Norm trouble: toward a critical pedagogy in art schools

1 Sophie Orlando is an art historian and lecturer at the Ecole nationale supérieure d’art in the Villa Arson in Nice. She writes, edits, publishes and shares texts on artistic, theoretical and educational practices in the areas of European Black and migratory art, as well as on feminist practices [British Black Art: Une Histoire de l’art occidental en débat (Paris: Dis Voir, 2016); Sonia Boyce: Thoughtful Disobedience (Dijon: Presses du réel / Nice: Villa Arson, 2017)]. Since 2019, she has been undertaking several lines of research on critical approaches to art education. She has recently organized a series of encounters and workshops via videoconferencing systems with the aim of offering a space for reflexivity on “Critical Pedagogies in Art Schools” (December 1-3, 2020). This project is the starting point for this interview conducted by Vanessa Brito, a lecturer in philosophy at the École des Beaux-Arts in Marseille.

2 Vanessa Brito: You’ve just organized an online conference that featured a series of speakers, screenings, performances and workshops on the topic of “critical pedagogies in art schools.” What was the focus of these encounters? What is the aim of “critical pedagogy” and what are the various educational practices that this term encompasses?

3 Sophie Orlando: Critical pedagogy, which brings a set of approaches together, constitutes a force for social transformation. It takes into account the power relations, privileges and inequalities associated with race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. This involves a pedagogical approach where one of the key aspects is the virtue of reflecting on and conscientizing about practices and the context of their development. This ethical action is associated with a multitude of approaches – decolonial, ecofeminist, queer, norm-critical and others – notably developed on the basis of the work of Paulo Freire, bell hooks and Ira Shor.

4 Critical pedagogy is practiced and publicized by researchers and teachers in education sciences, including Irène Pereira and Nassira Hedjerassi, the co-founders of l’Institut bell hooks-Paulo Freire in France. Irène Pereira is also the founder of Iresmo – “The Institute for Research, Study and Training on Unions and Social Movements.” These spaces offer training, articles, events and networking. Tal Dor and Nacira Guénif translate, publicize and help to spread ways of considering pedagogy as a code of ethics.

5 The books of bell hooks are widely available in French art schools, in particular thanks to the translations of Ain’t I a Woman? in 2015, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center in 2017, and finally Teaching to Transgress, a crucial book for feminist pedagogy, published in French in 2019. A team of teachers from the Institut Supérieur des Beaux Arts (ISBA) in Besançon, the École de Recherche Graphique in Brussels, and the Valand Academy in Göteborg, Sweden, launched a European research program known as the Teaching to Transgress Toolbox, which brings students together in distinct focus groups. These groups analyze, for example, the question of the supposed neutrality of teaching, the use of inclusive language, microaggressions toward transgender people, writing on subjectivities from the perspective of those in vulnerable situations, etc. The Covid pandemic has affected this extensive organization of European workshops, but the group is still active and is carrying on with its work.

6 I’d wanted to organize several days of encounters that would allow people to talk about their experiences. The encounters on “critical pedagogies in art schools” were conceived as the first in a series of invitations in the form of workshops, in order to start in on a long-term project between teachers, art students, and staff concerned with art mediation and art publishing. We wanted to thwart the reflex of historicizing educational practices in an academic format, and avoid presenting examples of success from other countries. We wanted to start by “doing,” i.e. to open participatory workshops mostly involving students, artists, authors and activists of underrepresented genders, who were invited to speak, to share, and especially to put their propositions into practice.

7 While I dealt with the scientific monitoring of the project, the organization of the encounters was handled collectively with Flo-Souad Benaddi, a 5th-year student; Christelle Alin, the director of visitor services [1] at the Villa Arson who is also in charge of preventing discrimination in the school; and Céline Chazalviel, who is head of publishing at the Villa Arson and is also a part-time lecturer. I don’t point this out just to list the names of those involved, but because initiating the project in this way was, in my view, a way to carry out a sort of dehierarchization of the relations to knowledge from the outset, and to get different parts of the school community involved. For me, the interactions between the participants during the planning stage were amazing. We instituted feminist approaches, particularly concerning equal pay. We also discussed the way in which our respective positions – in terms of our roles and contracts – lead to a particular attitude toward, and understanding of, both pedagogy and research. We realized to what extent our points of view were dependent on material and symbolic conditions. This also allowed us to shed light on our presuppositions and reveal misunderstandings of our respective jobs. Together, we questioned our privileges, predispositions and expectations, as well as our intentions.

8 We therefore welcomed propositions such as the participatory student magazine Show created by Fanny Lallart, Juliette Beau and Ethan Assouline at the École nationale supérieure d’arts in Cergy; a performance titled Posture(s) by Vinciane Mandrin and Nino André (graduates of the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Lyon); a dialogue between the artist H. (Hélène Alix Mourrier) and Flo-Souad Benaddi on trans and feminist pedagogies; or a workshop on sound and poetry experiments with the artist Myriam Lefkowitz and the art historian Vanessa Theodoropoulou. There was also a multi-part debate on the way that we define ourselves (as students, teachers, members of the administrative staff) in and concerning the institutions known as “art schools.” We discussed emancipatory or parasitical tactics (Claire Finch’s workshop Comment niquer *avec* l’autorité [“How to fuck *with* authority”]) or the experience of L’école du Magasin, a program for professional training in European curatorial practices founded in 1987 at Le Magasin, a cultural center in Grenoble. More specifically, we talked about L’école des Horizons, the name the program had when it was run by Peggy Pierrot after Béatrice Josse, the recently appointed director of the center, had renamed it Le Magasin des Horizons. We also discussed racism in art schools, which manifests itself in teaching methods, in interpersonal attitudes, and in the grading of artistic work. This provided an opportunity to hear first-hand accounts and news about current student movements from the representatives of “balance ton école d’art” [2] (keeping people informed about situations of harassment, rape or other forms of discrimination, in particular at the ISBA in Besançon but also at the Institut national supérieur d’enseignement artistique Marseille Méditerranée), from the ISBASTA student collective associated with the ISBA (who invited outsiders to come to the school to run workshops and give lectures), and from the members of the BlackFlower collective (which formed as a reaction to a situation at the École supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux where racist acts were downplayed and minimized). The artist Isabelle Massu organized a session of the Teaching To Trangress Toolbox program that she co-directs, and work groups were set up on neutrality, on writing through pain with Dorothy Allison and Arun Mariada, and on creating educational bingo cards dealing with inclusive language. There was also a workshop on microaggressions against trans people. Finally, Irène Pereira offered a webinar in the form of a dialogue on ethical action. In other words, the encounters were an opportunity to share practices and experiences.

9 Vanessa Brito: During the conference, you led a workshop with teachers in art schools, which was based upon their own experiences. The questions that opened the discussion –”How do you define your pedagogy?” and “What form of pedagogical experimentation are you currently trying out?” – are the ones that have oriented the investigative work you have been performing for several months in the form of a series of individual interviews. What conclusions have you drawn from this investigative work? Why did it seem necessary to look into the critical pedagogies in art schools in particular?

10 Sophie Orlando: To give you a precise answer, I’m going to have to go back in time a little in order to explain my current research. Since 2019, I’ve been carrying out investigative work on feminist epistemologies and in particular feminist pedagogies in art schools. This interest in art education goes back to the mid-2000s, when I was doing my doctoral research in London. First, I discovered how students of color in British art schools had not only questioned the structural racism embedded in British cultural institutions and in the artistic canon when it was created, but had responded to that racism by weaving together a “world of art” – that is by becoming artists, curators, gallery owners, and theorists of art – under the name of “Black Art” in the U.K. at the end of the 1980s. Next, I discovered that British museums possessed educational research departments undertaking a deconstruction of the norms of the Western art canon. By participating in British research projects (the Tate Encounters in 2008-2009, followed by Black Artists and Modernism in 2016-2018), I developed ideas on and approaches to the connections between the construction of institutional narratives on art and the presuppositions of art education.

11 When I arrived at the Villa Arson as a professor of art theory in 2013, I was simultaneously enthusiastic about the freedom French art school teachers had to be creative, and completely stunned at the lack of reflection on racism, ableism, and gender inequality; the lack of resources for transitioning people; and the lack of discussions on the processes of normalization. Of course, I don’t place myself outside the school system, and I myself have internalized and reproduced biases that I try hard to name and deconstruct with persistent vigilance. I quickly came to realize that there was no time allotted for discussions of our teaching practices: pedagogy was considered either as a matter of scheduling, or as a space in which one could experiment freely without necessarily defining that space in one way or another. Of course, what started out as a matter of curiosity and a learning process became a real research question over the years.

12 Something else is also important. Even before I became an art school professor, I heard a lot of stories and myths about art schools: issues of reputation, aura, and the hierarchization of schools based on hearsay. When I took part in the evaluation committees for the fifth-year diploma in various schools, the absurdity of these classifications by reputation began to dawn on me. And when I wanted to look through the archives on the history of teaching in schools, starting with the Villa Arson, I realized that there weren’t any. While I was pregnant, I thought about my priorities during and after that transformational period: I wanted to go out in search of stories on teaching, in particular from my fellow feminist teachers or those who used other names to describe practices of liberation pedagogy (to borrow Paulo Freire’s expression), whether they were philosophers, social scientists, art historians or art teachers. I mean, why reiterate myths instead of pedagogies that seem useful to me today? For several months I’ve also been developing a second research project based on stories from art students or former students of art schools who are working in France. It seemed crucial to me to hear from those who had experienced art schools and who had become artists after graduating.

13 When I started my research, I drew up a questionnaire in order to define the direction of the project. I then carried out group and individual interviews for a year with artist colleagues, female art historians, and philosophers in both national and territorial art schools. [3] What emerged was a shared interest in a pedagogy with transformational powers, i.e. whose goal is social transformation, but without necessarily claiming membership in one or several specific pedagogical trends. On the other hand, many participants shared information on reading material and a general interest in feminist and decolonial texts and work methods.

14 During the encounters, I ran a workshop where participants shared their experiences. This time I wanted to start with a few questions about our pedagogical practices and situations, about moments that have deeply affected us without knowing what to do with that experience. As teachers, we’re used to running our classes, but we’re rarely asked to reflect on the moments that we’ve identified as successes or failures: the problematic moments where, in retrospect, we feel that we weren’t as quick-witted as we should have been, or that we should have acted otherwise. I tried to create a space in which each teacher shared a moment of their teaching methods instead of describing the content and objectives of a course or workshop. This is an approach used in the context of feminist consciousness-raising groups, but also in the context of institutional pedagogies that encourage the writing of “monographs,” accounts of professional experiences. I think it’s quite funny that this term means very different things in the areas of art publishing and education sciences. It was derived from the observational methods of sociology (1855), and then adopted by the education sciences in 1882 (Arnaud Dubois, 2010). Later, it was popularized by the Freinet movement and the journal L’Educateur (1955-1958), which published the experiences of teachers, as well as by Fernand Oury. As for me, I learned about it mainly by reading bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress and her subsequent books.

15 In a fairly significant way, the first person to speak brought up the disparity between her feminist experience in teaching – her ability to structure classes on her own – and her ability to act when it came to grading or what are called “assessments” (bilans). This teacher reported that the students accused her of not asserting herself in those situations and of not standing up for them, even as she would hear deeply problematic comments from her fellow teachers: a mixture of racism, paternalism, sexism and homophobia. She explained that she felt shattered and overwhelmed in those moments, powerless when faced with the number of battles to deal with and trapped between being a colleague of the other teachers and an ally of the students.

16 Vanessa Brito: I would like your views on the performance by Vinciane Mandrin and Nino André, which takes a look at this very situation in pedagogy: the moment of the end-of-semester assessments, during which the students present their visual art work in front of a jury of teachers. In this performance, Posture(s), the artists take on their roles, displaying the requisite gestures and body language, while a voice-over – presenting a gendered analysis of how speech acts are distributed – accompanies this repertoire of postures. It’s a remarkable work that encourages teachers to acquire a “critical consciousness” – to borrow Paulo Freire’s term – of contemptuous, discriminatory or sexist behavior. How was this performance received in schools? Did it help change things? Did it lead to discussions or initiatives?

17 Sophie Orlando: The artists Vinciane Mandrin and Nino André met at the fine arts school in Lyon, where their artistic partnership took form. At that time, Vinciane also created the feminist club Cybersistas. She wanted to create a group dedicated to discrimination in schools and also worked on drawing up a code of ethics. On the basis of discussions within this group, the performance was developed. The work had its origins in a participant observation of the modes of expression and the behaviors of students and teachers during end-of-semester assessments. The performance of the two protagonists comprises a series of postures and a voice describing the interactions between groups of identified people among the male and female teachers and students. The two non-binary performers are dressed in white shirts and black suits, in heels or in flats amidst office furniture. The voice-over gives a factual and anthropological description of corporeal, linguistic, and interpersonal techniques of domination and submission, but also of the constant adaptations and readjustments needed to continue parasitical tactics or, on the contrary, effects of domination. The result is scathing. For example, the female teachers keep getting interrupted and assume unstable, clumsy postures, while the male teachers show off, sit on their chairs like kings on their thrones, act bored or have conversations with other students, disrespecting the person presenting their artistic project. Similarly, the students also make gestures or adopt expressions demonstrating their unease. This performance was inspired by the artists’ interest in drag practices and the fact of embodying a posture of power and/or vulnerability. These practices allowed them to become conscious of empowering tactics and what their bodies were telling them. The two artists now receive requests to present Posture(s) in other schools, notably in the form of workshops. The script of the piece is not copyrighted, so it can be appropriated and reinterpreted in any suitable circumstance.

18 Vanessa Brito: In art schools, we’re currently witnessing an outpouring of voices encouraged by the #MeToo (2017-) and “Balance ton porc” (2017-) movements, which preceded by some years the “Balance ton école d’art” (2020-) movement. What disparities have you noticed between the institutional responses (working out a code of ethics, establishing a discrimination-free school) and the needs expressed by the students?

19 Sophie Orlando: After listening to an experience of harassment, Tarana Burke, an activist and social worker, realized that she should have just said “me too,” in order to help that person overcome their feeling of solitude and build awareness. She was the first to start using the expression “me too” in 2006, which was then taken up by Alyssa Milano and by millions of people from every social group. 2017-2018 was the year voices were set free in 85 countries. Women, but also those identifying as non-binary, queer or trans, spoke publicly of the intolerable situations they’d endured. In art schools, these occasionally anonymous forms of address, taking place on social media, brought to light experiences of sexual harassment, racial pigeonholing (assignations racialisantes), and sexist, homophobic or transphobic comments between students, and between teachers and students, but also between members of the administration, the staff and the students. Before this, the incidents were discussed during individual meetings or were spread as rumors. There was a great deal of omertà. Unfortunately, it’s still present. Nevertheless, that year seemed to blow the lid off the asymmetrical situations and the violence that was not dealt with, or that was even willingly hushed up. The way the antiracist and antisexist work was carried out – discreetly or else to general indifference – was suddenly called into question: some saw that work as a resource, while others considered it problematic. It’s important to recall the individual initiatives by students and teachers that, in particular, led to the development of safe spaces, not necessarily as places for discussing incidents, but as places where vulnerable people feel at ease and are able to work. I think of the schools that have welcomed feminist course material such as Bourges when Nathalie Magnan taught there, combined with the dynamic of the Transpalette art center in the same city, in which events focusing on LGBTQI+ culture were regularly held. There are other examples, of course. For me, one of the great strengths of the #MeToo movement, but also of Black Lives Matter or Black feminist groups, is the shift that took place from the image of the victim to that of the fighter, and therefore from a demeaning position to one of a person with agency, proud of their sexual and cultural identity.

20 At the Villa Arson, Katrin Ströbel and I initiated a theoretical and hands-on workshop in 2014, “situations post,” in which we offer a line of thought on decolonial and feminist contexts and epistemologies, with a particular commitment to process-based practices. Since 2014, I’ve observed changes at the school in these areas. On the one hand, a generation of politicized and very brave students has arrived, students who want to address questions of sexual and racial identity, as well as environmental issues (Ecovilla), and the welcome (l’accueil) that migrants and exiles crossing the Mediterranean receive (CAVA – Collectif Accueil Villa Arson). On the other hand, political demands were made to address sex discrimination and gender inequality, with two priorities: first, nominating equal opportunity officers in all public institutions, following a government circular of November 30, 2018 on professional equality between women and men in the public sector; second, drawing up a code of ethics. At that time, in 2018, one element immediately surprised me. There was no reference to the fight against racial discrimination in the ministry’s [4] request: only gender equality was mentioned. To my knowledge, no action has been taken in this area concerning the hiring of administrative and technical staff, for example. And yet you only need to open your eyes to see that the people working during regular office hours are white, while those working in the early morning or evening are often Black or people of color. Things that are plain to see are not addressed. I think that that state of affairs, that categorization of Black and white people, is deliberate. Furthermore, the asymmetrical situations and the ways power is asserted take many forms. At the school, an informal study group on the experience of discrimination preceded the development phase of the code, a process that was open to all staff members (technical, administrative, educational) and the students. The result was a code of ethics built along intersectional lines.

21 The nature of the objections at the start of a substantial undertaking is the same everywhere: “Once the news spreads about an incident, it could hurt the school” (and therefore its reputation); “The students’ personal lives are their concern alone”; “Instead of ‘overreacting,’ what’s needed is to find a ‘balance,’” i.e. there are those who would rather sweep serious matters under the rug and stand in the way of changing attitudes. In the context of an anti-discrimination workshop that Hervé Senant and I organized at the Association nationale des écoles supérieures d’art (ANDEA) in December 2020, one teacher rattled off all of the arguments for downplaying incidents, while calling on the “teachers to unite” in the face of the generation gap; the influence of American cultural studies, which in his view “are tacked on to the French model”; and what he called “these micro-wars.” He felt that these debates were “exclusory.” He even dared to declare that he had never seen so many unbearable, anti-authoritarian students and that he was looking for help in dealing with them. Some teachers are just now discovering these struggles and grievances, even though the social situations, the militant actions and the research work have been going on for decades. These resources are known, taught, and shared, and yet many teachers succumb to an anti-intellectual, chauvinistic and reactionary approach to art education, or else they adhere to a Marxist universalist legacy of struggle in the West, but without getting informed about the history of slavery, colonial history, antiracism, postcolonial thought, and decolonial thought, as well as the history of feminist movements and its epistemological effects on all knowledge. Art schools accommodate a social reality that must be taken into account. What can be done if teachers who’ve had their job for forty years refuse to check their privilege?

22 Vanessa Brito: You’ve just said you were surprised that no measures against racial discrimination were put forward in the government circular of 2018 on professional equality, whereas there are a very small number of people of color in art schools. Pascale Obolo’s film La Fabrique des contre-récits (The Production of Counter-Narratives), which she screened during the conference, approaches this subject by examining the everyday, structural racism to be found in Belgian museums and art schools. The investigation she carried out on the role of women artists in the public collections of the museums led to an inescapable conclusion: only 13% of the works acquired by these institutions are produced by women, while 0% of them are works by women of the Black diaspora in Belgium. As an art historian, through your feminist and decolonial approach, you too are seeking to produce counter-narratives that deconstruct the canons of Western art. What is your conception of the way you teach art history?

23 Sophie Orlando: Pascale Obolo’s film demonstrates how problematic the teaching of art history is, as it is practiced in art schools. She carried out a series of interviews with women artists of the Black diaspora in Belgium. The stories are enlightening. It wasn’t a surprise for me at all, unfortunately. Not only am I aware of the small number of people of color with tenured positions in higher education, but I have also observed the maintenance of structural racism accompanied by a denial of the problem. Additionally, the decolonial and feminist research taking place in the field of art history is rarely accepted and valorized by the academic world. I can attest to that. The importance of figures such as Elvan Zabunyan and Anne Lafont does not make up for the near lack of black women researchers and theorists, or researchers and theorists of color in general, who have a seat at the academic table. The artist Rasheed Araeen’s book, Making Myself Visible (1984), is a constant presence in my mind. In it he published all of the rejections and boilerplate answers he received from the institutions to which he constantly sent proposals on rewriting the narratives of art. His stubbornness sometimes paid off: in particular, he was able to create the magazine Third Text (1987-) as well as the excellent exhibition The Other Story, held at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. That exhibition presented the work of British-based or British-born artists of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin, while we in France were presenting the universalist exhibition Les Magiciens de la terre, which featured a principle of equality between the works, connected by a creative magic, without however deconstructing the disparities between the artistic categories that separated the ethnographic works from the modern European ones.

24 In the context of my teaching, I systematically put forward a problematization of existing art narratives. I give priority to critical texts and works by artists who are inscribed within forms of artistic internationalism such as Rasheed Araeen, but also Ana Mendieta or Lygia Clark. I often speak of conceptualisms, in other words conceptual artistic forms as seen through the historical lens of the struggles of the 1960s-70s, in order to interweave such practices with those of contemporary artists. Consequently, I’m not an exception to the effort to decolonialize minds in which I participate. In order to lay the groundwork for other modes of teaching, I had to start off on this open-ended journey. One of the first steps was to identify the reasons for my uneasiness in the French academic world as a class renegade (transfuge de classe), [5] having inherited a culture where one’s own stories of migration and gender construction are erased in order to correspond to an image of intellectual success. The second was to question myself about the history and the privileges associated with the color of my white skin as well as my desire to identify with the antiracist culture of Black feminism. For example, I’m currently writing about the processes of racialization and sexuation in the construction of architectural modernism.

25 I see art history as the creation of a necessarily fragmentary narrative, but as a practice as well. Two texts have accompanied me for many years: one by Donna Haraway on situated knowledges, and one by Sara Ahmed on the feminist killjoy. I really like the expression “norm trouble” (“trouble dans la norme”), used when the work of Judith Butler was translated into French. I think it’s a good definition of my teaching tactics. I insist on teaching a class every year for first-year students on looking objectively at the constructed, ideological nature of art narratives. This course on the history of feminist and decolonial art associates theoretical texts from European, African, South American and North American feminist movements with analyses of works and videos from artists who present a multitude of ways to construct narratives, in particular via modernism. I also teach third- and fourth-year classes. In a class titled “Chercher avec” (“Seeking With”), I propose to reappropriate the relations between the construction of subjectivities, artistic work methods and the social and political spaces in which we’re currently evolving, on the basis of long sessions that alternate between a reading group, lectures, and yoga exercises offered by members of the group. I’m very interested in the liberating effects of establishing trust relationships.

26 Vanessa Brito: You also encountered some resistance from students when you put forward a feminist and decolonial pedagogy. Some told you: “We’re not here to be political, we’re here to study art history.” Mindsets keep this resistance going, but it is also reinforced by the current context, by the declarations of the government and some professors (I’m thinking of the “Manifeste des 100”), [6] who demand measures for detecting “ideological tendencies” that are supposedly wreaking havoc in higher education. Parliamentary investigations have recently begun in order to monitor these “foreign” ideas that are said to endanger republican principles and the duty to remain impartial that is a cornerstone of the public sector. Under the pretence of neutrality, the credibility of the situated knowledges is undermined, while the feminist and decolonial stances are dismissed as mere opinion, or as personal convictions that lack the objectivity of scientific research. What can be done to break down that resistance and take a fresh look at impartiality in art education? What answers can critical pedagogies give us?

27 Sophie Orlando: The question of neutrality in the educational system is the object of particularly strong feelings right now. Originally, neutrality in schools was a principle of non-discrimination by the teachers in relation to the religious and political leanings of the students. But that doesn’t cover all of the senses of neutrality, as demonstrated by the “Manifeste des 100,” which appeared in the October 31, 2020 issue of Le Monde. For the signatories to that letter, some currents of thought that are taught at universities are responsible for “damaging minds”: they consider those currents as part of a drift toward Islamism. In other words, some supposedly foreign currents of thought are seen as barbaric, particularly “indigenist, racialist and decolonial ideologies.” The term “neutrality” thus lays down a border separating those forms of knowledge in accord with republican values from those that aren’t. Some media outlets, as well as some researchers, think of themselves as more legitimate than others and impose definitions, limits and contents upon research without reading the works in question, which have been academically validated. In the wake of the public debate triggered by the term “Islamo-leftism,” and the investigation requested by the minister Frédérique Vidal, the radio channel France Culture organized a discussion between Nathalie Heinich, Rose-Marie Lagrave and Abdellali Hajjat with the dubious title “Is There a Problem with Political Activism in Universities?” (on the talk show Les Temps du débat in February 2021). It reiterated a presumed separation between research, teaching and the social world, while relegating some questions and needs to the sphere of political activism. As Linda Nochlin points out in her article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” a poorly posed question carries with it the form and the limits of its possible answers. Rose-Marie Lagrave has quite clearly demonstrated that those who disparage feminist theories assume a position of authority in areas in which they have no competence, by proffering judgments without an academic method. Abdellali Hajjat added that he had to go to Belgium in order to obtain an academic post.

28 How can people believe and make others believe that all it takes is an enunciative wave of the wand to eliminate subjectivity from research, writing and teaching, or that there exists an untethered form of knowledge, divested of corporeality and subjectivity?

29 I occasionally meet first- and second-year students who are surprised at my way of teaching art history and the theory of art. This completely healthy resistance concerns both the mindset surrounding the discipline of art history and a tacit conception of pedagogy. Few people are aware of the nationalist reasons that led to the emergence of the discipline and its professionalization in the 19th century (Michela Passini). And some successful art narratives have become references, in particular Ernst Gombrich’s cultural history (1950), which does not include a single woman. Why such a hegemony? Who benefits from an art history of this kind? And why is art history – which is often reduced to a history of works of art – seen as part of the “banking concept of education” as Paulo Freire puts it, i.e. a set of knowledge to be transferred from teachers to the taught?

30 Pedagogy appeared in the 17th century at a time when the number of children in urban areas, and the number of schools serving them, were increasing. Teaching no longer meant individualized education benefiting a privileged few: it became a large-scale task requiring appropriate premises and methods including the management of classrooms, bodies, and time. Only then could any educational proposition be associated with the ideal of training a citizen, a community, even a group of specific workers. A positivist approach to pedagogy leaves no place for subjectivity, seen as harmful and contrasted with objectivity. The presumed “neutrality” of the system, i.e. the rational approach to knowledge, lies behind this binarism of subjectivity and objectivity, and yet this approach is just as anchored in a history and a place as others are.

31 The “neutrality of knowledge” can be seen as the yardstick of epistemic normalization, whose origins are directly tied to the construction of modernity. In “The Colonial Situation” (1951, English translation 1970), Georges Balandier casts doubt on the positivist vision of research that denies the subjection of populations as well as the domination of the researcher that this context brings about. Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) proposes an analysis of the effects of colonization on the construction of subjectivities and myths. Now we may also turn to African philosophy or the decolonial ideas of the Modernité/Colonialité-Décolonialité group in order to understand the concept of the coloniality of knowledge. For Enrique Dussel, modern European consciousness does not begin with the Enlightenment, but in 1492, when Europe appointed itself as the epistemic reference for all Others. The modern European subject then created a biography and an autobiography for itself while, conversely, the colonial subject found itself without a history, “desubjected” (Walter D. Mignolo). The moment when a subject in a colonial situation becomes conscious of this construction is the starting point for decolonization. Who benefits from the supposed neutrality of knowledge? Who benefits from the writing of a situated knowledge?

32 According to Paulo Freire, “Every pedagogical project is political and filled with ideology. The issue is to determine in whose favor or against whom educational politics, which is a necessary component of education, is constructed.” (Pedagogy in the City, 1993, 40). Critical pedagogies begin with critical consciousness in order to establish themselves as a break with internalized myths. They allow for escape from a kind of passivity in the relation to knowledge and to its modes of transmission (bell hooks), enabling the development of a code of ethics. As a result, they do not constitute a method or a set of learning tools, even if some modes are prioritized, such as dialogic teaching and the critique and formation of judgment, as well as the act of connecting content to personal experiences, and to a vocabulary that is part of the everyday lives of learners.


  • [1]
    In addition to being a school, The Villa Arson is also a museum open to the public [translator’s note].
  • [2]
    In France the #MeToo movement was known as “Balance ton porc” (“Squeal on your pig”) [translator’s note].
  • [3]
    In France the écoles d’art nationales are financed and administered by the Ministry of Education in Paris. The teaching staff of such schools has a higher status and is more specialized. The écoles d’art territoriales are mainly financed by cities and communautés d’agglomerations (administrative units grouping together several cities and towns). In both cases, the curriculum is established by the Ministry of Education [translator’s note].
  • [4]
    This concerns the Civil Service Ministry [Le Ministère de la fonction publique], a cabinet-level institution in France [translator’s note].
  • [5]
    An expression used to qualify the downside, psychological for example, of upward social mobility, with subtexts of desertion and betrayal, as seen in the writings of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the novelist Edouard Louis [translator’s note].
  • [6]
    An open letter signed by 100 university professors in 2020, following the murder of the teacher Samuel Paty, against the rise of “Islamo-leftism” and “decolonial ideologies” in French universities, which they saw as a “North American export” [translator’s note].