A View of Latvian art education from the ruins of the Agora
Alise Tīfentāle, Art Historian

From show society to education society 
From 6 June to 9 June, 2011, ATINER (Athens Institute for Education and Research) held its 2nd Annual International Conference on Visual and Performance Arts. Organizing international conferences is one the institute’s principal fields of activity: from May till August, Athens hosts conferences for various branches of science almost every week. Although the institute has been in operation since 1995, it has turned its attention to art history only recently. As Dr Stephen Andrew Arbury, art history professor at Redford University (USA) and one of the members of the academic council of the conference, acknowledged in conversation, both the first and the second conference attracted an exceptionally large number of attendees.

This in turn is an indication of the current dynamism in the field of humanitarian sciences, and art history and theory in particular, worldwide, which could possibly be partly explained by a shift in focus from artistic creativity, art markets and museum life to science, academic research and art education. This shift, for its part, has been prompted by an awareness that the traditional target audience of the arts, at least in the West, is “aging and dying out”, as pointed out by Zane Čulkstēna in her article Noveco un izmirst. Vēstule no Ņujorkas / ‘Aging and Dying Out. Letter from New York’ (, 14 May, 2011).

In Latvia one can speak of a significant art audience, in terms of size, only in the context of Museum Night and perhaps a couple of other similar events, so for us the issues of art education and the demand for art among the wider community, as well as the economic feasibility of academic research, are of particular relevance. How can art, artists, theorists and researchers exist in circumstances where these areas of activity are regarded purely as a drain on resources and, therefore, to be eradicated? Reports presented at the Athens conference repeatedly drew attention to ways of linking a specific academic discipline to the needs and interests of the wider public, the local community and individuals. This linkage provides justification for the continued existence of an academic discipline, and ensures its viability as part of the oft-cited transition towards a knowledgebased economy.

During the conference, doctoral students, teachers and professors of art history and theory from various countries delivered ninety-six reports, providing a multi-faceted insight into issues currently of interest in art research and practice all over the world. The opportunity to listen to and discuss matters face-to-face with art professionals from geographically distant regions (building contacts between researchers from EU countries and the USA especially) allowed encounters between different research methods and structures of thought to take place. 

Academic discussions against the backdrop of the vestiges of democracy 
One associates Athens firstly with the Acropolis and the agora, the cradle of urban living and democracy, of which only ruins have survived. As everything these days – even ruins – must earn money, these too, as they deteriorate, have to be renewed and upgraded, evidenced by the scaffolding, construction machinery and the bustle of builders at the temple ruins. Another major construction project has already been completed – two years ago, on 1 June 2009, the new Acropolis Museum building was opened in Athens, built according to a design by the prominent architect Bernard Tschumi. On examining the museum’s history, the “protracted gestation” of our own National Library does not seem that lengthy any more: the first tender for designing the Acropolis Museum was put out way back in 1976. It can only be added that Tschumi has succeeded in breathing new life into the remains of the ancient structure – the museum building of glass, concrete, metal and marble is spacious and light; the glass walls offer the best views of the Acropolis where the objects on display were originally located; in addition, the ancient sculptures have been placed free-standing in the space and, for the first time, can be viewed from all sides.
The Caryatids from the Erecheion Acropolis Museum, Athens
Individual architectural elements (concrete columns) are in keeping with the overall character of Greek temples, but bold details such as the glass floor on the museum’s fourth floor remind us that this is a genuine 21st century museum, providing the requisite exciting experience. A large number of ancient art treasures are to be found in museums in other places of the world, however. It is slightly ironic that the museum (right next to the location where the historical objects were found) also displays copies of originals which are currently held in the Louvre and the British Museum. The debate still continues whether the so-called Elgin Marbles, the Parthenon sculptures and other architectural elements (obtained through dubious means by the British in the early 19th century), currently on view in the British Museum in London, should return to Athens.

Speaking of the city-state of Athens as the embryonic model of modern democracy as well as the cornerstone of Western culture in its broadest sense, it is worthwhile contemplating why democracy has proved to be an ideal so hard to attain. Striving towards the ideal of democracy today causes disaffection, aggression and injustice, because we are reaching for something that cannot be achieved by the methods chosen.

More often as not, when mentioning the achievements of antiquity “in sport and in culture” (i.e., in philosophy, art, architecture, design, literature, dramatic art, sport and phys¬ical culture etc.) one tends to forget that the Athenian democracy could only exist and thrive under a system of slavery. Both democracy and “sport and culture” could evolve only within a social order where the privileged ones had the free time to dream up intrigues on Mount Olympus, to compose poetry and collections of ethical guidance, while the underprivileged majority cooked food and served drinks at symposia, worked the marble for buildings and produced goods for the master’s profit (if one agrees with Marx, who argues that slavery is an economic phenomenon). While of the authentic democracy only ruins, copies and replicas remain, the academic life of art history continues to rely on researchers’ individual findings which are closely related to contemporary issues.

The connection of art history and theory with “real life” is demonstrated by the directions of academic research in which contemporary cultural phenomena are analysed and interpreted by applying findings from art history, social sciences, philosophy and other disciplines. Thus, for instance, the report Polyvore: Fashion that Liberates both Psyche and Body by Alisia Chase, Professor at the State University of New York, analysed the art portal from the perspective of gender studies and feminism.

Users of this website can build up their own collections of clothes and accessories, but, unlike other similar sites, here one can only combine the pictures of objects, with each user creating a unique collage (which the author deems the leading art form of the 20th–21st century). The body or body parts are not depicted here, thus avoiding potential discrimination and rendering the matters of style and fashion more abstract, independent of an individual’s physical characteristics, which could well be an indication of the “liberation” mentioned in the report’s title, or of emancipation sui generis.

An introduction to the paradoxical history of jazz culture was presented by Alphonso McClendon, Assistant Professor at Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In his report Prestige Branding: The Role of Elitism in Jazz Dress, McClendon explained the use of jazz elements in contemporary advertising, following the historical path of the orgins and glorification of jazz culture. The roots of jazz music and culture date back to the mid-18th century, to Congo Square in New Orleans, where the slaves who had been brought over from Africa were allowed to gather together, play music and dance on Sundays.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, jazz culture became associated with elements such as violence, gambling, drugs, prostitution, and at the same time, an elitist dandy style of its own kind was evolving among jazz musicians who had achieved fame and affluence. Furs, jewellery, cars and other status symbols fascinated the working class audience, sustaining a wish to identify with such a lifestyle. This kind of perception of jazz has continued to develop up to the present day, when advertisements of various goods and services use references to jazz, leading the consumer to imagine that buying and using certain goods is to be regarded a symbol of social prestige, affluence and good taste. Thus, paradoxically, the music, style and culture which originated in a community with the lowest social status of all – that of slaves, a couple of centuries later have become the coveted symbols of prestige in an affluent Western society.

New methods of artistic practice were revealed, for instance, in the report Documentary Animation by Phil Davis and Sujan Shrestha, Assistant Professors in the Electronic Media and Cinema Department of Towson University, Maryland. The genre of documentary animation is practically unknown in Latvia (as the first and just about only animated documentary ever produced in Latvia one could consider the film Čiža acīm [‘Through the Eyes of Čiž’], 2007, by director Edmund Jansons and producer Bruno Aščuks), but higher education institutions in other countries do pay attention to the genre, aware of its prospects for future development. The authors of the report gave a brief definition of the genre as documentary sound material accompanied by its visual artistic interpretation in the form of a collage made up of photographs and video material, as well as original drawings, computer graphics, visual quotations and “cutouts” from publications.

Robert Huber, a PhD student from the University of Ulster, in his report Defining Sculpture: Arranging Space as Sculptural Practice raised the academic problem of defining sculpture in the context of contemporary art, and also introduced his Paint Syndicate art project ( The Syndicate, which operates in Berlin and Hong Kong, arranges the production in China of artworks for Western audiences, thus, in its way, appropriating/arranging space, at least according to the Syndicate authors’ intentions. [...]

The authors of the report Institute of Beasts – Strategies of Doubt and Refusal in a Contemporary Art Practice – Steve Dutton, Professor at Coventry University, and Steve Swindells, Professor at the University of Huddersfield are both practicing artists as well as teachers. The Institute of Beasts is their long-term joint project. Within the framework of the project multimedia shows are organized and books are published; the authors characterised it as “an institute with an aimless aim, or an anti-institute”. On the basis of their experiences in creative, academic and institutional activities, the authors tackled the issues of whether and how it is possible to “teach” art, the potential interaction between art practice and research, the role and value of doctoral studies and the PhD degree in art education etc.

In the authors’ opinion, “meaningful research is miles apart from meaningful practice”. This approach probes into the much-discussed range of problems relating to art¬istic research or artistic inquiry, a topic of interest among Latvian higher education circles as well (source in Latvian and English: Māksla kā pētniecība / Art as Research. Red. / Eds. K. Mey, R. Šmite, R. Šmits. Rīga: RIXC; Liepāja: MPLab, 2011). Dutton and Swindells pointed to the gap between “the wild and the tame”, therefore between the spontaneous or not always rationally explicable and the academically structured manifestations of artistic creativity, and the bureaucratic and completely rational operational model of an academic institution. At the same time it should be noted that artistic research in many places is regarded as a progressive model of higher education in the arts, well-suited to contemporary interdisciplinary thinking (and also the economy).

Yet more ruins to be restored

The atmosphere and discussions at the conference were conducive to a re-evaluation of issues with regard to art history and theory education in Latvia. During her doctoral studies at the Academy of Arts of Latvia, the author of this article produced a report for the conference, The ‘New Wave’ of Photography: The Role of Documentary Photography in Latvian Art Scene during Glasnost Era.

The report focuses on the ‘New Wave’, a term established by art historian and curator Helēna Demakova for designating the phenomena in Latvian photography in the context of mid to late 1980s art. Applying the methods of both art history and communications science, the report analyses the connection between the fluctuations of popular opinion during an era of political and social change (marked by Mikhail Gorbachov’s policies of glasnostj or openness and perestroika or restructuring), and formal and esthetical changes in assumptions about the photograph as a work of art.

During the decade in question, the dominant means of photographic expression took shape, which to a great extent still defines the scale of values when assessing a photograph as a work of art in the early 21st century. Moreover, the formation of this dominating feature is connected with a fundamental structure of thinking based on oppos¬ites: new values are absolutised, and the values and heritage of the previous period are uncritically rejected. In art, too, and in photography especially, a discursive tendency can be observed which consolidated a negative attitude towards everything “old” and Soviet, and fostered a positive attitude towards all things “new”. Although the tendency in itself is to be evaluated neutrally, as a historical fact, it has had devastating consequences on the preservation and research of Latvian 20th century photography.

Taking into account, particularly, that photography in Latvia did not develop a solid institutional base during the Soviet era (unlike, for instance, the officially recognised fine arts) and consequently no collection of photographic art was ever started up, you could claim that after the restoration of Latvia’s independence the photographic art which had been created in the timespan from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s was simply deleted from the field of historical research. Latvian photographic works of this period have not been collected in an organized manner, they are not available, neither to local nor foreign researchers, and thus photography simply is not there, neither in the public space nor in the academic environment.

Only in the last decade there has been a change in attitude, linked to an overall reassessment of the Soviet period and a renaissance of its kind, which has served as a stimulus for launching historical research about the time (the associated problems were discussed in detail in my article Pieci teikumi par padomju laika mākslu / ‘Five Sentences about Soviet Art’, Dizaina Studija, No. 1(29), 2011, pp. 10–13).

Since the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, some scientific research projects have been undertaken, and there have been exhibitions and conferences that also included photography. The efforts of certain individual researchers and the kindness of photographers and their legatees who have permitted researchers access to private archives are deserving of praise. We should also note separate initiatives on the part of the academic community: young art historians write their bachelor, masters and doctoral papers on studies in the history of photography in Latvia, while programme leaders at various education establishments are gradually bringing the history of Latvian 20th century photography onto the list of academic subjects.
Acropolis Museum, Athens
Following cooperation with Latvia Culture College and the New Media Art Studies programme at Liepāja University for the academic year 2010/2011, I have to admit that, regrettably, in Latvia at present it is practically impossible to prepare a course of study in this subject, for the most part due to the absence of two mainstays of a study programme: sources and academic literature. Various sources have been gathered, fragmentarily, by different kinds of museums all over Latvia. Those Lat¬vian photographers’ works which were created from 1950 to the early 1990s have not yet been systematically assembled into a professional collection. Photographic works are held in the private collections of photographers, their legatees or family members; the photographs have not been provided with scholarly annotations and more often as not are inaccessible to researchers.

This lack of access to sources, in turn, is the reason for the absence of literature. Original research on certain authors and phenomena was published over the course of five years (2006–2010) in the Foto Kvartāls journal, until the shortage of funds put an end to the idea of compiling and publishing material on Latvian photography in the context of 20th–21st century world processes.

The absence of sources and literature, meanwhile, has a direct influence on the quality of education, and more likely to be spreading ignorance rather than knowledge. For example, in order to prepare and deliver a university course on the history of photography in Latvia, a lecturer must carry out original research on a massive scale, using as a basis primary sources held in libraries, archives and museums. This applies to the second half of the 19th century, the early 20th century, between the wars and, even more so, the relatively recent Soviet period. 

Although since 1991 there has been in existence a Latvian Photography Museum, which holds a collection that theoretically covers the period from the 19th century to 1940, not a single monograph or academic study of Latvian photographers in the early 20th century and during the first independence has been published. The founders of our national school of photography – Mārtiņš Buclers, Vilis Rīdzenieks, Roberts Johansons and many others – are known to the general public only by surname and perhaps one or two works. In order to give students some idea about practical and theoretical activities of these authors working in the interwar period, a lecturer has to singlehandedly write up biographies of these authors, identify publications, find information in museums, libraries and private archives, and request permission to digitise materials. By the same token, as regards the postwar period, quality publications are only available about a couple of photographers, which is not nearly enough to form the contents of a study course that would meet academic requirements. It is not even worth asking whether potential teachers have the adequate time and material resources at their disposal to carry out ori¬ginal research on this scale, starting from scratch and developing the required study material.

One could conclude that in Latvia this situation has evolved as a result of local understanding of what democratisation means, and the “openness and restructuring” in the late 1980s, when a tradition was established for the se¬lective denial of Soviet era events, personalities and phenomena – a tradition that has persisted for decades. 

/Translator into English: Sarmīte Lietuviete/

The author of the article wishes to thank the National Culture Capital Foundation assistance programme for the opportunity to take part in the 2nd Annual International Conference on Visual and Performance Arts.
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