The Contemporary Artist as Role Model in a Crisis of Competence
In a universe of increasing incompetence, in which amateurism flourishes, the contemporary artist offers an interesting role model. Society can learn much from the ways in which the contemporary artist makes his ignorance effective.
As a profession, contemporary art occupies a special position. Lacking a clear standard of craftsmanship, it is not a real métier: neither technical nor aesthetic criteria exist that can help identify a ‘competent work of art’. In this respect contemporary visual art differs from other art forms, such as music or dance, that still have solid minimum criteria for technique and skill.
Should artists be able to hold a hammer? In contemporary art even insiders rarely agree about criteria of artistic quality. A particular artist’s work may be judged as pathetic wreckage by some and at the same time as a revolutionary new aesthetic by others. This lack of consensus about quality and artistic merit will continue to provide material for Gerrit Komrij to write cynical newspaper columns. It is, however, actually a fascinating characteristic that makes the contemporary artist an unexpected role model in today’s society.
At the moment, we see around us a real, overall crisis of competence. The most distressing examples of this have shown up in the financial sector, with banks, investors and insurance companies (‘The incompetence is baffling,’ according to financial markets supervisor Hans Hoogervorst, last April). Major infrastructural projects that have stranded or failed completely also indicate a fundamental lack of expertise, in this case on the part of government authorities and project developers. ‘When the government stopped building bridges and roads, knowledge and expertise shifted to market players,’ according to the city of Almere's alderman, Adri Duivesteijn (NRC Handelsblad, 12 December 2009). But those market players themselves also seem to be failing. Contractors and subcontractors building the sheet piling for Amsterdam’s new metro line have made tremendous blunders, with well-publicized, disastrous consequences. From other sectors of society, including elementary education and forensic psychiatry, painful cases of incompetence are being reported as well.
Universities, colleges, government bodies and other organizations are meanwhile obsessed by the phantom of ‘excellence’. But the more they repeat this mantra, beating the drum of the knowledge economy, the clearer it becomes that society as a whole finds itself in a crisis of competence.
Incompetence is certainly a thing of every age. The current crisis may be due to the fact that technical, managerial and economic systems have become so complex and intertwined that minor incidents are more likely to have far-reaching consequences. Automation has in any case proven to be no remedy for the unreliable human factor. In fact, it only multiplies the consequences of human failure.
There is also a clear ideological component. Within the neoliberal network economy, knowledge tends to dissolve in a quick succession of temporary projects, causing a loss of focus and concentration. The durable institutional logic of the state, the school or the museum evaporates in an ever more rapid sequence of reorganizations and management trends. To control and innovate the organization itself has become an obsession that is making managers lose sight of more substantial tasks.
In this context, the contemporary artist is an interesting role model. In a universe of increasing incompetence, only artists know how to make their lack of expertise productive. Contemporary artists are professionals without a profession, craftspeople without a craft, dilettantes with infinite potential. Only artists routinely subject the professional content of their discipline to debate, as part of their everyday practice. With each new work they make, artists embrace the crisis of competence instead of shifting it to others, as is the case in most other domains. They accept complete responsibility, in defiance of the neoliberal tendency to delegate and outsource. By definition, the creation of a work of art entails a critical test of the criteria of creative competence and artistic skill. Thus visual art can be considered as a form of societal meta-production: any contemporary work of art is like a condensed re-enactment of the crisis of competence in a public context.
What are the implications for art schools? The ideal visual art curriculum neither denies nor conceals the lack of substance at the heart of the artistic profession, nor does it anxiously try to renew or reconstruct some lost craft. Instead it makes this fundamental condition the focal point of a permanently reflective practice. However paradoxically, the true competence of the artist is the ability to work with his or her own incompetence. Art students have to learn to face the indeterminate nature of their profession, without recourse to generally valid methods and techniques.
In the mundane reality of both politics and business, such critical capacity has been lost. Due to pressure from voters, shareholders, consumers and the media, the fear of making mistakes has overtaken all other concerns. Even if the contemporary artist is not able to come up with a general solution to this dilemma, the artistic attitude in dealing with (in)competence is well worth a closer look. Art education may be the only place where this particular type of ‘competency training’ exists.
Pascal Gielen teaches art sociology and cultural policy at the University of Groningen and is Professor of Arts in Society at the Fontys University of Fine and Performing Arts in Tilburg. Camiel van Winkel is Professor of Visual Art at AKV|St.Joost, Avans University in Den Bosch. They are currently doing a joint research project on the hybridization of contemporary artistic practice.