Book Review: Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life

“Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life”
by Marina Abramovič and others
Phaeton Press, February 2015
Paperback (novelty binding), 21.5 x 29.3 cm (8.5 x 11.5 in), 352 pp., £29.95, US$35
ISBN 978 0 7148 6736 6
Not available for Kindle, nor in the iTunes Store.

Billed by the co-director of Serpentine Galleries as “an unprecedented insight into 21st-century knowledge production and life as an artist today”, I did not need to ask the staff in my local Waterstones to remove its plastic wrapper: I needed to read it.

Once I had negotiated its tied notebook-like covers, it revealed itself instead as 36 lessons by contemporary university teachers of art (in its own words “the finest faculty of arts educators”) best intended to prepare someone about to start art school or college. Each ‘lesson’ consists of the teacher’s CV, their drawn portrait, a spread illustrating their work, several pages of their lesson, and assigned reading (etc.).

Marina Abramovič, "The Artist is Present", performance, Museum of Modern Art, May 2010. Image by Shelby Lessig under CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.
Marina Abramovič, “The Artist is Present”, performance, Museum of Modern Art, May 2010. Image by Shelby Lessig under CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.

Marina Abramovič’s opening lesson is probably the least useful in the book, and for me got the whole thing off to an unfortunate start. Even before she delivers over three pages of repetitious mantras, I was bemused to see her list honorary doctorates under her CV heading of Training, a note of pretentiousness which appears sporadically throughout. I also wondered whether I would really want my 17 year old daughter being instructed to “be erotic” three times, when once should be worrying enough.

Thankfully lessons improved considerably after that. Walead Beshty’s brief discussion on aesthetics seemed to start part-way through the subject, dance a few small circles, then fizzle out, and is but a shadow of Arthur Shimamura’s introductory paper in Aesthetic Science (ed. Shimamura and Palmer, Oxford UP, 2014), for example. But it did at least contain some challenging ideas.

Most of the lessons are written around personal anecdote, rather than any analytic or synthetic processes, and their titles are as patchy as their content: from LOVE LETTER from us to In Pittsburgh. Although there are some gems, no attempt has been made to balance their eclectic content into a sensible curriculum. For example, the most detailed information given about money seems to be Carol Bove’s terse “Becoming an artist is not a good business plan.”

There is no practical advice on how to enter competitions, obtain grants, or even patrons. Being anecdotal, much advice given may have been pertinent at the time that the teacher experienced it, but little attempt is made to provide practical advice for the present. Some lessons are given in the format of questions and answers from an interview, others are more like the chapters of a book, and a couple appear slapdash.

Bob Nickas takes the opportunity to take a shot at Marina Abramovič; although not the first time that contributors to a book have argued with one another inside its pages, it illustrates the near-random collation of content. One of the book’s best points is offered in the last line of Tim Rollins’ lesson: “I believe artists should sing on a daily basis”, whilst Christopher Williams offers “you shouldn’t make anything you can’t carry through the door yourself.” If only a few more artists had followed that advice.

In contrast to the almost random nature of its content, the book’s design is coherent and pleasant, with good use of colour to make lessons distinct from one another. Disappointingly for a publisher renowned for its many books containing superb colour illustrations, those here are not shown to their best advantage, as a result of the paper and print process, and are generally small and tempting rather than useful for study.

Citations for further reading, watching, and listening are patchy and highly personal; some would be eminently suitable to encourage bright minds to think further. However the majority of the books and papers proposed for further reading are hard to get, out of print, or originally written in a language other than English (and some do not appear to be available in translation).

Perhaps the most startling absence from this book are online resources. A couple of the lessons include single links, and one offers a handful, but those are exceptions. I also did not notice a single reference to a book available from the iTunes store, or for Kindle. This is a remarkable oversight which perhaps reflects the lack of engagement in the outside world by these teachers.

So at the end of all this, do I feel that I have enjoyed the promised ‘unprecedented insight’? No, I think the book is overambitious in its aims, and falls far short of achieving them. In its smug post-modernist cleverness, it has forgotten the benefits of good editing, coherence, and co-ordination. A far better tool might be Jake Auerbach’s splendid movie The Last Art Film, for example. But dipped into occasionally it does have some fascinating content; if only it had been edited properly and priced for its intended market.

One last thing: there is no index, making it very hard to locate those scattered nuggets.