Classroom as Ornament

(4 YouTube videos that touch upon aesthetics and education)

March 26, 2010
by Mary Walling Blackburn

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      Sevan Hanoum in Music of the Outsiders: Rembetika, 1988

      Sevan Hanoum in Music of the Outsiders: Rembetika, 1988

      Music of the Outsiders: Rembetika. A documentary made around 1988
      See minutes 3:30-5:16

      Begin with Sevan Hanoum. In the film, she wears a trench coat and a fedora. A white shirt with a tie? Underneath that, a woman’s breasts. Underneath that, her lungs, and in there, her breath.

      Hanoum is a singer of Rembetika songs, Greek-Turkish music made for, by and about the underground spaces for workers, street toughs and prostitutes; these songs are sung in a subterranean room where all go to smoke hash and opium, to avoid the police, to drink wine and dance. For some, this music is one way to annihilate a bad day’s work—the same work that erases the desire even to have a self. For others, who identify with their work, the taverna and its offerings operate like a glaze—the lacquer brightens, coats the surface, of their public lives. A celebratory song, with the right drugs, can make an abject profession shine.

      Why speak of Sevan Hanoum now when I promised that I was going to speak about the aesthetics of education? Because Sevan Hanoum is my teacher right now. She’s an authority without an institution, telling me something I don’t know. The melodies she memorizes and generates with her breath operate as both aesthetic and structure; within the songs themselves, pleasure, form and politic are sutured. There’s a lesson in that; the fusion of these elements is more powerful than each element on its own. Can there be schools for this, artist- or state-run?

      The compulsory structure of institutionalized education makes some pupils, including myself, resistant to transmission—yet when Hanoum opens her mouth, I want to listen and understand. I seek her out. I stay quiet. I come away with more than I started with. Is this a bad deal? I could claim this felt moment of cognition, here between singer and listener, is endemic to the heart of education; but the school systems that enfold us typically produce vertical structures of learning that don’t consistently produce pleasure, sublime like this. Here, pleasure operates as unguent, transporting information both dire and decorative. Without it, some of us would never learn. It is the pleasure that makes us still—still enough to receive.

      Sevan Hanoum:
      I did go through a lot of danger
      And that happened because [of] beauty…
      We should all be aware, both males and females, that beauty is dangerous.

      In Sevan’s brief interview she speaks of clubs, she speaks of women in furs slipping their hands under her clothes and claiming that they are checking whether or not her breasts are real, and then she speaks about the nature of beauty. Again: “We should all be aware, both males and females, that beauty is dangerous.” For me, this is a new vocalization of what I want to hold artworks accountable for. My new Gold Standard. So, if pedagogy is to be considered a form of art, how can I hold it to this as well? An education that is so beautiful it is dangerous. Or… danger so beautiful, it educates.

      Results for “I Love College” (Asher Roth original)

      Results for “I Loved College” (Asher Roth Parody)

      School as a beautiful aesthetic form feels particularly remote within the mainstream U.S. university system.

      See the incredible range and number of parody videos of Asher Roth’s 2009 hit "I Love College:" "I Miss College,” “I Hate College," “I Hate Knowledge” and so on. These ‘tributes’ to miseducation are overwhelmingly self-produced by white male college students, joined by a brown-skinned graduate student here, or black middle class high schoolers there. From their vantage points, satirical yet revealing, it is difficult to ascertain just who finds ‘book learning’ in itself attractive.

      My introduction to these video responses begins with a man attempting to kegstand a water cooler at the office when he forgets that he isn't in college anymore. (I hated college because that guy was in college with me. Now I love that same guy because he simultaneously embodies and parodies a greater cultural confusion: what to do with the education we never bothered to engage.)

      He (sorta) sings:
      Man I loved college/I loved College/ I can’t tell you what I learned from school/I didn’t learn anything at school/ those college parties were awfuly crazy, I wish I had taped them/ now it is the real world with my real job and I hate it/

      However, Whose Dick is This? Productions, the producers of this parody, aren’t simply nostalgic for bygone opportunities to not learn. Another form of (desperate) regret competes:

      birthday on fake ids the only math I thought I’d need/I’m not prepared/ I’m not ready/ I don’t know how I got my degree/ Man I loved college!

      Here, pleasure has undermined a collective American cultural presumption—that we value and strive for the acquisition of knowledge. But to love ingenuity and hate the intellectual is nothing new—H.L. Menken and Mark Twain remarked upon this American impulse. En masse, these videos describe an America that doesn’t crave skill and understanding. Instead we appear to be a people that alternately pursue sex and leisure. The diploma is key to actualizing these pursuits, but the learning is incidental.

      Watching the slew of I Hate College/ I Love College videos, it is hard not to think of schooling as institution expressly for fools. Why do we think the artist-run school is any better, more attractive? Why do we feel that artists are immune to the way a codified structure reifies power? Why do we play the fool?

      For Lacan, objet petit a is defined as what we lack, the unattainable desire embodied by the Other impossibly searched for. How did school, in this art
      world context, get to be objet petite a when it is glaringly objet grosse B?

      Hannah Wilke, Gestures, 1974
      This video was removed from YouTube prior to publication of this article. Here's a link to a still from the artist's website

      Once, we visited young Aunt S. in a mental ward. Everyone was distracted, so I ate a bowl full of sugar cubes in the asylum’s café. I liked the structure of the cube bursting under the pressure of my tongue. As we left, I noticed they were screening Superman, Christopher Reeve’s head made enormous. It wasn’t such a bad place to be, that afternoon. Another institution, but not like school? No. There was sugar and movies all day every day. But like school, you couldn’t leave when you wanted to. We left; we left Aunt S.

      The sun was setting when we got to the parking lot and it looked beautiful in the Summer of 1979, shot with gold, cars with places to go.

      “The institution is ill” quips Dr. Jean Oury, founder of the experimental psychoanalytic clinic La Borde. I think he means all of the institutions: Hospital. University. Museum. School. But he does not pronounce these structures dead on arrival; when he says “ill,” that also means that he thinks repair is possible. However, the time frame for repair is so slow that it is absurd to imagine this current herd of artists as purveyors of institutional repair taking it on: a start-up mental ward in a geodesic dome in L.A., a nomadic loony bin that splits its time between Berlin and New York.
      The closest artists get to psychiatric units, when not interred, is to document their remains. I recall Suzanne Kalinowski’s photograph of the projectionist’s booth in a deserted ward in rural Michigan. A hand-painted list of all the films screened. The list is both a syllabus and a lifeline. Yet artists stop at making records. They do not begin to generate their own mental wards. Perhaps, it feels unethical to directly mess under the hood of the skull; conversely, it seems unethical to let the insane disappear from the visual record. The artist’s tactic? To neither hold the crazy close or let them entirely out of sight. So while Antonin Artaud’s black spells are unhinging to receive and look very nice in a book, artists are reluctant to make aesthetic the structure that houses insanity. The school remains the safest institution to undo, touch, perform and play house with. It can be done without impunity and with speed.
      Dr. Oury’s institutional reform requires slowness. He describes the durational necessities of his type of work:

      Similarly, I had spoken to a child psychiatrist a long time ago, who had been working with a girl who was almost post-acephaletic, psychotic. After fifteen years, and gigantic efforts by the psychiatrist, she smiled. Fifteen years of effort, for a smile. This is what counts. But Social Security ignores this, it doesn’t care. A smile is spontaneous. We can ask, “how much does a smile cost?” The smile is not pure linguistics, it is much more, at the level of ergology, of the body, of a very complex logic. The smile is not a laugh because the laugh is more or less aggressive.

      This time frame—fifteen years for a smile—is at odds with the speed of production demanded of artists right now—even those who traffic in the aesthetics of pedagogy. Market pressures motivate artists to generate continuously and abundantly. Thus a 1-hour class may become a “course” and a collection of get-togethers amongst friends may become a ‘school.’ Will artists take the time to radically restructure pedagogy? Will they invest hundreds of hours in figuring out if education can be both beautiful and dangerous (not simply safe and pretty)? Will artists work at the level of invention? 

      Oury “work[s] at the level of the poetic, a level infinitely more complex than the logic of computers and the neurosciences… We work at the level of gestures here at La Borde.” What level of gesture can organize the artist’s school? What gesture will we commit to and for how long? There’s the insanity of the comedian generating a hundred laughs in an hour. There’s the beauty of the psychiatrist waiting fifteen years for a smile. There’s the artist, this time, Hannah Wilke, searching for a gesture. And we viewers do not even realize that we can follow along while we watch, fingers splaying open our own lips.



      We Don’t Need No Education

      A little girl appears to be forced to sing.
      Her lipstick is smeared, her eyes, teary as she chants about self-control.
      It is a YouTube video. The context floats.

      Pink Floyd’s Anti-Education anthem is the song.
      Coercive rebellion, quips my friend Ben. Yes. It is. The whole chorus is miserable. Who delights?

      I know this song, but the context is in reverse. My mother and all of her sisters have dropped out of high school by the summer of 1980, in the so-called Inland Empire of southern California.

      My beautiful Aunt P. takes me on car rides. Dark eyes rimmed with black makeup. Dark hair. The windows are always down. She dangles her tan arm outside of the car. Anything can smash that long limb, hanging out like that. She smokes as she drives.

      Aunt P. plays “Another Brick in the Wall” at full volume when it begins to play on the radio. We sing with it. She is teaching me. She is teaching me to take pleasure in rejecting the institutions that you can’t survive in, institutions that weren’t built for you or with you, institutions that will never accept you, unless its solely on their own terms. There’s pleasure in your rejection of the rejecters, joy in your expulsion.

      Now I read that the South African government banned the song in 1980. It “had become the anthem of a national strike of more than 10,000 'coloured' (mixed) students and their white supporters. The students had been protesting the inequality of spending on education for the various races, as well as "intimidation" by teachers…The government ban forbids radio stations to play the record, stores to sell it, and individuals to own it.” (This story was found on the website of an Austrian Libertarian think tank located in Alabama, USA. No matter the source or its accuracy, this resonant narrative describes a global ambivalence about schooling, desired and hated.)

      But the legendary chorus isn’t miserable.

      There’s no YouTube video of it, no hearing 10,000 students singing “Another Brick in the Wall” together. There’s no video to place whether they are singing it in the buildings or on the roads. Nonetheless a dual-expulsion takes place. Both parties unseated, student and teacher. They return to a classroom after the boycott. The same classroom?

      The artist builds a classroom; hand-built or readymade, it hardly matters. What is crucial is whether or not this classroom is merely ornament. And if the artist creates an institution or simply performs a version of it? If her iteration is sparklingly clever or entertaining, it isn’t enough. Is there danger and beauty in the work? Does it reach that new Gold Standard for art that Sevan Hanoum just taught me? Make a school that makes me sick to my stomach, radically overhauls my presumptions, or most difficult, is so lovely I can barely stand it. Make this school the equivalent of the Fifteen-year smile. The slowest bloom.

      Mary Walling Blackburn, artist and writer, is the founder and director of the Anhoek School, a pedagogical experiment. Her work can be found at and


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