Five Days a Week: A Call for Student Citizens

Ala Tannir
→ MID ID, 2017

The movement to transform our schools is justas vital to our twenty-first-century humanity as
the civil rights movement was to our twentieth-century humanity.

—Grace Lee Boggs1

Tuesday: Complain!
    With the neo-liberalization of cultural institutions havingbecome the new status quo (see: Guggenheim Abu Dhabi2), it is notsurprising to see a concurrent trend in both institutional critique—apractice well established since the 1970s that has today become ever more introspective—and attempts to understand the very relation-ship between the institution and the critique (see: Hito Steyerl’s “The Institution of Critique”3). Educational institutions—art and designschools in particular—have been front-runners for such scrutiny asthey have evolved to become more and more reserved for an exclusiveelite able to afford sky-high tuition fees. This becomes even moreproblematic when factoring in the uncertainty that is attached tofinding jobs in art and design after graduation. When tuition feesrunning as high as $50,000 or more per year make it impossible forstudents from certain socio-economic backgrounds to even think of pursuing a career in the arts, we create an institutionalized art worldthat is not representative of our societies, and where a college-levelart education is out of reach for many.

    While many art collectives and schools have been formed toexpose the realities of this prevailing corporate higher educationmodel, to challenge it, and suggest alternative possibilities (see:BFAMFAPhD, Bruce High Quality Foundation University, and the newly revived Black Mountain College), educational institutions con-tinue to build capital on an illusion of legitimization directly linked to the cachet of their names.

    Let us then support and call for more independent, artist-runeducational organizations. Let us protest those institutions thatproduce suffocating loans and do not align with our economic reality.Let us have a say in where our money goes on campus, and makesure it reaches those adjunct faculty, graduate student workers, andothers who are systematically marginalized financially.What if we were to progress beyond institutional critiquetoward literally redesigning art and design education?

Wednesday: Organize!
    A rising number of art and design school graduates kick starttheir professional adult life saddled with student debt and drowningin precarity. We enter an intern-centric culture that gives continuingadvantage to those who can afford to work for free. Indeed, withinand after art school, free labor is normalized, encouraged, celebrated,and even expected. The pressure to take on an unpaid internship as a student, or even as a recent art graduate, is however not to be resist-ed if we wish to pursue a career in our area of study, given that only 8 percent of all arts graduates in the U.S. make a living as artists (see:BFAMFAPhD report on “Art Grads & Working Artists”4). How many internships, in which we let ourselves be overworked and exploitedfor free, are too many?Hearing Caroline Woolard’s plea for “Solidarity Art Worlds,”5 which advocates for collaboration, acknowledgement
of our com-mon struggles, and a solidarity economy as the only way to build a better future, let us organize to resist the vicious cycle of thepermanent intern underclass that is having us slave away untilfurther notice, to challenge the oppressive economic system thatis destroying our communities and futures, and let us collectivelydream of a better world.What if paid labor, universal healthcare, and affordablehousing were not alternatives?

Thursday: Educate!
    While educators have an important responsibility for their students and who they become outside of academia (see: Paulo Freireand bell hooks), the prevailing relationship structure between facultyand students in most educational institutions nowadays prevents productive interaction. Indeed, we are confronted today with a qua-si-contractual relationship between students and teachers, defined by a hierarchical organization, which places educators at the top of thepyramid. This then makes students passive consumers of a package of skills transferred to them from above, and reduces education to a perfor-mance with a set of rarely questioned mechanical instructions. This mod-el—which is as present in the studio culture of art and design school as it is in lecture-type learning—prevents the fluid nature of knowledgebuilding, where teaching and learning are often interchangeable (see:Allan Kaprow, CalArts, 1970s).

    Let us not underestimate education’s power in serving people’s liberation. Let us subvert the authority of faculty who subscribe to theneoliberal model (and embrace as comrades those who do not, and whooften experience the same contingency and exploitation as we do), andlet us instead practice living together as a community that does awaywith hierarchical boundaries amongst its participants and between itsdisciplines. Let us perpetuate a model of knowledge building that is based on inclusive mutual engagement, and on experimentation in learn-ing as well as in teaching.

    What if there were no majors, no lectures, no classrooms, and notraditional applications, only proposals for projects instead? What if thework is neither the student’s nor the educator’s, but an original outcomeof their collaborative efforts that wouldn’t otherwise exist?

Friday: Agitate!
    Art and design schools in their current state are sites for profes-sional grooming and the production of an industry-ready workforce. They are also great perpetuators of celebrity culture and the distinguished 1 percent, fostering high competition and unique individuality. We are alltaught to chase the same prize, making everyone but those who “made it” feel like complete failures. The worlds of art and design appear to beplaces where a few win and everyone else is rendered insignificant (see the Guerilla Girl6). An important question then is: Why do we perceiveof only one art world and one design world? Everyone has differentcapacities and interests that are often hindered by corporate pedagogical principles and art market structures that seek more and more standard-ized modes of evaluation. Setting our own standards for ourselves allow us to better understand our strengths, and therefore to better locateourselves and our contributions within our disciplines.

    Let us imagine an education that is not defined by rampant individualism. Let us break away from market and societal expectationsand discern the subjectivity of “success.” Let us advocate for collaborations, cooperation, and dialogue that reject the modernistprinciples of individualistic self-expression still celebrated by ourcultural institutions today.

What if art and design schools were places of experimentation, questioning, and construction of the individual and society?

Monday: Speculate!
    Cultural production today is largely a product of art anddesign education. It is therefore crucial precisely in art and design schools that students actively and critically think about their education situation, drawing links between their individual experiences and problems and the social contexts in which they live. Art and design are primarily activities of the mind, not only of the hand. Critical thinking gives us the ability to adapt to a reality that is inconstant flux and that should consequently be constantly questioned. Critical thinking is also the primary, if not only, tool to effect social change, democratic equity, and radical freedom. To suggest that individuals and societies can be formed in a classroom is to believe that education is in itself a political act. Critical pedagogy then is a type of political activism—one that starts by rethinking the educational system and ends with producing students who are ethically minded and fully equipped to practice their democratic citizenship.

    Let us reject political neutrality, disrupt the status quo, andreclaim education as a human right, essential to the democratization of culture. Let us actively participate in the making of our societies and the progress of our humanity.

What if art and design can change the world, but only if we, as student-citizens, commit to improve our collective experience? As Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”


  1. Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige, The NextAmerican Revolution: Sustainable Activism for theTwenty-first Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).

  2. Chloe Wyma, “1% Museum: The Guggenheim Goes Global,”DISSENT (Summer 2014),

  3. Hito Steyerl, “The Institution of Critique,” eipcp (January 2006),

  4. BFAMFAPhD, “Art Grads and Working Artists,” CensusReport, 2009–2011,

  5. Caroline Woolard, “Solidarity Art Worlds,” Brooklyn Rail (February 5, 2013),

  6. Guerilla Girls, “School of the Art Institute Chicago Commencement Address” (May 22, 2010),

Ala Tannir is in the Industrial Design MID program, class of 2017..