Arts Council Head joins the fray

Tuesday, June 29th, 2004

In an interesting interview in today’s Guardian newspaper (reproduced in full below) Sir Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College of Art and head of the UK Arts Council, says “What’s needed is a new and higher level of national debate about the status and purpose of higher education in the creative arts.” He needs to read sites like this, Point, Cranbrook, Speak Up and more because it’s already happening! Largely, it seems the discussion is hottest in the USA but I know that there are many teachers in art and design in the UK who share the same or broadly similar views to my own but are afraid to speak out – and after what happened to me in my last job I’m not surprised!

While senior management at the top end of the scale, and students at the bottom end (I don’t mean that disparagingly) seem to be pushing for the principle of education through art, rather than simple and quickly outdated training, an academic or liberal arts approach, there are many in the middle who see the role of art and design education to shape a small elite in their own image and bollocks to the rest of ’em.

Frayling’s comments are welcome, and to be fair he has been saying such things for quite some time, and I have a great deal of respect for the guy. But the fact that the discussion has been going on since the 1940s if not longer suggests that there are some entrenched views that will take a lot of shifting. One way is to do what other subjects do – recruit faculty from each crop of students rather than rely, as we do, on part time artists and designers earning a bit of cash by bestowing their “wisdom” until something better comes along, and who fiercely refuse to be thought of as teachers.

I’m being deliberately controversial there (I’m a part time teacher at the moment!) but I have a feeling the only way to get the debate going is to shout long and hard in people’s faces and challenge them to give an intelligent response. I’m happy as ever to play devil’s advocate, but it would be nice if, like other academic disciplines, people like me could say what we want to say without being forced out of their jobs.

Heart in hand

Are there too many graduates in creative subjects? No, Christopher Frayling tells Stephen Cook: it is time to stop thinking of arts degrees as trade qualifications

Tuesday June 29, 2004

The Guardian

The number of young people coming out of Britain’s higher education system in any three-year cycle with degrees including the words “art” or “design” in the title is greater than the entire population of Florence during the Renaissance.

Sir Christopher Frayling mentions it as he talks about how, from Anglia Polytechnic University to the University of Wolverhampton, such courses have become fashionable, and he wonders what happens to the high proportion of graduates in art and design subjects who don’t end up as artists or designers, or working in any part of the sector they’ve studied. “I do sometimes ask myself whether we’re overproducing,” he says.

But the answer the rector of the Royal College of Art (RCA) gives himself is “no”. What’s needed, he argues, is a new and higher level of national debate about the status and purpose of higher education in the creative arts. The debate would be helped, he says, if statements on the subject emanated occasionally from the education secretary and the arts minister, and if politicians were as happy to be seen coming out of the opera as hobnobbing with football club chairmen.

In his immediate surroundings, status isn’t a problem. His college skims the cream off the graduate flood and puts them through two-year postgraduate courses that produce some of the world’s best artists and designers. A new study of what happened to RCA graduates from 1997 to 2001 shows 91% are working at an appropriate level in the field they studied. In some areas the figure is 98%.

Frayling has also been chairman of the Arts Council since late last year, taking responsibility for distributing public funds to organisations ranging from the Royal Opera House to the Babbling Vagabonds Story Telling Theatre Company. His appointment was generally welcomed, although it also produced some remarks about pop intellectuals and lifetime committee men. He is believed to be close to Estelle Morris, who took over the arts brief on her return from self-imposed exile from the government.

Frayling remembers attending his first meeting of university vice-chancellors in 1996. When he told some ivory-tower type that he was the new rector of the Royal College of Art, he received the jokey-but-serious response: “Oh, isn’t that where they mend fuses?” He’s also heard his students referred to as “airbrush fairies”.

That’s part of a persistent syndrome, he says, in which people are unable to accept that the expressive arts are “real” subjects in the world of higher education and would prefer them to be redirected to the tradesmen’s entrance. This attitude survives, he adds, even though Britain’s contemporary artists are hugely successful and the country has become the crucible of the modern design world, supplying people to the top studios in Milan and New York and Tokyo, as well as London.

“There’s still this view that it’s an apprenticeship, a trade qualification, and we can sit in our ivory tower and look down on such things,” he says. “It’s an attitude which says that interpreting the world is worth 10 times the changing of it, and I’ve never understood that.

“After all, how many vice-chancellors can sit in their office and watch the work of graduates go by on four wheels during the rush hour? It’s extraordinary – I look at the Jaguar S class and think, that was designed by one of ours. The Ford Ka, the round one – I remember that guy when he graduated, everyone thought he was mad. So I sit here watching the work of our more successful graduates whizz by, and I feel all paternal.”

However, he says, art and design have been given a boost as serious higher education subjects by the creation earlier this year of the new University of the Arts London, which was formerly the London Institute and comprises six creative arts colleges, which were once independent. Frayling’s quibble was that an impression was created that this was the first all-art and design institution to receive full university status, whereas it was in fact the second: the RCA was the first, in 1967.

“But all this lifts the subject and helps its status,” he says. “There are two of us now, but I don’t see it as a rivalry. It gets us to the high table, and that’s all to the good and it’s exciting. The number of applications from overseas has shot up, because to be in London is now very hip for young artists. Art, design, music, clubbing – it acts as a magnet and it rebrands the city.”

So much for status. The other awkward question Frayling thinks in need of a better and wider debate is the purpose of all this burgeoning education in art and design. At the moment, he says, an atmosphere of “practice or bust” still hangs around many art and design courses, and people somehow feel they are second best if they do not end up as artists or designers.

“In what other discipline would you feel relegated to the second eleven because you weren’t working in the subject you’d studied? You’re not regarded as a failure if you study history but don’t become a historian. Once again, it’s this hangover from the idea of trade, which is very deep-rooted.”

For a way forward he looks to the critic and essayist Herbert Read, who in 1943 wrote a book called Education Through Art. Read argued that one form of art education was education to art, which produces practitioners of painting and sculpture and design, and so on; but another was education through art, which produces people who work in other fields but brings to those areas the useful special qualities that an education in art can foster.

“Read was right, in my view,” says Frayling. “But our sector is not very good at articulating what it is that we’re teaching through art. We still tend to make it look as if everyone is being prepared for actually doing it, and of course that’s not the case. Art education is a means of bringing out things like problem-solving, self-confidence, the ability to say ‘why not’ rather than ‘why’, mental-manual coordination, the willingness to see as well as look, and a flexible approach to navigating through life.

“So if we think art is a good way of teaching life skills and preparing people for other types of work, we need to have a proper public debate about it. We probably need a major figure, somebody like Piaget [the educational psychologist], to write something about all this so that it begins to seep into educational thinking and policy.”

Frayling thinks the “practice or bust” attitude has been left over from the 1950s and 60s, when art education was isolated in colleges and didn’t have much contact with broader academic disciplines. Now that many such colleges have been absorbed into new universities, and universities have started more art and design courses, he thinks the ghetto may be disappearing and new courses are producing a broader, more flexible range of skills. An example of this, he says, is industrial design and engineering, which the RCA runs with its neighbour, Imperial College.

All these questions, says Frayling, are on the national policy agenda to some extent, but the statements are coming from the wrong place – from the less powerful Department of Culture, Media and Sport rather than the more powerful Department for Education and Skills, with its obsession with basic skills and the three Rs.

“Someone once told me – and I haven’t had the chance to research it – that the orginal meaning of that phrase was completely different in Regency times, at the beginning of the 19th century,” he says. “The three Rs were reading, wroughting and arithmetic – in other words, literacy, making things and numeracy.

“Reading and writing are the same thing, basically – the two sides of the literacy coin. So it makes sense to me that the original concept of a fully rounded education was literacy, the arts and numeracy. And then in the era of Mr Gradgrind and the Great Exhibtion of the 1850s, the wroughting got dropped in favour of writing.

“So generally I’m not sure that the standard of public debate is that high about the role of the arts in the curriculum. I’d like to bring back wroughting. I think any rounded education should have all three – literacy, numeracy, making. And then, as Ruskin said, you have ‘the head, the heart and the hand, and thus you produce the complete person’.”

However, Frayling has learnt the hard way not to get too carried away by his theme that art education is a good preparation for all kinds of other professions. He once found himself telling a German audience in Hanover that he wouldn’t be surprised if one day there was a head of state with an art education.

“Then I suddenly realised what I’d said,” he says. “There was a silence for a while, and then somebody said quietly: ‘We tried that once.’ It was a tense moment. All I could say was that Hitler did actually fail his foundation course.”

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