Apollo Magazine

Forum: Is the golden age of art schools over?

Are art schools in danger of turning into finishing schools for those who can afford them, or can they survive as places where students can experiment?

Ben Pimlott Building at Goldsmiths, University of London. Source: Wikipedia

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With soaring fees for higher education in the UK, all the humanities are having to make a strong case for themselves, and art schools seem to be thinking particularly hard about their purpose. Are they in danger of turning into finishing schools for those who can afford them, or can they survive as places where students can experiment? And is a previous generation guilty of nostalgia, dreaming of a golden age of teaching and learning that never really existed? More from the Apollo Forum

YES: George Vasey

During my foundation year at Falmouth School of Art I learned two important things. The first revelation was coming across the work of Marcel Duchamp and the second was my first encounter with pesto. In other words, as an 18 year old, art school was the place where I learned about art history, other cultures, politics and philosophy. It was the first place I encountered Artforum, The Guardian, polysyllabic words, Talking Heads, vintage shops, and pasta sauce that wasn’t Bolognese. I remember the embarrassment of mispronouncing Albert Camus (as Cam-us rather than Camuw) in a seminar and being derided for liking the work of Chuck Close. At first the language of higher education was completely alien to me, yet my time at Falmouth, Newcastle and Goldsmiths toughened me up. It gave me confidence, critical acuity, and the visual and verbal literacy to value my own position. Later, 

Gilda Williams, one of my tutors on the MFA curating course at Goldsmiths, summed it up best; art school teaches you to be an
expert debunker.Over the last few years there has been a growing dissatisfaction with higher education. Rising tuition costs, falling budgets and increasing bureaucracy have led to protests and falling applications. Ten years ago I graduated with £20,000 of student debt from my BA in Fine Art from Newcastle University; now students can expect to owe upwards of £40,000. It is no surprise that free and alternative platforms such as School of the Damned and Open School East have proliferated. Although these models offer a valuable opportunity for some artists, looking at previous participants of Open School East reveals that many of them have already been to prestigious universities. These are platforms that seem to work in parallel with, rather than against, accredited programmes.

Similarly to the Associates scheme at Spike Island and Extra Special People at Eastside Projects, many of these independent programmes offer networks and practical support for emerging artists rather than students leaving school for university. Going to art school is a choice which, for a lot of people, offers a time of self-questioning and a moment to experiment without the pressure of immediate outcomes. Innovation comes from protecting spaces for experimentation without the need for constant justification.

Sadly, since the rise in tuition fees the climate of higher education has become more professionalised with added pressures applied to both students and teachers. When I am asked to give tutorials at universities I am often struck by how many of the students ask practical rather than theoretical questions. Many of them focus attention on the market and how to sell their work before they have properly resolved it. This is worryingly symptomatic of the monetisation of higher education. Good art schools led by great teachers should breed an environment of hypercriticality, collaboration and adaptability among students.

Most of my peers at undergraduate level didn’t carry on making work, but many of them applied skills developed as students to start their own businesses. Art school should offer an education that is fundamental rather than peripheral to contemporary life. During my time at Goldsmiths we rarely talked about art but around it; seminars revolved around critical and economic theory, law, ecology and politics. Contemporary art was viewed as a node around which a complex network of global concerns moved. A good humanities education is about stepping back and seeing the larger picture, connecting the dots between disciplines.

It is often said that the most important room at an art school is the pub over the road, but that doesn’t mean you should close the campus down and move in to the pub. Whether it’s learning to write code, using Photoshop or stretching a canvas, art schools provide the expertise and facilities that are in short supply once the student leaves. One can also easily forget that teaching is often the only secure and (relatively) well-paid profession for artists, protecting them against the fickle attention of the market.

We need to value permissive and speculative approaches to learning and oppose those who want to end these on ideological grounds. We should protect art at an institutional level rather than abandon it; the grass isn’t always greener. The art school is more than a building; it is a network of ideas and histories that need defending. To quote the great cultural theorist Stuart Hall, ‘A university is a critical institution or it is nothing.

George Vasey is the curator of the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland.

NO: Jeremy Till

The question begs another one. When was the golden age? The Renaissance Academy? The Parisian Beaux-Arts? The Victorian Atelier…? My own heart lies with the 180 art schools that were spread around UK provincial towns in the early 20th century, acting as centres of cultural and artistic life.

But the timing of a golden age tends to coincide with the youth of the people who fetishise it, so I guess we must be talking about the 1960s and 1970s, that time of presumed freedom, hedonism and pure creativity. This age must be golden, goes the logic, because their graduates are now famous and leading the art world (or at least the famous ones are famous). And then, the narrative goes, all this has been lost. Art schools have become professionalised. They are run by managers as businesses. They have closed down craft workshops. They don’t let in working-class people. And, worst of all, they have shut
out creativity.

This was the narrative constructed in a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, Art School, Smart School, but it is full of falsehoods and misplaced nostalgia. Yes, art schools have become more professionalised, and we should be thankful for that: the previous versions were shot through with favouritism and misogyny, with self-appointed gatekeepers determining who and what had worth. Although there were of course some inspiring and important teachers, sexism and patriarchy tended to influence judgements, not just in fine art but across most creative disciplines. But no, this professionalisation does not mean that we have got rid of practising artists as teachers – they remain at the core of our teaching.

And yes, art schools have had to adopt the methods of business, because that is what government policy has demanded. However, workshops have not been shut down: for example University of the Arts London expanded workshop provision at Central Saint Martins when we moved to new buildings at King’s Cross. The same was true following the Royal College of Art’s expansion into Battersea. In both cases traditional media and technologies were retained alongside new digital facilities.

And no, we haven’t become exclusive zones: art schools now cater for a far broader and bigger community of students than they did in the 1960s and 1970s. Against expectations and fears, participation from lower socio-economic groups has risen over the past 10 years at institutions such as UAL, mainly due to large investments in widening participation schemes that were barely existent in the 1970s.

The most serious charge appears to be that art schools have lost their creative urge and the freedom to express. I simply do not see the evidence for this, indeed quite the opposite. With a few brilliant exceptions, the earlier art schools worked within a received canon, and those gatekeepers ensured that the canon was perpetuated through the gallery, publication and awards system. Those chosen to pass through the gates became famous. Now art and art education work in an expanded field, culturally, materially and politically. It is simply romantic to cling to versions of the past that deny these changes.

I see art students embracing these multiple contexts, and finding space within them to pursue their individual and collective creativity. I am humbled by their ability to negotiate the complexity of these contingent forces and make sense of them through their work. And I see them engaging with the external world in a manner that challenges the inward-looking obsessions of aesthetics and process that dominated earlier art-school education.

As for the golden crop of alumni produced from the ‘golden’ generation, it is true to say that every era produces its enfants terribles and sacred monsters, and that myths form around them and their education. The great advantage of teaching is that I don’t need to hark back or fetishise experience and fame: I see the brilliance of the generation now at art school every day.

But I do agree with one thing lost from the ‘golden age’. Money. Grants and free education are now a thing of the past, and students are increasingly likely to be squeezed, excluded and compromised. So rather than the art world turning in on itself through false narratives of a gilded
past, we should stand together, and make 
the case for a funding system that is fit for the purpose of supporting art and design students through the specific demands of their courses. And we should all argue long and hard for the critical role that art schools play in the culture of our society.’

Jeremy Till is Head of Central Saint Martins and Pro Vice-Chancellor of University of the Arts London.

The Apollo Forum

Is it ever justifiable to burn a fake? Is the US ivory ban counterproductive? Are online auctions the future of the art trade? Catch up on all our previous Forum discussions here.

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