Art, School, Change
“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”
On a rainy morning in June 2005, I stood inside a red phone box on the corner of Arglye Street, sobbing uncontrollably…
I begin with this sodden vignette because that moment marked a crucial axis in my understanding and experience of formal art education. Nine months into the Painting and Printmaking Degree at Glasgow School of Art and I was utterly miserable. I spent 12 hours a day (first in my pokey halls of residence room, then in the studio, then back to my room again in the evenings) labouring over horrible oil paintings in the style of the various great and dead masters. When tutors breezed through my sketchbooks, full of scribbles, research notes and citations from Art in Theory, they told me that stuff was unnecessary: “you should just be painting”. I spent my weekends in the library reading theory, watching early Herzog films and dreaming of other possibilities.
The inherent contradiction at the heart of the formal art education system is that, whilst it may teach you how to mix and layer paint, how to replicate images, how to write winning essays or how to point-score, it doesn’t teach you anything about how to be an artist. So, as I stood in that phone box, dripping wet and paralyzed by the weight of the choice I had to make (between calling UCAS clearing or persevering at this eminent art school) I finally came to a decision: I wasn’t going to be a painter anymore, I was going to be an artist* .
An artist without art school
In his 2006 TED Talk Schools Kill Creativity the writer and former government advisor Ken Russel outlines some of the reasons why an emphasis on point scoring in education (at all levels) is detrimental to creativity:
“… if you’re not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original… we are running an education system where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is we are educating people out of their creative capacities…”
This statement underlines one of the crucial problems with the current art school system (and art in the curriculum more generally); when, as students, we busy ourselves with trying to please our tutors, to lay out our aims and outcomes in verbose, well referenced personal statements, to achieve top marks, we are missing the purpose of art making itself – to dive head first into the gloaming dark of the unknown, to take risks, to experiment and importantly, to get things wrong in order to discover new possibilities, new ways forward and new ways of seeing.
Art school’s innate pedagogy and over emphasis on competitive point scoring (first class students being branded as ‘more successful’ than second or third class) tends to proliferate an unhealthy degree of elitism and hierarchical structures (reminiscent of the commercial art system). I don’t believe this is a wholly healthy or creative environment in which to develop as an artist or, for that matter, as a human being…
However, just to give the current art school system some credit and to acknowledge the argument posed by Jan Verwoerts’ essay School’s Out!-?, art school can be a valuable refuge from the blood thirsty, highly competitive commercial art system as it does allow students - or at least those who abandon the preoccupation with grades to focus on developing and consolidating their personal practice - the opportunity to do so free from the pressures of the intransigent art market outside the university doors. The problem for students in that context is escaping the constraints of academic achievement can be unavoidable and all pervasive. With the recent government cuts to the arts and art education in particular the burden is placed on the tutors and lecturers to demonstrate that their students are performing well and representing their universities with eminency. Target grades are absolutely intertwined with monetary concerns. The intimate but profound mysteries and discoveries of the art making process don’t translate to the benefit of the university system unless the individual undertaking them is scoring above 65%... A first class student brings a course and university a better monetary return than a third or failing one, even if those lower scoring students are making world-changing discoveries…
The Causes: Words, Education and Isolationism
It was only as recently as the Industrial Revolution that the word art shifted from meaning ‘any human skill’ (e.g. a Cobbler’s art or the art of science) to meaning ‘a specific and particular group of creative skills’ i.e. fine art as defined in opposition any other arts of science, religion or craft . What is significant about this shift in semantics, and my reason for highlighting it here, is that it underlined a change in state; whereas art had once pervaded every aspect of human endeavour and enquiry this changed during the industrial revolution as art became designated, specialised, extracted from the larger sociocultural body and raised into its own rarefied, isolated condition of “l’art pour l’art”. What happened next was that idea of art (beginning with the romantics) became polarized and institutionalised as a separate discipline. Art was no longer practiced by mankind (and womankind) but by artists. What school does (and art school perpetuates) is to teach people that art is not an innate impulse but something which is learnt and, in addition, that art is a discipline some of us (apparently) are better at learning than others.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”.
In thinking about formal and alternative models for the art school, I believe it is essential we bear these definitions in mind and question their efficacy (or lack of) in our contemporary context and usage.
The current system of art in academia
My second major encounter, or opportunity to really examine, formal art education came about in 2011 when I was commissioned to write a number of evaluative reviews on significant recent Creative Partnerships projects . What struck me about these projects was the way in which artists were introduced to a school or college not to teach but to collaborate with staff and students over a shared problem. In conversation with the artist and poet Alec Finlay about his various enterprises with schools he emphasised the value of CP allowing artists the opportunity to deal with the larger entity of the school including its curriculum and relationship to the community, rather than the more reactionary process of simply making a one-off piece of work or performance:
“… I thought of what I was doing more being about the curriculum itself. We did poems on the whole curriculum in a few schools … so we're trying to actually say to the school “Why do you study these things?”, “What are they for?” to give them a way of analysing their own activity. I'm modest about what we did but I can see its applicability and that's always interesting for an artist, when you move beyond your own expression…”
Alec Finlay, Tuesday 2nd August 2011
The idea of a ‘creative legacy’ left behind by these projects was a common theme amongst all the interviews I conducted with artists, creative practitioners, facilitators and teachers. The insertion of artists into the compulsory curriculum context was not simply to deliver workshops or create a new piece of student-led work but to seed and propagate creative ways of thinking and problem solving.
Another common thread which ran throughout the comments of both interviewees and students was the way in which these projects altered the emphasis from individual pupil performance to collaborative creativity and shared responsibility for process and outcomes. During our interview Alec told me warmly about how, upon revisiting one of the schools a few weeks after his involvement with the project had finished, one boy could identify who had written each line of a long, collaborative Renga poem:
“…that was very touching. That was in effect an emotion he was having about recognising the gifts of other people. .. I was going say that he couldn't have done that as easily if they'd all just written an individual poem as such…”
The reason I bring these case studies into our conversation about the art school model is twofold; first of all, because I believe it underlines an endemic problem with curriculum education generally and art education more specifically: Almost none of the students across the nine schools and projects which I evaluated had previously been exposed to the kind of creative approaches to learning and thinking which these artists introduced. For most, this was the first time they had been allowed the creative freedom to direct their own learning and outcomes, to work as creative producers, critics and mentors, to experiment and even sometimes – heaven forbid! – to make mistakes. Secondly; because I believe this common experience of education – one which promotes the achievement of the individual over conversation, reflexivity and creative responsibility - is integral to conditioning contemporary experiences of, and attitudes towards, art more widely. To return to the quote from Picasso “Every child is an artist…” if this is true, what happens between being born and now which means some of us remain ‘artists’ whilst so many others do not? I think one of the major contributing factors to the public’s disenchantment with contemporary art is precisely down to our polarizing and prescriptive educational systems and institutions.
Shared learning, the autonomous art school, the workshop
How many of us have been to, or even run, an art workshop or event which is free and open to the public? Presented as part of Temporary Art School’s symposium, I imagine that most of you reading this will have had, at the very least, some experience of this. My next question to you is: of those experiences, how many of the active participants were kosher ‘members of the non-art public’?
Whilst I have both participated in and facilitated a number of projects and workshops, from large scale festivals of art including Wunderbar and AV Festival to smaller, one off events and time-based/ performance pieces (which invited participation from anyone such as the recent three-day event A NewBridge Enquiry ) it has predominantly been my experience that the involvement of the public, unless the project has been directly geared to a specific group, has been liminal.
Of course I don’t want to over generalise and I am open to contradiction but, predominantly based on these experiences, it seems that when inviting the public in - not as merely passive spectators but as active participants who contribute towards and shape those events - these utopian projects have, for the most part, been unsuccessful in engaging active, sustained participation from the’ non-art’ public. This said I don’t want to base an argument merely on personal anecdote; there could be all number of reasons why my experiences of participatory art projects have not included a greater degree of involvement; geographical or time constraints, publicity, accessibility etc. I must also acknowledge here that there are a number of well documented projects which have had a significant level of public engagement and positive, lasting effects on social relations e.g. Seeds to Soil (S2S), The One Dollar Laptop Project, Orsay Commons etc.
The main issue as I understand it, and as argued eloquently by Claire Bishop in her essay Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics (2010), is that the majority of art works and projects which invite open participation from the public at large fail to introduce anything more than a temporary site for activity and engagement, an ephemeral “microtopia”. As positive and altruistic as their founding principles may be, these projects almost exclusively fail to equip the ‘non-art’ public with the knowledge, skills and confidence to take away with them and then to reapply those same creative, critical and community-based approaches to their everyday lives.
The 1990s buzz of Bourrairds’ Relational Aesthetics (as a distinct approach to art making and reception) has, in contemporary thought and criticism, acquired the status of a dirty hangover; everyone gleefully went to the dinner party, stuffed full of ideals and gallery-cooked meals, only to wake up in the new millennium with nothing to show for it but the documentation of a short period of time spent occupying the same space and some unrealistic conversations over ideals (plus the obligatory fluffy, gold sweet-wrapper in their jacket pocket).
But perhaps I need to make a distinction now between the autonomous artwork and the art workshop or shared learning situation? A workshop is distinct from an artwork or exhibition (usually) as it takes a more familiar form, one which is couched in common experience, the invitation to engage is usually conducted through recognisable channels and is ‘friendlier’ or more directly welcoming than the less hospitable and to many people, untrained in the arts, incomprehensible white cube gallery space. Perhaps in the wake of the Relational Aesthetics episode, the models which will be most potent in engaging wider audiences with art, and in providing them with its various, mutable skills and ways of thinking (e.g. creativity, problem solving, praxis as a means of enquiry, accessing the unknown, the unpredictable, the ineffable and other perspectives or possibilities) will be the workshop and the open school?
Conclusion, ways forward
During a ‘break out session’ on The role of Art in Contemporary Society at the recent State of the Arts Conference 2012 in Salford, an argument had developed over the provision of arts for children and young people in less privileged areas. One of the attendees, an artist from Gateshead, stood up and told the assembly about the potential negative consequences that axing Creative Partnerships and the cut backs to art facilities in her children’s schools could have. She went on to say:
“Art emancipated me... I was a failing student at school, no good at English or Maths… I came from a working class family… no one else in my family had ever been to University. I was the first to go and it was art that got me there...”
We’re not going to revolutionise the current art system. (Well, not over a weekend anyway). But it seems obvious that there are some fundamental changes which have to take place to wider attitudes and approaches to art education at all levels, from compulsory to further and higher education. In the context of this conversation on alternative models of art school, what it is that I want to address about this artists account is twofold; Firstly, to do with the provisions and attitudes towards compulsory education and arts role therein; Secondly, the idea of emancipation, further education and the way in which art can engage us creatively with the world around us and one another.
Before a better understanding of dyslexia was generally gained, many children with special educational needs were branded as stupid, ignorant or simply unwilling to learn . Innumerable children of a generation before (and even some from our own living memories, depending on our experience of school and antiquated approaches to teaching and learning) were essentially doomed to fail because society couldn’t acknowledge that their brains simply work differently to others. I believe that a similar revolution needs to take place in regards to understanding creativity and the creative brain. Almost every child is creative: they all mark make, dance, sing, perform, tell stories, create imaginary worlds and scenarios. We mustn’t undervalue these innate activities or their potential. I believe we need to stop thinking of creativity and art in such polarized and divisional terms as something which happens ‘at play time’ then ‘in art class’ and finally ‘at art school’. As individuals and society we need to look at the deeper ecology involved in creativity, both to better our lives and the lives of future generations but also to better art.
I’m not calling for the next generation to all leave school as aspiring painters, sculptors, photographers etc but rather for the next generation to leave school as aspiring artists in whatever realms or professions they go into. I must emphasise here that neither am I calling for a dumbing down of art, to make it ‘accessible to everyone’, but rather a better education and understanding of art and creative potential from early years onwards, one which acknowledges and supports arts essential role as a mirror to our times and place, as an innate way of being, looking, thinking and expressing ourselves. By ‘ourselves’ I mean everyone, not just those of us who are good at drawing fruit bowls.
To return to my second and final point, the idea of emancipation and further education. I believe that if we can enable people to access and understand their own creative potential (thinking and acting creatively in all aspects of learning and being not simply through the fine arts) that we will encourage attitudes of openness and a greater willingness to experiment, collaborate and take creative risks. I believe this certainly has to begin with compulsory education but that it then must continue throughout the institutional education system and into life. We need to foster ambitions not based on goal-driven, individualistic point scoring but on enriching ones selves, our peers and our community. For the majority, it is too late to instil those principles through formal education, but what the temporary and open art schools are doing is a positive step towards reengaging those (perhaps) disenfranchised from their own, innate, creative lives to see and practice other possibilities. I hope that it is a creative legacy which we can all contribute to and help to enrich and sustain.
Iris Aspinall Priest
 This isn’t to suggest that painters are any less artists than any other art form, I still paint and I would be one of the last people ever to succumb to the well-trodden trope that painting is dead – in this instance I meant the difference between being an artist restricted to painting and an artist who uses every and any medium through which to explore and traverse the experiential world.
 Williams, Robert, Culture and Society1780 -1950, (1958) A Doubleday Anchor Book, London. p. xiv
 Creative Partnerships, for anyone who hasn’t encountered them before, were an organisation who partnered artists and creative practitioners with schools and higher education Institutions throughout England and Wales. The scheme identified schools with particular and significant ‘issues’ to address (not necessarily or even usually to do with their art provision but something more endemic to do with the performance of students or problems internally with the school). Practitioners were then invited in to the institutions for a period of residence, working collaboratively with staff and students to find new, creative ways of approaching and dealing with these ‘issues’. For more information please see: http:/
 A NewBridge Enquiry was three day programme designed to cultivate hospitality, reciprocity and social dialogue via a process of invitation. Over this three day period the NewBridge Project Gallery Space, a former letting agency located in Newcastle city centre, was transformed into an entrance hall, bar and living quarters. For more information please see http:/
 Donnelly, Karen, Coping with Dyslexia, (Sep 2000) Rosen Publishing Group, New York.
Just a wee update, I've been interviewed by Andrew Bryant on a-n about my practice, CANNED Magazine and my part in the AA2A project at Northumbria, thought it might be worth a plug...
Today, for the first day in weeks - no, wait, months - I spent an entire day making pictures. I feel like a great thirst has been slaked. But also suprised by what has emerged. Not what I was anticipating...
Reading other the posts of other AA2A artists and student representatives I'm reassured by the shared feelings of helplessness at time slipping by and of the cacophany of excitements and anxieties. This week I've had all these things bundled into one; relief at having finished some major writing commissions, excitement about the prospect of making new work, anxiety in the studios and workshops as I try to reaquaint myself with people, situations and grumpy technicians, misery as I realise I have a very long essay to edit and another to write before Monday morning. But it pays the bills...
Since my last AA2A blog post a great deal has happened both professionally and personally, both good and bad (and in that order). SUPERCONDUCTOR has been a great success, not only on paper in terms of attendence and feedback but it has consolidated and moved my thinking about a number of things on. I was chosen to recieve an arts council bursary to attend State of The Arts in Salford in a couple of weeks. I also did a reading at the historic Literary and Philosophical Society for the Newcastle based artist Ben Jeans Houghton (who was coincidentally this weeks visiting lecturer at Northumbria University). The whole event was rather phenomenal with many inspiring talks and performances. The chance to read a piece of text that I have written in collaboration with Ben's images - and a piece which I had the rare opportunity both to be creative with and to explore new ideas, worlds and approaches to writing - was enlightening. And has cemented my ideas about what I intend to make whilst on the AA2A residency.
Hmm I didn't intend to make this a long, dour post about what I've been doing; I actually wanted to write a little bit about the revelation I've had in regards to my work. Basically, for a long time, I've been grasping for a metaphor, a personal lexis to articulate the abstract concepts I've been thinking and writing about. Namely, how to shape the unbounded; how to address the issue of the void in visual terms. It's sort of an oxymoron I know but I've found some things to work with and I'm going to see where they take me... First of all, I've become interested in the idea of Meteorites as a sign for the (potential) beginning and ending of everything; 60 million years ago it was a meteorite storm that not only reset the biosphere and ended the dinosaurs but also planted the diverse elements and strains of molecules which founded the evolutionary chain of events to human beings (perhaps, probably, but not definitely). There's much more to this concept from assosiative properties to narrative, science, auratic properties, history, poetry etc etc but I don't want to spell it out and I don't want to exhaust possibilities WRITING ABOUT THINGS because I have spent the last year of my life writing about art and not making it.
I hope this is the beginning of a sea change.
“Words convey ideas. When ideas have been absorbed words cease... Only those who can take the fish and forget the net are worthy to seek Tao.”
Tao-sheng (ca. 360-434)
So with SUPERCONDUCTOR up and running at the NewBridge Project I'm busy writing the final essay for the Chance Finds Us group show which will be touring early next year beginning at MIMA.
Although it's been a tough winter (I've been inundated with writing projects from CFU to Allenheads Contemporary Arts and many things between) I have just heard that I'm one of the lucky recipients of The Arts Council Bursaries to attend The 2012 State of the Arts Conference in Salford http:/
Also, I'm doing a reading of a text I wrote for Ben Jeans Houghton's new book commissioned by CIRCA Projects Black Cloud. For more details about the event and to RSVP please go to the Black Cloud: Further Reading event page on facebook: https:/
The Mining Institute January 9th @ 7.30
CALL FOR WRITERS
CANNED is seeking submissions!!!
For the third edition of CANNED to be featured in February 2012, we are looking for detailed responses to the role of public engagement in contemporary art and how it relates to collaboration, exchange and collective action specifically.
Whatever your take, perspective or style we welcome your submission. As always, we are looking for really unique perspectives delivered with eloquence, clarity and character.
For this edition of CANNED, we are looking to push the boundaries of discussion and debate as far as we can. It will be more extensive and have more exposure than ever before, being sold internationally in such places as BALTIC Centre for Contermporary Art, Globe Gallery, Vane Gallery, Aye-Aye Books and the Newbridge Space Gallery. We will circulate 1000 paper copies, plus we will provide coverage on the CANNED and The NewBridge Project websites and through Social Networking/on-line Arts channels.
CANNED is an unpaid opportunity but is an excellent chance for all artists, writers and cultural critics to gain exposure and have a voice. CANNED has previously had articles featuring everything from emerging shows in small towns to exclusive interviews with Christo and Mark Leckey.
All articles have to be submitted by 31st January 2012.
To apply, see below for details.
All submissions should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org with the following:
1. Attach your article to the email in Microsoft Word format. We will not accept PDF files or articles copied in an email. Below is our criteria for what we accept as material for CANNED, please follow carefully:
Length: Articles should be between 400-3000 words.
Language: This is an English-language magazine. If you feel comfortable submitting a piece in another language, you may do so, but in addition you must provide a good English translation. All submissions will be read in the English version.
Style: A variety of styles are encouraged but the magazine is primarily a platform for discursive critical writing on the Visual Arts. Properly cite sources to support your argument including links. If citing from other books, articles, journals or other publications please use standard footnotes as follows: Author, Title of Source, Place (e.g. London) : Publisher, Date. Within Word, include links within your text.
Deadlines: the deadline for entries for the first issue is 12pm on 31/1/2012. Entries submitted after this date will be considered for subsequent Issues.
2. Subject line should read with your first and last name: "First name, Last name Submission" (for example: Jockum Nordstrum, Submission).
3. Please attach a brief bio of yourself in one paragraph (approx. 3-5 sentences) and/or a CV For all further enquires or for more information please e-mail: email@example.com
We look forward to hearing from you!!!!
The ideas of collaboration, exchange and collective action in art are not new. In 1971 Joseph Beuys' set up the Organization for Direct Democracy through Referendum and even before this Dada, Fluxus and the Situationist International had thoroughly explored collaboration and collective action in art as a means to challenge the hegemony of the solitary artist-hero and the (commercial) status and (monetary) value of the art work. But with the rise of the internet, digital media and telecommunications technologies the questions of ownership, authorship and individualism are brought to the fore by the mass exchange of information and the emergent trend towards reappropriation, reproduction and redistribution.
With the rise of the internet and the emergence of free and open source software, this democratization of technology has been enfolded into digital art production and collaborative action whether political (such as the Orsay Commons campaign to allow photography in publicly funded Museums and Art Galleries), social (like the Zero Dollar Laptop Project recycling and building laptops for underprivileged communities) or simply as a means to realise more ambitious projects than can be achieved by any one individual (the rise of the Flash Mob or Darren Solomon's In B Flat piece).
I believe there is enough evidence to suggest that the demand for greater representation and to affect ones own social and cultural conditions comes to the fore at times of political and economic hardship and, as such, I also believe our current context is a potent one for examining the current trends in collaboration, exchange and collective action in art.
Prior to this time I have tended to treat my practice as being a thing of two halves; my personal practice and the collaborative work/ facilitation I do with others (through CANNED Magazine,The Library of Ideas and writing projects like Chance Finds Us). However, during the AA2A I have found this shifting; virtually all the work I'm doing is of this direct means of action and collaboration (there has been very little painting on my own in the studio). And whilst I do bemoan not having the time to draw or paint, there is something really exciting happening as my practice opens into something which is more publically and politically engaged. I have chosen the next issue of CANNED to be based around this theme of Collaboration, Exchange and Collective Action, the show SUPERCONDUCTOR that I'm curating at The NewBridge Space is taking flight with all kinds of events and open panel discussions (from "What is the Role of the Artist in Contemporary Society?" to talks by the Occupy Newcastle Group and workshops with students from Northumbria University).
I'm excited and nervous about these developments and whilst I hope they don't mean abandoning my visual practice (I still intend to use the print studio to do some lithography - to make artists books which can themselves be a potent site for collaboration and networking of ideas around a single theme) I am more confident to pursue them without worrying too much about 'what's happening to my visual art in the mean time'.
Thanks for reading.
Myself and Yvette Hakins (both AA2A artists at Northumbria University) have work in the Globe Gallery Auction - raising money for their ongoing programmes and initiatives.
I've also recently finished a commission for the North East singer-songwriter-sensation Bridie Jackson http:/
In addition to this I've been busy preparing for the next edition of CANNED Magazine (due for publication in early January) and a call out for submissions of art and writing will follow soon* plus a show called SUPERCONDUCTOR at The New Bridge Space in Newcastle...
Oh, and doing a postcard for Newcastle University's postcard auction and writing up the accompanying essay to Allenheads Contemporary Arts programme Trading Post which finished earlier this year...
Between all this and work I'm hoping to get some time to sleep and think about getting into the print studio at Northumbria soon... we can only hope though...
Back to the library I go....
* In the mean time, if you're interested in writing for CANNED or submitting an article, please get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
Last Wednesday along with the 3 other Northumbria University AA2A artists - Deborah Bower, Yvette Hawkins and Jonathan Lynch - gave an introductory lecture into our work and what we hope to achieve on the AA2A residency...
I left my tiger suit at home but still managed to provoke a couple of giggles (not necessarily entirely intentional)...
Beyond providing an opportunity to showcase our individual art practice the talks also provided a platform for inviting students to participate in the projects and workshops we would all be running. I gave a short mention of The Library of Ideas which I'm setting up and illustration of the P.I. (Post Ideas) Boxes I've been making and which will be posted up in the University tomorrow.
Basically The Library of Ideas is an open source depository for ideas. It is a facility for people to deposit their unwanted or unrealised ideas* and to take out anything from the catalogue.
*These can be ideas for anything from projects, to inventions, artworks, policies, plays, recipes, manifestos, events, essentially anything you can think of but doesn't yet exist.
The ethos of the Library of Ideas is that of collective action, networking and exchange; authors are encouraged to allow their ideas to be fully accessed by readers who, in turn, may enrich and advance those original concepts. The intention is to create an organic bibliography of ideas which, through the collaboration between readers and writers, will help propel or realise unusual or ambitious ideas.
If you would like a P.I. Box or are interested to hear more about the project, please get in touch!