Lada Nakonechna

Opposing the Department of Contemporary Art

This article is about the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture (hereinafter the Academy, NAFAA). It is about public statements regarding the educational programme (curriculum), which reveal problems of the status of art in the public perception in Ukraine. And it is about the goals of a higher art education institution.

The history of the controversy, which has been going on for more than 15 years, can be reduced to the confrontation between those who demand reforms (for the last 5 years this has been embodied in the call to start a Department of Contemporary Art) and defenders of the NAFAA’s status quo who see the former as a threat to the “school” and its longevity. The “school” is proclaimed to be the central educational method (according to the Rector Andrii Chebykin: “Each of the areas is called a “school”; just as there are scientific schools in other scientific institutions, so we have art schools. Without the master passing on his skills, our Academy cannot exist”1) and purpose of education (because it testifies to the tradition of Ukrainian painting, monumental art, graphics, etc.). The controversy, mainly provoked by NAFAA students and graduates who are dissatisfied with the education system, either erupts into scandal after some student protest action2, or quietly reminds of itself in the statements of its parties in the media space, - which indicates the tension of the unresolved conflict.

A special case is the personal involvement of the former Minister of Culture and Sports Volodymyr Borodianskyi, who demanded that NAFAA form a vision and strategy (threatening to cut off its funding), and therefore confronted its Academic Council with an urgent need for reform.

The figure of a teacher is fundamental in the reproduction of the norms of the Academy: the professor of the workshop is declared to be the bearer of the tradition and responsible for the “school” transformation. A diligent student inherits not only the technical knowledge, aesthetic preferences, and sometimes even the professor’s creative style, but also his behavioural patterns and practiced discourse3. All these factors must ensure the sustainability of the “school”. But upon a closer look, the continuity of the artistic traditions now proclaimed at the Academy does not seem so undeniable.

The list of famous names – Narbut, Krychevskyi, Boichuk, Murashko, Burachek, Manevych, Yablonska, Kasiian, Derehus, Lider, Yakutovych, Storozhenko – now and then serves in defence of the general, official line of history of the “school”. Well-known, but for various reasons, inconvenient figures do not appear in this list. And this is not only Malevych (he was in Kyiv for a short time, and we have no evidence of his influence on the “school”) and Bohomazov (despite the fact that he systematically dealt with issues of pedagogy and implemented his unique educational methods at the Academy for 8 years, until his death in 1930), but also the heads of the workshops: Borodai, Puzyrkov or Lopukhov (the latter was an integral link in the “school”: he studied with Kostiantyn Yeleva, Oleksii Shovkunenko, and was the teacher of Vasyl Hurin). Even without these artists, the above list of names does not testify in favour of one art school, therefore it becomes a purely ritual-incantatory phenomenon.

The Academy is so rich in its historical evidence that, by applying a selective method and by leveling contradictions, different and even opposite traditions can be constructed. Thus, not only certain names, but also entire complexes of educational (modernist) systems fall out of the dominant official history, which adheres to the logic of the authors’ teaching schools and focuses mainly on a few cult figures; as well as inconvenient facts, such as the levelling of the role of the socialist realist method within the “tradition of the Ukrainian school of painting on an academic basis”, are also bypassed. Obviously, the modern understanding of the Academy depends on who, how and why interprets its history.

When the Ukrainian Academy of Arts (UAA) was founded in 1917, the principle of master classes was taken as a basis4. According to the modernist trend, each professor developed a personal aesthetic programme. Therefore, within the same educational institution, various stylistic and ideological concepts – from realistic to formalistic ones – coexisted. After 1924, the principle of master classes was abolished in fact for 10 years. Since 1934, the professors have chaired the workshops again, but compared to UAA, they have embodied a common aesthetic programme. Since then, the workshops have been differentiated according to the division into genres and types of art; and subsequently they became formalised by new curricula developed and approved for all educational art institutions by the Academy of Arts of the USSR. It was at this time, according to modern official discourse, that the “return to the academic foundations of education” took place5. Such a statement about the return is not true, because the Academy, referring to the experience of the European educational system in art, was created in 1917 as an educational institution with a system opposite to the academic one. In particular, in the 1920s, Rector Ivan Vrona noted that “fortunately, in Ukraine, the traditions of academic education were not so strong as to slow down the development of a new revolutionary school”6.

If today NAFAA proclaims “academic foundations” as the basis of the “school”, then it is necessary to acknowledge aloud the longevity of the traditions coming from the St. Petersburg Academy and the Academy of Arts of the USSR (and to delete at least Boichuk from the list). But if the educational format of master classes is proclaimed to be the core of the tradition (when the head of the workshop teaches according to his/her own curriculum), and if you still want to look for a model in the past, then this does not exclude the emergence in today’s Academy of a new workshop of a new artist with his/her own original “school” or other, non-academic, approach to teaching.

Eszter Lázár, a history researcher at the Budapest Academy of Arts, speaks of a more or less typical narrative of institutional transformation in the region of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1990s: “In Budapest, new departments were founded with modern pedagogical practice (for example, an intermedia division), which did not adhere to the structure of the so-called traditional division into painting, sculpture, graphics, etc. and the ideas of workshops with students led by different professors7. And new professors, former neo-avant-garde artists opposed to the official course, began to teach their own pedagogical methods and concepts (for example, Zs. Károlyi as a lecturer at the Department of Painting began with an abstract, monochrome drawing programme8)”. E. Lázár notes that, unlike in Prague or Bratislava, where the teaching staff of the academies was completely renewed, in Budapest all the old professors remained in their places, despite their disagreement with the reforms or distrust on the part of students.

What happened to the Kyiv Academy (then the Kyiv State Art Institute) after 1991, except for the symbolic return of its original name “Ukrainian Academy of Arts”9? Like in Budapest, the professors of the previous system were retained in Kyiv, and moreover, the opening of new workshops took place mainly due to the existing teaching staff. Mykhailo Huida (at the beginning together with Shatalin) and Vasyl Hurin headed the workshops of easel painting, Valerii Shvetsov and Andrii Chepelyk headed the workshops of easel sculpture, Vitalii Shostia headed the design workshop reformed from the workshop of political posters and visual agitation. Among those who returned to the Academy was Professor Danylo Lider who again headed the theatrical and decorative art workshop. The only artist invited from outside and opposed to the Soviet system, Feodosii Humeniuk (as it was insisted by external forces: the Cultural Foundation and personally its head Borys Oliinyk10), headed the historical painting workshop and, being a graduate of the Leningrad Academy, he took its teaching methods as his basis. Another turn to the system of academicism with its genre division was the foundation of the landscape painting workshop by Vasyl Zabashta in 1993. Mykola Storozhenko’s educational and creative workshop of painting and temple culture created in 1994 was completely new. Its opening was predetermined by the demand for specialists capable of decorating newly built temples11. But in fact, it became the embodiment of the idea of “holy fathers of the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Committee for Religious Affairs” who turned to Andrii Chebykin, Rector of the Academy, with a proposal to create it12. Probably in this context, the change of the concept from “easel graphics” to “free graphics” in the names of workshops at the Department of Graphic Arts can be considered the most radical.

Therefore, the structure of the Academy does not undergo significant changes during the post-Soviet institutional transformation and remains post-academic13. This structure retains the division of art into types and partly into genres, while the teaching methods and curricula are based on long-hour field drawing (from life), anatomical studies, and copying samples. From the Soviet system, the Academy also inherited a type of training based primarily on the upbringing function of education, namely on fostering certain ideological attitudes and worldviews14. The main achievement was the abolition of strict regulation of themes (subjects): the Academic Council removed from the Statute of the institution the thesis about the method of socialist realism as fundamental for teaching and practicing art. Since then, the acquisition of specific academic excellence has been proclaimed fundamental. Despite the obvious thematic democratisation and weakened control over creative activity, there are still requirements for the ideological component of art, in which it is now desirable to reflect new patriotic themes15. The cultural transformation of the Academy is seen in its “Ukrainization”, which is embodied mainly through the use of recognisable codes of pre-modern folk art in the pictorial language, such as ornamental elements, ethnographic references, as well as the use of Ukrainian landscape motifs and themes from Ukrainian history.

The NAFAA statute states that “A necessary condition for the successful implementation of substantive tasks of educational activities of the institution is to implement the state policy on art education in Ukraine”16. In every period of its existence, the Academy has been an important and effective unit of the cultural policy of the state (which is probably its most traditional characteristic). The founding of the UAA is connected with the state-building aspirations of the Ukrainian People’s Republic17. Its task was to create conditions in which the artistic culture peculiar to Ukraine could develop. At that time, the task of creating a unique Ukrainian art was entrusted to the first professors who embodied their autonomous artistic and teaching programmes in the workshops18. The Soviet Academy of the 1920s retained the task of “creating a genuine national artistic culture”, according to Rector Ivan Vrona19. Although since that time art had to meet the production needs of the state and be consistent with the understanding of its social role as an ideological factor, this task continued to be realised through the experimental development of a new type of culture on the territory of Ukraine: the art created within the educational institution was not based on folklore motifs – at that time, the typical outward signs of the Ukrainian “style”20; instead, it was created in the competitive development of various artistic trends. I. Vrona abolished the division into personal workshops at the Academy in order to reduce the influence of one master on students. Thus, the Academy became the centre of Ukrainian modernist culture associated with statist guidelines and industrialisation processes.

This openness of the Academy to the multi-voiced process of creating a new culture gradually came to an end with the radicalisation of artists in their desire to be at the forefront of the ‘proper’ art of the new state. Cultural diversity finally ceased to exist after the Communist Party monopolized all processes. The Academy maintained its position as the main body for the implementation of state policy in the field of art education in Ukraine and brought up more than one generation of socialist realist artists. During that time, folklore elements were seamlessly incorporated into socialist realist works, which made Ukraine stand out among the “fraternal peoples of the USSR.”

At the turn of the political systems in the 1990s, the language and national issue became a primary and fundamental requirement for the new leadership. The call for the creation of a “national culture” is still heard at the Academy, but its meaning has become the opposite to what it was at the beginning of its existence. The national culture is seen mainly as a return of the visual codes of the past or the use of recognisable ethnographic elements in stable compositional solutions of a plot and thematic composition – the legacy of Soviet post-Academicism updated in an impressionistic or other formalistic manner. Apparently, over the long existence of the Kyiv Academy, in accordance with the unified principles of socialist realist art formed by the Soviet cultural policy and the USSR Academy of Arts, mimetic art forms, representative tasks and a centralised culture management system became so standardised that they were easily naturalised and adapted to new conditions. However, the key task for the Academy should be the implementation of the new cultural policy of the independent state. Meanwhile, this policy has not yet been formed, and paradoxically, the teaching staff of the Academy with stubborn perseverance clings to the idea of apolitical art.

Meanwhile, the process of passive market orientation of the Academy is going on. The system of education is determined by the level of technical training and versatile skills among graduates, and consequently, their ability to fulfil orders of any complexity (and as a result apparently, their success in the imaginary “West”21). However, such an attitude is rather an indicator of provinciality that paves the way to jobbing. Arguments in favour of the system are made about the exclusivity and uniqueness of the Academy and its academic school, which, as it were, might to be of interest to the world. Thus, “Academic education” becomes a brand to attract students on a paid basis, but in fact it attracts only students from China.

A message is being formulated that a young artist is a handyman who adapts his/her abilities to the needs of the customer in the design of public or private space (creating new monuments, decorating temples, designing housing, etc.), as well as to the needs of the advertising market and film industry (generally, in the lowest positions of production designer). Thus, the idea is affirmed that the field of art and culture is an additional one, worthy of the residual principle of financing (under which art and culture are financed only if there is money left in the budget after all other spheres have been funded).

At the same time, the view of culture as an industry of possible high profit is also spreading. In addition to depicting a radiant figure of desire – a “celebrity artist” with high fees, recent trends from the West have also brought the idea of a creative economy. It was this idea that captured the minds of leaders of the Ministry of Culture as the one that could change the situation in this unprofitable sphere. In their public speeches (since the government of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman22), statements have been heard about the maximum support and impetus for the development of the creative economy, “which makes the future” (Svitlana Fomenko, Deputy Minister of Culture), and about the need, first of all, to save the creative industries from crisis by increasing the consumption of a “cultural product” through its promotion23 (Oleksandr Tkachenko, Minister of Culture since 2020). Meanwhile, the newly created Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, by distributing money for the development of culture, contributes, first of all, to the development of its management, the sphere of culture management.

Volodymyr Borodianskyi’s already mentioned demand for the Academy to formulate a strategic task and a three-year plan for its implementation means to reduce the discussion of cultural policy to the language of business. There were reproaches about the incapacity to absorb funds, the insistence on developing a business plan, identifying a “product yield” and a way to measure the quality of education. In its attempt to please the head of the authority, the Academy found itself unable to present itself as a new institution of arts education and to provide indisputable arguments against the trend of commercialisation of education. To maintain its funding, NAFAA re-emphasises the importance of its history and role in shaping the “school”, and sticks to a vague claim about the importance nurturing creative genius. In his report, Rector Andrii Chebykin noted that NAFAA was forming the national artistic elite.

NAFAA is the highest accredited educational arts institution, which provides it with many advantages, including the definition of structure, duration, educational programme (curriculum), the right to grant academic degrees and receive public funding at the highest standards. In order to maintain the status, among other things, a higher education institution is required by law to have a sufficient number of professorships. Due to the lack of professors, professors of retirement age are literally not allowed “to take a well-deserved rest”. In the 1990s, the pragmatics of the “school” concept also included the protection of respected and honoured figures of Soviet Ukrainian culture from dismissal, the preservation of their professorial positions. According to Andrii Chebykin’s apt remark, it is impossible to dismiss an “academician, classic, people’s artist, or Shevchenko Prize winner”24. In the same 1990s, the solution to the problem of the shortage of professors and at the same time the continuation of the teaching tradition was to increase the number of workshops – assistant professors who received a leading role in the newly created workshops became new professors. “Ministers come and go, but we are here forever,” said one of the Academy’s professors at a meeting with V. Borodianskyi.

Indeed, the problem with the continuity of the “school” is the adherence to a one-dimensional understanding of the meaning of art by closely related NAFAA graduate artists25. The professors require students to complete “uniform, time-tested curricula and study programmes”26. In all workshops, the methodology is based on the principles of realistic depiction of people, objects and space - the principles of creating art forms inherent in pre-modern times. The basic requirement remains “professional training in terms of classical art”27, which is understood as literacy traditional for academism: mastering drawing skills, training a sense of complex form and the ability to depict it, knowledge of painting, graphic and sculptural techniques, the laws of colour and the basics of composition (the rules for placing all elements and parts in a given system and sequence)28.

The Academy’s website states that its task is to “preserve, creatively develop and continue the best traditions of the Academy, taking into account modern requirements facing the higher Art School of Ukraine”29, as well as to modernise the academic approach and educational programmes, according to A. Chebykin30. In recent years, the results of this modernisation included some diploma works made by students of the Graphic Faculty, in which new means for the Academy were used, such as video, spatial objects. They also included the Formal Art workshop created in 2019 according to the decision of the Department of Painting and Composition and thanks to a petition signed by almost a hundred students. Although it emerged as a supplement to the existing educational system in order to expand educational programmes including the study of the laws of formation in fine arts and the formal method of image construction, in fact it was not approved by the NAFAA Academic Council.

To modernise the Academy, the most common proposal is to create a Department of Contemporary Arts. Against the idea of an additional department (in addition to the already existing departments of painting, sculpture and graphics), as a well-aimed criticism from NAFAA, the question arises “whether painting and graphics cannot be contemporary.” Indeed, the implementation of such a department in the post-academic structure with its division into art forms cannot be the solution to the problem. And this is not only because contemporary art has no restrictions in terms of means, it is not equal to new media and can be realised in any form (in painting, sculptural, graphic forms, etc.), but because such a division is fixed as normal: that is, contemporary art as an additional one is given a separate allocated place. As a result, students at the Department of Contemporary Arts are likely to implement art according to the same principle or following the same aesthetic programme as in other departments, only using new means – i.e. they will produce art that has a modern look. Therefore, the foundation of the Department of Contemporary Art without revising the overall structure of academic departments and the general principles of art education not only makes no sense, but might even hinder reforms.

Inconsistency in the use of the concept of “contemporary art”, terminological confusion31 and the unwillingness to rethink the inherited system are at the heart of the problem. The main task of Soviet post-academicism was to train skills while silencing the public purpose of art. Perhaps, for the sake of mental peace, it was not customary to talk about the principles of art; and so far the much-needed conversation does not arise. One of the consequences is that modern students continue the tradition of splitting artistic practice into their own and one that is carried out on the instructions of an educational institution or the state.

The idea of implementing the Western education system as a ready-made model also bypasses the discussion of the principles formed in the debates that have historically passed by our territory – and therefore, it is the path towards cultural self-colonisation. In addition, the desire of students to diversify their skills and master modern artistic means is based on the need to survive in new economic conditions that require flexibility and openness to art-related academic disciplines. The term “creativity” is preferred over the traditional idea of development of creative work as one that holds the promise of self-realisation in the art market. Following the “creativity” guidelines, the educational sphere is in danger of being re-qualified as a space where “craftsmen of installation and other creative works” are produced with an indefinite social security – chips in the furnace of projects, fairs and festivals. The newly formed departments in Lviv (Department of Contemporary Art Practices) and Kharkiv (Department of Audiovisual Arts and Department of Visual Practices), expanding the range of artistic means (their sites indicate: installation, object, performance, video art, media art), focus their graduates on participation in exhibitions, festivals, residencies, as well as working as specialists in the visual organization of events and shows, VJing, creating scenography (set design) and visual content for concert performances. Educational institutions, instead of becoming a milieu for research and development of knowledge, take on the characteristics of commercial institutions; they encourage applicants to enter by using such epithets as “innovative”, “relevant”, “new and modern”. It is known that the creative sector of the economy tends to grow and captures even scientific institutions.

In order to approach the essential conversation, it is necessary to see that there are more than two parties, and not every reform initiative seeks to destroy the memory of the knowledge that the Academy is still able to provide. Moreover, NAFAA itself copes well with the depletion of what it protects32.

The controversy over the reform of arts education demonstrates impasses. As an example, the opposition “traditional vs contemporary/modern”: as I noted earlier, even in the Academy there can be different traditions; and “contemporary art” is a historical concept, the result of a certain tradition of views on art. But each of the parties speaks its own language, considers the opponent as an enemy to its ideals, sometimes demonising the other – not always objectively endowing him/her with certain qualities that are convenient for continuing the conflict. This can be explained by the fear of losing positions: the vast majority of professors do not practice contemporary art, do not know its principles and theory, and therefore they cannot teach it. But the Academy does not have vacancies for inviting the faculty from outside. Therefore, the enumeration in the text read out by Andrii Chebykin at a meeting with the Minister of Culture of “new practices focused on the latest technologies” and the declaration of intent to “expand the study of visual arts with a focus on such areas as video art, modern technological means of expression, conceptual photography”, etc. can only be perceived as a response to the request from outside. On closer acquaintance with the life of the Academy, it becomes clear that the main problem is not the lack of latest technologies but the loss of meaning in the artistic practices that dominate the Academy.

Now this text can only be concluded by stating that with increasing speed, the Academy is losing even what it had, and that its resources will most likely be picked up by the current of the creative economy. And the hope that the Academy will show its will to change and implement an independent programme guided by a certain autonomous status and the right to self-government is too ephemeral.

The text was first published on December 3, 2020 in Prostory magazine.