There is a fundamental paradox in teaching at an art school. Teachers are meant to stick to the Syllabus and Curriculum, to educate their students into becoming a successful individuaistl. Any devoted group of devoted staff at the Art School could be seen as providing the gesamtkunstwerke, from theory to practice, from making to pontificating, from marketing to performance. Too easy this.
Student projects as I encountered them were exercises in identifying that individuality and grading it against other students' achievements. There were appeals from higher authorities to identify ways in which group projects could be assessed, identifying individual roles, agreeing on criteria of assessment, as if, say,the group was making a film (sound, image, editing, marketing etc).David Watkin’s accounts of his film crews confirmed in me the nobility of this combination, of gaffers, best boys and junior loaders. If David was the sun, then his crew revolved around him like minor celestial bodies (just like Wittgenstein’s group walks in Cambridge). The appeals were disregarded even when the projects were explicitly Group Projects.
As a teacher, I was by nature a team player, comfortable with a defined role in the corporate effort. In hockey at school I played right back, never straying up field on a mazy run, but blocking our opponent’s advance, and feeding the ball back to our midfield for a renewed advance.
Complementary Studies Staff (hereafter CS and also known nationally as Contextual Studies, Liberal Studies, Art History etc etc) hated the Studio Staff. They were ever alert to any attempts by Management to diminish their CS ten percent mandatory input to the academic week. They fought attempts to make students decide themselves what proportion of the working week they spent on CS. They feared the worst.
One device to assure their professional position was to have sole tutorial responsibility for the Dissertation, a written exercise in research and thought whose subject was negotiated with the student, rarely in consultation with the studio staff. You would have thought that such resolve would have united the sturdy band of CS tutors. But they cultivated their own favourite students who often found studio regimes faux Bohemian and sloppy.
Students had to attend a group lecture, sometimes with students from other departments, and to choose from a range of seminars, for one day of the week. Another half day during the week was sometimes designated “Sports Day”. Feel free to smirk.
Each seminar tutor had a designated area of expertise, seldom reflecting student interests, but more often a comfortable set of stock responses to subjects and artists they had honed over the decades, from the same notes and peeling fading slides. So we might have Dutch Painting, Le Corbusier, Pioneers of Modern Design, Godard and the French New Wave, and a few more. At the insistence of one Head of Fine Art, none of the CS teaching, and none of the Library purchases, were to involve any issue, any artist before 1900. Imagine that.
Most outrageously, in the seminars on offer at the local University, one distinguished scholar was delighted when his package of learning devoted to Swedish Neo-Classicism, attracted no students whatever, and he could get on with his researches for an upcoming exhibition in Munich.
Looking to the accumulated wisdom of student Dissertations, is a melancholy affair with the same unchallenged preoccupations.
Dali as Surrealist Was he Mad? ;
In the seventh circle of Hell was a writhing heap of the worst ever dissertations,
It was in nobody’s interests to challenge the tosh which at the end of every academic year was added to the dusty piles in a large wooden cabinet with an infirm lock. Anyone fascinated by the inane and the unstructured could find a seminal study behind those peeling wooden doors, along with discarded sandwich boxes and unwashed coffee cups. I have listed elsewhere those occasions when the Dissertations added to the sum total of human knowledge such as Ben’s on Anton Furst as Production Designer. They too will be found in that groaning cupboard.
Prompted now by the thought that there is striking symmetry throughout my working life, of joining in hope, rolling up sleeves and gradually falling out of love with the culture of the Art School, culminating in a messy and unloving departure, I will try to explore the distance at which I worked for forty years of my life. Not for me the Gold Watch, the Vote of Thanks, the Valedictory Lecture. Much more I was to experience the regular gradual slipping away (the Fighting Temeraire?), of a silent serving of the contractual notice with discrete farewells with those members of staff with whom I had got on.
Occasionally I would catch a nuance in discussion that, although my departure was regretful, I did bring it on myself by being prickly. Better than being a Prick, said I. After ten years in one Department I was to leave at the same time as the Course Leader of Illustration. On the last day of Term I was packing up my books when the Head of Department came in and bade his farewell. As a poignant aside he added...” I do think you could have come to your joint farewell party after eighteen years working in the place.”
The look of blank astonishment on my face was sufficient for him to realise that he had forgotten to invite me. At that moment I felt a sense of perfect balance, that the incompetence of which I complained, the feebleness of communications, extended even to the organisation of my farewell. While the students each contributed a bottle of wine preventing me from getting to my room that morning, one Head of Department gave me a book of photographs of naked black women, winking broadly that he knew what drove me. More confirmation here that I had not succeeded in any real form of integration within the Art School.
So if not the Team Player what was I? The Doctoral award in 1972 signified for me a long and painful period of fruitless research and pointless achievement from 1968. On the paperwork of management meetings reference to my PhD was sufficient to keep the snarling wolves and bleating sheep at bay. If I were addressed at any meeting it would be with an uncouth emphasis on the word “DOCTOR” ,as if the speaker associated me with back pains or phlegm. I would smile wanly and ignore the barb.
I made an early habit of bringing a book with a prominent title to sit beside me at management or academic meetings. Others equally disillusioned with the conduct of affairs, learnt to choose their moment and ask me across the table, what I was reading. The Union Rep with an outlandish toupe was the most accomplished at this. I still have a shelf of such disruptive pamphlets that served me nobly. The Rep's personal favourite, he confided, was “Art Educationt for Slow Learners.”
If I automatically seemed to retain a certain clear distance from those agreed on a certain path of action, I did want to know at the end of career of forty years in British Art Schools more about how others saw me. I was sufficiently aware of how I might delude myself in myth and conceit, secreting a cocoon of false memories, reflections when I alwaus had the last word. One colleague, who had also been with me as a student, realised I was genuinely interested in the truth.
You have to realise, she said, that you make people afraid of you. In management structures you are not to be allowed near the levers of power. When you say nothing at meetings, they believe that you have seen through them. That, any minute, you would state the obvious objections. Whereas, she concluded, you were just sitting there wishing you were elsewhere, not having read the papers. In later years I would make it a practice to tip my envelope of 150 pages of reports and position papers for meetings straight into the waste basket. Do this in open office, and the word should have got around.
Once I worked in tandem with two other colleagues running a Masters Course which was a model of team work, where we worked for each other, came to each others' lectures and instead of formal deliberations, spent each working day trying to make things better for the course. More of this in due course.