Tis the season of the art prizes. I saw the announcement of the Catlin art prize today. I’m not really bothered about these kinds of prizes because as a filmmaker it’s completely irrelevant to me, but as a cultural critic it’s completely relevant and important.
There are about 80 institutions, probably more actually, across the United Kingdom that run validated degree courses in fine art practice. They all charge a standard tuition fee, and employ qualified instructors, who themselves have some kind of art qualification usually the master’s degree, plus some kind of meaningful experience in art practice. Of course, this isn’t always true; a number of institutions employ people who are not actually artists would’ve managed to bow and scrape their way through a PhD in art without actually making anything that anybody in their right mind would have any interest in seeing. But in my experience, for the most part, our colleges employ artists and people genuinely interested in an enthusiastic about art.
Now you might think, that with the national network of art colleges that includes the northern tip of Scotland to the southern tip of Cornwall, Wales to East Anglia and Northern Ireland, the British artists who make up the British art world might hail from all kinds of different art colleges up and down the country. But in fact the case at all.
If you want to be part of the British art world, except in a few rare situations, you have got to be a graduate of the following institutions:
Central St. Martin’s.
Chelsea school of art
The Royal College of Art
all of which are in London.
Occasionally, an artist from Glasgow school of Art or, even more occasionally, a graduate of Edinburgh school of art is admitted into the art world.
I sure have no problem with these institutions. I haven’t been to any of them, but from what I’ve seen they are perfectly adequate places which do the job of turning out our graduates very nicely. But what I cannot understand at all is how graduates from other art schools never seem to get picked for any of the major art prizes. Is it really true that graduates from our colleges in the rest of the country, Nottingham, Leeds, Cornwall, Bristol, East Anglia, Newcastle, you name it – none of them can step up to the plate and do art as well as somebody who spent their degree in London? Does study in London magically give you a massive advantage over anybody else, it makes you just a much better artist. Just because you can breathe the fantastically polluted air of my great city?
I live in and studied in London, and I love London and I loved studying at the University of Westminster, has a fantastic film school and I can’t say enough about how brilliant it was. But I don’t think that I’m the better filmmaker then somebody who got their film degree outside London.
So I don’t really know what’s going on. I do suspect, however, that those art students who are paying 9000 pounds a year, plus to study anywhere than the above seven art colleges, might wonder if it’s worth it. If they have such a small chance of making it into the art world; if all the prizes are snapped up by the big seven. Actually, let’s be honest, the big five. London takes the big biscuit. Isn’t it depressing, to be an artist in the fantastic city like Newcastle and be working your ass off, inspired by the incredible landscape and the wonderful small, high-quality art scene that the city can offer, to never see any of your colleagues winning any of these big chunky prizes? They don’t even seem to make the short list.
I had a look at the list of judges who judge many of these prizes, and I discovered that actually most of the judges have some kind of connection with the big five art schools. Very many of them are graduates of the schools, or teach or have taught in them. So what were seeing really is people selecting from a self-appointed pool of artists from places that they can relate to. This is actually incredibly creepy.