Does Cambridge need an art school?

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‘The Fitz’ is one of eight museums in the University of Cambridge Museums consortium.Wikicommons: Zhurakovskyi

As an Art Historian and Art foundation course graduate, it’s unsurprising that I love art. I love looking at art and finding out the history of a piece or an artist’s biography. I love analysing art and attempting to work out why an artist made the choices they did. I love looking at pretty things that aren’t always considered art: beautiful buildings on the street, well-shot music videos or films, photography, set design, ball decoration, and fashion, both high street and haute. I also love to make art. When I get stuck into drawing or painting a portrait, I become absorbed for hours on end, thinking about just the way to capture that strong line there, and contrast it against the subtle shadow here; I get competitive, demanding of myself that the picture be the very best ever created. It’s wonderful.

“creativity and academicism are mutually beneficial”

Yet I do not think the University of Cambridge needs an art school. Plenty of other universities have one, the big one being Oxford, which has the Ruskin School of Art. Many art schools are associated with larger universities – Kingston, which has a very well-known art foundation course, is in fact Kingston University. But top art schools worldwide (RISD, Parsons, The Royal College of Art) are independent of universities, despite Fine Art, or Graphic Design, or Illustration all really being just another set of subjects like English, History, or Maths. I think this is in part because art requires entirely different facilities to academics. When a university does have an art department, students end up separate from those doing subjects requiring them to be in the lab or library all day, because they have to be in a studio all day – it’s far harder to cart home a sculpture or an oil painting than a stack of books!

John Ruskin founded his Art School at Oxford in 1871.Wikicommons: LIFE Photo Archive

Artistic education and academic education are considered two very separate and very different kettles of fish. When I was applying for art foundation courses, I also applied to courses offering a combined degree in History of Art and Art – a reasonable pairing, you’d think. I found they were surprisingly uncommon. You can study Art at a university, and sometimes study History of Art at an art school, but institutions offering both together, or assimilated into each other, are rare indeed. Goldsmith’s in London offers one, Edinburgh, too, and at the Ruskin, Art History is given a large emphasis as part of the course because it is such a traditional art school (they also still do drawings of human anatomy).

I eventually decided to do a foundation course in anticipation of going to art school. But on my course I struggled to remain motivated and focused: not many people came into the studio each day and I found I work better under the encouragement and guidance of a ‘teacher’ giving ‘lessons’ than when I was set a vague task and told to go forth and become inspired. The artworks I made on that course that I was pleased with all were originally inspired by going to galleries, reading a book or from interesting discussions I had with people. They were inspired by focused and considered thought and learning: exactly what I have in abundance now I’m in an environment geared towards academic learning.

The artistic-academic divide is an age-old one. Artists have been fighting it ever since Renaissance times when there was a cultural shift from artists being seen as anonymous craftsmen to individual named authors. In my experience, creativity and academicism are mutually beneficial. Academic study tends to inspire more interesting and creative artwork: from the Bible inspiring early religious art, to humanism motivating the changes of the Renaissance, to an interest in new scientific technology partially prompting impressionism, art history is rife with examples which back this up.

Giotto di Bondone’s Mother and Child is a well-known landmark in the development of realism. Wikicommons: Web Gallery of Art

In turn, relativity is essential for many kinds of academic learning. Any humanities student will tell you they’ve had a breakthrough for an essay at some point by trying something new, or attempting to look at something in a new way, or even taking a break from their books. What’s more, in a high-pressure environment like Cambridge, practising art can be a wonderful stress-reliever. The history of art aiding those suffering from mental illness is extensive – some of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings were completed while he was in an asylum at Saint-Rémy; Yayoi Kusama lives in a hospital for the mentally ill, and has said that without art she would’ve committed suicide long ago.

There’s an idea that, to be good at academic work, one must be extremely clever and knowledgeable, whereas to be good at anything creative, one must have innate talent. I’ve never found this to be true. I came to love drawing by attending a weekly three-hour class throughout my teenage years, where I was taught to draw in a fairly traditional manner, through close observation and techniques to help you better measure and record what’s in front of you. No successful artist conformed to the idea of the artistic genius who can pitch up, say a word, dab some paint, and create a masterpiece; they all worked hard, practised to achieve the necessary skill, and often had thorough educations, too. Academic and artistic study both require hard work, motivation and an interest in constantly expanding one’s knowledge.

“If colleges can make space for music practice rooms and theatres, why not art studios?”

I don’t think Cambridge needs an art school because I don’t think it would make any difference to the Cambridge zeitgeist. It would be one more department, one more set of students holed away doing their own thing separate from everyone else. It might increase the number of artistically inclined students around the University, but from personal experience I don’t think there’s a lack of people wanting to make art. There’s merely a lack of opportunity to do so.

Jackson Pollock’s work looks spontaneous, but even he put much thought and effort into his artwork.John Muse

We in Cambridge are so busy and art is yet another thing that requires setting aside a few hours from your hectic day to make something – and materials are expensive! Yet students are more than willing to make time for many other extra-curricular activities. Colleges spend thousands of pounds on their boat clubs so that students can spend hours every day rowing; the next most expensive society in my college is the dramatics society, allowing students to spend arguably even more time rehearsing; and every college has a choir, another big commitment. Yet you hear of very few colleges with art studios; the only University-wide art society I know of is the Fitzwilliam Museum Society, mainly known for the arty speakers it invites (admittedly, its event ‘Love Art after Dark’ includes creative activities). Of course there’s Arc-Soc, and various Life Classes (There’s one in Christ’s on Wednesdays at 7pm; Arc-Soc run another on Fridays, also at 7pm), not to mention set or costume designing at the ADC or any college dramatics club. But I’ve found overall a disappointing lack of creative spaces around Cambridge during my time here. Some friends and I began a club, Art and Chill, to provide a space and time specifically dedicated for people to excuse themselves from work and make art – but even in this case the studio we have in Christ’s is under threat of being knocked down for more accommodation. If colleges can make space for music practice rooms and theatres, why not art studios?

Cambridge does not need an art school but it does need a change in attitude towards creativity and artistic learning. I hope at some point in the future the two disciplines can merge enough for people to make the time for creativity

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