Interview with Art Historian
I understand you studied Fine Art at Oxford and continued to paint ever since, while also working as an independent art critic for Standpoint and The Spectator. Your research interests mainly lie at the intersection between art education and the art market. However, as you told me, you are more interested in the education sector rather than the commercial sides of it. Would you say that academia and the commercial art world are opposing forces in a way? Where did you find, as an art author, a space for critical thinking about art and the industry?
I’m not sure that academia and the commercial world are opposing forces, necessarily. I think they help each other along. My reservations are more about how useful either is it to the cause of art. In the modern and contemporary art sphere, the humourlessness of the academics – their willingness to take anything and everything seriously, as worthy of study – helps the galleries by giving them intellectualized justifications for work they want to sell; and the prestigious prices works achieve at galleries also encourages academics to write more about them. However, I do not think it is necessarily useful for a young artist to have writers rambling on about all the nuances there may or may not be in their work. And galleries can be more harmful to artists: artists will only be shown if their work conforms to market expectation; and if they then become successful, galleries will often pressurize them to produce more of the same. They then have little freedom to develop. It is always a good thing to expose work, and get a reaction. All reaction is useful. But there is a lot of very expensive art nowadays that is very bad; and high demand encourage more supply. Money will give artists the freedom to create; but galleries will restrict that freedom, and push towards what the market already wants.
According to your website, you wrote a pamphlet called “What Happened to the Art Schools” which seems to cover a great deal of what we will be discussing on November 23rd at Central Saint Martins. Would you tell me a bit more about this?
The Charles Douglas Home Memorial Trust gives an award each year for journalism, and commissions the recipient to research a particular subject. Mine was about drawing in art schools, and the pamphlet was the result. I studied the history of art schools – as opposed to private art studios that offered apprenticeships – and how methods of art education changed during the modern period. I also made certain recommendation for how drawing might be better taught. Chief among them was that, since learning to draw and paint is not equivalent to learning to express oneself in new art media, they should not be taught alongside each other. Rather, drawing and painting should be studied independently, with concentration, for a longer period of time. Personally, I would ideally prefer them taught away from art school, in an apprenticeship system. But I do not believe there are enough people who could teach that way to make it work. I am also not convinced that teaching people to make art is possible to do nowadays; but I very much believe that people should learn at least what it feels like to make an artwork, because then they will appreciate the real artworks all the more.
What was your first job right after the university? What was that transition like for you? Was it daunting? Was it exciting? Did you feel prepared for the ‘real world’?
I taught, tutored, I worked for a framer for a while, and I wrote journalism. Nothing very regular. I never thought it was the art school’s job to prepare me for anything, so I didn’t really mind. It wasn’t exciting or daunting; really I just wanted to get on with what I was interested in. But I am probably unusual in this!
What obstacles do you think young emerging artists face currently?
It completely depends on who they are and what sort of work they make. If they fit into the art world by having the correct political views, the correct sort of dress sense, the correct cultural reference points – and they already know many people in that world – then they will probably find it all easy, and natural. If they find themselves opposed to that stuff, as I did, then there is probably not much they can do – it simply isn’t going to work. Self-promotion is an even bigger part of the job than it was before – and it has always been a big part. However, I suspect that this comes quite naturally to most younger people, as they have grown up on social media. My generation was a bit in between. Beyond all that, there are the obvious things: the art market only matters in the most expensive, most international cities; and young artists, even if they are on the path to success, are always going to struggle to afford to live in those cities if they don’t have family help.
In our research, we found that students are skeptical of the commercial aspects of art. What is your response to that? Are they wrong to be skeptical, or should they be more skeptical? Are art institutions (or the nature of academia) in the UK fostering such a mentality? Why or why not?
I think they should be skeptical about everything. Skeptical about who is buying art, selling art, and writing about art. Most people are sincere in what they do – I don’t believe it is a conspiracy – but their values and interests are not necessarily those of artists, or art more generally. But they should also be skeptical about artists themselves!
We are conducting these interviews with industry professionals to gain some research and information that may be helpful for Foundation and Undergraduate students at art school, who may be concerned about their transition out of academia. If you could go back in time to when you were an art student finishing your degree, what advice would you give yourself? What advice would you have for current students?
Attach yourself to people you genuinely admire, and try to learn what you can from them. Try to find other people with similar interests, otherwise it is a very lonely pursuit; and at the beginning you will need them to form groups for exhibitions. And, perhaps, keep in distant touch with the most ruthlessly ambitious people you meet on your courses, even if you find them personally unpleasant, because they will probably be successful and you may need their help someday!