Education: How Good Are Our Art Colleges? ; Some Experts Argue That British Art Schools Are the Best in the World; Others Say They're Not Teaching Students to Draw

By Hodges, Lucy | The Independent (London, England), June 7, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Education: How Good Are Our Art Colleges? ; Some Experts Argue That British Art Schools Are the Best in the World; Others Say They're Not Teaching Students to Draw


Hodges, Lucy, The Independent (London, England)


Whatever happened to the young British artists (YBAs), the enfants terribles who gripped the world with their chutzpah in 1988 and ceased to shock about 10 years later when no one was shockable any longer? The answer is that they're still going, pouring out of the art colleges, doing their own neo-conceptual thing. They're simply no longer part of a movement.

Among the big YBA names were Damien Hirst (who suspended a sheep in formaldehyde), Gillian Wearing, who made a video of policemen sitting silently, Tracey Emin (of the unmade bed), Rachel Whiteread, the sculptress, and Chris Ofili (who paints with elephant dung). This week you can see their successors as the cream of British postgraduate art and sculpture goes on show at the Royal College of Art's summer exhibitions supported by The Independent.

Make your way to Kensington Gore to see Sophie von Hellermann, who paints expressive canvases based on scenes from movies; Nathaniel Mellors, a sculptor who has created a walk-through world with references to pop culture and news events; and Claude Temin- Vergez, who squeezes out acrylic paint in the style of Jackson Pollock.

Later this month the other art colleges are staging their final year shows, giving you a taste of what is happening in fine art, textiles, design, photography, architecture and fashion in the country that arguably contains more artists and designers per square inch than any other in the world.

According to official figures that Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art, likes to quote, we are now producing 60,000 art and design graduates over three years. That is more than the entire population of Florence in the Renaissance (there were 50,000 Florentines at that time).

The extraordinary outpouring from the United Kingdom's art schools - in terms of scale and creativity - is thought to be responsible to a large extent for the dramatic boom in our creative industries. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport reckons that these industries are growing at double the rate of GDP. In 1997-98 their output increased by 16 per cent compared to just under 6 per cent for the economy as a whole. Latest figures show these industries to be generating revenues of pounds 112.5bn, employing 1.3 million people, and exporting more than pounds 10.3m.

And it's not just art that comes out of this segment of British higher education. Art colleges feed into pop music too. David Bowie and Punk music were clearly products of art schools, explains Sir Christopher. And Pete Townshend, lead singer and driving force behind The Who, got his idea for smashing up his guitar from a lecture on self-destructive sculpture at the then Ealing College of Art where he was a student in the early Sixties. "There's a direct connection between what they were doing in art schools and what they went on to do in the evenings," says Sir Christopher.

Why have art colleges become such a crucible for the creative industries in Britain? One answer is that we have more and bigger art colleges than most other countries. "It's a question of scale," says Colin Cina, the head of the Chelsea College of Art and Design. "There are probably more art and design colleges than in the rest of Europe put together in terms of student numbers."

Second, we teach art and design differently. Art colleges, established in most big cities in Victorian times, came out of the arts and crafts movement, according to Phillida Barlow, the head of undergraduate sculpture and reader in fine art at the Slade, part of University College London. Because they were grounded in a craft mentality and not in universities, students were taught by practitioners.

"British art schools employ practising artists, people who make work themselves when they are not teaching," says Bill Furlong, director of research at Wimbledon College of Art. "We are committed to that at Wimbledon.

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