Issue Number: 117
With art students across the country feeling the squeeze on resources, three Academicians tell Ben Luke why a spirit of openness and creative enquiry in art school matters now more than ever. Illustration by Quinton Winter
Michael Landy RA was among the students at Goldsmiths college, including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume RA, who were at the core of the Young British Artists phenomenon, which had a seismic effect on the British art scene in the 1990s.
The group’s key tutor at Goldsmiths was Michael Craig-Martin RA, who was on an admissions panel that had turned down Landy in 1984, before accepting him the next year. ‘I didn’t really speak to any other tutors, apart from Michael,’ says Landy. ‘I remember it being so open. That is what I enjoyed about Goldsmiths – the amount of freedom it gave you to think and to be creative. It was all about ideas and trying to find the right ways to convey them.’
Landy was part of a particularly close and dynamic group of students. ‘Michael said that he was waiting for people like us to come along for years, so we just fed off each other,’ he says. Some students struggled with the lack of structure, but Landy thrived. ‘We didn’t have any workshops or anyone literally teaching us things like perspective drawing or life drawing’.
This openness is why art schools continue to matter, Landy believes. ‘Now, more than ever, it gets you to think for yourself. There isn’t a job for life and it is up to you what you create out of the art school experience. It stands you in good stead for the rest of your life – you build your own structure, and that begins at art college.’
The sculptor Richard Wilson RA attended Hornsey School of Art in 1971, not long after it had radically changed, following a six-week student sit-in in 1968, which was partly in response to the student demonstrations sweeping through Europe demanding social and political change. ‘The Hornsey protests had been against the prevailing regime of teaching,’ Wilson recalls. ‘The students didn’t want to do, say, life drawing – they wanted to get involved in what was happening at that time, like conceptual art.’ The experimental course gave them ‘the chance to challenge our world, and to do whatever we wanted with ideas: play with them and test them. The entire three years became a field of enquiry,’ he says. This freedom prepared him for the self-generating life of an artist. ‘You learned how to plan your day, that was so vital once you had left art college,’ he says.
The resources available to art students were very different in those days. ‘As soon as I arrived at Hornsey, I was given a camera, materials, a certain amount of money to buy stuff from the college art shop, and you had a grant,’ says Wilson. When he taught part-time at Reading University in the 1980s and 1990s, he saw how the funding situation had changed. ‘It was poverty stricken,’ he recalls.
But despite the changes, Wilson believes art school still offers the best route to becoming an artist. ‘It is more difficult to do it from the isolation of your dusty garret,’ he laughs.
Painter Tess Jaray RA went to art college for six years, unlike most art students today. ‘I had three years at St Martins, starting in 1954, then three at the Slade – which I felt was necessary, every minute of it,’ she says. ‘A lot of us left school at 16 and went straight to art college. So I was at St Martins before I was 17 and at that time it was just incredible: a whole world opened up.’
Jaray was at the Slade during a key shift in British art. ‘The most radical change within art schools then was the impact of the American Abstract Expressionists. Everyone – from students to 60 and 70-year-old artists – was affected,’ she recalls. ‘In those days, information wasn’t so readily available. If you heard of an artist – let’s say Jackson Pollock – and there didn’t happen to be a show at the Whitechapel, how would you find out about them? Now you just use Google and it’s all there.’
In 1968, she began teaching at the Slade, eventually running the postgraduate painting department until 1999. ‘The principle was always to take the stand from the student’s point of view, to try to bring out what was inherently asking to be brought out,’ she says. And though she sympathises with today’s art students, most of whom will leave art school with huge debts, she feels that ‘art schools matter now possibly more than they ever have. The world has become so commercialised, there has got to be some space for individual creativity. Art has to be allowed to be useless.’