Jeremy Till

Three Politics

What's the point of art school? The reason I set that question in the first place was purely political — political in three senses of the word. I meant political with a capital P, political in the feminist sense of 'the personal as political', and political in the original sense of the term as polis or collective.

I'll start with 'political with a capital P'. When I took over this extraordinary job in this extraordinary place I did so at a time when it seemed this government was doing everything possible to take away those extraordinary virtues. The imposition of the £9,000 fee on the basis of neo-liberal austerity cant, which said 'we can't afford it? (even though in fact it is costing the taxpayer more to fund the loans) has had a profound effect on the perception of art schools.

It doesn’t take an economic genius to see the austerity agenda as an ideological programme rather than an economic rationale. Our What’s the Point of Art School sessions have shown the profound effect austerity measures are having on access to education, with potentially even more impact on access to art and design colleges.

That’s how it looked when I took over the job. Since then if you’d written the script you couldn’t have invented some of the things that have come out. You couldn't have invented the statement in the national curriculum for art and design — well, you could have if you were living in the 1850s.

Let me just remind you again how it reads. “Art and design teaching should instill in pupils an appreciation of beauty and an awareness of how creativity depends on technical mastery.” It’s pathetic, but it’s also dangerously pathetic because of the reductive way in which art and design is described. In that reductive context or outlook it becomes so easy to marginalise it. I’m very glad this university has taken a lead role in articulating a profound response to that.

Secondly, when culture secretary Maria Miller uses the word “commodity“ to describe art we find ourselves in a state of extreme challenge. That’s because the only thing you can do with commodities is buy, sell or exchange them. Art gets reduced to a part of the market mechanism.

So the first answer to the question “What’s the point of art”? is that collectively we have to stand up — very politically — to this government and successive governments to articulate exactly what the point is. We have to take a very political stance about what these policies are doing.

The other thing we need to do is stand together. There’s a “divide and rule” issue where our students are described — disgracefully — as consumers. And in that “consumption” of their education all they can do is complain because that’s all consumers can do. In this way you set the students against the universities.

So that’s my first political — political with a big P.

My second political is ”the political as the personal”. We’ve heard a great deal about this in our sessions, and I take very seriously the effect of art school on individual empowerment. I count myself as one who went through a completely “miserablist” Cambridge education in the pseudo-scientific model before moving to the Polytechnic of Central London where I discovered myself. So I feel part of this process of individual empowerment, which we lose at our peril.

There is, however, a strange by-product of the newly commercialised world of education. Now that our students are paying for themselves, and doing exactly what that entitles them to do, there’s a flipside to the consumer society. What the £9K fee might do is introduce a kind of neo-libertarian landscape in which the choice and freedom of the individual student become paramount.

The danger here is what that empowerment means at a wider societal level. Although I’m proud of the history of this institution in terms of its alumni, I worry about just talking about it in these terms because that perpetuates a myth of individual empowerment and genius. This brings me to my third point, which is that art schools have to be more than merely the sum of individual agencies, however important these may be to the individual.

The politics of the polis is potentially what the real point of art school is. In Aristotle’s terms it has to do with a moral collective. In contemporary terms it’s something to do with contested ethics.

My call would be for art schools to open up from internalised, minor preoccupations — which in their very internalisation seem so important — to major societal preoccupations, expanding outwards. My argument for this is that if there was ever a time when we needed art schools, and art school thinking, it’s now.

A post on my Twitter feed captured my imagination. It was a statement by Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT media lab, which said “art schools are where all the action is — business schools are done”. And I think that’s really interesting, not just because we know business schools are done. The evidence is apparent — it’s called 2008 and their reaction to it, which was simply retrenchment to exactly what they’d been doing before.

It’s not just that we recognise business schools are done because their pedagogy is so limited and myopic.

It’s not just that business schools are done because their value system is limited to the value system of the market. In fact, the business school is a symptom of a wider malaise, the clinging to a certain set of paradigms and values. My argument would be that at a time of environmental apocalypse — and I use that word without trying to be extravagant — and in a time of crisis for capitalism, the paradigms and values of the business school and the wider set of Enlightenment values that dominate society have been found spectacularly wanting.

All we’re offered on the one hand are technocratic solutions and on the other the appeal to a set of neo-liberal values that have to do with progress and growth. We only tolerate austerity in the name of future growth. These ideas are accepted as a form of natural order, as if there’s no alternative. And the crisis perpetuates itself in front of our eyes. I feel very strongly that art and design does offer a genuine alternative to those paradigms. That’s why I believe we have to be much more articulate about what we do.

In a recent collaboration between our students and science students there was a sense that they were doing us a favour. In fact we were doing them a favour because our students enabled their students to think through their research projects in a completely novel way. We need to be much clearer about the art school as a productive and constructive mode of research and action.

But this only works if we turn that thinking and making outwards, away from the refinement of the object towards the concepts and processes that contextualize the object, and to the consequences of the object. I would argue that art and design schools have been challenging those Enlightenment paradigms of truth, progress and growth — which in turn are associated with a neo-classical economic model — for a long time already. We just need to express this more clearly.

Let’s consider the idea of the critical reflexivity of design versus the rote reproducibility of science. What we do as designers is critically reflect on conditions. The notion that critical curiosity is always intellectually restless. Its progress is lateral, as opposed to the linearity of rationality.

Let’s think about how processes within art and design education are naturally iterative and thus dynamic rather than endlessly circling towards a static end.

Let’s think about the way we all, as designers, engage with contingency and work with it rather than viewing it as an obstacle to objectivity. If there isn’t a right or wrong, as we’ve agreed there isn’t, this runs counter to the idea of searching for a truth.

Let’s think about how design looks for possibilities for the future instead of refining the status quo.

Reflexive, restless, contextual, dynamic, contingent, possible — maybe these are better terms to describe the state of “liquid modernity” we live in. If they’re better terms to describe the condition we live in maybe they’re more useful terms for understanding how we might deal with that condition, as opposed to terms like reproduction, linearity, abstraction, stasis, objectivity and refinement on which the Enlightenment paradigm continues to rest.

There exists both the will and the means for places like CSM and UAL to extend their horizons, to use what they’re already doing in a more expansive, productive, positive way for the public good. Yes, we need to be more articulate and political about what we offer. But I think that process has begun.