Real Lives: The next damien, please

Not all art students want to pickle cows for their degree shows, but, Oliver Bennett finds, the pressure to be the Next Big Thing is on
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Indy Lifestyle Online
he nation's art schools are frantic. Across the country, the class of '96 are preparing for their degree shows: printing cards, inviting bigwigs, buying half crates of plonk, scrapping for the best bit of wall. The annual shows have become a national event: "part of the season as never before," in the words of one London art school head.

British visual art is going through a fashionable period where reputations are made, and lost, very rapidly. Young graduates feel the need to make a splash and attract the right people - buyers, gallery people, patrons, press - over to their freshly painted corner studios, and the degree show, once regarded as the summary of a student's work, is now seen as an artist's first major public outing.

Expectations are higher than ever. "There is a lot of pressure," says Mark Reynolds, 33, a post-graduate sculpture student at the Royal Academy school. "Competition is cut-throat now, and it has become like selling cars; about making sure the right people see your work." Aggressive self- publicity and entrepreneurism are the orders of the day, and anyone who thinks they will be discovered in a garret is labouring under a big delusion. The downside, says Reynolds, is when talented students slip through the net because "they're not good at promoting themselves".

Gone are the days when reward came quietly to artists later in life. Art is increasingly infected by fashion and the ethos of the Next Big Thing, which necessarily favours the young and brassy. "It is a very fast process, especially in London, and students coming up to graduation look at the young people who have succeeded and assume there is no time," says Reynolds. "Visual art is hot property, but sometimes you wish you were ignorant of that so you could get on with your work without worrying." Indeed, he thinks the culture of getting noticed operates to the detriment of developing skills. "The temptation is to forget formal training and instead spend time cultivating people who could be useful, getting good studio space and promoting oneself."

Though art school is a calling from which parents traditionally try to steer their offspring, it is a long time since the term "art student" was double-speak for eccentricity and licentiousness. But a certain otherness has persisted, whereby art students are considered - by themselves as much as anyone else - as not of the common herd. During the Fifties and Sixties, before they became professionalised with degrees, art schools became infamous for accepting difficult if creative mavericks that wouldn't fit elsewhere, John Lennon being a prime example. This has lingered in the legend of the British art school. "Full of intelligent people who don't quite fit," is artist Richard Wentworth's analysis. Malcolm McLaren, ex-art school himself, has dubbed them "havens for the dispossessed".

Exotic they may still be, but art students these days also have to be driven. "They tend to be autonomous and self-willed," says Matilda Pye, 24, a third year Fine Art student at Ruskin School of Art in Oxford. "It's not an easy lifestyle choice. Fine art students have to face up to the fact that only a few of us will manage to live by our work."

The motivation in becoming an art student differs from the time when, as Pye puts it, "art school was an option for people who couldn't get into university". She says: "One of the things that also changed is that in the late Eighties we saw people in so-called 'stable' jobs like law and architecture become redundant. It gave us a sense that you might as well do what you want to do, as nothing is guaranteed." Like many art students, Pye hopes to continue her education and go on to a post-graduate course, while keeping one eye on money-making possibilities: art removals (a specialised job these days, when an artwork is more likely to be a dead cow than a painting), teaching, odd jobs. "The financial potential is still zero, but you can't let it bug you," says Simon Ryder, 34, a post-graduate sculpture student at the Royal College of Art. "That's always been the way, I'm afraid."

Contrary to public opinion, most art students are at pains to emphasise that they work very hard and are left to their own devices. "Art students are left to do it themselves. It is easy to become insular," says Barry Sutton, 30, a sculpture student at Wimbledon School of Art. "But very few students go to art school because they want to be professional artists: they do it because they have a passion for it. They have to do it." Wimbledon is one of the burgeoning pack of art colleges that tries to prepare students for the hurly-burly of the real world with "professional practice seminars", teaching students how to sell themselves. Even so, certain art schools are seen as having a commercial advantage by dint of name, if not house style. As Sutton says, "Goldsmiths is slick, and geared towards the market."

Ah, Goldsmiths. No discussion of art student stardom occurs without mention of this south-east London powerhouse, which has over the last decade become a controversial yardstick by which others measure themselves. Reynolds recalls that, when he came to the Royal Academy, the dean stood up and said: "If there is anyone here who wants to be a star, here is Goldsmiths telephone number."

Among the various reasons for its success is that it has pioneered an open-ended approach to art education, unrooted in specific craft-based skills, and has encouraged students to push themselves forward. One of Goldsmiths' most famous alumni, Damien Hirst, now turning his hand to film, has said: "I chose it because I didn't have to choose between being a painter or a sculptor." Indeed, Hirst more or less instigated the new attention-grabbing ethos for art students when he organised Freeze, a 1988 graduate exhibition in a London warehouse. Since then, there has been a groundswell of opportunism, and students realise the value of seizing any available place to show work. "Nowadays there are more avenues than ever," says Ryder, "and there's a strong fashionable element at the moment, backed up by the art press. It is common for students to set up their own spaces and make projects on the side." This entrepreneurial culture has helped foster a climate where artists can even become well known while still in art school.

Many students are enjoying the current buzz around the visual arts. "It is a good thing in that it stimulates interest and confidence, and it has certainly created a good atmosphere," says Alex Schady, 22, a third- year sculpture student at Middlesex, formerly Hornsey College of Art, hotbed of the student evenements of 1968, and still radical: there is a sit-in next Tuesday. "The nature of being an art student has always been tremendously insecure, and now is no different. But people are positive as well as apprehensive." No one, says Schady, is under illusions: "I don't think anyone's expecting Mr Saatchi to be wandering around the degree show."

These days image matters, and it helps to have a trendy reading list - the further out the better. "There is a feeling that you have to have read the latest French philosopher," says Ryder. "Students are very anxious to be seen with the right reading matter, and going to the right private views," adds Reynolds, who organises a go-ahead talks programme at the RA, held to his delight in the Reynolds Room (named after Sir Joshua). "The stuff in vogue seems to be this heavy psychoanalysis." Reynolds himself has displayed the chutzpah that is becoming required of art students by getting a London restaurant to sponsor his talks and inviting "agents provocateurs" from other colleges to come along and grill the speakers, Question Time-style.

The idea that young artists can be feted like pop-stars emerged with the New York scene in the Eighties which placed artists such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat into a cult of celebrity. Despite the subsequent recession, the possibility of a rapid rise to fame and riches is still affecting art students. But not all are in its thrall. Cathy Richmond, 47, a mature student in her third year at Glasgow School of Art - itself centre of a figurative-painting boomlet in the Eighties - is critical of the instant gratification of art-fame. "Art becomes like TV, fashion or advertising: fast, quirky and amusing," she says. "But it dates quickly and then you need the next attention-grabbing thing." Having fulfilled an ambition to study art after years of motherhood and social work, she remains wary of becoming "too wrapped up in fashion" unlike the London-based neo-conceptual tendency.

Whatever their predilections and prospects, most students insist they are having an exciting time. "I was talking with a group of friends last night," says Mark Reynolds," and we all agreed this is the best time ever to be at art school." Those attending the shows should raise a glass (probably Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon) to the nation's art students, for theirs is a fragile lot.

8 Degree shows begin towards the end of June and are open to the public. Contact your local art school for details.

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