If I am not mistaken, I thinly retain some grasp a moment of an art that existed before global conceptualism, and an understanding of transatlantic Conceptual Art itself that challenged, amongst other things, the pre-eminence of capitalism, institutionalised culture and ‘approved’ visual aesthetics. I say this having spent more years than I care to remember immersed in the ‘art world’, as a maker, educator, influencer and curator. I am trying to communicate here a gradual dawning of an understanding on my part, regarding the evolution of British art education and the artists that have benefited from it since the 1960’s. My own understanding has taken decades to mature but perhaps has only recently reached a moment of resolution, embodied by the artist Sonia Boyce triumphantly lifting the Golden Lion at the current 59th Venice Biennale.
I start my discussion on British art education’s origins with the ‘levelling-up’ of British art schools back in the late 1950’s and ‘60’s by the establishment of the National Advisory Council on Art Education in 1958. Its initial report, published in 1960, (aka The Coldstream Report), on the state of art education delivery in Britain proposed a template outlining the standards required for a new Diploma in Art and Design. Its proposals were widely adopted by art schools, eventually conferring degree status on the Dip. AD award and on institutions or their sponsoring university partners. Essentially, Coldstream laid out the requirements for arts degrees which still persist in some form to this day, with study of an arts specialism tempered by accompanying written work in the form of an essay or dissertation; this so that artists should be able to write about work, have a grounding in art history and be able to articulate in the written word, ideas around practice. British art schools prospered during the 1960’s and 1970’s as national standards were established and teaching quality saw evolutionary and sometimes revolutionary institutional enhancement. So far so good.
I will argue here that the deeper ramifications of the largely successful implementation of Coldstream didn’t really unfold until the remit and focus of UK higher education was shifted massively by successive governments from the late 1970’s onwards: Art school students became eligible to gain an honours degree for their studies in Fine Art or Sculpture etc. But art schools generally were unable to award their own degrees1. So art schools needed ‘proper’, established university partners (with TDAP) to enable their students to gain degrees. This quality and standards relationship brought the art schools into university’s academic spheres of influence, whilst the expansion of those universities and emergence of the new Polytechnics made art schools attractive propositions from a funding and portfolio perspective. The 1960’s and 1970’s saw art schools being absorbed into universities and polytechnics for academic but also financial reasons, some of these absorptions were amicable, but some, it must be said, were resented by art school staff and students effectively as being hostile mergers, acquisitions or even ‘takeovers’2.
The further implication of these amalgamations, in my own view, was what I would call the creeping ‘humanitisation’3 of the plastic arts, including areas of design, as students were exposed to, and indeed attracted by, the diversity of ideas and fields of study of their fellow university students. Philosophy, the social sciences, history and psychology among others all seemed like rich pickings for art students, and it made the thematic and theoretical explanation/justification/defence of their art unassailable to unsuspecting art teachers who found themselves completely out of their depth and comfort zone (having trained pre-Coldstream). I speak about students’ need to be able to defend their artwork here only in passing, but in British art schools post-war/post-Coldstream, it was the norm for students to have to publicly account for their work in group critiques which ranged from discursive to brutal in their interrogation of ‘intentionality’.
So it was that by the mid 1980’s art students were able to shift their allegiances within a widely diversified field of reference in order to rationalise or drive their work. Students rejected the sensual forms of Moore, the visceral draw of Beuys, the painterly genius of Hockney and the narcissistic intellect of Dali. Instead art students were just as likely to cite Kerouac or Wittgenstein, Social Policy, Social Practice, Greater Manchester Police, Imperialism/Colonialism or Gay Rights in their shift towards defensive or offensive narrative. The linguistic and thematic use of art to actively address ‘issues’ and perhaps injustice came to the fore. Students became much more likely to offer up Jeff Koons, Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Tracey Emin, Keith Haring as being their artistic influencers.
In short, those of us who taught in the 1980’s onwards had been educated in on a mixed rubric, based in modernist sculpture and painting and originating in the 1970’s, delivered by a generation of (predominantly male and ageing) artist/educators such as Anthony Caro, Phillip King or Eduardo Paolozzi. In short we were ill-prepared. As newbie teachers, we found ourselves more or less in an art education system that we barely recognised, much less understood4. A system where students eschewed material craft and the acquisition of traditional artistic skills in favour of narrative, issue-based forms of storytelling through art, sometimes with meagre means. Here I have to draw a line under the context to conjecture on the respective impacts that I am proposing from the various interacting elements I cite.
Impact 1: Based on my first-hand experience, I would say that the interactions and methodologies imported into visual arts from the Humanities have had a number of profound effects on art and artists over the past 50 years. In my view, the idea, (an idea that I would say is now commonplace), that the production of credible undergraduate visual art requires a (humanities) methodology and appropriately framed research question has served to promote narrative/issue based visual art. I would also say that this can prematurely signal the criteria for research degree study and distorts notions of wilder exploration without boundaries at an early stage in an artist’s career.
Impact 2: Partly as a result of 1 above, but also as a result of social media and celebrity, artists now feel the need more than ever to signal their virtue through their work/ideas/themes to indicate (by implication) that they are a good or virtuous person. Therefore art that is characterised by its announced stance either ‘anti’ (anti-fascism, anti-binary, anti-corporate, anti-animal cruelty, anti-elitist, anti-meat…) or ‘pro’ (Pro LGBT+, pro-vegan, pro-environment, pro-abortion, pro-diversity, etc.) is created by implication, by a protagonist who is a ‘good’ person and therefore probably a ‘good’ artist. I have no problem with the labels of course, or with the sentiments of those who are genuinely inspired by the need to narrate and to use their artistic vehicle and talent to highlight an issue. What I do have a problem with is artists who predicate their production or preface their work with a ‘right on’ theme as either a pre-emptive defence mechanism or ‘Joker’ against negative critical feedback - or even as a catchy hook for the press. I mean what critic or commentator in their right mind would challenge an artist making work that is anti-war or pro-justice? To critique the work effectively starts to critique the virtue, and who wants to run that risk on social media nowadays, regardless of whether the art is utter drivel or not.
Finally, and on a positive note, and despite the described machinations of British art education over the past 60 years I was hugely heartened and actually thrilled to see one of its graduates, Sonia Boyce, lift the trophy at Venice. It reminded me at least that for students who lived through the institutional and academic turbulence of the 1980’s, the education still helped.
1 Art schools did not generally have the requisite Taught Degree Awarding Powers (TDAP) which were accorded to UK universities by the Governmental body by The Privy Council (or to be entirely accurate, the ancient body named ‘Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council’).
2 The coincidence of the amalgamation of art schools into the University sector and the tumult of the tectonic shifts in the artworld were a truly extraordinary and extremely fractious moment for UK arts education.
3 Within wider University development projects, Humanities faculties often took on, (or more accurately were ‘given’), the task of ‘modernising’ teaching, learning and assessment methods for the arts, whose methods were frequently seen as subjective, recalcitrant and old fashioned – and culturally troublesome to manage. So it was that art students at this time experienced a heady mix of willing/unwilling staff departures, a mad mix of old and new teaching methods, alongside a steady decline in the importance of accompanying art history departments and a breakdown of the unified field of visual art. The ‘Sensation’ show at London’s Royal Academy undoubtedly focused the turbulence of the student experience and presented an edgy, controversial and irreverent take on the relationship between pedagogic input and creative output.
4 In the early to mid-1980’s, the faculty in art departments had, in many instances, been in lifelong teaching roles since completing their Dip. AD, without any need for professional updating or engagement with wider cultural or commercial arts sectors. The second was that the facilities in art departments also reflected a triumvirate system where painting claimed pre-eminence, sculpture the moral high ground and printmaking looked down on service area for the proponents of the two aforementioned ‘senior services’. The notion of interdisciplinary fine arts or of a hybridity of practice was out with the provision and its post-war rationale.