When the Great Exhibition opened its doors in 1851, Britain’s reputation as the workshop of the world was on the wane. Few visitors would have known it at the time, but the exhibition signified the high watermark of British manufacturing. French design and Prussian engineering were already edging ahead. In 2012, London hosted another event designed to present Britain to the world – one which referenced the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution by featuring towering smoke stacks and beating drums.
Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony represented British history as a creative blossoming that started in the nineteenth century but seemed to reach its zenith in the twentieth century when fashion, film and pop music boomed. And yet it seems to me that Boyle’s Olympic opener – just like the Great Exhibition – was telling a story about Britain that had already ceased to be true. The circumstances which made it possible for artists to thrive in Britain during the twentieth century are rapidly disappearing. And perhaps one of the most essential changes is in our art schools.
Name any one of the UK’s most famous designers or musicians, never mind artists, and they are likely to have set foot in an art school at one time or other: David Bowie, Pete Townsend, Brian Eno, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano. I could go on and on. Economist Hasan Bakhshi of innovation charity Nesta says that he is frequently asked about how we run our art schools by educationalists abroad. Art schools are perceived by many as the key to our creative success.
Yet art schools have changed dramatically over the last 20–30 years, causing many to question whether they will, in the future, cultivate the innovators we so badly need. Art schools used to be havens for students who, for whatever reason, had not found their niche in the traditional academic system. Now prospective art students very often have to prove their academic credentials to compete for a place at the most prestigious colleges. Once on the course, art students have to submit an increasing volume of written work, arguably a distraction from practical skills and craft.
Tuition fees have made higher education in Britain more expensive than anywhere else in Europe, and art schools are no exception. This means that the social and economic mix is disappearing (students from poorer backgrounds being less inclined to take out a loan for a non-vocational subject such as fine art). What’s more, art schools are going out of their way to attract foreign students for the extra income they bring. Unsurprisingly, there is deep concern among many artists and teachers that the age of the art school is over: workshops for ceramics, printing, and metalwork have been replaced by computer rooms, digital expertise is prioritised before craft; student numbers are rocketing and teaching hours are sinking.
Designer Jay Osgerby graduated with a Masters in architecture from the Royal College of Art. He’s one of a generation of British designers who are now leading design practice around the world, in every field from fashion to technology. The head of Burberry, Christopher Bailey, was in the same year as Jay and his partner Edward Barber; Thomas Heatherwick was another who attended the RCA around the same time; and Apple’s Jonathan Ive was an industrial design student at Newcastle Polytechnic.
Osgerby remembers the RCA as a place where people were constantly making things. The lift was continuously crammed with half-made dresses and furniture being ferried up and down. The RCA, he believes, still manages to hold on to this highly practical ethos, but everywhere he sees the rise of computers taking the place of the hand-made: computers, he says “make you look like an innovator rather than a throw-back to the industrial revolution, but I think that’s a really big mistake.”
The truth is that workshops are expensive and that’s a good enough reason to get rid of them. As education is effectively privatised, art school managers are more interested in business models than the experience of students. An art school such as Central Saint Martins (part of the University of the Arts London) recruits around 40 per cent of its BA students from overseas. It also runs short courses for members of the public. This extra income allows the art school to do a few “special things”, says its head Jeremy Till, such as putting on two degree shows so splendid they attracted almost 50,000 people earlier this year. He says the new building at Kings Cross (where the art school moved from its West End site in 2011) makes the art school a “cultural destination”. Never mind the fact that some staff and students feel uncomfortable with the monolithic, anonymous architecture (one tutor told me that there’s never enough studio space for everyone, you can’t open windows, and you no longer meet people from other courses despite the fact that everyone is now on the same premises.)
So is it necessary to impress the public with a dazzling building and exciting brand? Jeremy Till would tell you that it’s exactly this kind of self-presentation that’s encouraged Google to locate its European offices right next door to Central Saint Martins’ new building at Kings Cross in North London. And maybe he’s got a point. Google might offer jobs to some of the young “creatives” who step out of Saint Martins’ sliding doors. But there’s a balance to be struck. If Central Saint Martins isn’t concentrating attention – above all – on the experience of students within its walls, then the shiny exterior will become just that – a façade, a front, a shop window. Nothing more.
Art School, Smart School, produced by Isabel Sutton, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 22 November at 8pm
Update: this piece was edited on 25 November to fix an attribution error