Who Took the (He)art Out of the Art Schools?
(written in 2004)
Just the other day a friend announced that he had given up his teaching job to concentrate on his own art practice. He had a number of exhibitions in the pipeline and other opportunities for making new work as an artist-in-residence and a possible public art project. He simply could not keep the teaching going with the commitment he wanted to give to it and also do justice to his practice. He had been in what was regarded as a plum job – running his own department, on a 0.5 contract at postgraduate level. My friend is part of a new phenomenon – more artists than ever before are able to make a living from their art and related activities that less and less have the need to teach in art school. More worryingly, many of them have lost the desire to do so because art schools are very different places to what they themselves experienced as students. There is a crisis waiting to happen here. It is this. Art schools need to have a fair proportion of teaching staff who are highly regarded both nationally and internationally, yet a decreasing number of these artists will ever teach in an art school. Art schools are no longer the attractive places for artists they once were.
Art schools have always attracted some of the most highly regarded artists around. Many of these artists sought jobs in art schools because they loved teaching young artists and wanted to share their skills and visions with them. It was noble and rewarding work. Edmund Keeley captures the mood of what it was like after 1945 when he writes, ‘ We came out of the war with an almost religious belief in the power of art and literature. There was a sense of calling about being a teacher.’ Some artists taught full-time and managed to keep their art practice going without short-changing the school and the students. The hours, conditions of work and salaries were good and vacations allowed for unbroken, concentrated work in the studio. Some even had their studios in the art school itself and students would benefit from witnessing the artist at work and sometimes act as assistants. Artist – principals ran the art schools and some of them were charismatic, shaping their schools with inspired artistic and educational leadership. These were prestigious jobs and their incumbents had clout in the art world. The mood of idealism described by Keeley seems now to have all but been extinguished in the face of materialism/managerialism and instrumentalism, and artist-led art schools a thing of the past. The question is, ‘are art schools the better for these dramatic changes?’ To attempt to answer this it is necessary to explore how we got to where we are now.
It seems to me that the seeds of the present crisis were sown in the mid-seventies when art schools began to want to see themselves as academic institutions offering degrees. For this to happen there had to be a substantial lecture programme and written work as part of a student’s education with essays and a final dissertation containing around 10,000 words. This in itself was an important and worthwhile development but much else that came with the degree status was simply not applicable to the education of artists. The university model is simply not a good paradigm for art education. In the former the emphasis is on the assimilation of existing knowledge whereas in the latter the emphasis is on creating new perceptions. However one of the most problematic and destructive aspects of this mimicking of universities, for both staff and students, has been the assessment of students’ work using degree classifications. How does one assess art in terms of First Class, Upper Second, Lower Second and Third Class? The unease with which art school staff approached this dis-connection resulted in awarding many more First and Upper Second degrees than is found in universities and has always been a bone of contention between the two. ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees’ was the dismissive term used by university staff to describe the art school awards. Further, many art school staff will know of students who, awarded First Class Degree, make no waves in the art world and those with a Second Class Degree gaining international recognition for their work.
As is well known, (though worth repeating again and again) things began to go seriously wrong with the Tory government of 1979 and it has continued, with ‘extreme force’, under New Labour’s Thatcherite policies. One of Margaret Thatcher’s first acts was to cut spending on higher education. Salaries were put on a downward spiral so that today they have fallen in real terms by 30 to 40 percent; result – teaching in art school is no longer financially attractive. Then managers began to replace artists in the running of the art schools; result – no clear academic leadership based on a mature experience and understanding art and art education. Teaching staff numbers were cut and student numbers increased with student/staff ratios moving from 10 to 1 in the 1970’s to 30/40 to 1 today; result – in a discipline where the one-to-one tutorial is at the core of teaching, the workload drains many staff of the energy and will needed to continue their art practice at a consistently high level. These ratios also have to take into account the plethora of meetings and working committees all staff now have to attend. Heads of departments often find that much of their week is taken up by meetings and administration. And what are all these meetings; what are they for? Some meetings are, of course, essential and productive and no institution can get by without them but many others are to do with the new and increasing demands of management, policy and administration. Quality Assurance Assessment, Credit Accumulation and Transfer, Enhancement Led Institutional Review, Modularisation, Student Centred Learning, Learning and Teaching Outcomes, (all documents now begin with a long list of acronyms) among a plethora of other ‘improving’ strategies, have increased administrative and paper burdens; result – administrative demands on teaching staff penalise students; strategies are urgently being developed by which students can teach themselves and staff become ‘time managers’; administrative staff and budgets increase while teaching staff and teaching budgets decrease. It is now normal for heads of departments to work excessive hours with no time-off in lieu. Of course this is a condition which applies to many areas of the public sector. But something is seriously amiss in the world of higher education when A.S. Byat feels compelled to say, ‘ Universities are depressed…….they’re terrified and cowering and under-financed and over-examined and over-bureaucratised.’ However the crucial difference for art schools is that staff have to maintain a professional practice and pursue opportunities for exhibiting, for art projects, for residencies, for public art commissions and the like. While university staff have to publish their research results, teaching loads are much less onerous. It is quite a different matter to deliver lectures to several hundred students than it is to build a personal understanding with each student to assist their development as artists. (art school staff will know all of their students by name). Vacations are no longer the opportunity to develop one’s art practice as they have been shortened by institutional demands on staff time.
Art schools have become businesses and they have had to find ways of making money. Short courses and summer schools are set up during the vacations which staff can be called upon to teach. To meet budget shortfalls all higher educational institutions have had to recruit overseas students. For some institutions the percentage of full-fee students is dangerously high as they now rely on these to operate. One London art school has several hundred Japanese students doing its Foundation Course. Fees from overseas students now fund the material and administrative budgets of departments and a percentage of teaching staff salaries. It would not take much of an economic downturn in some of these overseas countries for this source of finance to dry up with devastating effect on those institutions that rely heavily on these fees.
The Tory policy, carried on by New Labour, of appointing managers to run public institutions, rather than specialists of the discipline of the institution, has seriously damaged the ethos of art schools. The management demands on principals, heads of department and full-time staff has increased so much it has become increasingly difficult to attract applications from artist candidates for these posts. And for those few who do apply, the quality is often poor. After failure to appoint, the re-advertising of these posts is a norm as well as the often fruitless and costly headhunting. It is now a problem even to get active, highly regarded artists for part-time posts as the institutional demands often result in having to put in a full week’s work for half a week’s pay. However there will always be an endless supply of more recent graduates willing to fill these jobs and, knowing no other conditions, having never experienced the culture of better times, will just accept the status quo. What the hell ……they have a job in an art school – which, on the surface, is still an attractive one – and say to themselves,‘well this is how it is.’ Some will leave when they realise that the demands made upon them will begin to affect their ability to maintain their professional art practice.
I have to stress that I do not support unequivocally the way things were in the art schools in the distant past. There were abuses of the privilege of teaching in an art school. I have heard it described thus; ‘In the old days it was like a gentlemen’s club. If I wanted to go fishing for three days, I went fishing for three days.’ However there was a quid pro quo. Staff would often work evenings and weekends when necessary simply for the good of students and the school. There was a strong sense of being part of a sharing community in which staff had a stake. This sense now seems to have gone. While I regard my own years as a student at art school in the fifties as some of the most stimulating and rewarding years of my life there were serious deficiencies. There was little or no art history and certainly no art theory, nor opportunities for critical or intellectual discussion and some students suffered from a lack of teaching and guidance. Constructive, worthwhile reforms were needed. In some respects changes have made things better for the students in today’s art schools but many things are not good at all.
One such is the notion of research in art education and the whole farrago of the Research Assessment Exercise. It has to be recalled that the funding for research came from a massive cut in the teaching budget of institutions resulting in cuts in teaching staff numbers. The ensuing competition for research funding suits the growing imposition of the market economy on education. In the art schools the response to winning research points has been the appointment of high profile artists on research contracts with no obligation to teach. Students again have lost out in this cynical misuse of education funding. Art education has become more about research and less about the art and as Pavel Buchler has said, ‘Research is not the academic paradigm which fits the production of artists. There is a difference between know-how and knowledge, the latter can be consumed, written down and then forgotten; know-how becomes embedded through practice.’ Art schools now pass on knowledge that can be assessed. It seems to be agreed that the least interesting students are those doing PhDs who suffer from what Christopher Ricks describes as, ‘doctoral paralysis’.
Demands on students to be accountable with the early, constant rationalisation and justification of work through written ‘learning outcomes’ before the work is actually made, leads to shallow work. Where does Keats’ ‘negative capability’, which he described as, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without an irritable reaching after fact and reason’, fit into the reformed, efficient and improved art schools. Where in our reformed art schools are the opportunities to fail which are so necessary to the taking of risks. The creative process cannot be hurried and time is needed for the kind of reflection in which nothing might be done but from which, as is often attested, synapses happen. As Anna Harding puts it, ‘Artists on the whole make a choice in their lives not to be ruled by the accountability culture but to do what they believe in.’ Yet the whole system in art schools, which demands ‘compliance with the codes of procedure’, is now dominated by such accountability. In reviewing recent novels about university life Laurie Taylor writes, they were, ‘full of campuses in which management experts and development leaders, all speaking management jargon, are locked in a battle with the few people left who still believe that there’s something more to universities than providing people with degrees that enable them to get jobs.’ Aida Edemariam believes that, ‘this is the major battle still being fought, first joined under Thatcher and continued under Blair: the campus in now a site for a clash between two pretty fundamental values, the instrumental and the intrinsic, auditors versus intellectuals.’
But it may already be too late to save the arts schools from their present condition. In a review of Frank Furedi’s recent book, ‘Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?’ Dylan Evans writes, “(He) believes our grandchildren will curse us……I warmly recommend Furedi’s new book to the politicians, civil servants, vice-chancellors and head teachers who control educational policy in Britain today. But if the cultural mandarins ignore this book, as they probably will, then I hope it will inspire rank-and-file professionals – lecturers, teachers, researchers – to resist the philistine agenda that they are urged to implement, and to offer their students a grander and bolder vision of the life of the mind.’ To restore the (he)art it may be we need to found new art schools.