British art schools are known for their experimental and imaginative approach which balances progress with history and tradition. Their groundbreaking curricula keep them amongst the top rankings of colleges worldwide.
Slade school of art for example, founded in 1871 by Felix Sade, was envisaged as a school where students would be welcomed from all over the world to study art in a liberal and exploratory milieu. The college counts amongst its esteemed alumni artists such as Richard Hamilton, Phyllida Barlow, Lucian Freud, Mona Hathoum and many others. Today, the school is famous for its lively and dynamic studio-based programs and a teaching cohort of internationally renowned practising artists, many of whom are former students. It also runs a research centre and a publishing project, and collaborates with galleries, museums, archives and scientists around the world. Slade remains at the forefront of developments in the field of contemporary art and prides itself on alumni who shape cultural progress all over the world.
Similarly, Chelsea College of Art, a college that formed many of the members of the “New British Sculpture” movement, runs an events-based curriculum that enables students to develop through workshops with contemporary artists and cultural pioneers of diverse backgrounds. In contrast to the classical art academy model where the student develops his practice away from the world, Chelsea College of Art fosters individuality and collaboration, and teaches its students to be an active member of the new art-world as well as an independent practising artist.
Today, the curricula of leading art colleges throughout the world likely owe a lot to a history of British arts educators who dared to take unconventional and deconstructive approaches to learning art. Such endeavours gave art schools in Britain and beyond the essential stimulus they needed to become lively and energetic environments in which boundaries for creative pursuits were stretched and rebuilt.
This post looks at some of these memorable experiments which were developed by lecturers and tutors within some of the most renowned British art schools.
1. ROY ASCOTT’S GROUNDCOURSE
“All art is, in some sense, didactic: every artist is, in some way, setting out to instruct (..) For, by instruction, we mean to give direction, and that is precisely what all great art does: Through culture it informs, art becomes a force for change in society. “ (Roy Ascott)
Roy Ascott with students at Ealing Art School by Lord Snowdon gelatin silver print, 1963 NPG P1966 © Armstrong Jones
Roy Ascott, born 1934 is a British artist and educator. He exhibits internationally and focusses on technoetic art. His art is focused on the impact of digital and telecommunications networks on consciousness. Ascott is very much aware of the role of the educator in teaching art, as much as he is of the role art has in informing culture. For Ascott therefore, pedagogy and art-making were seen as inextricably connected.
Ascott became famous in the 1960’s for the ‘Groundcourse’, which he implemented as head of foundation studies at Ealing College of Art in London, a course that later assured him several international positions as an arts educator. Groundcourse was a course made for foundation year students who were just beginning their studies. The aim of the course was to recognise and break preconceptions, and set new perspectives with which the students approached their studies.
Some of the exercises of the course were as simple as students having to describe the world from the perspective of a sponge, or drawing the classroom in reverse, whilst others sought to place the students in unfamiliar and unsettling situations. On one occasion for example, the tutors locked a group of students in the courtyard without explanation to see what they could learn from the experience.
Needless to say, not everyone was cut out for this approach and many found it confusing and absurd. Yet others embraced the absurdity of such exercises and found that it made them think of questions essential to any practising creative, particularly how social and spatial context defines one’s artwork.
Such realisations informed the subsequent explorations of the students, who invented new roles and games that foregrounded different perspectives and experimented with new ways of communicating with one another. Acting out different personalities and inverting tutor-student roles was an integral part of this process. One such project was “The mindmap”, in which the student had to invent a game and then evaluate and note down the responses of the people who played it.
Image Source: Ascott Art Pedagogy
The Groundcourse was chaotic and challenging, yet immensely exciting. In contrast to the established ways of teaching, it turned art school into a testground in which new ways of learning and exploring the creative process were discovered. Ascott’s curriculum revealed the potential for art school to become a place where invisible systems and novel situations that shape us as individuals and artists can be explored. It is precisely for this reason that Ascott is today regarded as a visionary.
The creativity introduced into art education by The Groundcourse has an analogue in today’s technological revolution. 30 years after the ‘Ground Course’, the internet appeared, and with it, a new system of interaction that has redefined our lives and a system that remains as promising and confusing as an exercise of the ‘Groundcourse’ was remembered to be.
2. ST. MARTINS SCHOOL OF ART: A-COURSE
St. Martins School of Art was the predecessor of today’s famous Central Saint Martins. The school became independent from the church in 1859 and began to bring in young artists and recent graduates as tutors, amongst them Anthony Caro, who was particularly influential in shaping its world famous sculpture program. Amongst St. Martin’s alumni there is an array of important british artists, such as Gilbert and George, Anthony Gormley and Richard Long.
In the early 70s a group of tutors (Garth Evans, Peter Harvey, Gareth Jones and Peter Atkins) from the sculpture department of St. Martins School of Art formed the ‘A-course’ for students entering the three year-long BA program. The ‘A-course’ team led many projects that seemed to share the same ethos of Ascott’s ‘Groundcourse’, although they do not appear to be directly connected; both courses were formed in response to the habits and methods common to arts education at the time.
One of such responses was 'The Area Designated “A"' project, where a specific area - a large studio belonging to the department - was the focus of all activity. The project required each student to occupy this area exclusively for one full working day. The aim was to place specific spatial and temporal limitations on students’ working process. The area also functioned as a stage or platform from which students would demonstrate and perform their creative processes and areas of interest to one another.
Amongst other projects was the ‘Materials Project’, in which the student had to obtain a material which he or she later examined with specific instructions from the staff. This compelled students to consider its value, its place of its origin, its availability and the economic and social conditioning of the materials we choose to engage with as artists and designers.
There was also ‘The Employment Project’, in which a student had to set up an actual running business in the studio, with a full financial report. This was yet another way of forcing the student to think about their work and artistic labour in relation to the outside world and the norms that defined it.
The Employment project and the A-course in itself also raised essential questions about grading the students' work. How do you measure the success of an artwork? The value of artistic labour? What are the aspects that can or should be graded and is it not that any good artwork evades reductive or predetermined measuring systems?
All of the projects have one thing in common, they consider art practice and the students not only as participants of an isolated group of students, but as participants in wider society and culture. The A-course also emphasised that whatever is made within a studio will be perceived in its actual context outside of the artist’s studio, urging students to think of how they want to act and exist in the world as an artist, what they want to say, explore and reveal about our lives.
3. CENTRAL SAINT MARTINS, MA FASHION- LOUISE WILSON
“Students sometimes turn up at my course and they look a bit like they’re going to Bali with only Wellingtons and a map, and they never leave their hotel room because they didn’t think to bring a bikini. I’m full of bizarre analogies like that.” (Louise Wilson)
Lastly, we will look at a more contemporary example of a tutor who personifies the progressive ethos of the courses in question, Louise Wilson. Louise Wilson was the head of the MA Course at Central Saint Martins college. In fact, the school’s position as number one art school in the world is largely due to her. Louise Wilson died a sudden death in 2013, but up to this day she is remembered for her personality, drive and passion for supporting new generations of designers.
Alumni such as Christoper Kane, Simone Rocha and Marques Almeida remember her dearly even though they describe their time on the MA course as ‘hell’. She was a controversial figure and many could not handle her approach. She was known for harsh and uncompromising criticism and a slogan hanging on the wall of her office read “ Its right to be wrong and wrong to be right’ perhaps even reveals a humbler more egalitarian approach to the arts.
Her criticism, however, was always orientated towards helping students get rid of false prestige, vain ideas and poor work habits to discover more within themselves and within our world. She would say:
"A lot of people believe that you don’t need to know the history and that creates newness. I disagree: we should always be informed and then destroy it.” (Louise Wilson)
MA collection by Craig Green
Lee McQueens, Jack the Ripper Blouse from his MA Collection ‘Victims’, 1992
And lastly, for Wilson, the key to being a successful student and creative was to never stop learning, and to become aware that learning is a collective effort that we cannot achieve on our own: everyone from teachers to students and the audience is to be equally involved in discovering new knowledge and new perspectives together if we are to make groundbreaking work that is remembered in the world’s cultural fabric.
Written by Eva Kraljic
Eva Kraljic is a practising artist and tutor with Witherow Brooke. In her practice, Eva uses predominantly photographic processes, words and sound, and her work is often presented in the form of intermedial installations and workshops. Eva has a First Class BA in Fine Art from Chelsea College of Art and Design and an MA from Slade School of Fine Art. Eva has received numerous scholarships and accolades for her work, including a nomination in 2017 for the Knights of the Round Table Award.