Before We Knew What Hit Us

Precarious Practices #1. How the fantasy of the autonomous artist still dominates the art academy.


It’s 2020. There’s still this wonky idea, amongst those young enough to believe in it, that one goes through art education to experience freedom. It’s a thought still put on display for the public during open days or graduation shows, too. And I understand the appeal of it. There should be a chance to suspend the flow of life, to not have to worry about the regular market demands that control so much of our everyday movements for at the very least four years. Four years of bliss! But does this idea of freedom hold up to the same scrutiny as it used to more than half a century ago when it was genuinely surfing the wave? What changed for students engaging in artistic education during the last few decades?

Let’s say you did end up going through art education some decades back. And let’s say you did so in The Netherlands, a country which rebuilt itself as a bit of a social utopia after the Second World War. You most likely didn’t have to pay much, if anything, for your studies, and might have even gotten study grants to go along with it. And what happened once you finished your dedicated period of freedom? Between 1956 and 1987, you would have had the chance to fall under the Visual Artists Regulation (Beeldende Kunstenaars Regeling), which meant that you would receive an income from the Government in exchange for services or works of art. This regulation was preceded by the Contra-Performance Scheme (Contraprestatieregeling), 1949 – 1956, which was, in turn, the successor of the Work and Income for Artists Scheme (Wet Werk en Inkomen). Under any of these three schemes, you’d have experienced the advantages of your artist diploma offering you something akin to what we these days call a Basic Income for the first few years after your graduation. You’d have experienced less market pressure, less need to conform, so more room for experimentation and the bonus of governmental support.

2012, the year when I migrated from Romania to the Netherlands for study purposes, marked the moment when the tradition of the above-mentioned forms of support were entirely discontinued. What was left in their wake was a series of subsidies which functioned based on merit, following rules of market-driven competition. Boy, did I ever choose my arrival! Ironically, the tradition of financial protections was suspended by people who must have been well-aware of the fact that artists would be subjected to precarious living and working conditions without it. In a Parliamentary paper on the Work and Income Scheme from 1996, the following statement can be read:

It is not easy for artists to provide for their livelihood throughout their career […] The market for artists is difficult to compare with the market for industrial products. Often it concerns unique products or products with limited reproducibility. Moreover, the supply often surpasses demand. The individual character of art means that the artist must create his/her market. There is, in general, a market for art, but not for his/her art.

Back to the twenty-first century. You graduated, or by some form of miracle managed to get your hands on a BA or MA or MFA. But art education alone can no longer make a career. Today, you jump from an apparent time of freedom straight into the clutches of the real world without any advanced preparation. And even if there is still some apparent support for artists, less than what there used to be, you have to jump through the fiery hoops of the market to get to it. At the same time, the appealing idea of the autonomous young artist still lingers on your mind. So you find yourself in a double bind. On the one hand, we, artists, are in a position of profound privilege of being able to be artists. On the other, all of our protections have been taken away, and we’re told to go along with it. Meanwhile, our predecessors are dreaming of the good old days and sticking their fingers into their ears not to hear our disappointed cries.

Zoom into the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. The Rietveld is an art and design academy located in Amsterdam. Drop the name of the Rietveld Academy in a conversation, casually mention the fact that you own a diploma from it, and see faces change. It completely shifts the way you are perceived. The school has a very high-ranking reputation – especially among the locals. (Even if you’ve never set foot there, I highly recommend the social experiment of calling yourself an alumn. Purely for curiosity’s sake.) The Rietveld is known for releasing hundreds of graduates into the world on a yearly basis, who go on to have a shot at the fields of visual art and design. In the past few decades, these graduates have increasingly been from other countries than the Netherlands. I am one of them.

It seems like a perfect premise for a great career, doesn’t it? However, there seems to be an unspoken rule at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy not to offer the students any practical training in professional competences. This taboo is held in place to preserve a romantic notion of the artist as free, unhindered by reality, unburdened by economic pressures, la-di-dah – a set of ideas, by the way, that many students internalize with the greatest joy, because, hell yeah, they’re free! The only form of professionalization present in the curriculum is the Future Market – a conglomeration of actual market stalls on which funding institutions, local residencies, loan providers, display their leaflets for one afternoon in the hallway of the main Rietveld building. The institution’s representatives get to pitch their offers and answer questions, if any arise. There is no public debate associated with this setup and there is little public interest in engaging with it. All in all, the Future Market functions mostly as a quirky hallway decoration until it´s folded back and packed away.

If you happen to end up training as a visual artist at Rietveld, there’s no in-depth talk of funding, residencies, or portfolio building. No talk of the ethics involved in making and distributing of artistic work or of training in financial literacy. As a result, many graduates end up perpetuating exploitation within the field and self-exploitation first and foremost. Think of students ending up in unpaid internships for companies that make a profit, or providing free labor for the shows of their teachers. Think of variable and ungodly working hours, but never being taught how to bill your hours at the end of the day, or even that you should charge for your services as an artist. The ethos of the school focuses more on hands-on making, on ‘getting to work’, on questioning ‘how one makes’. Because, apparently, we were all just meant to be children playing in the mud for four years until reality hits nice and hard. And we, in the end, compromise quietly. Maybe we look back for a second to our elders that got by with free education, squatted houses, financial state support, no debt and government funding by default and weep.

I made my attempts in bringing practical talks to the Rietveld and failed. In the spring of 2019, I dared to pitch to the school what could be called the beginning of thinking about professional practice. The result? I got canceled. I made a mistake in thinking the Gerrit Rietveld Academy is ready to face matters of practicalities in terms of artists’ work. But this got me thinking on yet another level. Is the Gerrit Rietveld Academy the last bastion of artistic freedom? By not engaging with talks about the market, can it preserve its independence? Or is it merely in denial as to what the material conditions for artists are, both locally and internationally? To go even one step further, are they willfully sabotaging the careers or future artists by keeping them in the dark as to the possibilities of the field, the opportunities they have available and the paths they can pursue, for profit?

Also, do students experience any awareness of their conditions? A few months back, I’ve stumbled across a friend in a local Amsterdam museum. We were both waiting for a lecture to begin or commenting on a lecture which had ended, and we chose to spend the time chatting in the vast museum atrium, next to the coffee area and bookshop, leaning ever so gently on the side of the wardrobe. Me, a still-young practicing artist, her, a first-year student at a reputable art academy (see above). She indeed seemed to be dissatisfied with the conditions of her education. Having weathered a few storms within the profession, I asked her: ‘Why not rebel against the constraints of her position? Why not question the status quo?’ To which she brought up a discussion she had with her father. Cue: previous generation. He had told his daughter that she could be as free as she wants. She has the leeway financially, she temporarily has her family’s support, but as to the future she shapes, when she shapes it, she should do well to think of one primary issue: what kind of lifestyle does she want to have?

One of my favorite works as of late is Cassidy Toner’s Shooting Myself in the Foot (with Azurite Healing Crystal Toe Ring) (2018). The piece is a laser-cut, steel outline of her foot attached to a field target, then, repeatedly fired at with steel BBs. It perfectly encapsulates both the glitz and glamour of our current condition as exemplified by the toe ring and the self-sabotage that we subject ourselves to while trying to maintain our ‘lifestyle’. True, one thing is missing: the amount of misery we inflict on those that cannot even consider achieving the lifestyle we so desperately cling to.  Thinking in terms of our predicament, maybe it’s time to reconsider what arts education is supposed to be and take over the reins.

By now, it’s April 2020. Revolution is the only way to go. But even despite the urgency of the crisis triggered in the Netherlands in mid-March by the COVID19 restrictions, revolution is not as straightforward as one might think.

In the last week of March, a letter of dissent was written by the students of the Sandberg Institute, the Master program tied to the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. In it, the students, supported by their teachers and by the art student unions that popped up over the past couple of years, demanded accountability from the administration of the institution after the closing of the academy and the rushed move of many of their in-person meetings and classes to online platforms. They asked for participation in the handling of the crisis, they asked for a postponement of the academic year and refused to see their graduation show moved online. They asked for refunds of tuition fees in light of the lack of access to facilities, in case the building would remain shut well into the summer vacation. They asked for an understanding of their condition, affected as it is by the limitations the government of the Netherlands has put on education, public gatherings, and various jobs – the service industry is a field in which a large swath of students was employed to support themselves, and much of it has been suspended. They asked for understanding in the face of the international character of the academy and the fact that many students have had to leave to the country to be with their families, and for an understanding of the fact that focus is hard to come by in a crisis triggered by a pandemic. These are not normal working from home conditions. Education should not be instantly transferred into online mode, pretending to forget what triggered the change of habit and working on the premise of ‘business as usual’.

The letter was signed on March 30th, 2020. It reached my inbox by mistake. It slipped through the cracks of a stuffy newsletter, most likely due to the exhaustion of whoever put the newsletter together. It wasn’t meant for public consumption, but the mere fact that it existed signaled some form of solidarity in the face of hopelessness. The letter illustrated a bottom-up change of pace.

On March 31st, the Student Council of the Rietveld Academy and Sandberg Institute went one step further, this time publicly, and took responsibility for providing what was needed during the crisis. It issued a short guide with resources for international students, artists and art workers in the Netherlands. It broke the taboo on professional competences by acknowledging the type of support needed by students in a time of crisis, practical information such as: what is a freelancer? What is a zero-hour contract? What support does the government provide in times of crisis? What should one do if their contract is not being renewed? What is unemployment and how to apply for it? How to get legal assistance? And so on.

Students had been plunged into the land of terminated contracts, no income, and even homelessness and under these conditions, the knowledge disseminated in the guide really meant power. Before the guide was published the only other reaction came from the administration of the school in the form of abstract solidarity messages and encouraging speeches overlaid on videos of an empty Academy.

Then came April 1st, 2020. (The timeline that I’m building is idiosyncratic, but it may be worth asking if the administration of these schools had also kept an eye on the student initiatives that went counter to the need to adapt, keep one’s head up and keep up productivity.) The Sandberg, or rather it’s press office, sent out a newsletter to all of its followers, I’m guessing students and teachers included, in which it announced its ‘Homemade Routines’:

How do we clean, paint, administrate, chat, prototype, stretch, cook, read, watch and dream during a period of social distancing? A growing accumulation of activities by artists and designers, live-streamed for free on Wednesdays on Sandberg Instituut Instagram, echo a different pace and concentration for our homemade behaviors.

It covered:
08:00 – Cleaning
10:00 – Painting
11:00 – Administrating
13:00 – Chatting
15:00 – Prototyping
16:00 – Stretching
17:00 – Cooking
20:00 – Reading
21:00 – Watching
23:00 – Dreaming

24/7 production.

Despite the crisis, despite the confusion, despite resistance, despite solidarity, it seems the post-autonomous artist cannot catch a break, endlessly fucked as he or she or they are by the neoliberal need to be present, to be flexible, to adapt to precarity with a smile.

But rather than be lured by the need for visibility and overwhelmed by fear of missing out on immediate career enhancement, it’s worth considering, despite the calls for going back to normal, how this former normal turned young art students and future artists into precarious subjects. And now more than ever, in this small space for change that’s opening up, it’s time to stand up and refuse to return to what was before.

About Alina Lupu

Alina Lupu is born and bred in Romania. She is currently an Amsterdam-based artist and writer. She was alternately employed and contracted by Deliveroo, Helpling, Foodora, Uber, Thuisbezorgd, Hanze Groningen, Willem de Kooning Rotterdam, de Taart van m´n Tante, and Poké Perfect Amsterdam. Her pension will eventually total a bit over 2 Euros per month. Her work has infiltrated: W139, Amsterdam; Onomatopee, Eindhoven; Drugo More, Rijeka; Rheum Room, Basel; European Lab, Lyon and Diskurs, Giessen, among others. Furthermore, Alina Lupu is a board member of Platform BK. She is currently unemployed.