Towards an ontology of the studio tutorial

Robert Clarke, University of Huddersfield

This paper reflects on the critical nature of the studio tutorial from the perspective of the teaching and learning experience. It substantiates its argument by refuting a discernible view that art practice (and hence its criticism) is ‘subjective.’ To do so, it co-opts aspects from philosophy and the psychoanalytic tradition to explain how a student’s work represents an ontologically existenti...


Section from untitled drawing by Robert Clarke

Keywords: ontology, psychoanalytic, Heidegger, Milner, Derrida


This paper reflects on the critical nature of the studio tutorial from the perspective of the teaching and learning experience. It substantiates its argument by refuting a discernible view that art practice (and hence its criticism) is ‘subjective.’ To do so, it co-opts aspects from philosophy and the psychoanalytic tradition to explain how a student’s work represents an ontologically existentialized understanding of their lived experience.


The studio tutorial is the primary form of pedagogy in art and design. It is the means by which staff and students interact on practical art courses, and it is where the critical aspects of the teaching and learning process take place. Its discursive format is recognisably consistent from one university to another and it has a historical legacy little changed since the introduction of degrees in the subject. It is descended from a longer tradition of the artist’s atelier in which artists and craftsmen were apprenticed to acquire skills in the presence of a master; and it is distantly related to the medieval system of guilds who examined apprentices by having them submit a final product demonstrating competence and questioned by viva voce. Although expectations have changed concerning the cultural role of artists today, such that we might say that artists are no longer trained but educated, the studio tutorial – the discussion between tutor and student in the presence of their work - remains the principal method of teaching and learning in art and design education. That it has survived so long intact is perhaps an endorsement of its success.

There are, of course, variations in its methods and these reflect the recent growth of sub-disciplines within the subject, as well as shifts in values about what is appropriate to the educational purposes of individual courses. Nevertheless, the studio tutorial remains the stable locus around which all other learning experiences are arranged. Whatever innovations or local idiosyncrasies occur in a programme, they depend on, indeed are unthinkable without, the delivery of the studio experience. To co-opt a phrase from the film Pulp Fiction, like the Kahuna Berger, the studio tutorial is the ‘corner stone of any nutritious breakfast.’ Yet, although they cannot claim always to be fine dining, the studio tutorial sustains an appetite for critical discourse that is the heart of the menu. Traditionally, art and taste are aesthetically connected, but ‘taste’ is a poorer relation of ‘judgement’, and therein lies the cause and effect of an aesthetic education: its capacity to engage students in critical experience.

The qualitative ability to weigh ideas mindfully is an essential ingredient in setting the standards that students take with them into the world beyond university. Such things are, as we know, shaped by the acquisition of culture; and given that epochal preferences have a habit of a moving target, what matters in one phase of history may be inconsequential for another. Moreover, educational policies are prone to political motives which endorse or contest a subject’s vocational validity and enforce changes towards increasingly deterministic outcomes. All these affect epistemology and influence modes of delivery.

Thirty years ago, a studio tutorial was little more than an informal ‘chat’ in which nothing was recorded. For instance, in my own experience as an art student, I have no recollection of receiving any written reports about what had been discussed. Since then, a climate of accountability has raised educational expectations, and now that students are paying ‘customers’, appropriately they expect till receipts in the form of ‘feedback’ (an uncomfortable term, revealing the indigestive diet of our current system).

So words are put down on paper and subsequently posted. These tortuous epistles are poured over and, by the dissatisfied, picked apart. There are quibbles and, however much these may be justified or necessary, the translation from speech to writing is something about which Derrida, among others (Barthes, Jakobson, Hjelmslev, et al, has spoken eloquently. He reminds us that the evasive fluidity of language is ambiguously complex, made so by its metaphysical potentiality where it can say both more and less than was intended. The conflict between speech and writing is such that while speech is accompanied and fleshed out by body language, writing is not and this can lead to misunderstandings so that, following a written report, we invite students to come and see us to discuss it. In each other’s presence we are better able to communicate the meanings intended. This is because written reports tend towards the equivocal and are tougher to write when bad news must be conveyed. They leave us open to second opinions and the loss of sleep brought on by doubts about our opinions. A skilful account of a tutorial is only ever as empirical as a police constable’s notebook read out in court, as the scene of the crime is, by then, a piece of history. Our rules of evidence contest the erroneous idea that ‘truth’ is singular and, by and large, it is this that pursues aesthetic and educational misunderstandings. What was said might not be taken for what was meant – unless, that is, the recipient agrees with it. Spontaneous remarks can appear off the cuff or opaque and unintelligible. In his book Why Art Cannot Be Taught (2001), James Elkins remarks that studio tutorials ‘can be confusing’ when they mix ‘technical advice and suggestions about meaning’ (Elkins, 2001, p.148). He adds that students often complain that we spend too much time on technical aspects at the expense of an analysis of meaning, and he suggests this is because we struggle when it comes to talking about meaning. Elkins explains further

I think the idea that some techniques are merely techniques, and others have meaning, is connected to the idea that some talk about technique is a way of not coming to terms with one’s self. If you believe that techniques are separate from meaning, then you can go on experimenting with them and not be impelled to think consistently or directly, about yourself, and the meanings you want or need (Elkins, 2001, p.150).

The view that ‘art as/is technique’ fails to see that technique is deeply embedded in whatever meanings can be given. Nevertheless, the argument that discussion can use technique as a way of skirting round the ‘problem’ of the self in the work - so as not to descend too far into the realm of the personal - is a thought worth considering. The sensitivities of students are vulnerable to criticism and often their identity is self-evident in the work. A work of art always advances an ideological position about the whole nature of any expression as symbolic system in a set of existential relations. What is meant by this is that art is effective only in so far as it opens up a meditation on the nature of being in a world of shared or contested meanings. How we understand this through a student’s work is the core of the critical encounter. It goes beyond materials and techniques to the root of the ontological nature of being, and to a greater or lesser extent, a representation of the self. In assessment, the inscription of marks reminds us that art can be reduced to a statistical measurement. The percentage is not pure, but applied mathematics - an index of performance that leads to awards but not necessarily to jobs or to learning.

However, it is not numeracy but language that writes chronicles worth reading. Their aim is to offer a clear diagnosis of the pros and cons, and encouraging advice on the recommended treatment to follow.

The interpretative act of a studio tutorial is rich in critical prose, for it negotiates pedagogic strategies which recognise that ultimately there can be no absolute definition or prescription. More than anything it rests on the power of suggestion. Meanings circulate in the spaces between words; and those blank intervals contain unconscious messages about the tense balancing act between the pleasure-seeking Freudian id and self-criticism of the super ego. This tension – between what can be said and what cannot - implies what the judgements are really about. It is often necessary to skirt about the point, not only out of sensitivity to the student but also because we are unsure of what we think.  How literal can the psychoanalyst in us be in studio tutorials? How close to the knuckle dare we go, how near or far to the heart of the matter should we travel? Perhaps saying too much is less helpful than saying too little, for too little leaves room for imagination.

Stock phrases are added into the broth. They are ambiguous givens, bones boiled down to generalised flavours that seek to avoid philosophical qualms. An old chestnut that goes uncontested is our preference for ‘analysis over description’ (why, but of course!). The psychological tack of opening with an optimistic thermal allows room to deliver the plummeting coup de grace that follows. We dance about amiably and stand on our heads to get around the hurt. There are exceptions: closet disciplinarians, hardened by recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (brought on by woundings from painful initiations in the art school of hard knocks), who surprisingly now find themselves teaching ‘soft subjects’; and we are all shaken to the soles of our boots by the ancien régime of subject reviews in which liberal methods were taken to task and some were guillotined, or absconded.

Yet despite these anxieties, the studio tutorial survives in good health as something essential to the critique of art. Its constitution is as strong and agile, defined by the perspicacity of the discourse at its core. This is because it encourages the student to test their critical faculties in the immediate light of their work. Through narrative and gesture, these forms of teaching articulate decisive purposes where students learn to differentiate those concerns that matter, from those that do not. The iterative dynamic of creative endeavour is demonstrated in the material object, without which the tutorial would be as invisible as unspoken thought. The transparency achieved by bringing ideas out into the clearing uncovers the tracks of a direction helpful enough for the student to take bearings and move on.

The physical nature of a work and the mechanisms of the tutorial process, present a vibrant objectivity. Notwithstanding this, the philistine assertion that art is ‘subjective’ implies, as though beyond doubt, that art is outside the rigours of criticism because it is a spuriously self-referential visual solipsism. But by what lame criterion is this rhetoric judged? As the philosopher Thomas Nagel points out: empirical science’s wish for absolute objectivity is to possess a view from ‘nowhere’ which eliminates the subjective involvement of the mind. But this notion is impossible, not least because, logically, to have a view from ‘nowhere’ is to have no view at all. We cannot separate ourselves from human perception and see the world as if we were not there.

The embodiment of art is that it is embodied and therefore subject to the human condition of having a perspective. And although the operational disclosures of a process are self-evident in what is physically there in the work (as style, material technique, as physical presence, etc), there remains the signification of what is meant or intended. Thus, always there is a differential between what is shown and what is said. It is indicative that all cultural traditions are inscribed by their references, or what Heidegger calls the ‘referential totality’ of practices which point back to a series of historical events or traditions there, of necessity, in the facticity of the work.

If, as the Greeks believed, art is a happening of truth they called ‘aletheia’, then its context is continuous with and arises from lived experience. What unnerves those who accuse art of a lack of ‘objectivity’ is not that art exists, but that it offers no closure on whatever they believe should stand in for truth. This weakness privileges the security of the singular over the plural, the fixed over the restless which cannot be absolutely defined.  Always in art there is an uncertainty of its meaning that floats and evades definition. That art cannot be tied to any single interpretation is a strength which opens us to the speculative nature of the imaginary and the real.

So, the studio tutorial helps students to sharpen their awareness of the contingent plurality of truths; and the Nietzschean trope in the postmodern makes this plainly of benefit to us and to the futurity of art. This is not the same as saying that art’s truths are relative; rather, they make angled approaches like the radius of a circle or the hands of a clock. Their indicative accuracy tells of time, but not what temporality is in itself. And so it is with art: it is a symbolic reference to, rather than the source of, experience.

As with all experience, the studio tutorial is subject to moments of fluency, detour and reversal. Progress can race ahead of conscious evaluation; and sometimes it falls into the impasse of too much calculative thought. The vitality of the creative act is that it is a contingent unfolding where we stumble into bright openings we could not have predicted at the start.

The teaching and learning that goes on in the studio gains by being alongside others. In this way, it is a performance in the presence of an audience. This can make it self-conscious; some prefer to work away from the gaze. But given that, the collective experience of making work in a critical environment is a rare opportunity; for to work away is to lose in privacy what is better gained by learning from one’s peers. A principal benefit of an education is that it takes place in a context that is shared, and seeing work develop as ideas are set adrift is central to understanding alternative perspectives.

If we can say that the studio tutorial shares a resemblance to the encounter between a psychoanalyst and their patient, and if ‘cure’ is the psychoanalytic word for the happy ending, then creativity is the means by which an art student is cured of dependence upon the ‘analysis’ of the tutor. They learn to take the reins and see if what they say and do is what they actually meant. In experience, it is of the kind where we only know what we mean when we see what we say; or, in other words, it is always a practical speculation. Indeed, a mark of a successful education is one that enables a student to become an independent learner. But that only happens if the critical structures and methods of discourse are put there first. 

The eminent psychoanalyst, Marion Milner (1900-1998) is right to say that ‘the aim of psychoanalysis is to sustain the uncertainty that makes growth possible’ (2011, p.xxi). Furthermore, can we not say of the creative process that it is propelled by an uncertainty curious enough to risk the independence of thinking for oneself? D.W. Winnicott says similar things about the developmental growth of the child into an adult: good parenting means that parents gradually enable their children (eventually) to abandon them successfully (Winnicott, 1953). In loco parentis, a university education should lead students to take critical responsibility for their work. 

In psychoanalytic terms, a student’s art work is an equivalence of the dream-content which Freud describes as follows, ‘The dream content is, as it were, presented in a picture-writing, whose signs are to be translated one by one into the language of the dream thoughts’ (Freud, 2010, p.296). The student’s work represents a relation to their personal unconscious, driven by a set of values, assumptions through a responsive practice of their art. As such, it symbolises the psychological relations between self and world. Viewed in this way, it is not difficult to see that the work has the ontological root of which I spoke earlier. This suggests that the ground of making any creative work is one which addresses a fundamental relation of being, Martin Heidegger calls Dasein (being there). A student’s work is a reflection of their ‘being there’ as an existentialization of their lived experience: what it means (provisionally) to be that particular individual, at this time, and in these set of circumstances. 

Paradoxically, it is this ‘self’ (there in the work) that is the basis of a radical ’objectivity’. This is possible precisely because a work of art is not a ‘private language’; rather what we sometimes assume in art as a ‘language’ is its style. Derrida makes this clear in Speech and Phenomena (1973) where, in eloquent demonstration (and in parallel with Wittgenstein’s ‘private-language argument’), he rejects the possibility of an ‘inward language’ or ‘solitary discourse’ which does not gain its signification in the external nimbus of the world. Put another way, inward language, as a form or speech, must represent itself. Crucially, it is this that refutes the argument that art is ‘subjective’ and beyond the reach of effective communication. Certainly, it may be the case that, here and there, it evades capture; but that is not the same as saying it is beyond apprehension or judgement, wherein and because its authenticity makes itself known as something felt.

The psychoanalytic and the ontological are deeply interpenetrated. In our daily involvement in the world (of skilful coping with conscious intentions, making plans, mowing the lawn, etc.), usually they are hidden from us; yet they reveal themselves conspicuously in many places, and one of them is in works of art. Therefore, as we know, in the encounter of a studio tutorial we are engaged with much more than the technical details of the craft of creative practices – we are involved in an ontologically humanising search for meaning. 

Finally, a studio tutorial only begins to work when we are impressed by the symptoms. In Freud’s view, ‘our constitution… is instinctual and everything, including our capacity for fascination, comes from that’ (Phillips, 2000, p.185).

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Robert Clarke currently teaches contextual theory to students of the School of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Huddersfield.



Barthes, R. (1980) The Pleasures of the Text, New York, Hill & Wang.

Derrida, J. (1973) Speech and Phenomena, Evanston, Northwestern University.

Elkins, J. (2001) Why Art Cannot be Taught, Chicago, University of Illinois.

Freud, S. (2010) The Interpretation of Dreams, London, Basic Books.

Jakobson, R. (1995) On Language, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

Lacan, J. (1997) The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.

Milner, M. (2011) The Hands of the Living God: An account of a psycho-analytic treatment, London, Routledge.

Nagel, T. (1989) The View From Nowhere, New York, Oxford University Press.

Phillips, A. (2000) Promises, Promises: Essays on Literature and Psychoanalysis, London, Faber & Faber.

Winnicott, D. (1953) ‘Transitional objects and transitional phenomena’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34, pp.89-97.


Listing image: Untitled drawing by Robert Clarke
Header image: section from Untitled drawing by Robert Clarke



Robert Clarke, University of Huddersfield


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13 Jul 2012