perhaps get an idea of what contribution they could make to the visual arts.

The vexation about a lack of practice opportunities (in this case for art criticism) is gradually being alleviated, thanks to a novel scheme that deserves a mention. As of February this year, every week a number of 3rd year undergraduates doing the course ‘Theory and practice in communication’ (also conducted by Aiga Dzalbe) scrutinize the latest exhibitions, performances and publications. The opinions of these students (Madara Kanasta, Inga Karlštrēma, Santa Mičule, Elvija Pohomova, Līva Raita, Elīze Tīkmane and Arta Vārpa) about what they have seen are available to the public on the Studija website (there is also a space for reviews and comments). I would say that this is a real laboratory, where students have the chance to try things, experiment, make mistakes, think, broaden their minds and perhaps find the subject closest to their heart.

For an insight into this “laboratory”, with the author’s kind permission we reprint here one of the exhibition reports selected by the Studija team in the first month of our collaboration with the students.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/

1 These quotes and those that follow have been taken from correspondence with graduates of the Latvian Academy of Arts Faculty of Art History about their experiences as students.
2 Tīfentāle, Alise. Practice is more important than theory. Studija, 2010, No. 71, p. 18.
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