What is The Degree Show?


What is The Degree Show? We have all been to one. We know that they are vast, with more work to see that it you can ever sufficiently engage with. You have to adjust your level of attention when you enter otherwise you will burn out pretty fast, or you must strategize after assessing the floor plan, ‘I will give proper attention to every fourth room and move counter clockwise’. If we personally know someone in the show we make sure that we pay special attention and truly ‘experience’ the work as we might the retrospective of our favourite artist in a big museum. We see a good sample of recent art trends, of contemporary and not so contemporary styles, but also things that demonstrate a complete ignorance of these trends and seemingly any idea of what contemporary art has ever been. This is what distinguishes it from ‘professional’ exhibitions outside in the ‘real’ artworld.

Socially the Degree Show is a family affair. Parents normally attend, a brother, a sister, a bohemian aunt, a teenage cousin. Then extending this there are our friends, friends of friends, a famous artist friend, a curator friend of theirs and so on down to the lowest echelons of the Facebook food chain (if we are lucky). The student network is on full display at the opening and over the next 3 or whatever days the show is on for until students take their work down and return the space back into an operative educational facility.

Regardless of what you think about the work on show it’s obvious that serious time and money has been invested in making it happen. Any artist, student or professional, will work hard to have things perfect for their opening, with normal day-to-day life scrapped in moments of emotional and financial hari-kari just so that the work which will be unveiled will be all that it could possibly be.

The difference between the student and the professional, ignoring issues of experience, skill and age (although maybe less and less so), is that the professional gets paid and the student pays. I know many professional artists or ‘artworkers’ who are not remunerated for their work and must invest their own money in projects. But in the case of the student artist the damage to their bank account is more extensive since they are responsible for footing the entire bill, which includes the materials for making their work, paint to redecorate the art-wing of the college, the printing of flyers, posters, of getting beer for the opening all in addition to paying their school fees on top of their living expenses (this is relatively new – many mid-career artists of today would never have experienced this). Video practices and skipdiving-aesthetics of today’s emerging artists feel very much formatted by the existential woes of student life, by the knowledge that you will be (or already are) a debtor and that you do not have any extra money, time or energy to make work. Contemporary artistic practice seems increasingly to be (formally at the very least) an extended meditation on those few years taken out of civilised existence to pursue an art career. But if the purpose of going to study today is to further professionalise your practice then I think that students deserve some sort of timeline that might indicate their progress vis-à-vis their professional involvement with art, i.e how they are shaping up? Maybe we even need a Simon Cowell type figure within the university setting for this? The transition from student to professional in the art context seems weird when one of the defining features of artistic work (unlike other jobs) rests upon an artworks ability to overturn existing criteria rather than conform successfully to it - and here I mean more than just innovation. If pushed i'd say that the horizon is uninteligibility, like when Freud said this thing called the unconscious existed and people were confounded. Though is this just a myth? Diedrich Diederichsen says it is actually this ‘Copernican’ overturning aspect that serves to conceal arts groundlessness. His description of the aura emitted by the ‘exceptional’ bourgeois art object; a product of the labyrinthine sensibility of the genius, of the weirdo outsider etc - virtues beholden to avant-gardist notions of art as “exceptional” – serve to distract from arts illegitimacy so the accumulation of capital can continue uninterrupted. One of the main factors contributing to this exceptional status today is the professional/nonprofessional binary, which itself is an idea maintained in the very conceit of art education as that which claims to professionalise you and which The Degree Show serves as an authenticating stamp. The Degree Show doesn’t just punctuate the educational programme as its endpoint, sculpting its timeline and sending ripples of anxiety down through the student body in the run up, it is its get out of jail-free-card in which the logic of the course terminates with the disappearance of its prerogative. The Degree Show marks a spectacular moment that offers up a kind of phenomenology of historical materialism, if nothing else.

It’s not difficult to see that in the UK’s near future an emergence of a similar cottage industry to the one that sells debt to students with promised of education, like the one that they have in the US. The cuts made to education and the hike in student fees light the way for this. But if we have studied in the past 10 years or so we know this is already the case. We know that the university is run explicitly as a business, with the rise of highly paid administrators overwriting the need for highly qualified teaching staff, with PhD students picking up this slack for little or no pay and so on and so on. The increasing presence of this administrator and their agenda sends a powerful message to the student reading Levinas in their studio, and yet there is still surprise when it begins to form the basis of their agenda…especially considering that there has been 2 years worth of protestations made by the tutor teaching the virtues of criticality in between a wavy espousal of Marx.

As a kind of marker within the art educational system The Degree Show allows us to grasp our proximity to being professional, whilst at the same time it seems that it is responsible for initiating this split between professional /nonprofessional in the first place. Students are graded on The Degree Show. The show goes up, then 2 months later students find out if they have been promoted to professional artist. Students are on the back foot when preparing for The Degree Show as students when they should be on the front foot as professionals. But if we are professionals then what are we even doing in school? Perhaps the work would be better if there were not the infantilising effect of The Degree Show, perhaps we would get closer to being ‘professional’ in a more profound sense if The Degree Show did not structure the experience of the programme in such a way. In this sense ‘professionalism’ could be more dynamic - it could mean refusing the hegemony of The Degree Show. Unlike other subjects art is something that should reflect and maybe even respond to the conditions of it’s own production and if art education precisely belongs to art, then only an art institution unserious about what art might be would fail to comprehend actual critique.

If The Degree Show really is so cripplingly infantilising and if the presence of the Administrator as a kind of purveyor of the college experience, who formats the space in which we receive lectures on the anthropocene, post capitalism etc, then a way to begin to deal with it would be to manage The Degree Show as a kind of administrator, specifically to fuck with the chronology of the programme. Getting the bullshit degree show out of the way in the first year in order to break its spell. Then we can get on with maybe learning something of value.

Kazimierz Jankowski, 2015