Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Art School Beuys

Last Saturday was a day full of questions, some answered more easily than others. The first came as I struggled to find a place to park. All roads around the DLWP were lined with eager locals and there was a large group of kilted men standing patiently in the main shopping area. It took me a few minutes to work out that Bexhill Carnival was about to start and that the gallery might be a little quieter than I'd expected.

Still, there were plenty of visitors to Speakers Corner, where we were very fortunate to have Matthew Cornford exploring Beuys the teacher and his Utopian ideas for a Free International University. Matthew is an artist, part of the collaborative team Cornford & Cross, and Professor of Fine Art at the University of Brighton. He began by looking at the impact of Joseph Beuys, not in isolation but as part of a whole movement which challenged the orthodoxy of American art of the time. He made reference to Beuys critics and in particular to the article Beuys: the Twilight of the Idol, Preliminary Notes for a Critique in which H. D. Buchloh confronts the cult of Beuys, mythical aspects of his persona and his artistic production.

We know from written accounts that Beuys was a very unconventional tutor, at times forceful and confrontational. He would dramatically alter student's sculptures in order to challenge their thought and process. Matthew wondered if students would accept this kind of interaction today and why was it, despite the chaos and disorder of Beuys methods, that so many seminal artists emerged from his tutelage?

In 1972 Beuys tenure at the Academy ended in spectacular fashion after he challenged the official entry requirements, offering all rejected applicants a place on his course. Unsurprisingly, there was a photographer on hand to capture Beuys forced eviction from the building. Matthew directed our attention to the posters in the current exhibition as documented evidence of the different aspects of Beuys: already professor, sculptor, shaman and boss, now the role of victim would be added to his public persona. Could it be that this was the greatest gift Beuys gave his students: a role model for how to look and behave as an artist? One speaker pointed to a parallel today with in the work of artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. They deploy similar tactics in creating auras which suggest both distance and proximity. No doubt their success is also extended by the endless publicity material produced.

The continuing need for institutional critique was discussed. What might be valid for artists to explore today, when there seems to be no real orthodoxy to resist? One speaker wondered if we are simply in another iconoclastic period and as a reaction might eventually see a return to a previous orthodoxy, with production rooted in the traditional abilities of the artisan. Matthew made reference to the writing of Eve Chiapello, in particular her article Evolution and Co-Optation. The "artist critique" of management and capitalism in the journal Third Text (vol 18 2004). In management literature much has been written about the positive aspects of the artist's work model with it's unconventional framework and fluidity, and how this could be applied across the general workforce. However, more concern needs to be given to that fact that many artists also experience a lack of financial and psychological security which can have a very negative impact.

Our discussion moved on to the practical aspects of art education. Should drawing and traditional skills be a prerequisite of entrance to Art School and what is the function of a qualification in art if it does not automatically guarantee a job? Some were concerned with a perceived de-skilling of students and questioned if art could be taught. Any good college would tell its undergraduates that they will have to juggle work when they leave, but I agreed with Matthew when he called for an end to the fantasies surrounding art education, which although inherently useful and valuable in its own right, may not necessarily lead to a career as a successful artist. On many other courses, such as Law or English for example, there is no sense of failure if the graduate chooses another career path. Surely three years on an Arts Degree can also have merit, without the student experiencing a sense of loss if the course does not lead him or her on a linear path? Art students develop critical and creative skills which have both a positive impact on their private lives and which are transferable and desirable to many professions.

We talked about the age old problem of how a graduate 'gets the first break'. Because of the increasing number of students and volume of pieces produced as a result, good work can easily get lost. People concluded 'who you know' still mattered, probably now more than ever, which perhaps is why it is important to create an aura, like Joseph Beuys or Tracey Emin. This led us to the meaning of artistic success and its context; ability, celebrity, historical, financial, personal. Who decides that an artist will be successful? In the past, wealthy patrons would have enjoyed such power and even today buyers can still create a successful career for an artist. Matthew talked of the ever narrowing choice of artists destined for this kind of success, brought about not just by financial backing but also by too much intellectual investment for the artist to fail.

We ended thinking about the kind of environment a student needs to thrive. One speaker described the tutor as an enabler. Teaching, like art, is a method of articulation for Matthew and he believes his role is to excite, inspire, throw ideas in the mix. A well served undergraduate should enjoy their time at art school, hear many voices, deepen their sense of history and the place they occupy within it. It was agreed that art college should be a supportive environment which facilitates learning; a safe place where students might develop their ability to engage intellectually with art, expand critical faculties and experiment before going out into the world.

Afterwards in the Gallery 1 I enjoyed talking with Orla, a 13 year old from Lewes who had sat in on Speakers Corner. She said she had felt a little shy about speaking up, but might post something on the blog later. She told me that although she could work out the meanings of materials quite quickly, she preferred the simplicity of the Braunkreuz paintings and liked to think about the relationships within them. Upstairs looking at Scala Napoletana, she felt the success of the piece was dependent on the accuracy of angles, but also talked about their possible emotional significance. She said it made her think about her own sculpture in school and what modifications she might try another time.

Thanks once more to Matthew Cornford and all those who took part. Apologies for any omissions. You are very welcome add any comments if you weren't at the discussion but are interested in the themes.


  1. It does make me wonder that we have reached a point where we need to articulate that schools (art or otherwise) should be supportive environments that facilitate learning, rather than taking that for granted.

    Whatever environments Orla has been in have clearly made her a very thoughtful and perceptive young person.

    It sounds like it was a really interesting discussion.

  2. p.s. that doesn't mean they can't be challenging and able to accommodate people like Beuys. I also think Matthew's point about whether that style of teaching would be acceptable today (although not necessarity for the right reasons) is a good one.

  3. While i was sitting in at the spakers corner an interesting question was asked: Can art be taught? I think artistic skills can be taught but talent comes from practice and also some have it and some don't. I think a good art teacher will facilitate pupils and set up an environment where inspiration comes easily, and will also teach a pupil to act on their inspirations (however sudden they may be) and not to simply let them pass.

  4. My art teacher for year 8 (who has unfortunately retired now) was very supportive. He taught me to believe more in my pieces and thus in other's. He helped to nurture my interest in art and helped me realise how much i enjoy it. He inspired many of us and i think this is how the artistic environment i have been put in has affected my perception of art as a concept. Just something i forgot to add :)

  5. I enjoyed the music signed Heloise and Freddie (aged 6) says he likes all the music he heard.