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by Sophie Vögele & Philippe Saner

Acknowledging the post_coloniality of Higher Art Education. Considerations from the Swiss perspective

Switzerland oftentimes celebrates itself as being the nation of humanitarian tradition, birthplace of the founding father of the Red Cross. But this picture of neutrality, openness and tolerance is disrupted by a number of popular initiatives having taken place continuously since the 1960s initiated by conservative and right wing parties.[i] In all these simultaneous, different, and at times contradictory articulations of Switzerland, it becomes clear that the fact of it being a migrant society is not present at all although the actual immigration flows are even more important than within the ‘classical’ immigration societies such as New Zealand, Australia or Canada (Müller 2013). But in the context of celebrations around Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition – last year the Swiss Red Cross celebrated its 150th anniversary – it is blinded out that people seeking for asylum might stay on. And, in the context of mainstream argumentation, the reality of immigration is dismissed through violent discursive denial (see for instance Michel and Honegger 2018). This understanding lines up with the European context: Largely and very convincingly ‘Europe’ pretends to be untouched by the devastating ideology it exported all over the world by its imperial expansion through its being composed by the powerful narrative of Europe as a colorblind continent (Purtschert and Fischer-Tiné 2015). This narrative frames the continent as a space free of ‘race’ – and thus free of racism. Moreover, this perception of Western Europeans has also gained near-global acceptance. Thus, European identity is formed along structures which work to constantly externalize and de-familiarize racialized populations with the effect that, although their numbers are substantial and rising fast, they are presented to be incompatible with the very nature of Europeanness. Their non-representation is supported by their categorization into ethnic groups and, by a focus on processes of migration rather than on the emergence of native minorities, implying that there are only ‘foreign’ migrants in addition to the ‘native’ white population (El-Tayeb 2011). Thus, what we are currently facing is not only a denial of the reality of immigration but of the embeddedness of our historical present in colonialism. The effect of such denials is complicity with, and obscuring of, racist structures within society.

The specific sector of tertiary education in general and the field of art school in particular is not exempt from being structured by these power relations. The research project Art.School.Differences. Researching Inequalities and Normativities in the Field of Higher Art Education brings to the fore the subtle working and intricacies of institutionalized processes of inclusion and exclusion that resonate power relations instated during colonization. We conducted this comprehensive research with our team between 2014 and 2016 at the Institute for Art Education in collaboration with the Zurich University of the Arts, the Geneva School of Art and Design, and the Geneva School of Music.[ii] Our findings show that within negotiations about criteria of assessment among jury members for the admission of candidates, through the design of the curricula and promotional material, and through the strive for internationalization, there are massively exclusionary moments in regard to class, race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality and the body that apparently seem undetected and unintended. These moments and processes can only be understood in consideration of intersectionality and colonial power dynamics at play that reinstate a very specific norm (Vögele and Saner, n.d.).

Indeed, a complex and differentiated picture of inclusivity and exclusivity can be revealed in the specific sector of the tertiary education comparable to international research that found educational art institutions to be the “preserve of the privileged” (Malik Okon 2005; Burke and McManus 2009). This social uniformity stands in great contradiction with the flamboyant self-descriptions of art schools in global competition, and with the idealistic concepts of art “as a civilising force that has the power to both challenge and transcend historically entrenched systems of social inequality” (Gaztambide-Fernandez et al. 2012: 2). María do Mar Castro Varela drew attention to the problem with education stating that it is seldom perceived as an important catalyst for actually upholding the status quo in terms of gendered and ethnic exclusion.[iii] We found that precisely such contradicting discourses and a simultaneity of desire are at the core of inclusion and exclusion at art schools anchored in colonialism and privileging a mainstream norm. To briefly illustrate, we would like to touch on ‘diversity’ and its relationship to ‘internationalization’ within the context of art school.

International diversity and the Other
Ahmed defines diversity as “technology of happiness” (Ahmed 2010: 153), that tends to be delegated or to be projected onto minority positions to enrich the majority standard. Ahmed, thus, calls for looking into “what diversity does by focusing on what diversity obscures” (Ahmed 2010: 14). She finds that diversity as a technology of happiness sustains institutionalized discrimination and racism, and secretly re-centers an “institutional whiteness”. Within art schools it can be observed that gender equality offices are being redefined as diversity offices without being allocated more financial resources or manpower. However, their responsibility of preventing any kind of discrimination is increasing in complexity and intensity – a task impossible to manage that necessarily entails shortcuts and omissions. Thus, as we could observe, normalization eventually enters the institution through the back door. Furthermore, diversity has to be seen in the context of neoliberal politics of exploitation and regulation of difference. From the perspective of political queer theory, Antke Engel analysed these relations and found that subjects celebrated “act as role models of the adaptation to challenges of neoliberal transformation – not because of their social difference, but because they know how to deal with that difference and transform it into cultural capital” (Engel 2011: 56).

This new form of production and regulation of difference in late capitalism and its regimes of so called migratory background are relevant especially in the circulating discourses on ‘internationalization’ in art schools. There, diversity merges into internationalization and tends to be an added value in order to benefit the institution and, thus, at best looses its altering or transforming potential (Castro Varela 2010: 249). This can be illustrated in the enquiry of citizenship, a defining political and identity-forming category in Switzerland, among art schools in 2010: An overrepresentation of German and French students could be determined, contrasted by an even more striking underrepresentation of students from southern Europe, Ex-Yugoslavian countries and Turkey. They accounted only for approx. 3% of art students compared to over 10% of the general population. On a general basis, art schools prove to be international in terms of their students’ citizenships because one third was non-Swiss. But that internationality remains very restricted to affluent states by 75%. This is supported by the fact that English, German and French are predominant first languages of the foreign students. Moreover, through this internationalization, the missing of significant groups of people of Swiss society is obscured. People being any of first to third generation with origins in the post-Yugoslavian successor states, Portugal and Turkey are not part of the art school students neither of the teaching staff. That obscuring is even more pronounced if we consider that more than 50% of the art students do have a history of migration. But, obviously, restricted to that specifically limited section of countries accounting for ‘international’ (Seefranz and Saner 2012). The violent impossibility of certain migrant subjects in the name of a diverse student body clearly has no transforming potential left.

In findings from Art.School.Differences we could see that there was a clear attribution of more cultural capital to international students: They were considered to have high symbolic and cultural capital whereas candidates identified to have migration background with a previous residency in Switzerland were not considered having the necessary cultural capital for access to higher art education. These two attitudes toward diversity resulted in an oscillation between desire and disregard toward the Other: We, on different occasions, encountered a great desire for the Other, more precisely an interest in being creatively inspired by someone exotically Other. This interest often was articulated as a great opportunity to enrich and benefit the institution. On other occasions, the inclusion of the diverse Other was assessed as an impossibility on the grounds of the Other being too different. The desire as well as disregard for the Other is hierarchized and enforces power relations (Hall 1997). It not only entails a denial of the Other but also means to invigorate existing racist, sexist, and Eurocentric differentiations (Mecheril and Plösser 2009). Furthermore, migrants of second or third generation were often deemed to be acceptable within the institution if not being clearly ‘visible’ as migrants anymore. That supports the observation of powerful normalization with the effect of mainstreaming the art student population in terms of class and race/ethnicity. The implementing of diversity into art schools, especially if it is achieved through internationalization, obviously shows that migrants do not fit into the institutional body, they do not embody the specific difference valued. Indeed, our evaluation reveals a complex interplay between a narrowly defined bodily and psychic constitution required, as well as a specific cultural capital preferred, such as appearance, way of behaving, interests und cultural knowledge, etc. (Bourdieu and Passeron 1979, 1990). It becomes clear how the norm is re-instated and that thereby it especially is class adherence that has inclusionary and exclusionary effects in its intersectional working with race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality and the body.

Acknowledging post_coloniality
Contrary to their promise of social mobility, Swiss art schools appear to be clearly characterized by processes of social closure that are related to a constant re-instatement of the norm and specific notions of the Other. An important dimension within this process is a multifarious interplay between internationality and diversity: On one side, there is preference for a very specific group of international students with particular social backgrounds, and on the other there is an irritating co-existence of a desire as well as disregard for diversity in terms of Otherness that can entail quite a massive de-legitimization of (female and queer) migrant subjectivities. This particular process of social closure is based on dominant discourses on the Other that clearly reflect a Eurocentric mindset and Western perspective. We thus are urged to consider the post_colonial dimensions of the social conditions of higher art education by asking: Can we address the privileging of the norm and institutional discrimination by applying a post_colonial perspective (Vögele and Saner 2018)?

Post_colonial theorizing addresses the hierarchical relationship between the ‘known’ and the ‘knower’ and how it is constantly re-instated (Spivak 1988). It becomes clear that there is a tension between a denied shared presence of the so-called ‘knower’ toward positionalities and individuals not part of the hegemonic framework of the so-called ‘known’ (Fabian 1990: 753f). The ‘knower’ is situated within the norm of the mainstream, unaware of the privilege to represent and ‘speak for’ the ‘known’. Simultaneously, and to secure a dominant position, the ‘knower’ is closely related to the ‘known’, needing the distinction in order to remain within the superior position of the ‘knower’. However, the inherent structure of that very relationship between the ‘knower’ and the ‘known’ obfuscates the mutual dependency by assigning a primordial position of knowledge and enforcing the supremacy of representation over the represented. Within the specific process of a re-instatement of the norm addressed above in institutions of higher art education, this dimension of ‘known’ and ‘knower’ is especially prevalent as the intake into the institution is clearly regulated through a thorough admissions process that suggests a certain knowledge of the candidate. If a normatively composed institution in terms of race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and the body, puts itself in the position of the ‘knower’, it is actively inscribed within power relations that were fundamental to the justification of colonial expansion. There thus, in our view, is a necessity for rendering art schools accountable of their normalization and their specific relationship to diversity. This will allow for a de-colonization of such institutions.

A first step toward this goal is in seeking an equal reciprocal exchange: Equal reciprocal exchange that can achieve diversity and is able to address institutional normativity has to be aware of historical and colonial power relations that structure our thinking. For an equal exchange with reciprocal engagement, there is the need to establish a mutual recognition and a democratizing of processes that are based on respect and equal power of decision-making of all the ones involved. The guiding perspective has to be multiple and aware of hegemonies, processes of institutionalized discrimination, and their entanglements with colonial power relations. Within the admissions process to art schools and the hiring of faculty, there is the need for particular conditions of recognition that allow groups and individuals to experience themselves in relations of self-confidence, self-respect and self-assessment (Castro Varela and Mecheril 2010: 89). If this is neglected, there necessarily will be a disregard and marginalization of certain interests and thus a confinement of Other perspectives to the less powerful position of the ‘known’. But if a critical self-awareness of members of the institution becomes self-evident and if a self-critical sensibility to power relations is set as a strategic priority of the institution itself, we believe that the overdue decolonization of Western art institutions can be started off.


Sophie Vögele
Cultural and Gender Studies scholar, Sophie Voegele has a rich experience in supervising and implementing projects within Higher Education Institutions. She currently is involved in the management of the Institute for Art Education (iae.zhdk.ch) at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland after having co-led the research project “Art.School.Differences. Researching Inequalities and Normativities in the Field of Higher Art Education” along with Philippe Saner (for more information, see bit.ly/a_s_d). She pursues a PhD degree in Sociology from the York University in Toronto, Canada. Her experience along to the field of Higher Education and Art Education is in asylum seeking processes in Switzerland and in Quality Management within Social Work and Health. She also did fieldwork in Rajasthan, India working on processes of decentralization and women's rights. She has taught at several institutions, among them the University of Basel, York University Toronto, University of Applied Sciences Bern and the University of Arts Zurich.

Her research areas comprise: Processes of Othering, theories of representation, action research, Critical Development Studies, Post_colonial theories, feminist theories, queer theory, critical race theory.

Philippe Saner
After studies in Sociology, Political Science and Media Studies, he graduated in 2014 with a master thesis on the reproduction of social inequalities by and through the Swiss higher education field at the University of Lucerne. He was a research associate and co-leader of the research project “Art.School.Differences. Researching Inequalities and Normativities in the Field of Higher Art Education” at Zurich University of the Arts (together with Sophie Vögele).

His research interests and publications include the following areas: Sociology of education, culture and art; (global) social inequalities; sociology of economy and financial markets as well as political economy. Since January 2017 he is a research associate and doctoral student in the project „Facing Big Data: Methods and skills needed for a 21st century sociology“ (PI: Prof. Sophie Mützel, PhD), funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation within the National Research Programme 75 on Big Data at the University of Lucerne.

i Some of them have won a majority – a more recent one resulting in controversials with the EU being the Masseneinwanderungsinitiative on February 9th 2014.

ii For more information on Art.School.Differences see online: bit.ly/a_s_d (last access: 30.4.2017). For the final research report containing our comprehensive findings refer to Saner, Vögele, and Vessely (2016).

iii María do Mar Castro Varela made this comment during her keynote at the ‚Conference on Gender and Migration in Different Tracks of Higher Education’ at the Swiss Federal Institute For Vocational Training (SFIVET) in Zollikofen, Bern on 31.10/01.11.2014.

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Issue 35

Decolonizing Art Institutions

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Dorothee Richter & Ronald Kolb

by Shwetal A. Patel

by Shwetal A. Patel and Shaheen Merali

by Dorothee Richter

by Michelle Wong

by Binna Choi & Yolande van der Heide

by Sophie J Williamson