Art of freedom

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

Jeremy Mulvey (Cambridge School of Art) on the drawbacks of the traditional art education model:

Unfortunately … there were a number of key problems… The new empty curriculum and emphasis on the student’s subjective responses left the staff with the problem of how to teach such a course. … From what others have told me, it is clear that some tutors found effective ways of teaching the new open curriculum and of encouraging students to flourish, students mostly unfamiliar and unprepared for such a style of education. But I think these tutors were few and far between, certainly in the early days.

For the most part, it seems, the staff, bereft of a coherent teaching strategy for the new curriculum, fell back on a number of tactics. Firstly there was the ‘macho crit’. The students would be allowed to do what they wanted for a few weeks. Then towards the end of each term there would be a big gathering of staff and students. The students’ work would be examined in front of the others and clear examples of success and failure pointed out to the year group. It seemed that the educational idea underpinning this was that a hard-hitting attack would encourage the students. Angry observations and insults were exchanged. It could be frightening.

According to Roy Trollop, who was a student in the 50s at St Martins Art School and who later became Head of the Fine Art Department at Central St Martins School of Art, the first ‘macho crit’ was imported from the United States in 1963. An American abstract expressionist came to St Martin’s Art School to show his art and stayed around to discuss the students’ work. He launched into a scathing attack on the work as a whole and any individual who contradicted him. …

Clearly, a number of tutors saw in the performance that took place that evening in St Martins … something very potent. It offered them a useful way of containing the daunting freedom that students and staff encountered as a result of the new curriculum. … I suppose the ‘macho crit’ was meant, at best, to be a bracing experience. At worst, it could feel as though you had got caught up in a modernist boot camp.

Another tactic was ‘huddling’. There was a significant level of alcohol dependency amongst most of the tutors I came across. Discussions about aesthetics would transfer from the studio to the college bar or a nearby pub. Often the topics were complex to begin with but got cruder and more heated as the evening wore on. I suspect these occasions could be very useful opportunities for gaining insights if you got invited to them. But a degree of huddling took place: only students the staff felt comfortable with were taken along. More importantly, these ‘fatherly chats’ or ‘family rows’ meant that the tutors were undercutting the potential openness of the new fine art course by trying to mould students in their own image.

The onslaught of identity politics of the 70s and 80s dented this form of cloning a little. Alcoholism in art schools diminished for some reason in the late 80s, and as it did the occasions for huddling became fewer.

The notion that teaching staff’s job was to identify the students as ‘exceptionally talented’, ‘talented’ or ‘not talented’ was still prevalent in the 60s. A greater clarity about the universality and flexibility of human creativity emerged with post-war psychology and sociology. This greater understanding began to take hold in higher education in the 80s and increasingly marginalised the practice of ‘labelling’ students. The ‘open model’ of the fine art curriculum inherited this practice from centuries of art teaching. Moreover, the idea of teaching as a process of selection and grading of people rather than performance was contrary to the democratic spirit and thrust of the post-war education agenda.

I think a lot of these methods still dominate – the filtering process, the favouritism, the bullying crit, the ‘toughening up’, the macho culture… It leads to a precious and precocious ‘me me me’ sensibility and that’s completely alien to design. But it also leads to articles like this one from A Brief Message, where the idea that designers should be asked to think rather than just make seems to be a direct attack on the very essence of what it is to be a designer.
It’s very nice to be a maker, lost in your own little world, cutting things out and sticking them together. But if it doesn’t help people, or change the world for the better, well I’m sorry but that’s not design. That’s pissing about.

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