Reflections on a Year of Art Education

Despite cultivating my art practice in earnest since 2018, this year I embarked on my first year of full-time art education at an academic institution. This took the form of a Foundation Diploma in Art & Design at The City Literary Institute. In some ways this felt ironic or like some kind of admission of failure, I had after all treated my first year of living in Spain as my own ‘self-directed foundation year’, even putting on my own show at the end of the year. But finding myself back in the UK, no longer part of an active art community and trying to move forward from the isolation of working through various lockdowns, the time felt right to embark on my first experience of something approaching ‘art school’. My last experience of formal art education had been taking GCSE art a very long time ago….

The easy, palatable summary of the year would be ‘the course was great, I met new people, discovered new materials, and learnt things …’. And though that is true, it glosses over the true ups and downs, the struggles and the real roots of my learning, which felt more like the following revelations …

001 The Presence of Others

During the year I have really dug into my practice – interrogating what it is I care about, what motivates the work I make. And in particular I’ve had to do this somewhere other than just in my head or my journals. I’ve had to do it in the presence of others – with classmates and tutors. And in those interactions new ideas and understandings have been prompted, new connections made, new lines of enquiry opened up. In this way conversation becomes a generative creative space in itself. It gives energy and spurs on action.

002 Good Questions

Beyond their knowledge, I think what tutors really bring are good quality questions. Questions that matter and are personal to you and your practice. This is for me the guts of the art school experience – it is a provocation. An ongoing dialogue of provocation that leads you somewhere. And my tutors this year have been excellent. My practice feels all the richer for having spent time in this environment.

003 Themes of my work

When you spend a year deeply questioning yourself and your work and you keep coming back to the same instinctive pre-occupations, it would seem you’ve hit upon some of the themes of your work! For me these coalesce around:

  • Investigating the Organic. The idea I have come to that ‘Nature is not other. We are it and it is us’.
  • Lines – be it on the page, or in three dimensions with wire or string. Knotted, forming organic structures and networks. Lines as a way of mediating space.
  • Materials – letting the material lead, investigating how materials can inhabit different forms and possibilities.
  • Going beyond the rational – prioritising ways of generating knowledge beyond logic and reason. Turning to play, the body, the senses, the experiential.
  • Using time – at various points I have actively used time in my work – to set boundaries, to delineate activity and change materials. I am at the early stage of working in this way, but I can sense it being an ongoing part of my practice and an area for further investigation.
004 Pay Attention

Not to someone else, but to yourself. Always be feeling. Every interaction – be it with a new material, or work or just queuing for the bus is chance to learn something about yourself. What do I feel? Why? It’s a kind of active listening, a tuning into yourself. And if you keep looking and actively experiencing the world around you, somewhere along the way you’ll get some big jolts. Things you love or detest, which is great.

I see my job as then to unpick what these jolts mean to me, what information they carry. Often I do this by stream of consciousness writing. For example, tuning into the bodily sensations of cutting and sanding wood; observing how my half made pieces of work look in the public environment as I commute with them! These little moments helped me with several mini-breakthroughs in my work. An ongoing practice of consciousness and feeling.

005 Classroom as cloak

Classroom as lab is an easy analogy and it is definitely true that the art classroom does present valuable opportunities to experiment. To work with new materials with the support of knowledgable tutors, at larger scale, with messy processes. But I think the true power is in the classroom as foil, as cloak. As a psychological construct which somehow gives permission and begets pushing into new territory.

Creative work is a psychological journey – it requires courage and doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion. It generally isn’t evident where you’re going, or if you’ve got there – it is a constant navigation of infinite unknowns. It requires bravery and resolve and somehow the classroom acts as some kind of magical cloak, a foil for cheating reality, for slipping past fears and making a leap into the unknown. Classroom as lab, as foil, as cloak, as permission-giver.

006 Process

Process = holding your nerve. Keeping going with your line of enquiry. During this year I’ve gained experience of how creative forays and investigations can stack up into meaningful work.

Over the last few years I’d been in the habit of reading widely, going to a lot of galleries and making drawings etc – but precipitating this into a work of scale, with ambition and purpose was much less familiar to me. Yes, I had made work prior to this course which I would stand by, work that had risen up from within me, but it was a new process to directly pursue a piece of work, to hunt it down, almost.

For my final project I set out to investigate two conceptual themes that fascinate me the philosophy of phenomenology – in particular the writing of Maurice Merleau-Ponty – and the idea of play. I had no pre-conceived idea of what form my work would take – would it be a painting, a sculpture, a performance, who knew?! Instead I held my nerve and entered into a process of investigation, trusting myself to interpret what I discovered along the way and that the form would become clear to me.

At times I doubted myself and wondered if I’d been too ambitious. Why was I trying to crash so many big ideas together – matter, body, play. Was it madness to think that this could all co-exist within a single work. Yet somehow my preoccupations held true, I kept going and I made work. And as many people have said, work begets work. Approached with the right intentions, a strong line of enquiry and faith, you can get somewhere. This was a major new and vital experience for me – pursuing a piece of work, precipitating it out of the ether somehow, via process.

007 A Liberation from Image

This course has helped me bed-down a longstanding concern in my work – that of art as a practice, a verb, an action. I care about making, doing, investigating. I have long loved the quote from Edvard Munch:

“We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundation of an art that gives something to humanity”

I feel there is a long shadow cast over art – the tyranny of image – the narrow blinkered question of whether something looks like something. A concern with surface, exteriors, appearance, image. It is used to trip people up, to shame them, to dissuade them, to gate keep, to exclude. It is a narrow fallacy, a hangover of Western European traditions and a patriarchal, colonial, capitalist worldview.

That said I am passionate about the act of drawing. But I draw as a way to experience things, to discover, to think, to navigate my way, in the best scenarios, to the spirit of something. I see it as a human act, which connects us to our ancient ancestors and the marks they made on cave walls. And it connects us to ourselves, – I made this mark, I exist – much as young children draw in an existential fashion. It is something that everyone can do – there is no right or wrong – just different intentions. If we can cast off the tyranny of image, let go of our conscious ego and our society’s blinkered concerns, and be humble, then we can find a way forward, a way to something meaningful.

008 Galleries are weird

I love seeing art in all sorts of places – big public galleries, commercial galleries and when I’m lucky, artist-run spaces. But as we pushed toward the conclusion of the course and presenting our work in a gallery, I begun to have a heightened sense of what a strange artificial environment galleries are to show your work in.

I think I was particularly conscious of this as I had made my final pieces with the idea that they could be touched and handled by the public – played with freely. This had worked well in other settings, but as I tried to translate it to the gallery it became more challenging. Large white boxes with a rarefied atmosphere are hardly conducive to free play.

The gallery so often presented as a ‘neutral background’ is anything but. It is laden with convention and conceptual baggage. The lazy aesthetic assumption that everything looks good against a white background. Its function in the art market – an edifice to the notion of art as an object, an output, a finished thing that can be traded. A sterile space that alienates many audiences and carries an ongoing legacy of power hierarchies. What a strange environment it is we have to navigate when choosing to show work in this setting.

009 Academic institutions

Studying within an assessed academic framework was definitely the most trying element of the course. It felt somewhat surprising and ironic to discover this, given that in my earlier life I had generally been thought of as an ‘academic person’.

In particular I am slowly coming to the conclusion that ‘assessed learning’ runs directly counter to the values I hold dear in education. Sadly it seems to reduce education to a series of tick-box objectives – the act of observation and measurement distorting the very thing itself. It favours a set of skills that become one of morphing and shape-shifting, accommodating one’s work into a particular institutional outlook. It becomes an exercise in learning to communicate in a particular institution’s modus operandi. An acceptance and affirmation of education as disaggregated functional units for assessment.

I found this exhausting, deeply depressing and at times rage-inducing – the need to contort myself and my work to meet some institutional bureaucratic framework. To demonstrate that my work made of instinct, a creative meandering path could be translated back into a logical paradigm, that I could tell the chronological and conceptual story of my work through a linear set of slides and against a cross-matrix of ‘learning objectives’. I could and I did, but I would argue that this particular emphasis on academic art education today hugely privileges a mindset and certain skillsets and experiences that come from very particular academic environments and borne of (generally) utter acquiescence to the institutional system. Further I’d say at best these ‘academic skills’ have a pretty coincidental relationship to the practice of making meaningful art. And instead they serve to exclude and stymie, which ultimately is to the detriment of the art world and society.