May 23, 2003
The decline of design teaching

There's a sad essay about the decline of Britain's art colleges in the latest electric Spectator, which contains, in among the obvious regrets about conceptual art (i.e. crappy videos), some facts about these places in their better days which I sort of knew but didn't fully appreciate.

The artist Ian Welsh (born 1944) is ideally situated to comment on the situation. Besides making his own work (Welsh is a distinguished painter specialising in the depiction of water and reflections), he taught for 25 years in the public and private sectors because he believes that art schools can offer a unique education. He himself studied painting at Chelsea School of Art (1963-66), when it was in its heyday under the enlightened direction of the painter and art historian Lawrence Gowing. He then studied sculpture as a postgrad with George Fullard (1966-67), after which he began to teach himself. He returned to Chelsea to do an MA in printmaking in 1976-67, and was finally appointed head of printmaking there in 1992. He gave up teaching in 1993, utterly disillusioned with the way art schools were now administered and structured.

Welsh recalls a very different situation 35 years ago. ‘When I first started teaching there were about 20 kids on the Foundation course at Harlowe, and there was a very good chance that three of those would be fine artists and the rest designers of one sort or another. At that time there were something like 28 disciplines in design you could do a degree in — there was Foundation Design, for instance, which was for undergarments, corsetry and so on. Later, when I was at Norwich Art School running the Foundation course, the then shadow minister for the arts came to talk to the senior staff of the Art School and the University Art History Department. He looked around at us and said, “The trouble with you lot is that you all live in ivory towers.” Where do you go after that?

‘The sad thing is that he missed the point. In the mid-Seventies, when the British car industry was disappearing fast down the plughole, there were something like 200 senior design posts in the car industry throughout Europe. Of those 200 key people, 180 had been through the Royal College of Art — which has a very fine course in automotive design — but they were working in Europe and not the UK. The government was looking at art schools and thinking they were full of painters — people who sit around smoking dope waiting for inspiration — whereas 75 per cent were design students, like the graduates in furniture who went to Milan. The quality of British art schools has been completely missed by those in positions of real authority.

This all sounds very similar to what my friend John Washington told me, about the decline of crafts teaching in schools. The difference being that whereas it is now reasonable for most people to leave school knowing more about assembling kit furniture than they do about actually making furniture for themselves from nothing but timber, glue and nails, someone still has to design all that kit furniture.

But all may not be lost. I keep reading that about half of the British rock and roll aristocracy attended British art schools. Those guys didn't learn how to design cars or corsetry, or it they did it didn't do them much good, nor did they get any lessons in guitar playing or rock electronics. What they surely got was (a) intelligent on-the-make mates to do things with, and (b) bags of attitude. All these highly trained conceptual artists can't all just become conceptual artists, and the smarter ones must know it.

As art, I believe "conceptual art" to be pointless and meaningless junk, but this does not mean that those who make a successful living out of such "art" lack skills of any kind. On the contrary, as self-publicists, as zeitgeist surfers, as deluders of those with more money than sense, as manipulators of the media including and especially (in a sort of public relations version of kung fu) the media that most hate them, Britain's conceptual artists display great virtuosity. And if it is true that "training" for conceptual artists is not now costing the nation very much, then who is to say that what little money is still being spent on "art education" will not turn out to be money well spent?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:42 PM
Category: Higher education
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