Damien Hirst's former art teacher has launched a withering attack on Britain's art schools, saying they are no longer the creative hothouses they once were.
Michael Craig-Martin, the Dublin-born painter and teacher, was a major influence on Young British Artists including Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume when he taught at Goldsmiths, University of London, during the 1980s. Now, he says, Britain is at risk of losing its pre-eminence in modern art.
The 71-year-old, now emeritus professor of art at Goldsmiths, launched his salvo while taking part in a debate at the British Museum last week. While museums and the art market are booming in Britain, he said that "art education was excluded", and that "Pre-1990, art colleges [in the UK] were at their peak. All the things that made the richness on which creativity depends have been significantly altered."
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, he elaborated on his theme, blaming the decline on an obsession with university-style assessments, and the fact that successful artists no longer teach in art schools. He also said high tuition fees were putting off students from working-class families. "When I taught at Goldsmiths, about 70 per cent of my students were the first members of their families ever to experience tertiary education. Damien Hirst grew up in a council house with a single mother. Would Damien really have gone to art school if he had had to pay £9,000?"
Mr Craig-Martin came to Britain in 1966 and has lived here ever since. "When I was at art school in the 1960s, there was a cultural revolution going on. Obviously it's different now, but we have lost the academic freedom in art schools that helped produce so many British talents. Since Margaret Thatcher decided every higher education institution should be a university, art schools have wrongly been lumped in with them, leading to an obsession with regulations. It does raise the standard at the bottom, but it also lowers the standards at the top."
In 1972, he participated in the ground-breaking exhibition of conceptual art, The New Art, at the Hayward Gallery. Latterly he has become better known for his intensely coloured line drawings.
Craig-Martin, who taught at Goldsmiths from 1974 to 2000, says that one of the pleasures of the job was discovering talent among students who were from poor backgrounds. "We had enormous freedom as to who we took. When I stopped I had become very depressed with it. It had ceased to be the thing that had given me so much interest and pleasure throughout my career. You see, all the artists of my generation also taught. All the artists that I taught who became successful, and who benefited so much from their art education, they don't teach now, because it's not attractive to teach. Whereas in Germany, every famous artist today teaches."
Craig-Martin hastened to add that he was not seeking to knock the work of art teachers. "They are doing a fantastic job in spite of the many obstacles that we didn't have to deal with."