Mobile app
Plan your visit to the Museum, check out current events and visit our exhibitions with our Mobile App.
Download Close
Przejdź do głównej treści

//Art Destroyers// - Elżbieta Sala

Art Destroyers - Elżbieta Sala

Non-creative teaching about contemporary art, focused on the delivery of information, contains an immanent contradiction. It is art itself – present not merely at the level of the information transmitted, but also penetrating into the very essence of the encounter, whose meta-level it becomes – that can inspire the educational model for teaching about the most recent art.

There are few pamphlets about art teachers that are as full of vitriol as that provided by Thomas Bernhard in his book The Old Masters. The Austrian writer calls them ‘art destroyers’. He writes, ‘(…) a teacher soon destroys all sensitivity in the pupils entrusted to him, not only towards painting, and a trip to the museum, where teachers drag their innocent victims, because of the teachers’ stupidity and their moronic garrulity garrulousness, for most pupils turns out to be his their last ever. (…) Teachers destroy pupils, this is the truth and it has been known for centuries. (…) young people, all of them, are to start with by being open to everything, including art, but it is the teachers who totally remove art from their mind.’ [1]

Regardless of how magnanimous, competent and well-disposed to those who used to teach us (or are still teaching us), we read through tthe many pages of the uninterrupted tirade against teachers, full of name-calling and accusations, with more or less concealed enjoyment. The reason for such satisfaction is not so much a negative attitude to particular people and situations (although it may be that, reading Bernhard, we might recall in our minds specific occasions from the past), but the reluctance that we all secretly harbour against the status of being a pupil. Why is learning so intolerable? The joke about the boy who refused to go to school illustrates the point well. The parents tried to induce him to go toattend school in all possible ways, but to no avail. Finally, they asked the child why he didn’t want to go. The boy replied, ‘Because they make me learn what I don’t know.’

Anger at teachers is a very common phenomenon. The teacher punctures our narcissism and forces us to face the fact that we don’t know everything and not everything is up to us; he makes us realise our shortcomings and forces us to make an effort. The situation of being a pupil is by its nature frustrating, but it becomes intolerable when the person who formulates their demands towards us lacks authority.

Contemporary art, contemporary education

Some of the problems which education has always encountered are thrown into sharp relief in a society which a psychoanalyst would call narcissistic, that is to say, seeking instant, effortless satisfaction.

One of the noteworthy trends is the growing conflict between consumption and development, which is not possible tocannot take place without frustration and effort; another is the crisis of the teacher’s authority. The status of the teacher whose authority allows him an elevated position vis-à-s a vis his pupils is slowly becoming untenable.

These issues are particularly pronounced in education about contemporary art, whose magnifying lens focuses on phenomena of significance also outside that field. Firstly, contemporary art is almost by definition difficult to assimilate, since it puts us face to face with something new and different. Secondly, the crisis of the old-style teaching model becomes the most acute here, as it is difficult to remain an unchallenged authority in a discipline which keeps questioning itself.

Museums cannot guarantee that they will have audiences by replacing authority with institutional coertioncoercion (which state schools are able to do).  Museums have to face up to the social reception of their activities. As Wojciech Suchocki aptly put it, cultural institutions ‘reflect on themselves also because they have to justify their existence in the changing world’. [2]

Education plays an important part in that process. Nelson Goodman wrote, ‘If, in spite of all its difficulties, the museum does not succeed in instilling the ability to look and if it fails to provide support for practising this ability, then all the other functions of the museum become pointless (…). If works of art are to have impact, the museum must act as an institution which exists to prevent blindness and to cure insensitivity to what we see.’ [3]

Educator as primus inter pares

It is art itself – present not merely at the level of the information transmitted, but also penetrating into the very essence of the encounter, whose meta-level it becomes – that can inspire the educational model for teaching about the most recent art. Non-creative teaching about contemporary art, focused on the delivery of information, contains an immanent contradiction. The educator may have chosen this approach in order to hide the difficulties experienced.

Contemporary art, to a greater extent than other areas of culture, confronts the teacher with his own shortcomings: lack of sensitivity, understanding, certainty or evaluation criteria. The educator won’t be able to achieve the modern ideal of a highly specialised, objective expert, whose professional efficiency can be easily measured. It is difficult to become a professional in a field which keeps questioning its own boundaries and frequently eludes pigeon-holing. The teacher can no longer can, as he once did, interpret culture unequivocally. Ever since the so-called grand narratives were put aside, any teaching which does not take into account many angles is seen as illegitimate brainwashing. In the field of art, attempting to maintain the a semblance of omniscience, certainty and neutrality is particularly glaring and off-putting, if not outright revolting, as Bernhard puts it.

If we think of a museum as an educational institution, it should be a place ,in which, apart from anything else, the learners help one another to learn, according to their own ability. And that need not, of course, exclude someone who plays carries out the function of a teacher. The simple assumption is that the teacher holds no monopoly on playing such a role, and that the learners construct scaffoldings for one another as well.’[4]

An act of imagination

Contemporary education demands that the master must not be fearful of being a pupil himself. The educator is there not so much to transmit the meaning, as to create the space, in which it can be negotiated between individual recipients, artists, curators or critics. Art education aims to create conditions in which the art audience will be motivated to explore the world of art and discuss its own experiences. To make this possible, it is necessary to release in the art recipients’ energy and the potential which will allow them to take up the challenge of what is new and difficult.

This interpretation of the outcome of teaching about contemporary art meets the current needs of society. It helps an individual to get to understand the times that he lives in,  to examine their complexity and changeability and to find himself more at ease with them; it helps to create a space in which it is possible to talk about contemporaneity. These ends are all in accordance with the aims of contemporary education according to Jerome Bruner. He maintains that ‘the educational system must help individuals growing within a culture to find within that culture their own identity. Without that, they will get stuck in their efforts to search for meanings.’[5] Contemporary art would be capable of playing a significant part in this process if we accept the thesis that ‘to find one’s place in the world (…) is ultimately an act of imagination’. [6]

A two-way exchange process

To date, not a single educational session has taken place at MOCAK without a participant wilfully altering the content of the task and proceeding to carry it out in his own way. We react to such manifestations of one’s individuality with understanding and acceptance. Sometimes, participants already arrive with their own idea for a task, or invent one on the spot, and proceed to make it reality during the workshop.

If there really is scope for creativity and mediation of the senses in an educational session, the end result can be surprising. That was the case with the workshop run by the Japanese artist Shinji Ogawa, which took place at MOCAK in May. The children, recruited from dysfunctional social situations, were initially suspicious, but then they spontaneously began to produce portraits of the artist and his wife Mizuho and give them to them. This happens very often. Children show their satisfaction or gratitude by producing their own works (for example, origami) and making a gift of them to the workshop leader. This shows that during an educational encounter the participants swap not only information or sensory perceptions, but also emotions.

A successful workshop is a workshop where both the educator and the participants have a surprise; a workshop in which everyone present, starting with the artist, and finishing with the co-ordinator, can experience something new.

The Artist

The world of contemporary art provides an unusual opportunity to engage its founders and artists directly in education about it. This has a significant effect on the specific character ofn an educational meeting. It is more difficult to argue with the artist than with a work of art. The artist will not remain neutral. He speaks on his own behalf. A workshop with the participation of a concrete artist must, by its nature, abandon generalisations and concentrate on a specific aspect of contemporary art. Such an ‘experiencing of a fragment’ is more beneficial than any ‘simulation of the whole’. In education about contemporary art what matters more is the quality of the encounter rather than the quantity of the information divested or works viewed. However, this is not easy to come by because, as Bernhard says, ‘managing such drastic self-limitation takes a lot of courage and so much willpower, that a person can only very rarely find enough of it inside.’[7]

The meeting of an artist with participants can take various forms. During the workshop at MOCAK with Shinji Ogawa, children  together created together the installation Krakow – The Wheel of Time. On another occasion, in a session with Agnieszka Piksa, they drew cartoons. During activities tailored for girls and women, the participants, together with Małgorzata Markiewicz, made a skirt on which they presented their life stories. At the session with Bartosz Kokosiński, the students represented history via abstract paintings. With the workshop leader Mikołaj Rejs, young people painted a mural in Kącik Street in Krakow and, during the meeting with Marek Chlanda, the retirees from Bukowno took part in ‘talking to the spirits of the dead’. The personality of the artist had a decisive influence n how each meeting went. Each one was exceptional and unique. All workshops were preceded by a thematic presentation and viewing of selected works from the exhibition. The educational content had been prepared by the staff of the Museum, as well as others, connected with the institution: mostly art historians, but also philosophers, Polish linguists or sociologists. One of the artists in reply to a presentation about the history of his artistic discipline commented that an artist does not need the classifications introduced by art historians in order to produce his art. Such information is vital for the audience in order to create their own map and be able to find their feet in the world of art.

The current understanding of art is far from a conviction, that art has been totally penetrated and it has no more secrets left. Art orienteering allows for uncertainties. It is worthwhile to be introduceing recipients into the world of art taking into account the contrary tendencies present in it: on the one hand, putting in order, classification, interpretation and evaluation and, on the other hand, transgressions, over-identifications and alterations. Without this other side, the world of art could not exist.


Elżbieta Sala – (born 1984)
Graduate of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University and politics at the University of Rzeszow, PhD student at the Faculty of Philosophy of the JU. At MOCAK, oversees the Education Section.




[1] T. Bernhard, Old Masters, trans. M. Kędzierski, Czytelnik, Warsaw 2010, pp. 30-31.

[2] W. Suchocki, Introduction, in: Museum Education. An Anthology of Translations [Edukacja muzealna. Antologia tłumaczeń], ed. M. Szeląg, J. Skutnik, The National Museum in Poznań, Poznań 2010, p. 5.

[3] N. Goodman, The End of the Museum?, trans. M. Korusiewicz, in: Art Museum: An Anthology [Muzeum sztuki. Antologia], ed. M. Popczyk, Universitas, Krakow 2006, p. 125.

[4] J. Bruner, The Culture of Education, trans. T. Brzostowska-Tereszkiewicz, Universitas, Krakow 2010, p. 39.

[5] Ibid, p. 68.

[6] Ibid, p. 67.

[7] T. Bernhard, The Old Masters, op. cit., pp. 24-25.