ART AND SOCIAL CONTEXT contextual art practice in education
This article was written by my good friend Chris Crickmay with whom I worked on the ‘Art and Social Context course at Dartington College of Arts (1978 – 85). It was published in the ‘Journal of Visual Art Practice’ (the Journal of the National Association for Fine Art Education) Vol 2 No 3. Editor, Iain Biggs, in 2003.
So although not written by me I include it here, with permission from the author, for its relevance to my interests and, of course, my involvement in this particular history.
“Art and Social Context”, its Background, Inception and Development. Chris Crickmay
Having been one of the writers of the Open University’s course, Art and Environment, in the mid 1970s, Chris Crickmay went on to lead the team that developed the degree in ‘Art and Social Context’ at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, between 1978 and 1991 (the degree itself was established in 1986). Following the announcement of impending closure of the course he was then instrumental in transferring it to Bristol Polytechnic (soon to become the University of the West of England) starting there in 1992. At this point he handed over leadership of the revived course to Sally Morgan and became a part time member of her team. Sally Morgan continued to develop the undergraduate course and subsequently established an MA and a research centre in the same field. A year ago the team that had taken the course forward at Bristol disbanded leaving others to take over. Here, Chris Crickmay looks back over almost 25 years of ‘contextualised art’ in education and what it stood for.
The cultural climate of the late 1970s
Every good educational idea has its moment in history – a time when it has currency and relevance, when the tide of events in the culture is flowing in its favour. The course described in this article was rooted in a general climate of cultural ferment that had continued from the late 1960s into the early 80s. Around the time the course began (1977), there had been a growing sense of crisis nationally, both in the purpose of art and design education and, more broadly, in the role of the arts in society. In answer to this sense of a crisis, there were also emerging a number of new and exciting forms of art practice, new ways of thinking about the role of the artist and new forms of criticism. ‘Community arts’ and ‘public art’ had developed from the late 60s onwards, seeking new venues and new levels of participation in art; in the spirit of this, Joseph Beuys had made his famous pronouncement “everyone an artist” – and had led the way for many European artists in terms of social and political engagement (a major seminar at Kassel in June-October 1977 drew together politically active artists from all over Europe). Feminist art had gathered momentum, with pioneers like Judy Chicago influencing a whole generation of women artists in Britain and America. Her collaborative feminist work, The Dinner Party, was created in the mid 70s. A bit earlier, John Berger had delivered his famous, Ways of Seeing, broadcasts on BBC TV (the book of the programmes was published in 1972). A string of exhibitions in major public galleries had adopted social themes (1). Several art critics and writers including Lucy Lippard, Caroline Tisdall, Paul Overy and Ian Nairn, were promoting and reviewing socially conscious art. New movements in conceptual art, performance art, installation and land art, were deliberately subverting the concept of art as commodity. Numerous British artists, such as Conrad Atkinson, Margaret Harrison, Peter Dunn, Lorraine Leeson and Stephen Willets, were reflecting social concerns in their work that had not hitherto appeared in art galleries. It was symptomatic of the times that Suzi Gablik’s book, Has Modernism Failed?, appeared in 1984 and, of course, post-modernist theory was soon to take hold in art colleges up and down the country recognising a sea-change in the arts and culture of the late 20C. But the account which follows is not about this time of ferment. Rather, it tells the tale of one small (but persistent) course – how it was conceived and developed in response to these larger changes (2).
The Dartington background The story of the arts at Dartington had already been through many chapters by the time this account of the course Art and Social Context begins. Dartington’s original involvement in the arts came from the interests of Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, a visionary couple, who established Dartington as ‘an experiment in rural reconstruction’ in 1925. This involved the revival of rural industries and farms, and the creation of a progressive school, and other enterprises, all inspired by the Indian philosopher and poet, Rabindranath Tagore (himself a founder of a university committed to its social context). In addition to being enthusiasts and patrons of art, music, dance and drama, the Elmhirsts “believed profoundly in arts education and the involvement of amateurs” (Cox, 2000 – see note 4). The college was a much later addition to this project, growing from an arts centre to eventually offer fully fledged degree courses in art, dance/ drama, and music. (3)
The original Dip HE and its development
A two year Dip HE course in, Art and Design in Social Contexts, was validated in 1977. It was conceived by Paul Oliver (then Head of Department) with his team of staff, most of whom had trained at Corsham in art education. The innovative idea of the course was to produce a generalist artist-designer, capable of responding to the unpredictable creative challenges that arise in a community setting. Key ideas in the new course included: the importance of process over product; the value of group work; the development of environmental and ecological awareness; the use of live community projects; and the introduction of semiotics and certain aspects of anthropology as instruments for understanding contemporary art and image making. (4)
David Harding and I arrived a year later in September 1978. With the other staff, we had the task of taking this rather ambitious concept devised by Paul Oliver and making it work as an experience for students in the light of the professional contexts we were familiar with. We were also expected in due course to turn it into a full three year degree, a development that did not turn out to be possible, nationally or institutionally, until the mid 80s. Fairly soon, though, the ‘design’ element implied in the original course title was dropped and the work became focussed within the specific theme of Art and Social Context. At this particular historical moment, the course could rightly claim to be virtually unique, since there were very few courses in Britain or abroad with any thing like this focus. (5)
What we meant by ‘context’
I have been asked countless times (by students, prospective students, by validating committees, etc.) what ‘context’ means in terms of art. In reply to the question, I would usually say something to the effect that art and context is to do with bringing art practice out of the studio and closer to everyday life – achieving this in any and every way one can think of. Also, that awareness of context applies at many levels, including the immediate context (where and with whom one works – who the work is for), as well as the wider cultural contexts in which we live. The sceptics would often say, “isn’t all art in a social context?” While true, this was really missing the point. The course was specifically addressing the issue of context – therefore different to courses and practices that left this aspect of art unquestioned. Also, we were primarily relating our work to places and groups within which art is not normally practised (i.e. not just any context). Ideally, contextual art was an art that would only make sense (and sometimes could only exist) within its chosen setting – as John Latham had put it – ‘The context is half the work’. In actual fact, our explanations concerning context never really came home to students until they experienced what it meant in practice – in terms of their own work applied in particular settings. (6)
The course content and its sources
Art and Social Context encompassed what was actually a fairly loose assortment of approaches, some of which (on the face of it) were in conflict with each other. However this could often be a fruitful conflict and the juxtaposition of these different approaches and positions was what made the work interesting. The approaches, as described below, were not rigidly built into the course structure (we were at pains to avoid simply a training in any existing category of practice), but they did reflect various camps and affiliations within the staff and student body. They also reflected a range of what was going on in Britain at the time in the realm of ‘contextual art’ (although the actual term was to emerge much later). The approaches were as follows:
- a) The aim of widening access to arts practice (participation outside the realms of professional art: This focus drew upon the traditions of Dartington and the early manifestation of the College as an arts centre. Ivor Weeks, a key member of our team and a previous Head of Department, had originally run inspirational adult education courses in art as part of this arts centre (George, of ‘Gilbert and George’, was an early student). In terms of our course, this focus upon ‘art for everyone’ was to do with training the artist-teacher, capable of working, not so much in education itself, but in the wider community. Some of the students interested in this approach would continue into Art Therapy or Art for Special Needs (Bruce Kent’s professional involvement in the latter also provided opportunities for students). In the short term, this aim of widening access to art, catered to the personal creative development of each individual student. My own particular interest in strategies for creative work, also fed into this aspect of the course. In pursuing this interest I had been inspired by such writers as Marion Milner and D.W. Winnicott, who understood creativity as being at the heart of all human life, not on some rarefied edge of it.
- b) Community Arts: Paulo Freire’s book, Cultural Action for Freedom, had appeared in a Penguin edition in 1972. It articulated a view that provided the spirit of community arts. This was that cultural production was the right and property of everyone. Su Braden’s book, Artists and People, published in 1978, (sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation), helped to raise the profile of community arts, documenting such initiatives as The Paddington Print Shop in London, The Great Georges Project in Liverpool, The Manchester Hospital Arts Project, Freeform, David Harding’s work as a ‘Town Artist’ at Glenrothes New Town, and the Craigmillar Festival – work that was mostly based in deprived urban areas and concerned with unleashing the creative energies of people who for one reason or another lacked a ‘voice’. As has been well described, community arts was seen at the time as a radical ‘movement’, not, as it later became, simply a matter of local authority provision. (7) There was actually some determined resistance from many community artists to the idea of community arts being institutionalised through education and some (understandable) pressure from the artists involved that any training offered should be done from within their own ranks. Although many students later went into community arts, we never claimed to be offering a training in it. Rather, community arts offered one of several models of practice that students would need to be aware of. The many groups and projects around Britain provided a huge resource for visiting staff, work experience, and examples to study. Parallel to these contacts in Britain, from the late 1970s through the 1980s, we were beginning to make contact with a number of activist art groups and artists in the USA. These included Suzanne Lacy, whose large scale participatory performances and tableaux, such as, Whisper the Waves the Wind (1984), or The Road of Poems and Boarders (1990), became a model for another kind of ‘artist led’ intervention, different to community arts, but sharing many of its aims. (8)
- c) Public Art: It is true that ‘public art’ or ‘art in public places’, has a long history as art in conjunction with architecture and urban design, reflecting church or state power, and even in the 20th century was often the domain of famous artists responding to (often rather grand) public commissions. But it had fairly recently emerged in a new, more participatory form, in which artists tried in various ways to involve local people in the work and to reflect the place in which the work was located. David Harding, fresh from being ‘town artist’ at Glenrothes New Town in Fife, brought with him to Dartington this more human, small scale and participatory vision of public art. It took inspiration from the eccentric structures that ‘outsider artists’ built for themselves (e.g. the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, or the monuments of Le Facteur Cheval in Southern France); the Chicago, San Francisco and other murals representing particular cultural groupings and minorities; the town art phenomenon itself; and a growing number of small scale environmental works, such as those by Jamie McCullough, or the organisation Common Ground. Later the temporary and conceptual public art work of Krystof Wadiczko, Jochen Gerz and Jenny Holzer pointed the way to other possibilities, a now-you-see- it-now-you-don’t form of public art, in stark contrast to those huge statues of the Soviet era that had to be trucked away when it all came apart. (We had some difficulty at times in persuading validating bodies that we were not training students to build monuments of any kind). The community arts and public art element of the course was introduced at Dartington largely through the influence of David Harding and later developed by Sally Morgan, who took up his post in 1986, after he had left to initiate what became the highly successful course in Environmental Art at Glasgow.
- d) Critical art practice: This approach to context viewed art as a form of cultural enquiry, often in opposition to the dominant culture of the time. It stressed questions of audience and intent and the ‘reading’ of images as part of a wider visual culture. Art work stemming from this approach typically took on issues that had become problem areas in the culture – issues of race, class, gender, sexuality being recurrent among them. For individual students, it was often an opportunity to see questions concerning their own lives within a wider cultural frame – an obvious example being issues then current within the women’s movement (9). Academically, this work was supported through contemporary cultural studies and film studies. John Hall, a poet and inspirational teacher enabled successive generations of students to successfully grapple with contemporary French philosophy and the intricacies of semiotics. It was through the cultivation a ‘critical art practice’, that the Dartington course achieved an integration of theoretical and practical work that was I think quite unusual in art courses at the time.
The above themes (a-d) could be viewed simply as aspects of any contextual practice, reflecting the who? why? where? and for whom? of contextual art. But they could also be at war with each other, each position seeming to the others to be lacking in some key ingredient. Work done in the name of community or public art could at times be visually crude and critically unsophisticated; workdone in the name of individual creative expression could be self enclosed and unfocussed; work attempting cultural critique could be impenetrable or, conversely, mind bashingly obvious, (i.e.. where some issue or other was beaten to death by the student concerned). Somewhere between all these hazards, good work could emerge. The course structure attempted to integrate all these positions into a single practice, where artistic competence, strategies for work in community settings, and cultural awareness could be built up together. Combining these elements within a single programme of work was perhaps its most distinctive feature.
Working across the arts
Dartington’s three arts structure (art, theatre and music) offered other opportunities beyond what was going on in the Art Department, which I (and several other staff), found particularly exciting. For one thing, the precedents in drama for engaging with social change and for community involvement were well established. Community arts itself often operated across the arts and there were well established community theatre companies such as Welfare State, Horse and Bamboo, IOU, Bread and Puppet Theatre in the USA, that worked outside regular theatre settings and touched into traditional forms of community celebration. Augusto Boal’s famous ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ offered powerful possibilities of direct political and social intervention. Over the years, art, music and theatre students engaged together in many group and community projects that added a colourful and exciting dimension to the work. (10)
Students were drawn to Art and Social Context from all over Britain. Intake was around thirty a year with a relatively high proportion of mature students. They mostly arrived on the course not fully knowing what it was about, often drawn to an alternative way of approaching art or with a sense that they would like to combine an art practice with working with others. Some had specific social concerns they felt would not be accepted or supported in a traditional art school. Because motivation was a crucial factor for this kind of course, we took students with a wide range of abilities. Therefore, a particular focus at an early stage was to bring up the skill level of weaker students. In this we benefited from a staff used to working with unskilled people in a community setting.
Student residencies (11)
Our primary educational devices for this work in addition to normal studio practice, seminars, etc., were staff- led group projects (in college or based in the community), work experience (in which students went out to join relevant professional groups and projects) and the student artist’s residency (which we originally referred to as ‘Placement’). Whereas work experience entailed attachment to a professional arts organisation, the residencies (generally in the final year of the course) involved students in choosing and working in contact with a setting where art was not normally practised. Students were expected to initiate their own live project in the chosen setting, often with participation from people who lived or worked there. While the group work and work experience proved powerful devices, the real driving force and often formative influence for students was the residency, which increasingly over the years gave the course its identity. Students often said that it was only through doing their residencies that they suddenly understood what contextual art was about. This could also be a severe challenge to students, many of whom were still at a vulnerable stage with their own artistic maturity. To balance students’ artistic development with community- based work was one of our biggest challenges and the source of endless curriculum adjustment.
In describing the course to others, the most inspiring aspect of it and the one that excited most curiosity was always the amazing variety of settings different students managed to engage with. Whatever you cared to name, our students had been there and done it. Student residencies included: a public laundry, a terrace house, a fish shop, Water Board offices, shopping malls, bus stops, a Macdonald’s restaurant, youth groups, weight watcher’s groups, adventure playgrounds, streets, centres for people with disability, orphanages, an industrial museum, a gymnasium, pubs, a church, railway stations, schools, a foundry, a biological research centre…. the list could go on and on.
The essence of the student residency (as with the APG – see footnote 11) was that work should emerge from a sustained contact with the setting, what went on there, and the people concerned. Thus it required students to investigate and to react to whatever they found – not just to ‘weigh in’ with a pre-formed idea. This was a ‘listening’ model of art practice, which could be slow and possibly undramatic, but if well handled would always lead to work that connected organically and surprisingly to the chosen setting and could not have been conceived or exist without it. Starting with an ‘open brief’ was the crucial factor.
Assessment of this work could be a headache – somehow we had to balance judgments of product and process – i.e. artistic competence in what was produced with other (less visible) abilities in setting up and running projects and working with others. Where, a student showed considerable strength in one of these and not the other, judgment became quite difficult.
Closure of the Dartington course and the move to Bristol
The course at Dartington was brought to an unexpected and premature ending. At the close of the academic year 1989-1990, it suddenly transpired that the College was substantially in debt. A restructuring and scaling down had to take place and in the process the Art Department was squeezed out. The full reasons for this have never been made public, but the official argument was that a simplified (more economical) college would best survive if it reduced its portfolio of courses to performing arts only. In these cynical times, it is seldom acknowledged how much love and care can go into an educational process, when the people working within it really believe in the work (and this applies as much to students as to staff). All the more shattering then if, what has been so carefully nursed along against all sorts of odds, is suddenly and arbitrarily abandoned for institutional (rather than academic) reasons. We were all therefore (staff and students) profoundly shaken by the news of closure. A campaign against closure was mounted but was unsuccessful. However, we refused to accept that this educational project was at an end and went looking for an alternative host institution.
As it turned out, the course was set up again immediately at Bristol Polytechnic (which soon became University of the West of England), restarting even before the Dartington course had finally closed. This was thanks to the mediation of Iain Biggs (then Head of Fine Art), who saw an interesting possibility of running two Fine Art courses with differing philosophies side by side. While this did not help the majority of the Dartington staff or the remaining students, it ensured the continuity of the project that we had all worked for. Meanwhile at Dartington, a new ‘Visual Performance’ course was initiated by Sally Morgan (an art course with a performance remit) and, as I understand, the replanning of all courses drew partly from the thinking that had informed Art and Social Context.
Developments at Bristol
In Bristol, the new possibilities offered within a city (as compared to the rural surroundings of Dartington), obviously provided an exciting new challenge, both in terms of public work and the close links it gave us to professional groups and individual artists working in our field. (An active link to ‘Vizability’, a community art collective, was especially fruitful). Under Nick Lowe (a performance artist working with video and photography, who had recently done innovative work with people in prison), the group/ community project element in the Second Year developed and expanded, taking advantage of the wide range of schools and other community organisations available. Through these projects, through third year residencies and through work experience placements, we were able rapidly to build up a very wide network of contacts in Bristol and beyond, which included the City Council, the main cultural centres, such as the Watershed and Arnolfini Gallery, Sustrans (the national cycle path organisation), the city markets, and a host of other official and unofficial bodies.
Students flowed out from the Faculty in what became a series of seasonal migrations. Second Years set out on group/ public projects around the city in the autumn, then further afield for work experience in early summer. Spring into summer saw the Third Years flow out to their separate residencies around the city and immediate region. Summer saw the First Years in groups creating site-specific works around the campus. At other times work proceeded in the studio.
Given the close proximity of the existing course in Fine Art, we felt the need from the outset to make the revived Art and Social Context as different to Fine Art as possible. Our students began to make extensive use of photography, video, performance, and installation (as distinct from the more traditional media then favoured by the Fine Art students). The burgeoning of new electronic technologies in the 90s also opened up digital imagery as a medium and the internet as a potential context within which students might work. To further distinguish the work emerging from Art and Social Context, the residency was extended, (initially) to include the whole of the third year, thus ensuring that the final work of our students was quite different in aim and character from the primarily studio-based work in Fine Art. But there were also many overlaps between the two subject areas, and increasingly as time went on, staff from both subject areas contributed across the board and students from the two shared studios with resulting cross fertilisation of ideas and practices. In 1999 a common First Year was introduced, thus consolidating moves towards this relationship within difference. In the mid 90s, Art and Social Context changed its name to ‘Fine Art in Context’ to locate it clearly within what became known as the ‘Fine Arts Field’. (The undergraduate course, now entering its 25th year of operation, still continues today, now under the slightly modified title, ‘Fine Art and Context’).
For the undergraduate programme, our work in the first ten years at Bristol divided roughly into three periods: 1) an initial period, which one might call curriculum and staff driven, in which we put much staff effort into structuring and supporting the group and public dimensions of the work. 2) a middle period, which was more student driven, in which we loosened some of the requirements for group and public work in order to encourage more variety of approach and allow each student more artistic room for manouvre. (This period was in fact marked by a raising of artistic and technical standards). 3) a later period, in which we sought a much greater degree of integration between what were by then three Fine Art based courses. It is no coincidence that these developments also paralleled a steadily falling staff provision in relation to an increasing number of students. Although each of the above stages had its educational rationale, each also afforded economies in staffing. Such moves were reflected across the board in Higher Education at the time.
It is hard to characterise the student residencies in Bristol with just a few examples, since they were all so diverse and so particular to each student’s interests. One student chose a residency at what had once been a complex of large orphanages, contacting and interviewing elderly people who had grown up there. She then introduced into one of the buildings small assemblages that commemorated particular childhood incidents (each located in the place the incident had occurred). Another student, through an exploration of personal ads in a local paper and subsequent contacts made, set up a performance in the back room of a pub where she enacted a rendezvous with (invited) individual viewers. Another, again, worked with a small group of schoolgirls to build a shelter, a small but exotic folly in a local park. These were not untypical of Third Year work, which always connected out beyond the confines of art or art education into some aspect of ordinary life in local communities.
As time went on (starting in 1997), we were able to add to the provision of courses an M.A. in Fine Art in Context, thus allowing a more questioning and professional level of work than had been possible at undergraduate level. For those of us who had taught on the undergraduate programme for some years, this was a welcome step forward in sophistication and an opportunity to deploy some of our own research interests in support. The MA also brought the whole staff team and students together in discussions of some of the historical and philosophical roots of our work. Following the establishment of the MA, a research centre was created, in Contextual, Public and Commemorative Art, which was intended to formalise links between the activities of the various staff pursuing these themes in their research and professional practice. Jane Calow was brought in to coordinate this research which (as the title suggests) ranged widely, e.g. from contextually oriented performance and inter-arts work to historical and cultural research, and work related to places (as we perceive and experience them or record how they change).
During the 90s there had been a proliferation of similar undergraduate and post graduate courses to our own in universities and colleges elsewhere in Britain (12). Also, certain educational institutions in other European countries were following similar lines. We had made working links through students, ex-students and staff with a number of these, notably in France, Luxembourg, and in Germany, where the Hochskul de Kunst in Berlin adopted the title ‘Kunst und Context’ for one of its ongoing postgraduate programmes. But in the UK itself, wider changes in public arts policy and provision were occurring that would entirely change the climate in which we had been operating.
Institutional absorption of the context idea
In comparison to the world which spawned our course, Art and Social Context, in the late 70s there has since been a profound re-configuration of the arts and an absorption into the main stream of much that we were attempting. ‘Cultural democracy’, the holy grail of community arts, clearly did not come about, except perhaps temporarily, for a particular community at some special moment (e.g. Craigmillar), nor was there a complete re-conceiving of Art and Design education, such as was mooted in the1970s. Yet, many of the approaches to art that existed only as fringe movements when we began, have since become an integral part of official cultural policy.
Today there is a huge subsidised sector of the visual and other arts (as distinct from the commercial sector). The funding policies of Regional Arts Boards and The Arts Council of England now clearly reflect an obligation towards the community at large. These official bodies generally require subsidised artists and groups to give convincing evidence that their work will reach and benefit (perhaps directly involve) some disadvantaged sector of the community. Public galleries, art museums, and arts centres, maintain highly active educational and outreach policies. In addition specific cultural groups, which by virtue of class, race, gender, etc., were excluded up to and during the 1970s, are now very deliberately included within the collections and exhibition policies of public galleries.
Community Arts, Hospital Arts, Arts in Schools, and residencies in general, have all been taken up and absorbed into public sector arts policy. Public Art (often funded by ‘percent for art’ schemes) now graces almost all urban centres and the presence of art in public places is now seen as ‘a good thing’ by almost any planning authority or local council. Such bodies will happily spend sums on art as part of urban regeneration, in the expectation of a future economic return from the environmental and social benefit. A network of independent agencies regularly commission permanent and temporary work in public places (eg. Artangel, Artists Agency, Locus+). Many lesser known and well known artists now make a career in this field. (The success of Anthony Gormley as an exponent of public art is a case in point). Art therapy (a continuing outlet for some of our students), which was once regarded in the Health Service as a rather suspect and unproven therapeutic practice, now has a recognised system of accreditation and has become an accepted part of healthcare provision. A broad spectrum of work under the heading ‘Arts and Health’ now also receives funding. While the commercial gallery world does not need to demonstrate any particular sense of public obligation, many of the artists it fosters pursue social, political and cultural questions in their work and this is rather more accepted today than it was in a more formalist and detached period, say, thirty years ago.
Taking all these examples together, it is clear that contextual art in its many forms is now firmly on the map. Universities and Colleges need to take account of the opportunities for graduating students. Since few make it into the gallery world as a career, this means that a high proportion of those that carry on in art at all, will find themselves practising some form of contextual art (many working both within and outside the gallery system as opportunities arise). (13) Most Fine Art courses now offer at least elements of contextual art practice within their curriculum, even if not formulated as such. Yet, Fine Art education in general seems to remain deeply committed to the conventional image of the gallery artist. In his intelligent and penetrating essay, The Good Enough Artist, Donald Kuspit argued the need to “recover a sense of human purpose in art making” (14). His view (shared by many others), was that the over heroic and grandiose idea of the avant-garde artist, so prevalent in the 20th century, had outlived its time. Avant-garde had become a self serving stereotype – merely a form of self marketing. Without going into his arguments, I like to think that the student artist working ‘in context’ is a prototype of Kuspit’s ‘good enough artist’….an artist for the future, not seeking to heroically change society through utopian visions, nor, in another heroic stance, to see their art as some superior form of suffering, but instead engaged in rediscovering a human sense of artistic purpose through relating their work to the realities of life as it is actually lived.
A series of important exhibitions at the major public galleries in London reflected a general climate of change – e.g. Art for Whom? at the Serpentine Gallery, Apr-May 1978, selected by Richard Cork; Issue, Social Strategies by Women Artists, Nov-Dec 1980, selected by Lucy Lippard; Lives, at the Hayward Gallery, selected by Derek Boshier. A social view of art was also promoted at the time in certain key journals (see for example, Studio International, Art & Social Purpose, special issue, March/ April 1976)
Our ideas were not in themselves new. What we did was to bring several disparate ideas and practices together into an educational project – a unique endeavour at the time, given what those ideas and practices were.
The Elmhirsts’ interest in making arts practice accessible to the ordinary person was taken up organisationally at Dartington, first in an ‘Art Department’, created in 1934, which had a professional as well as an educational role, and later in the form of an Adult Education Centre offering art classes to the general public. (See Michael Young’s excellent book, The Elmhirsts of Dartington, Routledge,1982). The Adult Education Centre duly developed into a college, run by Peter Cox, which from the mid 60s became a nationally validated institution, offering arts education courses and later specialist degrees. Dartington’s unorthodox and anti-institutional attitudes were not always suited to official validating procedures. Becoming a recognised college within the system was not easy and included some reversals of fortune. It was achieved with degree courses in Music and in Theatre by the early and mid 70s respectively. Both had elements in them of community-based practice. In view of Dartington’s rural setting, outposts were quickly developed for urban, community-based work in Plymouth and in Rotherhithe. Students studying Music in the Community, validated a bit later, went to Bristol for their practical community projects (largely in schools). The Art Department had for a while run an art education course directed by Ivor Weeks, a 2 year +1 year arrangement with Roll College in Exmouth. It had established a Dip HE (two years at degree level) by 1977.
Paul Oliver, who took over as Head of Art and Design in 1973 was recognised as a brilliant polymath, an artist-designer and prolific author, who had previously taught at the Architectural Association in London and brought with him a vision of the generalist artist-designer such as might have emerged from the Bauhaus. But Paul Oliver’s vision also had a lot to do with the national crisis and debate about the role of art and design courses in the immediate aftermath of the famous Hornsey student revolt in 1968. (see, David Warren Piper (ed..), After Hornsey, vols. 1 and 2. Davis Pointer Ltd., 1973). For a detailed account of the history of the College see Peter Cox’s unpublished memoir, My Time at Dartington, vol. 1, 1940-73 and vol. 2, 1973-83 – available in the Dartington Archive and the College Library, now also published in summary as a booklet: Cox, P. Origins, Dartington College of Arts, 2002.
Parallel educational developments were also taking place in the late 1970s and early 80s at what were then East London Polytechnic; at Newcastle Polytechnic and Bradford College. At a later stage, similar courses arose at Glasgow (Environmental Art), Wolverhampton, Sunderland, Exeter (student residencies), Birmingham, Cardiff, (also Public Art MAs at: Canterbury, Wimbledon, Dundee ), and St. Martins in London (Critical Fine Art Practice). At around the time we began, a new critical version of art history was emerging, countering the traditional Courtauld approach. For example, Terry Atkinson, Griselda Pollock and others introduced a critical approach to art and art history as part of the Fine Art course at Leeds University. It was sometimes argued that all courses in Fine Art included an element of ‘contextual art’ in the form of community projects which occurred from time to time, therefore, why claim it as a special thing? Our rejoinder was that for us it was an exclusive and fully worked through focus, not a tag-on to a conventional course of study.
I used to visit many art faculties around Britain as part of a recruitment drive aimed at foundation students. I would look at what was being done in the studios at all levels and would ask myself what this work told me about the world in which it was made. Often it seemed to bear little relation to anything outside the studio. It became a personal ambition that our own work would manifestly have something to say about the world at large.
see, for example, Malcolm Dickson (ed..) Art with People, AN publications, 1995
see Nina Felshin (ed..) But is it Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism, Bay Press, 1995, or Suzanne Lacy’s own book, Mapping the Terrain, New Genre Public Art, Bay Press, 1995.
The late seventies and early eighties at Dartington, with a high proportion of female students, became something of a hotbed of feminist action. A largely male staff needed to be urgently boosted with female visitors. This unbalanced situation (faced by most art colleges at the time), was later alleviated as other appointments became possible. Among the new female staff that joined the department was Rose Garrard, an artist with a growing reputation for her feminist work, in the form of installation and occasional public art.
My own particular research and creative work linking art and dance through collaborative projects with Mary Fulkerson and others, took off in this environment and led to collaborative performances and a subsequent book – Chris Crickmay and Miranda Tufnell – Body, Space, Image, Notes on Improvisation and Performance, Dance Books, 1993.
Our original focus on the art student ‘placement’ or residency was directly inspired by the Artists Placement Group (founded by John Latham and Barbara Stavini), who had pioneered the idea of placing artists (as ‘the incidental person’) in industry, government departments and other settings. Artists were given an ‘open brief’ to work creatively in that setting. This was an idea for bringing artists and people into close proximity, which would subsequently be taken up by the Arts Council and RAAs, albeit in a somewhat more conservative form as the Artist’s Residency.
Certain colleges suddenly (and we thought rather suspiciously) expressed an interest in community-based work perhaps as a lifeline, since Fine Art in England and Wales was then under immense pressure to justify its relevance or to suffer massive cuts. The expected cuts in courses never transpired, although effective cuts in funding did. Like everyone else in the sector, we struggled to sustain a viable educational experience, despite fewer and fewer staff working with more and more students. In 1978, the staff/ student ratio at Dartington was something like 7/1. Today, ratios of 40/1 are not untypical in Fine Art. The extraordinary thing is that this can still work, though at what cost?
Art and Social Context (with its emphasis upon ‘relevance’ and live projects), had (and still has) much to offer vocationally in posing the problem early to students as to how, where, and with whom they might work in the future. Students in fact scattered widely in terms of subsequent employment, often after further professional training, but many found work in areas mapped out by the course.
Donald Kuspit, ‘The Good enough Artist’, in Signs of the Psyche in Modern and Postmodern Art, Cambridge U.P., 1993.
In concluding this account, I would like to acknowledge the work of my colleagues who over the years included: Ivor Weeks, David Harding, John Hall, Sally Morgan, Steve Hoare, Bruce Kent, John Gridley, Rose Garrard, Sheila Clayton, Pen Dalton (a regular part timer), and from the earlier years, Harrison Dix, Graham Green and Karen Watts. Frequent visiting staff also included Kate Walker and Flick Allen. I would also like to thank our support staff, especially Gail Lloyd, a well loved Department Secretary. Thanks also to Peter Cox who created the opening and then let us get on with it. Then, from our Bristol years, I would like to thank Ian Biggs for making it possible, then (again) Sally Morgan (with whom I swapped places, when she became Award Leader and subsequently Field Leader in Fine Arts), also Nicholas Lowe, and our frequent visiting staff, Deborah Jones, Sadie Spikes, Alan Boldon, Annie Menter, Annie Lovejoy and Jeanette McSkimming. Also to be mentioned is Jane Calow, who began as an external examiner, but joined our team at a later stage. I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of all our colleagues in Fine Art, who became increasingly close professionally as time went on, and some of whom have now taken over the role of running the undergraduate award in Fine Art and Context. Then, I would like to acknowledge the significant contribution of students (Dip HE, degree and postgraduate) over the years, who, through their creative efforts as students and since then as professionals, have put Art and Social Context into action, often in ways we would not have imagined. Lastly I would like to thank our many external examiners who advised and encouraged us, especially: David Warren-Piper, Caroline Tisdall, Rita Donagh, Judith Williamson, Peter Byrne, Katie McLeod, Jill Journeaux, Jane Calow and Esther Salamon.