The Entire History of Art School
In its familiar sense, arts education is a relatively recent thing. For most of human history, artists have made art without the ceremonial fuss of a formal education. For some, an art degree from a university, can feel like an unavoidable and even desirable requirement. But a BA Fine Art has only been around since 1972, they’re barely 50 years old. What happened before 1972? Where did art degrees come from? How did artists learn to be artists throughout the entirety of art history? Well.
You didn’t need an education to pick up pigments and spit red earth over the outline of your hands to decorate a cave wall. That was up to you and your mysterious pre-historic reasons. To be honest, I don’t think anything like an education existed back then. I don’t even know when education started. Who was the first person to teach another how to make out the shape of a bison, to mix ochre rocks and animal fat to make primitive paint, to carve a bone into the shape of a woman? We will never know. But as art became a more formal category, study of the craft became more formal too. A marble sculpture of a man carrying a calf is technically complex, especially if you’re an Ancient Greek without access to power tools. And the stakes are high if it’s going in the Acropolis. So it’s got to be good, and we’ve all got to agree on what good is. We must collectivise our understanding of the category by mutual agreement, make decisions about what a marble sculpture should be, and therefore define what is good and what is bad.
As far as I can tell, it starts in Italy with The Book of the Art. Written sometime between 1390 and 1437 by Cennino Cennini, a painter in Florence. Cennini studied under Agnolo Gaddi for twelve years in Padua. Agnolo Gaddi was a painter and mosaicist, trained by his father, Taddeo Gaddi. Taddeo was a star pupil in Giotto’s workshop from 1313 until Giotto’s death in 1337. And Giotto was — well, Giotto was Giotto. A master at work, maker of masterpieces, man after my own heart. But even Giotto himself was taught somewhere, somehow, by someone. Legend has it that Giotto was born in a farmhouse, and one day a great Florentine painter called Cimabue discovered him drawing pictures of his sheep on a rock. They were so good that Cimabue took him on as an apprentice in his workshop. And that’s all we know. Art historians have speculated that Cimabue was trained in Florence by mysterious Byzantine masters. No one knows who. The first work attributed to him dates from 1270, already a whole century before Cennini starts writing, and three centuries before Vasari wrote The Lives (and, made our lives a bit easier by inventing art history). So Cimabue’s education remains a mystery.
But The Book of the Art is the first example of a monographic treatise: a study of a single artist, and the basic concepts of their craft. Over hundreds of chapters Cennini covers every conceivable specificity. Drawing on tablets with wax, on bone, on cotton paper, with metal tipped pens, with charcoal, with chalk. Sketches, miniatures, brushes, mordants. Recipes for every kind of colour, black (plural), cinnabar, red lead, the colour of sinopia, five chapters on different kinds of yellow. Fresco technique, oil painting, tempera panel, how to paint on books, fabrics, glass, enamels, on sculpture. He even writes about a painter’s potential involvement in the minting of coins.
He empties the content of his head onto the page. It’s the first stab at a technical manual and instruction in the process of a painter’s craft. But the content of Cennini’s head doesn’t belong to him alone. His expertise is collective: it is Agnolo Gaddi, Taddeo Gaddi, Giotto and Cimabue’s before him. It constitutes a kind of artistic lineage. The Book of the Art is documentary proof of many things. That in Medieval and Renaissance times, artistic education took place in workshops, through apprenticeships. An artist learned art-making as an established craft, all those mutually agreed upon decisions about how to do things, what’s good and what’s bad, all the little conventions that make up the category of ART. It was a technical and mechanical skill. Mixing pigments and paints, preparing wax tablets and panels, how to compose your subjects, being able to draw (a face, a horse, an angel, the Madonna and Child, all the Saints you could possibly imagine). These were all skills you could learn and get better at. By copying from the master, you could acquire proficiency until you were a master too. Also, that arts education was as long as a piece of string. You could be in the workshop for twenty-four years learning from Giotto, like Taddeo Gaddi. But most importantly, The Book of the Art’s documentation of an artistic lineage is proof that artists were taught word of mouth. Instruction on style, craft, technique was passed from artist to artist. From this point onwards, artists have always taught other artists. From Medieval times, maybe before that, up until — well. We’ll get there and you tell me.
The apprentice and workshop system wasn’t unregulated chaos. To set up a workshop, you needed certain… qualifications. You needed to do an apprenticeship of your own and study in a master’s workshop. To graduate from the workshop you had to prove your knowledge by producing a masterpiece of your own. Then you would have to register with a guild. Guilds were professional membership associations that regulated and oversaw the practice of trades and crafts. Membership was required if you wanted to practice under your own name or sell your work, the basics of trading as an artist. If you were a manuscript illuminator painting small weird animal creatures onto vellum, you may have been in a leatherworkers guild along with the saddle makers, or in a scriveners guild along with the scribes. You may have been required to mark your work with a very small insignia (like a hallmark) to identify yourself as the artist, an insignia that would be registered with the guild. The same for engravers, woodcarvers, glassworkers, stonemasons, panel-painters and fresco specialists. All were artists under our contemporary definitions, but under the guild system they were considered tradesmen, artisans with a craft. One of the first dedicated artists’ guilds was in Florence. The Compagnia di San Luca, the Confraternity of St Luke. St Luke the Evangelist, the Apostle, the patron saint of artists, who painted a portrait of the Holy Virgin. Founded in 1349, the guild established the Accademia del Disegno in 1563 to oversee the production of art for the Medici state. And here: the first example of what is recognisably an art school! Large workshops might have blurred the line, but the Florentine Accademia was formal, stable and accredited by the city’s guilds — it was a school where artists studied their craft. After that, in 1582 the Accademia dei Carracci opened in Bologna, 1593 an Accademia di San Luca was founded in Rome, 1648 in Paris, London 1768.
As academies replaced the guilds, there was a shift in teaching methods. In a Master’s workshop, an apprentice would learn by copying the Master’s work. It was a system that produced those recognisable artistic lineages, from Cimabue to Giotto to Gaddi to Gaddi to Cennini. Michelangelo copied the works of his master, Ghirlandaio, until his abilities surpassed his teacher’s. Van Dyck studied under van Balen. It also produced distinct trade categories that could sit comfortably within the guild system: illuminators to the leatherworkers, miniaturists to the scriveners, woodcarvers to wherever woodcarvers went. But Academies had more autonomy, more resources than a single workshop. Instead of copying the work of one specific Master, students copied from a range of sources. Some Academies were attached to museums or private collections, the Accademia in Rome was joined with the Capitoline Museum. Students had access to vast collections of antique sculpture, Old Masters, bestiaries, herbal guides, illuminated manuscripts, whatever else these collections contained. By copying the finest examples of art, by intensely observing, by taking pains to recreate the works of other artists — the theory was that the penny would drop, eventually. From the workshop to the Academy, artists taught artists by their example. Copy copy copy and you will learn something that perhaps cannot be communicated or explained using words. Art was a mechanical and technical skill, something done with the hands and the very interior of the head, the bit that exists before language and words even come along.
But words came along eventually. Methods and curriculums evolved their own idiosyncrasies. Widening the scope from one single Master artist to a collection of Masters, the Old Masters, a new set of mutual decisions had to be made. Who is a better example to follow, Titian or Reubens or Brueghel? If Brueghel, the Younger or Elder? Jan or Pieter? What kind of painting is this painting: of Bacchus and Ariadne, of Pope Innocent X, of Hunters in the Snow, of a table set with cabbages. We must define what is good and what is bad. We must make a break! The guilds had been made up of tradesmen and craftsmen, but the Academies were made up of gentlemen. Painting had undergone an intellectual overhaul, it was now a liberal art rather than a mechanical or technical art. Artists were members of literary and humanist societies, not trade guilds. And somewhere deep in the 17th Century, the Academies developed a hierarchy of genres (in order: history, portrait, genre, landscape, still life). The priority was human subject matter, human, humanism and man man man himself. Rather than simply copying from old paintings, students would turn their dutiful eyes to the source and meticulously observe from life itself, from the human form. Models would recreate poses from classical statues — and so the Life Room and Life Drawing was born!
All this was really quite esoteric knowledge, specific, particular, obscure, arcane. There was a logic to it, but it was a tightly contained logic of the time. In some way, here in Little England, it was a logic of The Continent. While Europe moved on, England’s artists were mostly still tradesmen and craftsmen. They still trained as apprentices (to book makers, card engravers, portraitists and the guys who painted pub signs). Gainsborough, Stubbs and Hogarth were all knocking about. But England’s art-enjoyers-and-buyers were well travelled people of good taste who collected paintings from every stop on their Grand Tour. Maybe it’s coincidence, but also maybe it’s not — at some point in the 18th Century Great Britain became the world’s dominant colonial power, and at the height of Empire, England — no, Britain, felt its own lack. Nearly two centuries after the Italians, in 1768, King George III chartered the Royal Academy of Arts. It was Britain’s first national art school. Before then, there had been a few scrappy attempts at establishing informal art schools, and artists provided tuition for those who could afford the extracurricular expense. William Hogarth studied at a drawing academy on St Martin’s Lane, and opened his own academy when his alma matter closed. But these were all little bits, nothing as stable and consistent as a National or Royal Academy.
Painting was now a liberal art in England! The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds was an Academy Man! He was friends with most of London’s intellectual personalities: Dr Samuel Johnson the dictionary-writer, Edmund Burke the philosopher, playwrights, poets, critics, and celebrated wits. Reynolds founded the Literary Club (actually a dinner club), was a member of the Royal Society of Arts, the Society of Artists of Great Britain and a Knight of the realm. The Royal Academy held a Summer Exhibition every year, displaying works by living artists and competing with the Paris Salon. The Royal Academy School itself was free, and every year for fifteen years, Reynolds addressed his students with a lecture on his theories. These lectures were published as Discourses on Art, arguing that the Grand Manner of classical and High Renaissance art was the model to follow, that nature should be idealised rather than copied. In 1807 the first batch of the Elgin marbles were stripped down from the Parthenon and shipped to London for exhibition. In 1816 Earl Elgin sold them to the British government ‘for the use of artists’, to further cultivate the fine art and fine minds of Great Britain. The National Gallery opened in 1824, the V&A opened in 1852, the National Gallery of British Art (now the Tate) in 1897. Private collections expanded, Britain was bursting at the seams with art from antiquity on, as the rich grew richer with the spoils of colonialism. The Life Room, Liberal arts, the height of Empire and the Age of Enlightenment!
But the story of arts education isn’t just a secondary plotline in the life of high-minded aristocrats and their glitzy Georgian mansions full of robbed antiquities. Sure, Turner and Gainsborough were enriched by access to stately collections hoarded by Britain’s landed gentry. But engravings and prints were just as good, maybe better because they were cheaper and easier to access. They were also everywhere, the byproduct of Britain’s rapid industrialisation. And there! Victorian times! The Industrial Revolution hit and artists became tradesmen again — or, maybe just tradesman adjacent.
The Government School of Design (now called the Royal College of Art), was founded in 1837. The Manchester School of Design in 1838. The Birmingham Government School of Design in 1843. The Bournemouth Government School of Art in 1880. Across the country, anywhere there was a notable local industry, art schools and technical colleges popped up. These institutions weren’t concerned with the pursuit of Academically beautiful images, history portrait genre landscape or even still life. They were there to train competent draughtsmen who could draw a steady outline and produce designs for manufacture. The Brighton School of Art opened in 1858 thanks to the efforts of a local committee formed a year before. The committee’s purpose was to ‘instruct working people to do their work better by turning it out of hand neatly and handsomely as well as usefully, and thus enable them to command the best price for their labour, and to compete more successfully with the foreign workman’. When the Government school of Design (now the RCA) opened, it declared its ‘special object’ as the training of art teachers, designers for fabrics and Art workmen, for craftsmen, not ‘painters of easel pictures’. The Guildford School of Art was formed in 1856 as the Guildford Working Men’s Institution, which itself came about twenty years earlier, out of a union between the Mechanics Institute (basically a working men’s lending library) and the Literary and Scientific Institution. Across the 19th Century British manufacturers needed designs so they could export goods, so they could make seductive commodities, so they could make loads and loads of money in the booming luxury market. And art schools emerged across the country to build that workforce.
It wasn’t all dark Victorian coal dust covered machinery (some of it definitely was). It was also the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris and the Gothic revival, an artistic movement that had Ruskin’s critique of industrial society at its core. The artist was a worker, sure, but all workers deserved to be a kind of craftsmen. Craftsmen were not alienated from their labour, they were artisans who held a respected profession. Workers, not so much. The modern factory and the division of labour, machinery, and the loss of traditional methods of making were all capitalist evils that threatened art as a philosophical and technical category. Beauty was nowhere to be found on the factory line. Production quality was also sorely missing. William Morris wrote at length about how a society of free craftspeople, eg in Medieval times, would take pleasure in their work and produce things of common and astounding beauty. It was socialist, to be clear. William Morris was very explicitly a socialist. So there we have the 19th Century, full of aristocrats, capitalists and socialists who longed to be Medieval artisans. Pick your fighter. I know which one I’d be.
Between the Royal Academy and the Government Design schools, a new middle ground opened up. The Slade School opened at University College London in 1868 with a new and innovative way to teach fine art. Students at the Royal Academy spent long years toiling away, learning to draw from casts of classical sculpture. This was theoretically all well and good, the Royal Academy School was free (the Slade was not). But students at the Government School of Design were just as good in less time. Students in French Ateliers were even better. Both sets of students were learning to draw from life rather than from classical antiquity. In the Slade’s 1871 prospectus: ‘the study of the living model will be considered of the first and paramount importance, the study of the antique being put in second place, and used as a means of improving the style of the students from time to time’. Life was now more important than the past, nature was a better example than antiquity. Artists were being asked to figure out form for themselves, to look out rather than back at Titian or Reubens or Brueghel’s answers.
The 20th Century arrived like a jumpscare. Sort of. History would be much easier if movements began and ended with clean breaks. Modernism came along slowly, and then all at once. In the mid-1800s, a French architect called Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was at work restoring Paris’s Gothic buildings (Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, the Basilica of Saint-Denis) and writing essay after essay about the relationship between form and function in architecture. He spent his career at odds with the Academy men at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris’ post-revolution Academy. Even in 1863 when, for a few short months, he was a professor there. The 19th Century had not been kind to the Academy, Gustave Courbet and the Realists were already taking a stab at dismantling their monopoly on taste and power. Times had changed, yet again, and all of a sudden the Academy was outdated, conservative, representative of the old way of doing things. Innovative artists still passed through their halls: Bonnard, Renoir, Seurat, Sisley and more at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Picasso studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in San Fernando. All were painters who would go on to break the conventions they were trained in. But still, the Academy clung to the received wisdom of hierarchy of genre, the paintings they churned out were down to a routine and formula. Viollet-le-Duc had tried to warn them. His writing and work was a kind of omen: Modernism is coming.
My sincere best wishes to anyone trying to come up with a comprehensive definition of Modernism. My attempt is: it was about modernity, mostly. The future! Progress! The industrialised world and all the potential that might bring! Maybe a more precise definition in this historical account is: a self-referential or self-conscious mode of thinking. Because that was what it was — not just a movement but a way of thinking about the world (art was within the world, after all) where everything folded back in on itself. It was experimental, uncertain, unstable. Form was never quite sure of itself all of a sudden. Artists left the past behind, rejecting tradition and realism, never looking back at old works except to remodel them in a new image. Yes — Abstraction, Cubism, why must art look exactly like the world?
Modernism did to the Academy what the Academy did to the guilds. It made it look silly and irrelevant, incredibly old fashioned. The academic bubble slowly deflated, but truly burst after the First World War. After the horror of the bloodshed, the industrialised death: Surrealism, Dada, Bauhaus. A new kind of artistic humanism had emerged and it was furious rather than gentlemanly. From Violett-le-Duc’s insistence that form and function were not mutually exclusive, from the Arts and Crafts Movement’s principle that art should meet the needs of society, and that ordinary objects could be beautiful, from the Kunstgewerbeschule (the German vocational art schools, an equivalent to Britain’s technical and industrial design colleges) emerged the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk— a comprehensive artwork, in which all the arts would eventually be brought together. (A contemporary example of a Gesamtkunstwerk is perhaps Beyonce’s Lemonade.) This comprehensive artwork was the central concern of one particular art school: the Staatliches Bauhaus.
In 1919, on April Fool’s Day, the German city of Wiemar’s Grand-Ducal Academy of Fine Arts merged with the Arts and Craft School to make a brand new school called the Bauhaus, led by an architect called Walter Gropius. Gropius was influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau (and its international decorative arts movement counterparts, such as Jugendstil in Germany), but also Bolshevik Russia’s more austere and revolutionary Constructivist movement. The school set about the work of ‘creating a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist’. Guilds were so back, big time. It was no longer just Socialist Medieval yearning, it was viable. Still arguably left wing, but futuristic. It was the best of what Modernism could offer up to the world of production and design. Bauhaus embodied a new approach where mass production was reconcilable with an individual’s artistic vision. Sleek, simple design — form and function. And no wonder the output was radical, the teaching at Bauhaus was radical. Studios were called laboratories, staff emphasised the need to start from zero, to get new innovative solutions to old problems. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian painter and professor at the Bauhaus, declared in 1922: ‘creative activities are useful only if they produce new, so far unknown solutions’. He also said ‘education in art and design must be a training in innovation… It must concentrate on versatility rather than on the learning of established skills for their own sake’. This is where the idea emerges: that art should prioritise the pursuit of the new, and to do so, you must question received wisdom. Vkhutemas, the Russian state art and technical school, opened in Moscow in 1920. These two schools were the first to train designers in this new way: where technology was a kind of aesthetic principle, or aesthetics were a kind of technology.
Back in Little England, we take a jump through time (jumping over a period where arts education was mostly either conservative or vocational) to 1945. Post-war Britain looked different, felt different. Most of the country felt broken: the economy, industry, infrastructure, London was literally in ruins. It gave rise to a post-war consensus. What we needed was nationalisation, strong trade unions, an extensive welfare state. In 1945, Clement Attlee was here! And he had big pockets, nationalising as much as he possibly could (20% of the economy by the end of it). The railways, coal mining, the steel industry, the Bank of England, hospitals and healthcare — yes, God bless the NHS, born in 1947. It was an age of austerity but here was a Labour government that wanted equality of access and national provision.
In those immediate postwar years bread was still being rationed, but the Attlee government were doling out the roses. The Labour Party’s 1945 election manifesto committed to ‘the provision of concert halls, modern libraries, theatres and suitable civic centres, we desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation.’ In 1947 the Arts Council of Great Britain was set up — their first chairman was actually the economist, John Maynard Keynes — and there was a huge wave of public investment in the arts. The BFI was overhauled, in 1952 the Experimental Film Fund (later became the BFI Production board) was set up and the National Film Theatre opened, in 1957 the London Film Festival was launched. Money went to the opera, the theatre, galleries and museums. Public spending culminated in the Festival of Britain in 1951. London’s Southbank was redeveloped with new buildings: the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre, what would later become the Southbank Centre. The festival took place across the entire country: Glasgow, Edinburgh Cardiff, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Bath, Brighton. Bournemouth, York, Inverness, Liverpool, Oxford, Norwich, Canterbury, there were touring exhibitions by land and sea.
Along with arts provision for the general public, arts education became more easily accessible. New colleges and universities were built across the country, with more funding for further or adult education. Many of the new students were ex-servicemen, going through a further education that wouldn’t have been possible before the war. Before the Wars, art school teaching had taken place through the meticulous observation of things outside the self; antiquity and the Old Masters, Titian or Reubens or Brueghel, or the Life Room, models posed like classical statues, maybe painting en plein air like the Impressionists or whoever. But after the Wars, the world was ruined and painful. How can you look out at the world after such a huge kind of violence? No, they took Gropius and the Bauhaus’ advice to start from zero. Figuration only played a minor part in the work art students produced, instead they looked inwards, to ‘their unspoilt creativity, guided by immediate feeling and emotion, to read their medium and its immanent syntax’. The world was read through themselves, rather than by themselves. It was Bauhaus, not the Academy. And it was moving very fucking quickly.
Arts education was now about training the muscle of an aesthetic sensibility, rather than training workmen in the skill of drawing from life or painting representatively. Students learned from tutors that were prominent practicing artists pioneering this new understanding of art. Victor Pasmore and Patrick Heron taught at the Central School in London, Harry Thubron at Sunderland School of Art, Richard Hamilton in Newcastle at Durham University’s Fine Art department. These were artists working at the cutting edge of contemporary practice. Both tutors and their students were out and about in the Labour government’s new publicly funded world, exposed to all kinds of art from everywhere, in the country’s new publicly funded galleries and museums. A fundamental part of Modernism was questioning the form itself, the world folding back in, self-referential, self-conscious. Perhaps this was a part of it all: questioning the format and terms of arts education.
Derek Hyatt was a student at Leeds School of Art in the 50’s, he recounts: ‘it was clear art was taking other forms. The vacuum former, the power drill and sander, the film camera, became fine art tools along with brush, pen and charcoal. Fine art studios became workshops, knee-deep in plaster and perspex offcuts. Paintings became reliefs, constructions became mobiles filmed in motion. Time and space became materials of art, like line and colour.' The rise of Abstract Expressionism in America, financially as well as intellectually, shaped the aesthetic tastes of the art school student body. Even though they weren’t formally studying Titian or Reubens or Brueghel, other artists were still entering the peripheral vision of their education. Art magazines like ArtReview (first published in 1949 as a broadsheet, then overhauled with a more contemporary outlook in 1961), and contemporary art exhibitions at galleries like the ICA (founded in 1947 by ‘a group of poets and artists’) were bringing in new ideas. The Bauhaus maxim: start from zero, creative activities are useful only if they produce new solutions. New things, new new new. Figurative form was functionally dead in this environment, in the words of David Hockney, ‘abstraction was king’.
Derek Hyatt’s account of studying at Leeds is one where students were encouraged to do as they pleased. A postwar arts educational consensus — art school teaching was now about having the space and freedom to just get on with making something, whatever that looked like. In the 18th Century Royal Academy, classes might have been full of fancy gentlemen. In the postwar years, the class makeup of art schools was more diverse. Working class kids were going to art school, not just for a technical education to make them better workmen, but to make fine art — now a more expansive category. The Attlee government’s overhaul meant they had new freedoms and access to the rich creative life that comes about with proximity to subculture. The rest of the world looked in at art schools and saw anarchy. Art schools looked around and saw freedom. The government cared about the rest of the world more than they cared about art schools.
From 1951 to 1964 there were thirteen wasted years of Conservative government. In 1958 the National Advisory Council on Art Education was set up, and a painter called Sir William Coldstream was appointed chair. The National Advisory Council was tasked with finding proposals to ‘deal with the content and administrations of art courses’. Since 1946, art colleges had been awarding National Diplomas in Design. They were four year courses, after the first two years students would be qualified with a Certificate in Arts and Crafts. The first Coldstream report was published in 1960 (a second longer report was published in 1970). It emphasised the need for observation, technical control, a sound training in drawing. There was a liberal understanding of new experimental work, but it was fielded by reasserting the need for technical skills that were generally becoming less relevant.
Coldstream was a kind of conformist, a traditionalist, a small c conservative — he was an Edwardian. A Realist painter about a century after Courbet, his paintings have a stately feel more in line with the 19th Century Academy. His work was produced by carefully observing and measuring and slowly, painstakingly painting from life. Before the Second World War, he co-founded the Euston Road School, a group of English painters who worked counter to the avant-garde tastes of the time — emphasising naturalism and realism and representational painting based on observation. During the 50s and 60s, the studio-based teaching in art schools was leading to an understanding of art that was innovative but super subject specific, a kind of closed logic. Many Euston Road members were on the political left, this small c conservative countering was a way of seeking interest, appreciation and understanding from the general public who didn’t have specialist knowledge about art. In a 1937 issue of the BBC’s weekly culture magazine, the Listener, Coldstream wrote: ‘I became convinced that art ought to be directed to a wider public: whereas all ideas which I had learned to regard as artistically revolutionary ran in the opposite direction.’ In 1938 the Euston Road School organised an exhibition at Storran Gallery in London (fashionable, avant-garde, run by an art critic and located just opposite Harrods), private invitations were sent out to everyone named Brown in the Post Office telephone directory.
In 1963 administrators changed the four year NDD courses to a one year pre-diploma Foundation course, followed by a three year Diploma in Art and Design. The Coldstream reports came at a time when art education was being reframed: it became recognised, funded, given the integrity and equality of an academic subject in exchange for more regulation and conformity to traditional standards of authority. After the 1960 Coldstream report, a new committee was set up: the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design. It was headed by the architectural historian, Sir John Summerson, and he went around the country visiting art schools one by one to decide which were suitable to upgrade from NDD to the new Diploma in Art and Design. Colleges upgraded to the new Diploma would be re-assessed every five years. Rather than the subcultural anarchy of Derek Hyatt’s studio workshop in Leeds, with the powerdrill and sanders, knee-deep in plaster and perspex offcuts, art schools were being brought under the control of government standards and regulation.
Obviously students didn’t enjoy the top down dictatorship. Obviously. The freedom of art school anarchy was relatively new and hard-won, and the kids didn’t want to hand it over. They knew what they wanted from their education, and they knew what was missing. Run down facilities, selection processes that required irrelevant academic qualifications, outdated curriculums dictated by staff whims rather than the direction of their own interests. Tests and exams were arbitrary, opaque and inconsistent, students wanted an end to written exams and the requirement to study art history. They knew where the cutting edge was — they could see it, in art magazines and contemporary exhibitions. Regardless of what you may think, I believe this to be true: people are not well suited to jump through hoops or lick the shiny black surface of a boot. There is almost always backlash.
Hornsey College of Art was founded in 1880 as an independent college, it was one of the only two London art schools that didn’t evacuate during the blitz. ‘An iconic British art institution, renowned for its experimental and progressive approach to art and design education’. With the threat of re-assessment looming, on 28th May 1968 students at Hornsey College held a one-day teach-in. It turned into a six week occupation of the college building, now referred to as the Hornsey College of Art Uprising. A banner was hung along the college gates: ‘STUDENT CONTROL OF COLLEGE’. David Page was a staff member at the time, and his account of the uprising was published in a 2010 issue of Tate etc:
In strict dictionary terms it was a revolution – the overthrow of the established government by those who were previously subject to it… The authorities fled from the main college, which was then run for the duration by students and staff, 24 hours, seven days a week, demanding total commitment. There was a building to run and keep clean, a canteen to staff, food to be purchased, cooked and served, visitors to be monitored and controlled, alongside a system of seminars producing reports to be typed up, reproduced and fed back into the general meetings (and also to the outside audience), where hundreds of students and staff managed to debate and take decisions in an orderly fashion. Because the graphics department was in the hands of the authorities, printed matter had to be produced by available means – mainly linocut – but the rougher images produced seemed to meet the mood of the time.
The authorities — Haringey Council, at this point in time art school were run by local councils — attempted to take back control. David Page recalls ‘The Day of the Dogs’, when a security team with Alsatians were sent in to seal off the main building: ‘students tamed the dogs with biscuits, and the whole episode collapsed into farce.’ The occupation finally ended in July when students left the college to attend a conference on art education at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. Authorities used their absence to break back in, change the locks and repossess the building. The college opened as normal in autumn. A year later, in April 1969, students staged a funeral procession, declaring ‘the death of Hornsey Hope’.
(The students made a film recounting the uprising, called the Hornsey Film, you can watch it on BFI Player for free)
Students were occupying their colleges because, over the course of the very turbulent 60s, art school governance was shifting. The transition from NDD to Diploma in Art and Design, as art was brought into the academic governmentally approved fold, art schools were slowly being absorbed into the new polytechnic system. Polytechnics were vocational or technical schools, formed in the mid-60s as higher education expanded under Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Wilson’s Education secretary, Tony Crosland, introduced a ‘binary system’ of higher education. Universities would handle traditional subjects and research based disciplines, and polytechnics would concentrate on ‘high-level’ vocational skills like applied science and engineering. Tony Crosland was also a kind of Red Tory, a member of the party’s ‘social democratic’ right wing, that would eventually give birth to Tony Blair. He believed that art colleges were unsustainably expensive, bringing them into the polytechnic system would make them more financially responsible and viable. It wasn’t a far cry from the history of art schools as applied technical, mechanical or decorative arts and craft schools. But the original focus of polytechnics were STEM subjects. And the decorative arts, Bauhaus understanding of reconciling form and function had shifted into something more subject specific. Vocational framing was out of step with the way fine art was being made and understood at the time. For better or worse, by the end of the decade, most art schools were being funded by local councils and run by polytechnics.
Artists fought back, opposing the changes and hoping to protect the existence of the art schools that had raised them. 22 out of 24 members of the NCDAD resigned over the merger of art schools into polytechnics. The Principal of Leeds College of Art, Eric Taylor, resigned in protest. In 1971 Patrick Heron published an article in the Guardian with the headline: MURDER OF THE ART SCHOOLS. He called the merger a ‘disaster of massive proportions’. (The full quote opened the article: A disaster of massive proportions is going unnoticed in the press. I’m referring to a development of major national significance, which every painter and sculptor I know has bitterly opposed since its inception; namely, the Government-decreed, and therefore forcible, absorption of nearly all the country’s biggest and most important colleges of art by the new polytechnics.) Heron’s article voiced the popular belief of the wider art world: that publicly funded art schools should remain independent, the proposed mergers had to be resisted because that independence wouldn’t be possible within polytechnics. Polytechnics were impersonal, managerial, run by bureaucrats. Art schools all had distinct characters and idiosyncrasies, their own particular studio cultures and ways of teaching and working. Administrators didn’t seem to understand how complicated it was. They were expecting sculpture students to behave like engineering students, clock in at 9AM and clock out at 5PM — but creativity doesn’t work like that. A whole series of bureacratic and administrative demands were going to be inserted, art schools would need a managerial framework (if they didn’t have one already), and arts education would be subjected to business-minded concerns about whether funds were being spent efficiently rather than just effectively. It was all totally at odds with what went into a good or meaningful arts education. In 1970 the second Coldstream Report was approved and published at the behest of the Secretary of State for Education: Margaret Thatcher. She was lobbied by Henry Moore himself. It didn’t work, obviously she didn’t care — this is Thatcher we’re on about, get real. The art schools were absorbed into polytechnics. The Diploma in Art and Design was turned into a fully fledged degree. The first degrees in Fine Art were awarded in 1972.
Through the 20th century’s administrative changes, fine art courses changed dramatically too. Colleges merged their medium specific courses, as a cost-cutting measure and to meet the requirements of the generalised diploma (the NDD and the Diploma in Art and Design). In 1965 St Martin’s took their world-renowned sculpture school and merged it with their painting school. It was part of a conceptual collapse, a reworking of the Bauhaus soup: total unity. Art became even more expansive and categories merged and became liquid — until maybe art itself was like a kind of gas, just boiled off completely. Students made more experimental, more unstable works. It was becoming a conceptual curriculum, where the form and function were actually kind of irrelevant in comparison to the thinking and discourse behind or around the work. It was this conceptual environment that gave birth to the YBAs, a cohort of artists that came out of (mostly) Goldsmith’s in the late 80s. Commercial success was thrown into the mix as a believable ambition for students to bear in mind over the course of their BA. Charles Saatchi was going around with a chequebook, ready to do some primitive accumulation via bulk purchase at degree shows. The Tate started rustling up the money for younger artists in their acquisitions budget, hedging their bets on a young artist ‘making it’ and double — no, tripling their investment. The same for the Art’s Council collection, and the British Council. It made business sense, emerging artists have lower prices. Young Contemporaries (now New Contemporaries) was being selected by students themselves (with their more radical tastes), and in 1978 they had a more established home at the ICA, a venue that had the benefit of being influential and kind of edgy. The Turner Prize started in 1984, an accolade for those working at the cutting edge of culture (and also, for those under 50). It was about the NEW! — newness had conceptual or intellectual value, but also a commercial value. All of a sudden, there were stakes involved in degree shows. As your professional entrance into the art world, it could be your big break, or it might break your career before it had even started.
By the time the 90s came along, Fine Art colleges were ready to be smoothly assimilated into universities. In 1992 John Major’s government passed the Further and Higher Education Act, giving polytechnics the right to become universities. The business-minded decisions had already happened, years before. When they were being absorbed into the polytechnics, independent colleges merged into each other, becoming larger in an effort to ease the new financial and administrative burden of a state-down educational system. Saint Martin’s, Central School, Chelsea, and Camberwell merged in 1986, becoming the London Institute (now University of the Arts London in 2004). Others merged into existing mainstream polytechnics: Manchester School of Art into Manchester Polytechnic, Leeds School of Art split in two, half into Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Beckett University) and half became Leeds College of Art (now Leeds Arts University). Once 1992’s education reform hit, polytechnics either became ‘new universities’ or were phased out of higher education, turning into further education colleges. Universities had different financial requirements, different bureaucratic demands, and different things in mind for the betterment of their student body. Vocational aims had been a part of fine art curriculums since the Industrial Revolution, with the technical colleges creating a workforce for new manufacturing jobs. But a BA Fine Art was now a professional qualification — a subtly different thing. You could go out into the world and be a professional artist with your professional degree qualification from a professional institution (a university), Charles Saatchi would open his chequebook if you played your cards right.
In the evening of Tuesday 12 October 1999, in a parliamentary debate on the funding of art colleges, Lord Freyberg stood up to have his say. He spoke about how art colleges have undergone ‘enormous changes’ over the past decade, which would have ‘consequences if certain aspects of funding are not rethought’. Art colleges were important, ‘not only in [their] obvious end results—painting and sculpture—but in the atmosphere of creativity engendered and encouraged’. The creative industries make such a major contribution to Britain’s economy, after all.
‘That is because creativity has to be properly nurtured before any quantifiable results appear. Britain’s imaginative art school courses have in the past been excellent at doing that, winning admiration world-wide. However, with their emphasis on employability, governments sometimes seem to confuse education with training. Recent Conservative governments attempted to boost vocational art courses at the expense of non-vocational ones, not realising their interdependence. In the past decade art colleges have been forced to run themselves as commercial enterprises. While there is nothing particularly sinister in modernising institutions or putting professional practices in place, the cost-cutting has gone too far. Every year since 1989 governments have demanded an annual efficiency rate of at least 1 per cent, and sometimes up to 3 per cent, in real terms. The practice continues under the current Labour Government. While there was room for improvement initially, the continuing chipping away at funding throughout the 1990s has had a detrimental effect. Instead of putting their energy into maintaining excellence, art colleges have had to concentrate on fund-raising while course heads have been overwhelmed with paperwork. The pressure has eroded core teaching and damaged a precious ethos. It is a running battle which staff feel they are losing. Students and their work suffer as a result, while tutors are frustrated at being diverted from what they were hired to do. The policy is short-termism at its worst.
Lord Freyberg cited two causes for concern. First: an increase in student numbers without an increase in facilities, working space or tutors. In 1998 the Blair government introduced tuition fees for higher education, domestic students were charged up to £1,000 a year (in 2004 tuition fees went up to £3,000 a year). Back in 1999, colleges were free to set their own level of fees for oversees students, charging whatever they could get away with on the international educational market. Lord Freyberg cited this as his second concern, using the London Institute’s additional £12.2million as an example, he asked if colleges would survive without their reliance on income from overseas students.
The Earl of Clancarty stood up after Lord Freyberg. He cited Patrick Heron’s 1971 article, Murder of the Art Schools. Continuing, ‘over the past three decades, the absorption of colleges into polytechnics and universities and the accompanying lack of resources for a greatly increased number of arts students, mirrored by a decline in the funding of the arts sector, has begun to place certain limits on freedoms of thought and creativity, as it existed within the colleges. The reduction in available studio space, for example, places a limitation on the possibility of developments not only in practice but also in the thinking which is dependent on that practice… Loans and tuition fees, too, are part of this creation of a mental climate which justifies everything you do in economic rather than in intellectual or artistic terms.’
It’s hard reading these accounts in 2023, knowing that all the way back in 1999 — maybe even 1971 — artists, educators and even politicians have been aware of the inevitable consequences of inserting business concerns and a managerial approach into something as unwieldy as an art school. But we know what happened next. In 2010 the Conservative/LibDem coalition government under David Cameron and Nick Clegg raised tuition fees to £9,000 a year. This was despite the LibDem pre-election promise to oppose an increase in tuition fees, a policy position that was arguably a cornerstone of their manifesto commitments. There was a huge student backlash: months of protest, kids were kettled for hours on end and battered by the police, there was even an occupation of the Conservative party’s headquarters. Ultimately, no one listened. Tuition fees stuck around.
I hear a lot about the transition from art school to arts university. The way arts education has been professionalised to such an extent that students approach their degrees with a value mindset: looking for an educational experience that warrants the ungodly amount of debt they’re being saddled with. Over the three years of my BA, I was taught by tutors who had a much more radical education than I was getting. They were able to shrug and roll their eyes at the bullshit hoops they were asking me to jump through, egg me on to challenge the hoop even existing in the first place. Since I graduated in 2016, there have been changes within the sector that make that educational experience less feasible.
The historic trend has held fast: there are even more students on courses, with the number of tutors, studio sizes and facility provisions staying the same, in places reducing. Workshops are under resourced, the anarchic studio environment where anything goes is increasingly turning into a sanitised co-working hot desk arrangement. The tutors that are there are being moved onto zero hour contracts, teaching positions are now mostly flexible and part time. Tutors are unable to answer emails outside of their limited and irregular working hours — they’re too precariously employed and underpaid, overwhelmed by admin and paperwork that they’re not actually being paid to go through, so it’s genuinely understandable. The precariousness means teaching staff might not know if they’re going to be in next year, next term, next month, next week. Their hours shift about depending on the season and the department’s need, which means the students don’t always get a consistent presence, someone to build a relationship and rapport with, someone who understands their practice, who can give them advice, insight, reliable wisdom. It’s not the tutors’ fault, UCU have been fighting the casualisation of teaching contracts for years but university management aren’t reversing the tide and regardless of how understanding students are about it all, strikes mean an interrupted education. Students don’t get enough money from the student loan company to cover their rent and expenses, let alone art-making materials. Tutors are having to completely reassess the way teaching even takes place. Especially in London (a city I implicitly care about and am more able to speak about because I’m in it — apologies for the London-bubbleism going on throughout this text, but): how can you ask a cohort of students, who are forced to navigate London’s housing crisis by living in zone 4 or 5 or 6, to pay rush hour tube prices and come in at 9AM for a lecture that lasts an hour? How can you ask them to come in at all knowing that they don’t really have much of a studio space to come in to?
It’s easy to see why art students feel like they’re buying an education that isn’t really representing very good value for money. It’s easy to see why students want something more substantial, and it’s easy to see why art schools aren’t able to give it to them. Here in 2023, I want to ask you: how did we get here? I genuinely don’t know. I’m glad I tried to find out, but in this entire history, I can’t make sense of it or pinpoint one particular moment where everything turned. Was it in 2010, 1992, 1972 or the 1960s? Maybe it was in 1768 when they opened the Royal Academy? Maybe we should just go back to being apprentices again. Or go all in on alternative art schools. Maybe this would never have happened if the Compagnia di San Luca never held meetings with the sculptor’s guild at the basilica della Santissima Annunziata all those centuries ago. I don’t know. All I know is that way back in 1971, Patrick Heron might have had a really good point.