What’s the academy for?

Half-way through its run, Newcastle University closed its Fine Art degree show to its own graduating students last weekend, prompting dismay from teaching staff and students alike, and provoking existential questions about the role of the academy — and what happens when life intrudes on art.

It is a move which, depending on how it is viewed, suggests that (a) contemporary currents continue to animate even the corridors of the academy; (b) the university’s tolerance for politics is too shallow or for corporate interests too deep; (c) higher education mandarins have a better grasp of both irony and conceptual art than previously assumed, and/or (d) life is slipping more frequently into a feedback loop of reality and grim parody.

Reports by students suggest that, after inviting van-loads of police officers onto the campus last week to quell a legitimate protest against Israel’s war on Gaza (an intervention which the students assert resulted in numerous counts of injury and police violence), the university issued an eleventh-hour notice of the closure of the degree show, in what appears to be a bizarrely defensive and heavy-handed move.

Students have issued an open letter, supported by Fine Art teaching staff, seeking an apology from the university and referring it to their earlier demands for full disclosure of the university’s Israel-related interests, but the university has said nothing publicly.

If it weren’t for the deadly serious motive for the students’ initial protests, and the seriously deadly nexus of free-market economics and global investment that animates higher education – not to mention the refusal of this apogee of four years’ study to its own students – the episode would read as a joke: fine art department shuts down degree show over fears it’s too close to the real world.

Whether universities’ corporate interests are at odds with those of their own corpus is a debate for elsewhere. But is art education a progressive or retrogressive force — and is it possible to make and discuss art, much less train new artists, if it’s the latter? If not a site of debate, a discursive space, one which invites a plurality of positions and welcomes dissent, what’s the academy – never mind art itself – for?

Postscript, 11 June

After the original publication of this article, a Newcastle University spokesperson responded: “Due to disruption on campus in the week of the exhibition and information that a further externally-organised protest was due to take place on Saturday 1 June, a decision was made to close the Fine Art Building, which houses the Hatton Gallery, in the interests of the safety of students, staff, and members of the public, and to protect the Fine Art Degree Show exhibition. Staff from the Fine Art department were involved in the decision-making process to close the Fine Art building.

“Provision was subsequently made so any student and their family who still wanted to visit the Fine Art Degree Show could arrange this with security. Some Fine Art staff were also present for part of the day to meet with students and their families.

“The Fine Art degree show was not closed on the 1 June as a response to students who had closed their show themselves as part of a Cultural Strike on Friday 31 May. The Cultural Strike was supported by the Fine Art Department and the School of Arts and Cultures. The Fine Art Degree show reopened on Monday 3rd June, as normal, and remained open until 8 June, as planned.”

Above: Newcastle University security staff remove students’ posters on campus

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