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The President on Education in the Arts

Innenaufnahme Atelier mit Studierenden
source: Johannes Bock

Simplicity is not a value

What is the goal of education in the arts? It's definitely not uniformity – in art, insights are gained through diversity and friction.

Occasionally, you find people not trained in the arts who are both highly privileged individuals and highly motivated collectors. The largest and most remarkable monument ever created by such individuals is in London: the Victoria and Albert Museum. This institution, in its great breadth and, at the same time, its great randomness, testifies in a distinctively eclectic manner to the extent of the British Empire and the infinite logistical capabilities of its rulers. It also testifies impressively to an equally great and often affecting thirst for knowledge.

The size and randomness of the V&A collection is surpassed only by the stunning effects of its presentation. If it's just two steps from a full-size cast of the double doors of the Baptistry of the Dome of Florence to an original portal of a Cambodian royal palace which is hundreds of years older, and just a few meters from a magnificent litter to a rickshaw taxi, the former from 14th century China and the latter from Egypt around 1900, we are not just taking a journey through time and space. Looking at coffee makers from 19th century Vienna and stuffed birds from the Amazon placed right next to each other, or a manuscript by Johann Sebastian Bach sitting next to an Indian pocket watch, our thoughts turn down peculiar paths – about perception, about the significance of artistry without context, about the almost inconceivably unselfconscious world view of the colonial and hierarchical times, about distances in time and space that are virtually insurmountable for most people, and most of all about a deeply non-simultaneous world.

In our times we live in close juxtaposition; just a few hours, and we are on the trail – either literally or virtually – of almost any culture or time period. Today a Chinese work of art may refer to another in Berlin – which, in turn, might refer to the way in which these daily global references have become commonplace. Simultaneousness and referentiality are now constitutive of our daily, even hourly perceptions; with our global networks and mobility, the idea of regional or national contemporary art seems utterly antiquated. Joseph Haydn isolated in Eisenstadt, Immanuel Kant by himself in Königsberg, Gauguin in Tahiti, all of them lonely and busy with shaping a world of ideas? All but unimaginable.

Thus it is only logical that the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is not dedicated to German art alone. And it is not even in fact the German Pavilion – it was switched with the French Pavilion, which is not primarily showing French art either. If art is meant for the world, it can hardly be sorted into national categories. If art galleries have always hung works of various origins side by side, and if concert programs have successfully related Mendelssohn to Vivaldi, Pergolesi to Gershwin, then the long road that led to this Venetian summer, if perhaps confusing to some, is still the right one insofar as it reflects the reality of our daily experience.

However, it is not right to disregard the basis of this diversity. We shouldn't be held back by borders when it comes to viewing and listening. But we should be aware that the ways in which we view, listen, and understand may vary greatly, and that we therefore need to protect and preserve a diversity in education that is based in national traditions and regional approaches. This diversity is an expression of abundance – not at all of narrow-mindedness.

The UdK is open to all. Our students, and also our teachers, come from around the world. That is a very good thing. Once they have arrived here, however, the manner of teaching and the specific style of engaging with the arts, as well as the structure of the university itself, are components of our essential message and content. And that is how they are understood and internalized, either approvingly or critically.

At first, just learning about the existence of the arts in their entirety irrevocably changes one’s own perceptions. But beyond this – notwithstanding all the variations between individual teachers and disciplines and the dynamics of development – when it comes to principal methods, a tradition emerges that represents certain convictions, and inherently differs from arts education traditions in other parts of the world.

The education of conductors, for example, involves a years-long colloquium, while education in fine arts is characterized by a purposeful openness, with elements resembling symposia and town hall meetings. In acting education, the approach to teaching differs greatly even among schools in the German-speaking regions, where one can find a basis in theory, both contemporary and related to practice, side by side with essential elements of the
centuries-old master class principle. UdK Berlin’s innovative traditions in arts education also underlie our convictions regarding teacher education – an area we believe all art institutions would do well to engage in, not the least because of the flashes of self-awareness it provides. In our teacher education, unlike that at many other arts schools, we are committed to the concept of genuine communication of authentic personal experience in the teacher’s own discipline.

It is possible to find similar characteristics in arts education at some of the great universities around the world. But in far too many institutions, especially in the past few decades, key aspects of a free and highly personal, yet precisely calibrated, education in the arts have been discarded. Today, knowledge modules set in rigidly structured study courses which seem virtually interchangeable (and are usually extremely expensive) are combined with an entertainment-driven randomness in apparently arbitrarily chosen formats and ideas. These unfortunate features are now the cornerstones of an education that once was characterized by a dazzling variety in the ways of seeing, hearing, moving, and thinking, preparing graduates, in the best case, to step into the world ready to engage with it with an open mind. The loss of such independent diversity will have as dramatic consequences for the intellectual world – far beyond the arts alone – as species extinction has for the natural world.

The EU’s establishment of uniformity and superficial comparability as ultimate goals reflects a serious misconception and is a blunder with far-reaching effects, at least when it comes to arts education at universities. It was painful to watch the complaisance with which many institutions abandoned, without any prior critical analysis, their discipline-specific educational formats that were based on great traditions. We have long since passed the time when it was necessary to educate “enough” painters, viola players, or members of an opera choir for a thriving market, which was indeed a concern when many arts institutions were founded. If we hope now to preserve the vitality of the arts, what we need – here and also in literature and elsewhere in the intellectual world – are “troublemakers” and a multitude of voices, and fundamental convictions and stances within historic and regional contexts. To allow ourselves to be intimidated by mundane procedural issues will not help us do justice to this challenging task.


Prof. Martin Rennert, President of the Berlin University of the Arts

This article originally appeared in the supplement to the German daily newspaper
Der Tagesspiegel on July 11, 2013.