The declining value of visual art practices and the rise of value-free art in Australia

2017-05-09T04:51:27Z (GMT) by Sara Daly
The subject of this thesis is a perception that the visual arts is declining in value in Australian culture. The rationale for this perception is drawn in the immediate sense from repeated debate in favour of abolition of the Australia Council (the premier source of grant funding to artistic producers). The method selected to investigate this perception is a comparison of rational and social epistemologies for curriculum, based respectively on the work of Arthur Efland and Theodor Adorno. By making this comparison, the thesis argues that the perceived shrinkage in the value and status of visual art is based on a fundamental conflict between the meanings of “art” and “culture”. The context of the debate is in fact perceptions of curriculum and their function vis-à-vis “cultural production” and is taken here to signal a change in the way Australia regards and values artistic activity.

The thesis argues that culture needs to be defined appropriate to the Australian experience of “cultural production”. A lack of appropriate definition has resulted in terms like “creativity” becoming so broad in meaning that they are losing theoretical impact. I am inquiring as to what this loss of meaningfulness indicates about art education: some of the questions I ask in order to conduct the inquiry address whether the switch from visual art to visual culture signals a decline in the value of artistic culture; or does it owe itself to changing conditions between art education and artistic employment or commerce?

The study examines visual art in particular as it might fall within the realm of Australian cultural production, providing one instance of artistic employment (i.e., in the visual arts). The focus of the study will be on addressing the stand-off between visual arts and visual culture in the field of curriculum studies: my method entails the application of Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory so as to place visual art and visual culture within a framework by which both rational and social epistemologies of art education can be used to define change in the realm of cultural production.

Such change will include a re-evaluation of the role of visual art within higher education. At Monash University in Melbourne, the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture has progressively eroded the value of different studio practices by shutting down programs in disciplines that cannot attract sufficient enrolments. The institution appears to displace artistic practice, and to favour visual culture as a more reliable, rational form of investment, leading to more secure forms of employment, and offering less risk in terms of the returns to public education and the economy more generally.

Visual culture, or visual culture studies, purports to be a postmodern approach to the study of art and replaces fine art and visual art studies, which represent a more rational epistemology within the field of art education. Visual culture studies aims to work with the current corporate and technocratic reality rather than deny its existence. It permits interdisciplinarity and the removal of a metanarrative about the artist as hero, offering in its place a semblance of plurality, multiplicity, indeterminacy and fragmentation.

Visual culture embraces forms of symbolic analysis to construct meaning or rather, to analyse artworks (Lankshear, 1997); addresses digital and social media more readily, and turns to visual literacy to justify the artfulness of artworks (de Duve, 1994; Brown, 2003). This process may suggest a value-free art is being practised: it erodes the significance of traditional aesthetic skills, making aesthetic judgment less essential to the creation of an artwork.

One implication of this change is to free fine art in general from its supposedly elitist origins, and to enable the art world to encompass both “high” and “low” art forms with equal value. This new value, which is implicitly more value-free than the high art it seeks to overturn, destabilizes art to the point that it has so few boundaries its continued existence (in its traditional form) becomes questionable.