11 Course Leaders: 20 Questions – A Collection of Interviews with 11 London BA Fine Art Course Leaders
Paul Grivell and Claire Scanlon, Northbrook College, SussexRowles, S. (Editor), (2011), Q-Art London. .......... This is not the first book to ask questions of Fine Art teachers in a question-led interview format. Precursors include: John Reardon’s ch-ch-ch-changes (2009), a collection of engaging interviews with key European artist-teachers; Daniel Birnbaum and Heike Belzer’s bilingual Kunst Lerhen/Teaching Art (2007), a focused collection of artist...
Author(s) / Editor(s): Interviews and Forward by Sarah Rowles, Introduction by Patricia Bickers
Publisher: Q-Art London
Publication date: 2011
ISBN number: 978-0-9564355-1-4
11 Course Leaders: 20 Questions – A Collection of Interviews With 11 London BA Fine Art Course Leaders is not the first book to ask questions of Fine Art teachers in a question-led interview format. Precursors include: John Reardon’s ch-ch-ch-changes (2009), a collection of engaging interviews with key European artist-teachers; Daniel Birnbaum and Heike Belzer’s bilingual Kunst Lerhen/Teaching Art (2007), a focused collection of artist-teacher perspectives on the work of the Stadelschule in Frankfurt; and Steven Madoff’s Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century (2009), which brings together speculative essays, interviews and questionnaire responses from influential artist-teachers in order to imagine art school futures.
What sets this new book apart from this back-catalogue is that these informed and informative texts are largely premised on structured dialogues between colleagues, whilst Rowles’ is written predominantly from the perspective of the (prospective) student. In this sense it is very much a text of its time, arising from and embodying a clear tension between two interest groups currently undergoing a significant shift in their power relationships.
On the one hand there are the 11 well-established artist-teachers representing a range of Fine Art courses across London, thoughtfully making their philosophical and pedagogic cases for doing things the way they do, often with an acute awareness of the worsening economic conditions in which they operate. On the other hand there are the tens of thousands of art-students and potential art-students who find themselves in a post-Browne educational landscape where they are required to make informed decisions about how and where to best invest their tens of thousands of pounds in three years of degree level art education.
Our interlocutor, Sarah Rowles, is a self-appointed ‘demystifier’ of HE art education, who asks her questions on behalf of those students (or perhaps rather on behalf of her former self as a mystified under-graduate art-student). In her forward Rowles states;
My main aim for this book was to enable myself and others to get to grips with how and why art education has become what it is today as well as how an understanding of art as representational painting, drawing and sculpture can transform into an acceptance of and facility for, producing contemporary art (p.15).
This awkwardly written ‘statement of intent’ sets the scene for her subsequent questions to the 11 course leaders, hinting at both a sense of loss and a wish for things to be other than they are / like they used to be before she knew too much / not enough. This perspective calls to mind Atherton’s notion of ‘learning as loss’ where, in certain modes of education, the student experiences ‘a process of personal change which entails a substantial amount of un-learning and hence - it will be argued - of loss.’ (Atherton 2011, abstract)
What then follows is a more or less repeated set of slightly gauche questions asked by Rowles to the 11 course leaders. However, any deficiency in the questions is more than ameliorated by the fulsomeness of the answers, which often re-frame any under-pinning assumptions and carefully map out the wider political, economic, cultural and pedagogic issues at play in the asking of the questions. That said, unlike Reardon’s ch-ch-ch-changes there is little by way of a sustained and developmental dialogue between interviewer and interviewee. The artist-teachers are placed by Rowles’ questions in a quite traditional teacher / student relationship of didactic telling, at times literally drawing out the schema for her on paper, in order for her to ‘get it’.
And the nature of the ‘instinctive’ (according to Rowles) questioning reveals much. Whilst there is no rigid formula as the book title may suggest, she does repeatedly ask a series of similar questions to each course leader. Broadly these are:
What’s your understanding of the history of art education?
What was your own art education like?
Did you pay fees?
Are you a qualified teacher?
How do you evaluate art/student art?
Where does the education happen in ‘art education’?
Do you think it important to teach technical skills to students?
What’s the place of ‘contextual study/art history’ in an art student’s education?
Are students who lack an existing cultural knowledge of contemporary art disadvantaged?
Do you offer professional practice skills to students?
What’s your course philosophy?
What’s your position on widening participation/access?
How does your student selection process work?
What’s the importance of an institution’s reputation?
What’s your take on suggestions made in Art Monthly regarding the alleged ‘crisis in art education’?
As the book unfolds some of these questions come to take on a more nuanced phrasing in the light of the sophisticated responses given previously. Perhaps more interestingly, if we were to speculate on Rowles’ un-stated ‘position’ in this debate, she consistently asks one seemingly irrelevant question to nearly all of the course leaders - the debate framing ‘did you pay fees as a student?’ Predictably, given the likely age and career trajectory of any London-based Fine Art degree course leader the answer was ‘no’ in each instance. Yet the implicit ‘accusation’ is made, and the terms of the debate are set.
And so, whilst Rowles is genuinely interested to find out why artist-teachers do things the way they do, there remains an underlying defensive/accusatory tone. And that fundamentally (neo-liberal) ideological position sits awkwardly (and interestingly) with the very different (broadly left-liberal) ideological positions of her interview subjects.
This shift in power relationships between art-student and artist-teacher is perhaps best understood in the context of the broader debate concerning the alleged ‘crisis’ in contemporary Fine Art education. In October 2008 Art Monthly focused this wide-ranging debate in a special issue entitled ‘The Future of Art Education’. Many contributors to that publication identified the then New Labour government’s neoliberal ideology as the key underlying factor negatively impacting on state funded ‘public’ university level arts education. A ‘corporate pedagogy’, underpinned by market-led ‘managerialism’ was held to be responsible for an increasingly dysfunctional relationship between student and tutor, with students positioning themselves as paying customers engaged in a consumer contract with a service provider identified as the teaching staff on a given course within a given HE institution. In 2010 the publication of the Browne Report and its subsequent enactment in the coalition White Paper enshrined this marketisation through the wholesale reconfiguration of HE funding, establishing a perceived direct line of finance between student / fee-payer and teacher / provider - though as J.J. Charlesworth (2008) and others have pointed out this perception is far from the economic reality of HE expenditure, where often less than half of student fees are actually directed towards the costs of teaching.
The ideological underpinning to this (perceived) shift in economic structuring is pretty much the same old same old Tory assertion of consumer choice shaping market responsiveness via demand. Let the people get what the people want. In this fantasy world of perfect competition any social value is reduced to its functionality in ‘economic terms’.
So, the dysfunctional relationship between art student and artist-tutor identified by so many commentators (who mostly happen to be established artist-teachers) is understood to be a direct consequence of this new economic perception of the relationship between the two parties. Whilst salaried artist-teachers seek to sustain relationships with their students which foreground qualities such as the development of a questioning criticality, the encouragement of risk-taking and the enablement of reflective contextualization, students (in the voice of Sarah Rowles) want to know what they’re going to get for their money, in the sense of them being given something in return for a substantial financial outlay. The philosophical and ideological gulf is all too evident.
Hence Rowles, echoing the central premise of Elkins’ polemical book Why Art Cannot Be Taught (2001) repeatedly asks ‘can you teach art?’ And she is repeatedly given a range of sophisticated responses that explain the significance of the teacher’s role in that process. John Timberlake, BA Fine Art Course Leader at Middlesex, makes a strong and coherent case for teaching, albeit in a context that is critically aware of the limitations of straightforwardly teaching ‘art’. He argues that, in the contemporary context of HE funding, where staff are increasingly required to do more for less, it is increasingly imperative that they know how to effectively manage, co-ordinate and organise in order to enable student learning. In essence teachers need to be able to bring things to mind on behalf of their students. Similarly Dereck Harris, the BA Fine Art Course Director at Wimbledon, points out how good ‘teachers’ work at developing important pedagogic skills and approaches. He lists: being sensitive to psychological character, communicating, building confidence, using criticism to challenge, judging situations, adapting approaches to individual needs, being competent in group teaching situations, leading collaborative discussions and maintaining intensity of intellectual exchange. In essence these are pedagogic skills ‘whereby you help people out’.
But these perspectives, which seek to place students in dynamic, pro-active and demanding learning situations, run counter to the passive consumer model of course ‘delivery’ now enshrined in the post-Browne economic contract. This tension is exemplified by Rowles’ repeated question ‘do you teach professional/technical skills?’ – which interestingly she gradually modifies in light of the intelligent answers the question provokes.
As JJ Charlesworth observed in a pithy Art Monthly article that preceded their Art Education Crisis Special Issue;
This is where art education encounters the diminished cultural and social horizons of the current moment: rather than a space for free experiment and investigation, with little regard for careers or professional out comes, art education's de facto privatisation has bred an acute conservatism among students over the nature of their success. While complaints about poor provision are legitimate, these are often tinged with the value for-money mentality of consumers who aren't satisfied what they expect from their purchase...the 'customer is always right' culture does little to accustom students to the experience of robust criticism or demands for intellectual rigour...’ (Charlesworth, 2008)
But all this is not to say that 11 Course Leaders: 20 Questions does not serve a purpose. In the current economic climate the book certainly functions well as a sort of Which? guideto a range of London-based options for a Fine Art education. In this sense the book helps students make more informed choices about their 27K investment than if they were merely to rely on glossy prospectuses, Key Information Sets, National Student Survey ratings and stage-managed Open Days. As Martin Newth, BA Fine Art Programme Director at Camberwell states in the book’s final interview;‘...perhaps the only good thing about this fees thing is that with students shopping around, institutions have got to make it clear what it is they’re offering’ (p.238).
And so the book does genuinely enable illuminating comparisons to be made across a selected range of London-based Fine Art BAs, with the quality of the interview responses indicating something very ‘real’ about the value (rather than the cost) of the different three year processes on offer.
The book closes with an ominous postscript; ‘As I was writing this book I had an email from someone who had found out about Q-Art. They told me that they would be coming to our events because they cannot afford to go to university for their art education.’ Artist-teachers across a broad spectrum of HE courses are fairly unanimous in their condemnation of the government’s new HE funding arrangements, in particular with regard to the negative impact on widening participation – a subject close to Sarah Rowles’ heart. Yet this postscript statement suggests that, for good or bad, organisations such as Q-Art have an increasing role to play - not merely as a supplement, but increasingly as an alternative to the three-year degree model currently seen as the backbone to art education. But it is hard to know how the widening participation agenda will be meaningfully addressed through such a shift.
Paul Grivell is Course Leader of the BA (Hons) Contemporary Photographic Arts Practice programme, and Claire Scanlon is Fine Art Lecturer in the Department of Art, Design & Media, both at Northbrook College Sussex.
Atherton, J.S. (2011) ‘Doceo; Learning as Loss, http://www.doceo.co.uk/original/learnloss_1.htm. Date accessed 09/04/12.
Charlesworth, J.J. (2008) ‘Opting Out’, Art Monthly, no 317, June 2008.
Elkins, J. (2001) Why Art Cannot Be Taught? A Handbook for Art Students, University of Illinois Press.