5 March 02005

How to teach art: notes from RSA lecture

The two-headed lecture on the topic Is the Art School Dead?, at the RSA this week, was a bit of a curate's egg. Neither of the speakers — Professor Roger Wilson and Brian Eno — presented a very coherent argument, but they strung suggestions on loose scaffolding. (Eno appeared to be recording himself on mini-disc: does he like to improvise and then review what he's said to pick out the good bits later?)

Roger Wilson suggested that the question Is the Art School Dead? is based on a particular art school identity prevalent in the '60s. Of course that was the decade when both speakers attended art school themselves. However, contrary to the image of art schools being laissez-faire incubators of cultural anarchy, Brian Eno said that his experience of being taught by Roy Ascott at Ipswich Art School had been distinctly disciplinarian. As a sixteen-year old student, he was obliged to take part in group behavioural profiling exercises, and then everyone had to spend the rest of the term inhibiting their natural proclivities, which in Eno's case seemed to involve being strapped to a trolley for much of the time…

Eno asked, "What does that kind of education prepare you for?" and answered his own question by suggesting that it prepared him for an "emerging world" where he was tuned to spot new cultural developments. Education, he implied, does not always work in straight lines. He gave the example of previous Oxbridge generations being taught the Greats, which had little practical utility according to a business school mindset, but seemed to prepare them well for careers in the civil service and diplomacy. Though the art schools of the '60s produced a lot of pop and rock musicians — Roy Ascott also taught Pete Townshend at Ealing Art College — the institutions never seemed to reflect on the causes of this, or how to capitalise on it.

Both speakers stressed the importance of engendering 'critical distance' in students. Providing just a supportive environment is not enough. Eno said that all the teachers he remembered as good were the ones who challenged him and told him when they thought his work was rubbish for whatever reason. (Though perhaps teachers who work more subtly may do just as much good, while being less memorable?) Wilson's prognosis for art schools was that they could take the role of a cultural observatory, retaining critical distance from practice. Eno suggested that art schools should produce people with 'good cultural antennae', though, again, he felt that the schools themselves do not see their role in those terms. When artists are successful, he said, they identify 'where the action is' in the surrounding culture, and then move into that space.

Eno clearly feels that art schools have missed a few tricks. This is related to his sense of a wider malaise in arts discourse, which he has alleged over many years, making unfavourable comparisons with the sciences. Artists themselves are poor at presenting and discussing their work, says Eno. They "babble meaninglessly — and if you don't believe me, go and buy any arts magazine". To overcome this problem, arts schools should bring in people with proven cultural antennae: advertising creatives and people who design trainers, for example. They should focus more on teamwork, and perhaps follow the model of his friend the physicist Lee Smolin, who announces a new project and invites his students to join the team, subject to their interests, as apprentices. They should also give more attention to questions of media, such as how painting is different from film, how something that emits light is different from something that reflects it.

Eno conceded that he was the freer of the two speakers since he is not obliged to follow through on any of his recommendations, unlike Wilson who is head of Chelsea College of Art and Design. In his usual style, he dropped in several provocative and suggestive thought-grenades. You can see how this style could work brilliantly as a music producer (one of Eno's 'day jobs'); and less well as an expert consultant or policy advisor. Some of Eno's prescriptions are only slightly less random than his famous Oblique Strategies (this is the man who has been predicting an imminent doo-wop revival for the last fifteen years, and who claimed to be ahead of the zeitgeist in finding female body builders "enormously sexy"). If Eno were a management consultant he'd be doing a guerilla form of process consultation wherein his role was to loosen calcified thinking and prod managers to re-examine their assumptions.

With that preface, here are some of those thought-grenades.

  • The definition of art should be broadened to include style.
  • Comedy is where the action is right now. Chris Morris is possibly Britain's most interesting artist working today. After comedy comes painting: Saatchi is right for once.
  • Why doesn't the Tate have a chart for its artworks? (On the basis that it doesn't weaken a work to subject it to the kind of market appraisal that pop records get.) Visitors could affix green stickers to pieces they like, and red to those they hated, providing an index of most popular, least popular and most controversial works.

Finally, if you're interested in Eno-gossip, his new album will be called This, and all the tracks are songs (no instrumentals). Recently Eno has been conducting interviews to appoint his 'white suit' Sedgefield candidate.

Update: the full transcript of the event is now available for download as a PDF file.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Teaching on 5 March 02005 | TrackBack

Interestingly, Brian Eno doesn't mention the art school he attended after Ipswich- Winchester which was more hypercaust-warmed than Ascot boilerhoused. He seemed well pleased that as a visiting examiner he (and the other grumpy old examining people), were rather heroic in awarding a first to a student who produced little actual stuff.
This reminded me of Brian's own very chancey Dip. show which, as I remember it, also contained very little stuff. (He really did miss something by not pursuing his early interest in Mondrian). Needless to say, the wise and grumpy old examiners at Winchester, suspecting that this hyper-active, hyper-ego'd and hyper-opinionated student might just be the one 'to make it big', passed his activities, I suspect, to avoid having egg on their faces in the future. I don't think they really had any assessment criteria or outcome factors to weigh things against. On the other hand, they may actually have rated his bits......

Posted by: randolph flood on 25 March 02005 at 6:09 PM
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