How good are our art colleges?

Some experts argue that British art schools are the best in the world; others say they're not teaching students to draw.
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The Independent Online

Whatever happened to the young British artists (YBAs), the enfants terribles who gripped the world with their chutzpah in 1988 and ceased to shock about 10 years later when no one was shockable any longer? The answer is that they're still going, pouring out of the art colleges, doing their own neo-conceptual thing. They're simply no longer part of a movement.

Among the big YBA names were Damien Hirst (who suspended a sheep in formaldehyde), Gillian Wearing, who made a video of policemen sitting silently, Tracey Emin (of the unmade bed), Rachel Whiteread, the sculptress, and Chris Ofili (who paints with elephant dung). This week you can see their successors as the cream of British postgraduate art and sculpture goes on show at the Royal College of Art's summer exhibitions supported by The Independent.

Make your way to Kensington Gore to see Sophie von Hellermann, who paints expressive canvases based on scenes from movies; Nathaniel Mellors, a sculptor who has created a walk-through world with references to pop culture and news events; and Claude Temin-Vergez, who squeezes out acrylic paint in the style of Jackson Pollock.

Later this month the other art colleges are staging their final year shows, giving you a taste of what is happening in fine art, textiles, design, photography, architecture and fashion in the country that arguably contains more artists and designers per square inch than any other in the world.

According to official figures that Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art, likes to quote, we are now producing 60,000 art and design graduates over three years. That is more than the entire population of Florence in the Renaissance (there were 50,000 Florentines at that time).

The extraordinary outpouring from the United Kingdom's art schools ­ in terms of scale and creativity ­ is thought to be responsible to a large extent for the dramatic boom in our creative industries. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport reckons that these industries are growing at double the rate of GDP. In 1997-98 their output increased by 16 per cent compared to just under 6 per cent for the economy as a whole. Latest figures show these industries to be generating revenues of £112.5bn, employing 1.3 million people, and exporting more than £10.3m.

And it's not just art that comes out of this segment of British higher education. Art colleges feed into pop music too. David Bowie and Punk music were clearly products of art schools, explains Sir Christopher. And Pete Townshend, lead singer and driving force behind The Who, got his idea for smashing up his guitar from a lecture on self-destructive sculpture at the then Ealing College of Art where he was a student in the early Sixties. "There's a direct connection between what they were doing in art schools and what they went on to do in the evenings," says Sir Christopher.

Why have art colleges become such a crucible for the creative industries in Britain? One answer is that we have more and bigger art colleges than most other countries. "It's a question of scale," says Colin Cina, the head of the Chelsea College of Art and Design. "There are probably more art and design colleges than in the rest of Europe put together in terms of student numbers."

Second, we teach art and design differently. Art colleges, established in most big cities in Victorian times, came out of the arts and crafts movement, according to Phillida Barlow, the head of undergraduate sculpture and reader in fine art at the Slade, part of University College London. Because they were grounded in a craft mentality and not in universities, students were taught by practitioners.

"British art schools employ practising artists, people who make work themselves when they are not teaching," says Bill Furlong, director of research at Wimbledon College of Art. "We are committed to that at Wimbledon. More than half our budget for staffing is spent on part-time staff who might do two or three days a week teaching and are making art for the rest of the time. Every member of staff from the principal onwards is a practising artist."

This has had a profound effect, according to the experts. It means students are engaged in the practical business of making artefacts from the start and benefit from being taught by people who are bringing the experience of the art world into the classroom. The result is that art schools are at the cutting edge of whatever is happening.

In the Sixties when youth culture came into being, art schools were the cradles of that rebellion because they were the places where political ferment coalesced with a new artistic sensibility to overturn a century of received opinion. They have continued this revolutionary drive.

Today, most art colleges are free-wheeling places. Students are encouraged to do their own thing, to be original, to stand tradition on its head. "There is an open-ended definition of how you critique art and look at it and invite experiment in," says Phillida Barlow. "There is this sense that art should be a total experience and not rooted in a limited Royal Academician approach."

Put simply, we teach art and design brilliantly, according to Colin Cina. Not so, says David Lee, editor of the art newspaper Jackdaw. Accusing the art schools of becoming a tool of the fashionable art establishment, he says: "I think that too many are coercing students, many against their natural instincts, to produce the kinds of things in the kinds of media which the contemporary art establishment likes, for example, videos, installations and conceptual art rather than letting them decide what they want to do and giving them a grounding in a medium."

The result is that the summer exhibitions show some shoddy work indeed, he says. "Some of the younger artists have never been taught anything, so they are coming up against the problems of fixing things in planes and drawing figures convincingly. Where you have that sort of thing going on, you have an art education system that is in crisis."

For people such as Lee, Goldsmiths, the art school in South London that spawned many YBAs, epitomises what is wrong with art teaching. Goldsmiths dismantled the divisions between painting, sculpture and print, and replaced them with an integrated, ideas-led model that embraced all the new forms of practice on equal terms, says Jon Thompson in "The Economics of Culture" (published in Paul Schimmel's Public Offerings, Thames & Hudson).

Compulsory drawing was abandoned and a tutorial system was installed that embraced art theory as an integral part of practice. "In a comparatively short time the residual pedagogy of the old academics and the institutionalised authority of the teacher had been replaced by something approaching a community of artists talking and working together."

The Royal College of Art, Britain's premier postgraduate institution, has not broken down the divisions between the disciplines, however. Its rector, Sir Christopher Frayling, argues that the polarisation between the Goldmith's and the Royal College model is too acute. "Ideally, there should be a spectrum," he says. David Lee agrees, arguing that fine art education should reflect a diversity of approaches.

The art colleges retort that the critics are focusing on a tiny part of their work. According to David Buss, director of academic affairs at the Kent Institute of Art and Design, most students are studying design where the skills required are completely different from those in fine art. For example, they spend a good deal of time on computer.

"We're in the world of mass higher education," he says. "We need to offer students something that will be meaningful to them and not just meaningful to a small elite who are going to become artists."

The controversy about how to teach art and design is connected to another issue that generates a lot of heat ­ the extent to which students get work when they graduate. The latest official figures (from the Higher Education Funding Council) show some art schools to be good at finding jobs for their graduates. The London Institute, Ravensbourne and the Surrey Institute of Art and Design were above average when compared with their benchmarks. However, Falmouth, Cumbria and the Edinburgh School of Art were below average.

The important point, say the colleges, is that most students do eventually find work. But, because many are self-employed, it takes time. Not all can experience the success of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.