Starting all over again

Some of the most historical art movements were intense and short-lived. What we have now, says Janice Kirkpatrick, is impoverished students slaving at struggling art colleges – hardly a creative ambience. The system needs to be scrapped and new movements

All over the UK art schools glow incandescent with activity. It’s that time of year when tempers get frayed as students enter their last term before final assessment, hopefully a degree, and then the outside world.

I’ve taught in the same art school department for five years and every year I see a subtle difference in the attitudes of the students, both individually and as a group.

Every year it becomes harder to find a group dynamic as students work later into the night in order to survive on the breadline. It’s hard to have a social life or waste time on discussion if you are in full-time education and holding down a full-time job. Some students are fortunate enough to be well-off and others possess a talent for making easy cash (I don’t ask too many questions). Still others slave for very little money, arriving conscientiously for 12 hours of thinking, sanding, setting and Internetting only to slump and sleep in the afternoon.

When I was a student, tetchiness near degree time was due to nerves and high expectations – now it’s down to exhaustion, malnutrition and worrying about the overdraft. All this stress-induced behaviour can be creatively very unproductive and ultimately has no place in an educational environment.

In design, the successful outcome of many projects depends upon maintaining an analytical, voyeuristic respect for fellow human beings who are product end-users. So much design activity is predicated on equanimity, introjection and regard for humanity, society and the many different ways people choose to live.

It’s very difficult to obtain a broad experience of living or be tolerant and understanding of different lifestyles if you exist in abject poverty, if your view of the world is warped by a lack of funds.

Starvation and stress skew our vision of reality, colouring the way we think, behave and create. It pains me to see tired minds fighting exhausted and confused bureaucratic administrations, poring over tomes of new rules and regulations, desperately seeking better workshop access and nocturnal tutorial support. All this energy, which would once have been used in making the world a better place, is now spent in uncivilised fighting for the privilege of surviving.

Maybe tutors should encourage students to use their worst fears positively, expressing them as products and typefaces which communicate selfishness and fear. After all, designers can use their chosen means of expression in a very abstract sense if they choose to do so. What’s wrong with a series of typefaces with names like Innercity Brixton and Smelvetica, or products like the kettle that can kill? At least energy would find a positive expression, which I think is useful in society because it causes people to focus on the very real problems of spiralling unemployment, industrial impotence and the press cartel. Design is a political activity after all, so why don’t art schools come off the wall and adopt an attitude?

Sometimes I think we would be better to scrap the whole art school system. We do society and the economy no service by producing timid and malnourished designers. Historically, the most influential schools existed only for very short periods of time, they burned brightly and then then waned. The Bauhaus, Memphis, Cranbrook and even Glasgow School of Art have had their restless, truly productive and progressive periods. But the weight of heritage and the burden of reputation are difficult to reconcile with true innovation demanding risk and controversy. The British predilection for fast money made in the ten-minute financial cycles of the City has killed manufacturing, with its three-year product cycles, and education, which takes a lifetime.

We are constantly told that education is a “business” at a time when new graduates are forming businesses because they can’t get jobs and because they choose not to live and work in the way that society’s conventions demand. Graduates often recognise that business is part of life and it is about much more than making money. Maybe, just maybe, some new graduates will start an art school, an education system which is new, humane and right for now, instead of one which is bound and gagged by bureaucracy, nostalgia, lack of cash and fear.

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