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The Fight to Take Back the Power to Judge from Experts: On Pour des écoles d’art féministes !

by Miel Villemot

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Last March, I was contacted by the editorial team of La belle revue, who asked me to write about the book Pour des écoles d’art féministes ! [In Favour of Feminist Art Schools]. I wanted to use this invitation to interrogate the possibility of the perspective announced by the book’s title, and address a question which has preoccupied me for a long time now, namely whether a feminist art, and more generally an art that doesn’t reproduce relationships of domination, is possible within the institutions of contemporary art. 

This question interests me because I find it paradoxical to pursue a feminist project in schools structured around an ideology of inequality: the history and the theory of art which underpin them continue to designate certain practices as more civilizing, more innovative or more emancipatory than others, with the terminology shifting from one era to the next. This teleological narrative stems from Enlightenment universalism that established hierarchies between forms and individuals according to their degree of “advancement”. It justified the domination of certain voices, forms of expression and lived experience over others. This cultural elitism influences the educational techniques used in art schools: student artists are evaluated according to their originality, their supposedly unteachable ability to produce without pre-determined rules. As a result, teachers are not so much responsible for teaching their students as they are with training them to be the best, by way of ensuring that their creations innovate whilst at the same time reproducing particular codes of art history. A feminist project that works towards the dignity of all seems to me to fundamentally contradict the hierarchizing of cultures and individuals inherent in contemporary art’s quest for individuality. 

If I raise the questions of power that govern these networks, it’s because I find it risky to include feminist, queer, decolonial and anti-capitalist practices within them if this inclusion does not come with a deep interrogation of their elective mechanisms. I am concerned about the imperialist undertones of statements by my academic and artist colleagues, who I have at times heard justify art in terms of its being a means of fully realizing humanity or of contributing to France’s reputation on the world stage. I am also worried by the ways in which the expressions and lived experiences of minorities are placed in competition with one another in such a way as to transform our collective engagements into individual capital, undermining solidarity within our activist organizations. 

I would be lying, however, if I said that contemporary art produced nothing but competition and cultural domination. Even though the belief in a genius that can produce without pre-determined rules has often justified a harmful competition, Pour des écoles d’art féministes ! shows how art school teaching has also allowed for “a freedom in terms of formats and […] quality pedagogical relationships1 [for those who want them].And since art always comes from an engagement, even though this engagement “can be a conservative one, a reactionary one, a limiting one rather than one inspired by a more revolutionary imaginary,2 the interventions brought together in this reader attest to just how many of us today consider that representations must be criticized from an ethical and political standpoint, and pursued to the extent that their circulation contributes to a subversion of the normative social order than to innovation in the field of art.

Ultimately, Pour des écoles d’art féministes ! shows that when the exploratory methods used in these institutions are guided by an ethic of justice rather than a quest for excellence, they can contain the seeds of an emancipatory potential. But if we want to fully realize this potential, we must (continue to) fight to take back the power to judge the forms that emancipate (us) and reappropriate the means of production and diffusion of knowledge, affect, and lived experience—a “we” that refers as much to art workers as to the users of the infrastructure of contemporary art, as much to the activist collectives and unions as to practical and theoretical researchers, as much to teachers as to students.

Pour des écoles d’art féministes ! 

Edited by Lilith Bodineau, Adèle Bornais, Nelly Catheland, Charlotte Durand, Martha Fely, Lola Fontanié, Eulalie Gornes, Chloé Grard, Sophie Lapalu, Eden Lebegue, Michèle Martel, Sarah Netter, Clémentine Palluy, Mauve Perolari, Simon Pastoors, Rune Segaut, Danaé Seigneur

February 2024

Tombolo Presses

With l’École supérieure d’art de Clermont Métropole

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Writing one’s plurality on Le meilleur système by Anne-Sarah Huet