As Brexit gives way to Covid-19 as the defining factor shaping all our futures, Chris Sharratt asks lecturers and course leaders about the kind of art this year’s graduates are making.

“I think this stuff comes from an anxiety about our immediate future and how we might shape that.” Nick Fox, senior lecturer in Fine Art at Newcastle University, is talking about the kind of art his final-year students are making and why. It’s early March, and while the spectre of Covid-19 is a backdrop, its full impact is yet to hit.

Instead, what is in the air as we chat is Brexit, Donald Trump, climate change, the general sense of global drift – reasons enough to be anxious.

“For most of their education, Brexit has been a phantom that has become more and more real,” continues Fox.

“And I think one of the things this general anxiety has been channelled towards is sincerity – sincerity is in, glib humour seems to be out.”

I’m talking to Fox because the extraordinary moment this year’s graduating students find themselves in – even before coronavirus – seems to beg an obvious and compelling question: what is on the minds of these (mostly) young new artists; what are they making art about? It’s something that Fox has clearly been taking note of across the work of the 55 students in their fourth and final year of BA Fine Art.

Working in a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture and film, the students are, says Fox, “quite directly taking on political context”. Their work, he explains, is addressing issues of nationalism and identity in relation to nationhood, along with broader concerns about social inequality, ideas around truth and false truths, notions of place and self identity.

“Lots of students are working in quite socially-engaged ways,” he adds. “There also seems to be a renewed interest in the value of things, the value of materials and being able to say something with a form.”

This nuanced, thoughtful approach to materials and their use is also observed by Wayne Lloyd, programme leader for BA Fine Art and BA Art & Visual Culture at UWE in Bristol. There are 60 students graduating this year across both courses and Lloyd acknowledges that their approach to art making has been profoundly affected by a feeling of uncertainty about the future.

“The students seem to feel that they need to be light on their feet these days,” says Lloyd. “Not just in terms of the work they make, but in terms of not carrying so much cultural baggage around; to be able to move out into the world and be able to adapt to lots of unknown and unseen circumstances. I think there’s a feeling that they don’t really know how things are going to pan out, what sort of environment they’re going to be working in in a couple of years time. So fluidity and flexibility is important; they want to be prepared for any eventuality.”

This desire to be able to respond quickly to situations, to not be hindered by physical and cultural restrictions, can be seen in the form the students’ artwork takes.

Says Lloyd: “It’s work that is very much a visitor, work that is passing through. There’s a fluidity about it, not a monumental permanence. There’s a lot of work that’s very minimal, a lot using borrowed artefacts. There’s materiality, lightness and things that don’t impact a lot on the very immediate environment here at Spike Island [where the students’ studios are based and the degree show usually takes place].”

Art always reflects the conditions it is made under – it’s impossible for it not to. But what’s interesting is how artists use this context; what they do with it. “Art practice has this ability to take something that already exists and look at it differently,” believes Paul Stewart, co-course leader in BA Fine Art at MIMA School of Art and Design in Middlesbrough.

Like Fox and Lloyd, Stewart notes the impact of “an underlying uncertainty about what’s to come” on the work of the course’s 21 graduating students. This, he explains, sits alongside a strong interest in social relationships – a preoccupation that is clearly being brought into even sharper focus at this time of social distancing and self-imposed isolation.

Stewart talks of a desire among his students to understand their own relationship with contemporary society – “the instantaneousness of their own experience” – and to seek to express this in their work. “There are lots of conversations around mental health,” he adds. He also detects an interesting relationship with the past and the passing of time – a complex interweaving of history, the present, and what might happen next.

“There does seem to be a lean towards nostalgia, or time, or understanding time in some way,” he says. “For example, we have one student who is building a ‘time machine’ this year, another who is doing a lot of work around using family photographs to engage with an understanding of her own identity. Students are also using old ideas to go forward – we have a student who’s looking at Greek mythology, another looking at Victorian ideas of mourning in order to understand contemporary ideas of death or intimacy with immediate family.”

Drawing from the past, and specifically from the work of other artists, is of course all part of any art education. Andrew Stahl, professor of fine art and head of undergraduate painting at The Slade School of Fine Art, talks of the overlapping of historic and contemporary influences on his students, who are split across three specialisms: painting, sculpture, and media. “The Slade is just one gigantic argument about what contemporary art should be,” he says.

Stahl is wary of assigning any particular themes to the 47 final-year BA and BFA students he teaches: “If there’s a theme it’s that there isn’t a theme.” But as we chat more, he acknowledges that the students are “hugely aware” of political issues, and that this seeps into their work, permeating it in subtle, barely acknowledged ways. “The question the students have to face is do I ‘exploit’ this for my own career? Do I use this in an obvious way or is this something I need to consider and work out? I think these are all issues in everybody’s minds. Some people feel they can’t deal with it, it’s too much or too literal, and others try to engage with it.”

Our conversation is peppered with references to ecology and the environment, of the weirdness of the current political situation and the emotion and confusion around Brexit. All of this is having an impact on the art being made, but overtly political, banner waving work is not the result. Stahl, for example, cites the approach of one student who he describes as “ecologically-focused”. Rather than sloganeering, she “would gather material abandoned outside a museum and build artworks from it”.

From the time I started talking to lecturers for this article to now, the world has been turned on its head. As I write, degree shows have been cancelled or postponed, and online alternatives proposed. As uncertainty is piled upon uncertainty, the 2020 cohort is graduating at a time of shuttered galleries and art world stasis. Their new ideas and nuanced responses to the world around them are needed more than ever.

Interviews: Chris Sharratt

1. Katie Brunt, Untitled, installation view, 2020. BA Fine Art and BA Art & Visual Culture, UWE Bristol.
2. Cameron Lings, Project Model. BA Fine Art, MIMA School of Art and Design, Middlesbrough.
3. Lydia Makin’s studio with work in progress. BA Fine Art, Slade School of Fine Art, London.
4. Francesca Manzin, Geard, steel, approx 2x3m, 2020. Courtesy: BA (Hons) Fine Art, Newcastle University.