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The show must go on
by: Andrew Bryant
The response to Degrees unedited has been phenomenal this year. With roughly ten new blogs and 150 posts each month, it is clear that many final year art students are finding something of use to them in keeping a blog. So what are the benefits of blogging and what can the blogs this year tell us about student life and art schools today, particularly at a time when art education, and higher education in Britain in general, is perceived by many to be in crisis?
Clare Mcfarlane, who is studying fine art at Hereford College of Arts, sums up the positive effects of blogging, especially when you are approaching such a momentous threshold as your degree show. “I have found … using the space to be incredibly cathartic and an excellent way to clarify ideas... I will most certainly be carrying on post degree. Thank you a-n.”
This use of the blog as an aid to metabolising ideas is common to all and seems to be the primary use of the space. Secondary to this is the notion of documenting, not only the progress of the work, but of the degree show itself. Sonya Chenery, a fine art student at the University of Hertfordshire, hopes that the blog will, “…help to synthesise my thoughts on my work as well as to document the process of planning a degree show.”
Notable is the number of comments made on each other’s blogs. From simple words of appreciation – for example Helen Dearnley’s “I really love this piece…” on fellow University of the West of England student Joseph Watts' blog – to a comment posted by Diana Baur, second year student at North East Wales Institute, on third year Hayley Parfitt’s blog. “I am learning so much from the year ahead,” she says. “Thank you for sharing your thoughts.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, art students talk about their work in much the same way as practicing artists do - in terms of ideas, meaning, and the contemporary debate - as well as the very practical concerns of how best to make the work work. Skim the blogs and you will find plenty to suggest that students are dialoguing heavily with cultural theory. This quote from Helen Dearnley demonstrates the level of engagement common to art students today: “The artwork is a heterogeneous mixture of differing influences, currently including philosophy, comic book art, A-ha, dolls, Baudrillard, Borges, and God.”
As for the more practical concerns, these next quotes are typical and, I would suggest, demonstrate a similarity to the working processes of all artists at any level or stage of their career. The first one is from Josie Faure Walker who is doing Sculpture at Central St. Martins and is finding it, “…difficult to know which ideas … to just let die. For every 200 … I'll make 100, and only one I'll be happy with.” These two quotes from Kris Heath at Northumbria University are delightfully obscure and reflect, I think, how deeply you can penetrate your work with three years of uninterrupted study: “So I'm showing one table, but it does have baize, which I'm pleased about, and it looks right, it works.” “All footage for Phlebitis has essentially been scrapped, in favour of a completely new film, as yet untitled.”
Whilst the direct concerns of making work are not dissimilar to those of practicing artists blogging on our sister site Projects unedited, there are inevitably issues specific to students. Some of these are about the structural demands of being on a course - the meetings, the talks, and even the tutorials, which many students find a distraction from just making the work. And the dissertation of course is the perennial location for anxiety and stress.
On the other hand a great many of the Degrees unedited blogs reflect the positive side to being part of an organised course. The uninterrupted focus for example, the sense of community and common aim, the regular feedback and constant debate, as this quote from Paul Hurst at the University of Derby shows: “…I will miss the university, the group, the structure and the safety net that these provide…” And the temporality and luxury of this situation is far from lost on the students, as Amy Pierpont (Fine Art at Nottingham Trent) makes only too clear: “i dont [sic] want it to be over just yet. i've seen the real world out of the corner of my eye and i don't like it…” [lower case sic]
So far the blogs have reflected issues integral to the relatively hermetic world of studying and learning to ‘be’ an artist (by which I mean generating and locating an individual practice), the structuring effects of organised study and the inherent dynamics of pedagogy, but what about the broader context of the debate on the perceived crisis in art education today, and beyond that the general malaise surrounding higher education in Britain?
In his article (Art Monthly 317) JJ Charlesworth reflects on the “narrowed culture of consumerism and bureaucracy” afflicting our universities. Larger intakes, reduced space and staff-contact time, indiscriminate recruitment, and creative conservatism caused by an over-emphasis on gainful employment in one of the oxymoronically titled ‘creative industries’ are listed amongst it’s effects.
It is hard to say from reading the blogs how much these issues are affecting the students directly, and I think this is partly because they lack the broader picture of what has gone before; they can only experience what they are experiencing and so it seems normal. However, I have personally witnessed studios designed for one student now accommodating as many as four. This quote from Sarah Morpeth (Manchester Metropolitan University) makes the situation very clear: “… we are crammed in to the available space - we’re struggling for room; yet apparently we are lucky in that we still each have a dedicated workspace. It’s all under threat.”
What is interesting about this quote is not only the desperate shortage of space but the ‘think yourselves lucky’ attitude, and I can’t help wondering if this is to do with, what Charlesworth refers to as the ‘customer is always right’ attitude engendered by the business mentality of university management. Because in this ideology too much complaining could lead to more drastic measures such as teaching staff or even whole courses being given the chop. Everyone, it seems, is feeling insecure, despite this though, the show goes on.
To go to individual blogs click on the highlighted names above, or to view all of the degree show blogs go to Degrees unedited.
Article first published in a-n magazine July/August 2008
First published in a-n magazine July/August 2008
First published: a-n.co.uk August 2008
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