Art School, Smart School

Is this the end of the British art school?


Last week BBC Radio 4 aired the programme Art School, Smart School which featured contributions from Brian Eno, Tracy Emin and Grayson Perry as they lament the creative freedom afforded by the British post war art school experience and share fears about the increasing commodification and the increasing need to legitimate study y demonstrating market relevance. You can listen to the programme by clicking the link below.

Art School, Smart School, was produced by Isabel Sutton, and first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 22nd November at 8pm

As well as producing the programme Isobel Sutton has also written the following article for the New Statesman first published on the 20th Nov 2014.

When the Great Exhibition opened its doors in 1851, Britain’s reputation as the workshop of the world was on the wane. Few visitors would have known it at the time, but the exhibition signified the high watermark of British manufacturing. French design and Prussian engineering were already edging ahead. In 2012, London hosted another event designed to present Britain to the world – one which referenced the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution by featuring towering smoke stacks and beating drums.

Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony represented British history as a creative blossoming that started in the nineteenth century but seemed to reach its zenith in the twentieth century when fashion, film and pop music boomed. And yet it seems to me that Boyle’s Olympic opener – just like the Great Exhibition – was telling a story about Britain that had already ceased to be true. The circumstances which made it possible for artists to thrive in Britain during the twentieth century are rapidly disappearing. And perhaps one of the most essential changes is in our art schools.

Name any one of the UK’s most famous designers or musicians, never mind artists, and they are likely to have set foot in an art school at one time or other: David Bowie, Pete Townsend, Brian Eno, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano. I could go on and on. Economist Hasan Bakhshi of innovation charity Nesta says that he is frequently asked about how we run our art schools by educationalists abroad. Art schools are perceived by many as the key to our creative success.

Yet art schools have changed dramatically over the last 20–30 years, causing many to question whether they will, in the future, cultivate the innovators we so badly need. Art schools used to be havens for students who, for whatever reason, had not found their niche in the traditional academic system. Now prospective art students very often have to prove their academic credentials to compete for a place at the most prestigious colleges. Once on the course, art students have to submit an increasing volume of written work, arguably a distraction from practical skills and craft.

Tuition fees have made higher education in Britain more expensive than anywhere else in Europe, and art schools are no exception. This means that the social and economic mix is disappearing (students from poorer backgrounds being less inclined to take out a loan for a non-vocational subject such as fine art). What’s more, art schools are going out of their way to attract foreign students for the extra income they bring. Unsurprisingly, there is deep concern among many artists and teachers that the age of the art school is – to quote Sir Christopher Frayling – “over”.

Frayling was, until 2009, dean of one of Britain’s most venerable art schools, the Royal College (RCA). But as I walked its corridors with him recently, he admitted that even this renowned institution has suffered from the same damaging developments as art schools around the country: workshops for ceramics, printing, and metalwork have been replaced by computer rooms, digital expertise is prioritised before craft; student numbers are rocketing and teaching hours are sinking.

Read the full article on the New Statement website:

Lectures and Chats with Benjamin Fallon: By Claire Briegel & Kirsty Leonard

CAP students have had the chance to spend a day with Benjamin Fallon who led us on an excellent curatorial tour of artist moving image work from very early movements to contemporary interventions in digital time-based practice. The first half of the day provided an excellent overview (could have lasted a week if we had had Ben with us for long enough) of video work, situated in its historical and cultural context. We watched snippets of a wide range of video from the anxiety-inducing repetition and conceptual minimalism of Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square to the sensual aesthetics of Pipilotti Rist’s work and Bill Viola’s ‘high definition’ video interventions, exploring juxtaposed celebratory / dystopian visions of past / future realities.

The second half of the day led us towards a set of video works influenced by Ben’s curatorial practice featuring work responding to network culture and digital interaction, exploring ways in which the contemporary artist re-appropriates new spaces of culture brought about by the virtual and digital world, regaining agency with which to speak about the new subjectivities emerging within it. More information available here:

This latter part of the day also included works by CAP’s very own Alan Holligan from Ben’s curatorial project The Warehouse of Horrors:

We caught up with Ben after the lectures to have a wee chat with him about his (career) so far, his curatorial practice, and what he’s up to at the moment:

So, how did it all start for you?

How did it all start?  Well, at Telford College – yes I came here!  Well, I mean I suppose I left school at 16, failed my highers.  I ended up doing art as default because… I’m lazy.  And then, I gradually realised that I was properly interested in it, so I did what was the equivalent of prep and then the HND Public Art.  It took three years instead of two.

Was that just the time it took then?

Well no – I failed in my second year! (laughs)

But Public Art wasn’t a particularly inspiring course was it, from what Alan said…?

No – it’s very, very different now to how it was then – now the course has been re-written, Contemporary Art Practice allows for a lot more development.

Yes, we’re lucky to have such energetic and engaged lecturers… and you didn’t go to art school after?

No.  I applied a number of times after Telford.  I think for two years I applied and then I got to the point where I was active in the Sculpture Workshop and other places and I realised I didn’t necessarily need to go to art school, so I didn’t apply that year and the years progressed and I just went oh well, that’s not happening.

That’s sort of encouraging.  You know that you feel maybe you didn’t really miss out on anything, and that you can make your own way – especially with looming fee rises etc.

No I mean I think, obviously it’s quite nice to go to art school.  A lot of my friends were there – I got the nice side without the bad side!

So was there something that sparked your career?  

Um…Career is quite a grand word for it.  Yeah, um, I don’t know I guess it’s just an interest.  I mean, like I said I failed the second year of the HND because I just didn’t care at the time, I wasn’t interested. But I readjusted.  I thought: ok now I need to do this properly.  I became interested in the theoretical side a lot more.  It was just because of an interest in that which led me to organise shows myself and then –

So you did your first shows independently?  Did you apply for funding…?

Oh, it’s only very recently that I’ve had funding for anything.  It’s always come out of my own pocket.   But working with, you know, young local artists and art students, which… is cheap.  It’s not something that pays a lot of money but…

So your first curatorial project… how did you initiate it?

Um, well I guess it was kind of working with a group of people who I knew about the arts…  Yeah so it was just about finding people around me and I was very fortunate in that I was living in a house that had a spare room: gut that out, paint it white and you have a gallery.  I think that, we could look back at it at that time and there was an emerging active artist-led scene in Edinburgh up to that point but it was never that visible. The Collective was there but it had been institutionalised years ago so I guess all that sparked me off a bit.

There are a lot more artist-led happenings now in Edinburgh aren’t here…

Yeah – there seems to be more and more, which can only be a good thing.

We were wondering about Alan: we want to know what influence he had on you…

Me and Alan didn’t get on for a long time because I wasn’t that committed for a while, but now we’re very good friends! Yeah it was kind of in my final year here that we found that we had lots of the same interests and yeah I think he’s very useful… in a grumpy way.

He’s very um, non-committal you don’t get a straight answer, it’s good…

Yeah it’s good because he makes you do the work – makes you answer your own question effectively.

Yeah, he’s good at that… I like to think of him as like a philosopher’s touchstone or something… So what are you doing at the moment?

At the moment I’m working on a project which is a non- public based, theoretical project.  There are seven of us who are meeting once a month for the next six month to discuss institutional practice within Scotland which is, which sounds like a dry topic but…  It’s through people who have worked within institutions of differing levels and we’ve tried to bring the group on one plane.  So that’s the main one.  I might be on another exhibition but there’s not really space for it.  This is the big thing that you come up against.  You get a certain position within the contemporary art world but that doesn’t necessarily equate to being able to do anything.  I think that maybe it’s specific to Scotland.  My friends in Europe have a bit more opportunity to get things going.  I think Scotland is a very artist-centred country which is good, in a sense, but –

Do you think it’s more difficult to self-organise here?

Yeah, like actually getting a space to do a show, getting funding together, as a curatorial project, rather than as an artist.  It’s still not easy to be an artist but there’s a lot more opportunity.  If you look at exhibitions across Edinburgh, you know, it’s always generally solo exhibitions.  You don’t see very many group exhibitions… I’m interested in doing group exhibitions, and pulling in wider ideas.

That’s interesting… this might be a bit of an annoying question but, we were wondering what you feel the ‘contemporary artist’ needs to be doing just now?

I think that… That’s a very difficult question.  I think if you want to go down one route and do the commercial artist thing you need to be chatty or produce work that looks like every other work you see.  Um…  I don’t like the question because it makes it seems like there is such a thing as the correct artist- which I don’t think there is.

That’s a good answer.  Why do you do what you do?

Um…  God knows!  I think because probably I’m curious.  I think of art as a source of knowledge production, rather than entertainment or any other conceived views of art.  And I think it’s about building my own knowledge and trying to share that knowledge and work with things that interest me.

(another equally difficult question we had noted down, but…) What about the role of a curator?

Well for me it’s about knowledge production and… just trying to work things through.  Yeah…well  I don’t like the idea of a job.  At a recent show I did I was described as an early career curator; I hate the idea of a career because it comes with the idea of a hierarchy and climbing the ladder and I’m not interested in that.  I want to be doing what I’m doing.  I understand the pragmatics that I have to earn some money at some point but at the moment I’m doing that through web design.

That seems like quite an interesting point: making artwork, curating and doing something quite different to that on the side to make money, so as not to have to give up part of your practice to do that.  Whereas if you were trying to make your living as an artist through funding or commissions or in the arts in general…

You have to do a commercial kind of thing.  Most of the artists I know just take up a job and don’t even think about trying to sell their work I do know a few people who sell work, but…


Any regrets?

 Um… Oh, am I going to say the really trite thing?  I probably am, yeah.  Not really, no, because you learn from everything you do, and I try not to think back and regret things because, you know, it got me somewhere.

 That’s good to know. Thanks Ben, and thanks for a very interesting day!

 Ben Fallon, Kirsty Leonard and Claire Briegel

For more information on some of the artists mentioned above see links below:

Bruce Nauman:

Pipilotti Rist:

Bill Viola: |

As well as a wealth of artist video and sound work here: