Christopher Frayling, Sarah Teasley, Antony Gormley and Ron Arad on art education

by Andreas Koller

Aired on BBC Radio 4 in November 2012, this agile discussion on the occasion of the 175-year anniversary of the RCA stretches from the history and relevance of liberal art education in the UK and the RCA in particular, to the importance of developing a lively exchange between engineering and art and design, the economic benefits of this dialog, and concludes in debating the essentials of good art and design education.

„Making a future doesn’t come out of doing things well that have already been done, but trying new things. And that’s what was really encouraged in art school.“ Antony Gormely (5:35)

The interview starts off by declaring Britain a hub for creative work and the world leader in „soft power“, and art colleges are among the reasons why. In these hard times, the contribution and impact of art and design to the economy are not to be underrated. It’s an unacknowledged and often ignored fact that „financial services contribute to the GDP about 1% more than the creative industries, which employ 2 million people whereas the financial services employ 1 million people.“ (4:38 into the interview). Even I, working in this area, would have underestimated the importance of the creative industries. Apparently, the treasury has predicted that by 2017 about 50% of new jobs in the UK will come from the creative sector. (14:58) What an amazing figure.

Now is just the time to discuss the importance of art colleges, when art and design has been specifically excluded from the curriculum in Britain, and even more than that: it is not a priority subject in the national interest such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics, healthcare and – apparently – chinese language. Frayling concludes: „Economically, this is disastrous.“

Having said this, art and design education by definition actually doesn’t aim at all at being good for the economy. In fact, quite the opposite. Speaking about the RCA, Sarah Teasley asserts that „we are not in the business of preparing students for industry, we are preparing them to create the future. We don’t want to fit them into what’s already there.“ (Sarah Teasley, 39:30) I can only confirm that.

„We are not trying to usurp the mould,
rather we are simply not considering it“ Sarah Teasley (39:50)

Ron Arad famously said (a quote that I’ve heard several times while studying here, which makes me feel good and uncomfortable at the same time):

„We take perfectly employable people, and make them unemployable.“
Ron Arad about the RCA (16:10)

The RCA is a place to study „art in a design environment, and design in an art environment“. This tension between old, traditionalist skills and fine arts on the one hand and design, engineering and modern technology on the other hand creates a unique atmosphere.

„Design is there to make life and the world easier,
art is there to make it more interesting and more difficult.“
Sir Christopher Frayling (10:44)

Also the tension between the establishment bit (the Royal coat of arms, the Royal degrees) and the call to anarchy, causing collision and thinking sideways, not agreeing with everything, having a strong point of view and challenging the system enables students to find their own voice. Teasley and Gormley talk about the „besottedness“ of the students, quoting the former rector Robin Darwin. It is the „inner demon“ that keeps them going, the complete obsession and commitment to their work. Offering a laboratory where everybody – teachers, staff, technicians and students – are exploring and growing. What students learn here is to „be selfish and pursuing their dreams, but at the same time they’re doing something that’s truly beyond them and contributing to society and the world“, as Sarah Teasley says 11 minutes into the interview.

John Ruskin summarizes this in a metaphor: „The best kind of art education brings together the head, the hand and the heart.“ Head: the thinking, hand: the craft, heart: „the finger on the pulse of contemporary culture but also personal expression“.

Gormley rounds the interview off with saying:

„A good art student thinks that he doesn’t have to fit in into an already existing world – he makes his own.“ Antony Gormley (41:00)

Needless to say, you don’t need an art college to be a good designer or artist, and you won’t do good work just because you studied art. But for me the RCA provides an environment to learn, discuss and grow. Of course it’s not all perfect, and from my personal experience at the RCA I can say that many things need to change, but tutors here are aware of it and a lot of change is happening. I’ve experienced that the college is open for suggestions and especially my programme „Information Experience Design“, which was introduced to the RCA in fall 2012, specifically encourages us to shape the way things are done (however, we are still not allowed in the college after midnight!). The best thing still is the inspiring community among the students. Tutors „provoke“ students, but art colleges are driven by students, and the „mayor energy, the source from which you learn most, is the energy of your fellow students“, as Antony Gormley says.

(If the player shouldn’t work, please head over to the BBC Website or download the mp3 directly.)

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