On power, silence and freedom in art education

Martina Smutná

The idea of talent and who is a talented artist implied a certain bohemianism and, in that sense, there was a lot to turn a blind eye to. Consultations were, nonetheless, conducted individually in Načeradski’s office, so it’s hard to say whether he treated boys more like equals. With me, they were conducted along the lines of: “here I am, offering you my opinion and sharing experience’; what mattered was not my opinion, only outcomes. Over time, I developed a behavioural strategy for those consultations, so that I could get anything from them. I learnt to recognise when it was better to keep silent.
The best picture of how it worked were studio meetings. They sat in a tight circle, sprawled out, talked dirty, smoked fags and weed... there was no way to air it out. And the girls mostly stood in the outer circle and tried to pretend they weren’t humiliated by all this, but there was no way for them to contribute. I left high school, thinking I could talk normally, but there I kept my mouth shut. I just couldn’t, it was hopeless. Then, new guys followed and took advantage of the situation, too, and tried to join the gang. It was obvious that that not every guy was a good fit, but at the same time they didn’t want to be in the position that we, girls, were in.
I was a little bit scared of him and got totally blocked. I was afraid he might drag me into a situation that I didn’t choose and didn’t want to be in, so I kept quiet and didn’t react. That was my type of defense and it worked, in a way.”1

In 2019, I conducted interviews with eleven artists who completed their studies in several painting studios at the Faculty of Fine Arts (Fakulta výtvarných umění, FaVU) in Brno, between 2003 and 2016. I was interested in the extent to which my own experiences as a painter intersected with experiences of other women artists, and whether it was possible to describe the specifics of art education on their basis. I wanted to learn how our (sometimes identical, sometimes disparate) narratives fit into general ideas of what art is, what it should be like, how it should be taught, and what values it represents. Those questions further led me to an examination of language, which I am analysing in my doctoral research at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (Akademie výtvarných umění v Praze, AVU), using the example of theses evaluations from the 1990s and 2000s. Archival research has provided me with much food for thought about art history in terms of gender inequalities, underpinning the entire discipline (for example, through the formation of dichotomies between the public and the intimate, the objective and the subjective, the systematic and the chaotic, the confident and the submissive, in which femininity is often associated with the position of the weak). In my research, I seek to demonstrate how the values culturally associated with masculinity are incorporated into notions of high quality art. At the same time, a false image of femininity is formed, as a set of characteristics that hinder authentic, strong and “sufficiently universal” creativity. Analysing language used to evaluate diploma work of painting studio students allows me to make visible the schemas of power relations, manifesting in uncritical adoration, paternalistic moralizing, as well as sexism.

The above quoted excerpts from the interviews are linked by the problem of “self-silencing”, or suppression of one’s speech—a solution resorted to by participants in awkward situations in order to avoid intimidation. In interviews with some graduate students, this method emerged as a response to tense situations they were involved in during studio meetings, and other activities related to teaching. Their efforts to minimise self-expression then go against the idea that art making is not for the weak of character, as a certain “strength of personality” is required. Indeed, the discursive analysis I performed on the archival material mentioned above shows that the concept of strength, dynamism and intensity was attributed to male students several times more often than to female students. The (dis)acceptance of an artwork in an art milieu is directly linked to the artist’s performativity, and the two factors – the aesthetic value of the work and the personality of the (woman!) artist – are often confused. Therefore, it was not surprising that in the two hundred thesis evaluations I went through, I was more often confronted with an evaluation of students’ characteristics, rather than the formal aspect of their work. For students, the uncertainty of whether assessment pertains to their work or their character traits is superbly difficult.

What is sexual harassment?

“And the whole thing is so weird: we’re sitting in a circle and we’re supposed to say something to each other, trying to be relaxed at that, and then we’re supposed to go out for a beer, for example. People who are not so sure of themselves can feel that they’re being judged for what they say.”2

The above quote alludes to another aspect of art education—it describes the requirement to be relaxed in an art milieu. Indeed, art schools can provide a unique milieu for students to experience powerful, emancipatory, emotivel, rebellious and attractive situations, which should be positively perceived. But equally, they set no boundaries to opposing experiences: situation that are humiliating, threatening, and traumatic. The line between the two was—and still is—blurred.

For several years now, it has been openly discussed that the informality of art schools has its downsides. Precisely due to the fact that a committee member could strip naked during a final assessment; that there was often excessive drinking in the studios with the supervisors; that popular male students became assistants, while female students became mistresses, and that the latter ended at best in a transfer to another studio—it was difficult to specify what the advantages of this openness were and what, on the contrary, was just hiding behind openness.

... a meeting was taking place at Stratil’s studio, and I was to have a conversation with him. And because it was fully packed, he invited me to sit on the back of his couch. So I was sitting there, and he was holding my waist, asking me some questions about my work, which was really uncomfortable and slightly embarassing. I was too young to be able to appreciate the situation, stop it and say: “No, I’m not fine with this.” I acted slightly stupid, which was probably a form of defense.”3

The quotation illustrates how difficult it is to “correctly react” in the informal environment of art studios, mainly because nobody exactly knows how to defina an unacceptable behaviour. I fear that even school authorities do not know this until this day. More than a decade ago, the Faculty of Humanities at Charles University in Prague initiated a handbook on sexual harassment in schools. As the authors themselves confirm, the issue of sexual harassment had not previously been addressed (not much has changed since it was written in 2009). This is one of the reasons why the authorial team focused on a very detailed definition of what actually constitutes sexual harassment in terms of law, but also in terms of ethics. “In the Czech context, there is a legal definition of sexual harassment, which is part of the Anti-Discrimination Act No. 198/2009 Coll. The latter defines it as conduct that is sexual in nature and which has the intention or effect of reducing the dignity of a person and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, or which may reasonably be perceived as a condition for a decision affecting the exercise of rights and obligations arising from legal relations (§ 4, paragraphs 1 and 2).”4 The handbook contains many specific recommendations and measures on how to prevent and address harassment. In addition to sexual harassment, the authors then focus on yet another subject that poses difficulty in defining, i.e., the relationship between teachers and students. These are seen as “consensual relationships that students enter into voluntarily and therefore cannot be said to be sexual harassment in the true sense of the word. However, the existence of such relationships constitutes a significant violation of the boundaries of the professional relationship and as such needs to be treated in the context of sexual harassment.”5

During my time at AVU, from 2009–2015, three studio supervisors had relationships with female students, interspersed with sporadic relationships with a female employee. At least these were spoken about, but I suspect many were just unknown to me. There is no mention of relationships between teachers and students in the codes of ethics of both FaVU and AVU. Both documents only emphasize “adherence to moral, ethical and ethical principles” or oppose “sexual coercion or harassment”. However, as we have seen above, in legal terms, harassment arises in a hostile environment. But what about when the environment is friendly, or when both parties are comfortable in it?

Ambiguities of language

As already mentioned, the boundaries here are very thin. Although relationships between students and teachers are between adults, the handbook authors point out that this is an asymmetrical relationship. Moreover, there is a risk that any break-up between participants in such situations will make the relationship more problematic for the student in retrospect, bringing something that seems to be consensual closer to the definition of sexual harassment. However, let us not forget that it is always the school authorities, male and female teachers alike, with whom responsibility for such situations rests.

I believe that it is the ambiguity that surrounds these issues, along with the appeal to “morality and propriety” in the school codes of ethics, which open up a wide range of possibilities for interpreting inappropriate behaviour. Generations of supervisors, who represented studio approaches in the 1990s, or when I entered the educational process, remain defining figures of Czech art, even though the ethicality of their behaviour has not been questioned, and perhaps should have been. On the contrary, today’s generation of students often know their rights better and learn to stand up for themselves. But we need to remember that at the level of language, the vague notion of “morality” does not guarantee that what is a love affair for one may be predation for another. It would be advisable, therefore, for art school administrators not to hide behind the ambiguity of language and go through the unpopular process of defining rules. In some cases, students are already doing this for them, leading to many emotionally challenging situations for all persons involved.

The text was first published on 17.06.2021 in Artalk magazine.