You are on page 1of 9

"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 197s, !hris !ric"may went on to #ead the team that deve#oped the degree in 'Art and
$ocia# !onte%t' at &artington !o##ege of Arts in &evon, between 197' and 1991 (the degree
itse#f was estab#ished in 19')*+ ,o##owing the announcement of impending c#osure of the
course he was then instrumenta# in transferring it to -risto# .o#ytechnic (soon to become the
University of the /est of Eng#and* starting there in 1990+ At this point he handed over
#eadership of the revived course to $a##y 1organ and became a part time member of her
team+ $a##y 1organ continued to deve#op the undergraduate course and subse2uent#y
estab#ished an 1A and a research centre in the same fie#d+ A year ago the team that had
ta"en the course forward at -risto# disbanded #eaving others to ta"e over+ Here, !hris
!ric"may #oo"s bac" over a#most 03 years of 'conte%tua#ised art' in education and what it
stood for+
The cultural cl!ate "# the late $%&'(
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 196s into the early !s. "round the time the course began #19$$%, there had been a
growing sense of crisis nationally, both in the &ur&ose of art and design education and, more
broadly, in the role of the arts in society. 'n answer to this sense of a crisis, there were also
emerging a number of new and e(citing forms of art &ractice, new ways of thinking about the
role of the artist and new forms of criticism. )Community arts) and )&ublic art) had develo&ed
from the late 6s onwards, seeking new venues and new levels of &artici&ation in art* in the
s&irit of this, +ose&h ,euys had made his famous &ronouncement -everyone an artist- - and
had led the way for many Euro&ean artists in terms of social and &olitical engagement #a
ma.or seminar at /assel in +une-0ctober 19$$ drew together &olitically active artists from all
over Euro&e%. 1eminist art had gathered momentum, with &ioneers like +udy Chicago
influencing a whole generation of women artists in ,ritain and "merica. 2er collaborative
feminist work, The 3inner 4arty, was created in the mid $s. " bit earlier, +ohn ,erger had
delivered his famous, 5ays of 6eeing, broadcasts on ,,C T7 #the book of the &rogrammes
was &ublished in 19$8%. " string of e(hibitions in ma.or &ublic galleries had ado&ted social
themes #1%. 6everal art critics and writers including 9ucy 9i&&ard, Caroline Tisdall, 4aul 0very
and 'an :airn, were &romoting and reviewing socially conscious art. :ew movements in
conce&tual art, &erformance art, installation and land art, were deliberately subverting the
conce&t of art as commodity. :umerous ,ritish artists, such as Conrad "tkinson, ;argaret
2arrison, 4eter 3unn, 9orraine 9eeson and 6te&hen 5illets, were reflecting social concerns
in their work that had not hitherto a&&eared in art galleries. 't was sym&tomatic of the times
that 6u<i =ablik)s book, 2as ;odernism 1ailed>, a&&eared in 19!? and, of course, &ost-
modernist theory was soon to take hold in art colleges u& and down the country recognising a
sea-change in the arts and culture of the late 8C. ,ut the account which follows is not about
this time of ferment. @ather, it tells the tale of one small #but &ersistent% course - how it was
conceived and develo&ed in res&onse to these larger changes #8%.
The Dart)*t") +ac,*r"u)- The story of the arts at 3artington had already been through
many cha&ters by the time this account of the course "rt and 6ocial Conte(t begins.
3artington)s original involvement in the arts came from the interests of 9eonard and 3orothy
Elmhirst, a visionary cou&le, who established 3artington as )an e(&eriment in rural
reconstruction) in 198A. This involved the revival of rural industries and farms, and the
creation of a &rogressive school, and other enter&rises, all ins&ired by the 'ndian &hiloso&her
and &oet, @abindranath Tagore #himself a founder of a university committed to its social
conte(t%. 'n addition to being enthusiasts and &atrons of art, music, dance and drama, the
Elmhirsts -believed &rofoundly in arts education and the involvement of amateurs- #Co(, 8
- see note ?%. The college was a much later addition to this &ro.ect, growing from an arts
centre to eventually offer fully fledged degree courses in art, danceB drama, and music. #C%
The "r*)al D. /E a)- t( -e0el".!e)t
" two year 3i& 2E course in, "rt and 3esign in 6ocial Conte(ts, was validated in 19$$. 't was
conceived by 4aul 0liver #then 2ead of 3e&artment% with his team of staff, most of whom had
trained at Corsham in art education. The innovative idea of the course was to &roduce a
generalist artist-designer, ca&able of res&onding to the un&redictable creative challenges that
arise in a community setting. /ey ideas in the new course includedD the im&ortance of &rocess
over &roduct* the value of grou& work* the develo&ment of environmental and ecological
awareness* the use of live community &ro.ects* and the introduction of semiotics and certain
as&ects of anthro&ology as instruments for understanding contem&orary art and image
making. #?%
3avid 2arding and ' arrived a year later in 6e&tember 19$!. 5ith the other staff, we had the
task of taking this rather ambitious conce&t devised by 4aul 0liver and making it work as an
e(&erience for students in the light of the &rofessional conte(ts we were familiar with. 5e
were also e(&ected in due course to turn it into a full three year degree, a develo&ment that
did not turn out to be &ossible, nationally or institutionally, until the mid !s. 1airly soon,
though, the )design) element im&lied in the original course title was dro&&ed and the work
became focussed within the s&ecific theme of "rt and 6ocial Conte(t. "t this &articular
historical moment, the course could rightly claim to be virtually uniEue, since there were very
few courses in ,ritain or abroad with any thing like this focus. #A%
1hat 2e !ea)t +3 4c")te5t4
' have been asked countless times #by students, &ros&ective students, by validating
committees, etc.% what )conte(t) means in terms of art. 'n re&ly to the Euestion, ' would usually
say something to the effect that art and conte(t is to do with bringing art &ractice out of the
studio and closer to everyday life - achieving this in any and every way one can think of. "lso,
that awareness of conte(t a&&lies at many levels, including the immediate conte(t #where and
with whom one works - who the work is for%, as well as the wider cultural conte(ts in which we
live. The sce&tics would often say, -isn)t all art in a social conte(t>- 5hile true, this was really
missing the &oint. The course was s&ecifically addressing the issue of conte(t - therefore
different to courses and &ractices that left this as&ect of art unEuestioned. "lso, we were
&rimarily relating our work to &laces and grou&s within which art is not normally &ractised #i.e.
not .ust any conte(t%. 'deally, conte(tual art was an art that would only make sense #and
sometimes could only e(ist% within its chosen setting - as +ohn 9atham had &ut it - )The
conte(t is half the work). 'n actual fact, our e(&lanations concerning conte(t never really came
home to students until they e(&erienced what it meant in &ractice - in terms of their own work
a&&lied in &articular settings. #6%
The c"ur(e c")te)t a)- t( ("urce(
"rt and 6ocial Conte(t encom&assed what was actually a fairly loose assortment of
a&&roaches, some of which #on the face of it% were in conflict with each other. 2owever this
could often be a fruitful conflict and the .u(ta&osition of these different a&&roaches and
&ositions was what made the work interesting. The a&&roaches, as described below, were not
rigidly built into the course structure #we were at &ains to avoid sim&ly a training in any
e(isting category of &ractice%, but they did reflect various cam&s and affiliations within the staff
and student body. They also reflected a range of what was going on in ,ritain at the time in
the realm of )conte(tual art) #although the actual term was to emerge much later%. The
a&&roaches were as followsD
a% The a! "# 2-e))* acce(( t" art( .ractce 6.artc.at") "ut(-e the
real!( "# .r"#e((")al artD This focus drew u&on the traditions of 3artington and the early
manifestation of the College as an arts centre. 'vor 5eeks, a key member of our team and
a &revious 2ead of 3e&artment, had originally run ins&irational adult education courses in
art as &art of this arts centre #=eorge, of )=ilbert and =eorge), was an early student%. 'n
terms of our course, this focus u&on )art for everyone) was to do with training the artist-
teacher, ca&able of working, not so much in education itself, but in the wider community.
6ome of the students interested in this a&&roach would continue into "rt Thera&y or "rt for
6&ecial :eeds #,ruce /ent)s &rofessional involvement in the latter also &rovided
o&&ortunities for students%. 'n the short term, this aim of widening access to art, catered to
the &ersonal creative develo&ment of each individual student. ;y own &articular interest in
strategies for creative work, also fed into this as&ect of the course. 'n &ursuing this interest '
had been ins&ired by such writers as ;arion ;ilner and 3.5. 5innicott, who understood
creativity as being at the heart of all human life, not on some rarefied edge of it.
b% C"!!u)t3 Art(D 4aulo 1reire)s book, Cultural "ction for 1reedom, had
a&&eared in a 4enguin edition in 19$8. 't articulated a view that &rovided the s&irit of
community arts. This was that cultural &roduction was the right and &ro&erty of everyone.
6u ,raden)s book, "rtists and 4eo&le, &ublished in 19$!, #s&onsored by the =ulbenkian
1oundation%, hel&ed to raise the &rofile of community arts, documenting such initiatives as
The 4addington 4rint 6ho& in 9ondon, The =reat =eorges 4ro.ect in 9iver&ool, The
;anchester 2os&ital "rts 4ro.ect, 1reeform, 3avid 2arding)s work as a )Town "rtist) at
=lenrothes :ew Town, and the Craigmillar 1estival - work that was mostly based in
de&rived urban areas and concerned with unleashing the creative energies of &eo&le who
for one reason or another lacked a )voice). "s has been well described, community arts was
seen at the time as a radical )movement), not, as it later became, sim&ly a matter of local
authority &rovision. #$% There was actually some determined resistance from many
community artists to the idea of community arts being institutionalised through education
and some #understandable% &ressure from the artists involved that any training offered
should be done from within their own ranks. "lthough many students later went into
community arts, we never claimed to be offering a training in it. @ather, community arts
offered one of several models of &ractice that students would need to be aware of. The
many grou&s and &ro.ects around ,ritain &rovided a huge resource for visiting staff, work
e(&erience, and e(am&les to study. 4arallel to these contacts in ,ritain, from the late 19$s
through the 19!s, we were beginning to make contact with a number of activist art grou&s
and artists in the F6". These included 6u<anne 9acy, whose large scale &artici&atory
&erformances and tableau(, such as, 5his&er the 5aves the 5ind #19!?%, or The @oad of
4oems and ,oarders #199%, became a model for another kind of )artist led) intervention,
different to community arts, but sharing many of its aims. #!%
c% Pu+lc ArtD 't is true that )&ublic art) or )art in &ublic &laces), has a long history as
art in con.unction with architecture and urban design, reflecting church or state &ower, and
even in the 8th century was often the domain of famous artists res&onding to #often rather
grand% &ublic commissions. ,ut it had fairly recently emerged in a new, more &artici&atory
form, in which artists tried in various ways to involve local &eo&le in the work and to reflect
the &lace in which the work was located. 3avid 2arding, fresh from being )town artist) at
=lenrothes :ew Town in 1ife, brought with him to 3artington this more human, small scale
and &artici&atory vision of &ublic art. 't took ins&iration from the eccentric structures that
)outsider artists) built for themselves #e.g. the 5atts Towers in 9os "ngeles, or the
monuments of 9e 1acteur Cheval in 6outhern 1rance%* the Chicago, 6an 1rancisco and
other murals re&resenting &articular cultural grou&ings and minorities* the town art
&henomenon itself* and a growing number of small scale environmental works, such as
those by +amie ;cCullough, or the organisation Common =round. 9ater the tem&orary and
conce&tual &ublic art work of /rystof 5adic<ko, +ochen =er< and +enny 2ol<er &ointed the
way to other &ossibilities, a now-you-see- it-now-you-don)t form of &ublic art, in stark
contrast to those huge statues of the 6oviet era that had to be trucked away when it all
came a&art. #5e had some difficulty at times in &ersuading validating bodies that we were
not training students to build monuments of any kind%. The community arts and &ublic art
element of the course was introduced at 3artington largely through the influence of 3avid
2arding and later develo&ed by 6ally ;organ, who took u& his &ost in 19!6, after he had
left to initiate what became the highly successful course in Environmental "rt at =lasgow.
d% Crtcal art .ractceD This a&&roach to conte(t viewed art as a form of cultural
enEuiry, often in o&&osition to the dominant culture of the time. 't stressed Euestions of
audience and intent and the )reading) of images as &art of a wider visual culture. "rt work
stemming from this a&&roach ty&ically took on issues that had become &roblem areas in
the culture - issues of race, class, gender, se(uality being recurrent among them. 1or
individual students, it was often an o&&ortunity to see Euestions concerning their own lives
within a wider cultural frame - an obvious e(am&le being issues then current within the
women)s movement #9%. "cademically, this work was su&&orted through contem&orary
cultural studies and film studies. +ohn 2all, a &oet and ins&irational teacher enabled
successive generations of students to successfully gra&&le with contem&orary 1rench
&hiloso&hy and the intricacies of semiotics. 't was through the cultivation a )critical art
&ractice), that the 3artington course achieved an integration of theoretical and &ractical
work that was ' think Euite unusual in art courses at the time.
The above themes #a-d% could be viewed sim&ly as as&ects of any conte(tual &ractice,
reflecting the who> why> where> and for whom> of conte(tual art. ,ut they could also be at
war with each other, each &osition seeming to the others to be lacking in some key
ingredient. 5ork done in the name of community or &ublic art could at times be visually
crude and critically unso&histicated* workdone in the name of individual creative e(&ression
could be self enclosed and unfocussed* work attem&ting cultural critiEue could be
im&enetrable or, conversely, mind bashingly obvious, #i.e.. where some issue or other was
beaten to death by the student concerned%. 6omewhere between all these ha<ards, good
work could emerge. The course structure attem&ted to integrate all these &ositions into a
single &ractice, where artistic com&etence, strategies for work in community settings, and
cultural awareness could be built u& together. Combining these elements within a single
&rogramme of work was &erha&s its most distinctive feature.
1"r,)* acr"(( the art(
3artington)s three arts structure #art, theatre and music% offered other o&&ortunities beyond
what was going on in the "rt 3e&artment, which ' #and several other staff%, found &articularly
e(citing. 1or one thing, the &recedents in drama for engaging with social change and for
community involvement were well established. Community arts itself often o&erated across
the arts and there were well established community theatre com&anies such as 5elfare
6tate, 2orse and ,amboo, '0F, ,read and 4u&&et Theatre in the F6", that worked outside
regular theatre settings and touched into traditional forms of community celebration. "ugusto
,oal)s famous )Theatre of the 0&&ressed) offered &owerful &ossibilities of direct &olitical and
social intervention. 0ver the years, art, music and theatre students engaged together in many
grou& and community &ro.ects that added a colourful and e(citing dimension to the work. #1%
The (tu-e)t(
6tudents were drawn to "rt and 6ocial Conte(t from all over ,ritain. 'ntake was around thirty
a year with a relatively high &ro&ortion of mature students. They mostly arrived on the course
not fully knowing what it was about, often drawn to an alternative way of a&&roaching art or
with a sense that they would like to combine an art &ractice with working with others. 6ome
had s&ecific social concerns they felt would not be acce&ted or su&&orted in a traditional art
school. ,ecause motivation was a crucial factor for this kind of course, we took students with
a wide range of abilities. Therefore, a &articular focus at an early stage was to bring u& the
skill level of weaker students. 'n this we benefited from a staff used to working with unskilled
&eo&le in a community setting.
Stu-e)t re(-e)ce( 6$$7
0ur &rimary educational devices for this work in addition to normal studio &ractice, seminars,
etc., were staff- led grou& &ro.ects #in college or based in the community%, work e(&erience #in
which students went out to .oin relevant &rofessional grou&s and &ro.ects% and the student
artist)s residency #which we originally referred to as )4lacement)%. 5hereas work e(&erience
entailed attachment to a &rofessional 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 &ractised. 6tudents were e(&ected to initiate their own live &ro.ect in the
chosen setting, often with &artici&ation from &eo&le who lived or worked there. 5hile the
grou& work and work e(&erience &roved &owerful devices, the real driving force and often
formative influence for students was the residency, which increasingly over the years gave
the course its identity. 6tudents often said that it was only through doing their residencies that
they suddenly understood what conte(tual 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 develo&ment with community- based work was one of
our biggest challenges and the source of endless curriculum ad.ustment.
'n describing the course to others, the most ins&iring as&ect of it and the one that e(cited
most curiosity was always the ama<ing variety of settings different students managed to
engage with. 5hatever you cared to name, our students had been there and done it. 6tudent
residencies includedD a &ublic laundry, a terrace house, a fish sho&, 5ater ,oard offices,
sho&&ing malls, bus sto&s, a ;acdonald)s restaurant, youth grou&s, weight watcher)s grou&s,
adventure &laygrounds, streets, centres for &eo&le with disability, or&hanages, an industrial
museum, a gymnasium, &ubs, 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 "4= - see footnote 11% was that work
should emerge from a sustained contact with the setting, what went on there, and the &eo&le
concerned. Thus it reEuired students to investigate and to react to whatever they found - not
.ust to )weigh in) with a &re-formed idea. This was a )listening) model of art &ractice, which
could be slow and &ossibly undramatic, but if well handled would always lead to work that
connected organically and sur&risingly to the chosen setting and could not have been
conceived or e(ist without it. 6tarting with an )o&en brief) was the crucial factor.
"ssessment of this work could be a headache - somehow we had to balance .udgments of
&roduct and &rocess - i.e. artistic com&etence in what was &roduced with other #less visible%
abilities in setting u& and running &ro.ects and working with others. 5here, a student showed
considerable strength in one of these and not the other, .udgment became Euite difficult.
Cl"(ure "# the Dart)*t") c"ur(e a)- the !"0e t" Br(t"l
The course at 3artington was brought to an une(&ected and &remature ending. "t the close
of the academic year 19!9-199, it suddenly trans&ired that the College was substantially in
debt. " restructuring and scaling down had to take &lace and in the &rocess the "rt
3e&artment was sEuee<ed out. The full reasons for this have never been made &ublic, but the
official argument was that a sim&lified #more economical% college would best survive if it
reduced its &ortfolio of courses to &erforming arts only. 'n these cynical times, it is seldom
acknowledged how much love and care can go into an educational &rocess, when the &eo&le
working within it really believe in the work #and this a&&lies as much to students as to staff%.
"ll 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.
5e were all therefore #staff and students% &rofoundly shaken by the news of closure. "
cam&aign against closure was mounted but was unsuccessful. 2owever, we refused to
acce&t that this educational &ro.ect was at an end and went looking for an alternative host
institution.
"s it turned out, the course was set u& again immediately at ,ristol 4olytechnic #which soon
became Fniversity of the 5est of England%, restarting even before the 3artington course had
finally closed. This was thanks to the mediation of 'ain ,iggs #then 2ead of 1ine "rt%, who saw
an interesting &ossibility of running two 1ine "rt courses with differing &hiloso&hies side by
side. 5hile this did not hel& the ma.ority of the 3artington staff or the remaining students, it
ensured the continuity of the &ro.ect that we had all worked for. ;eanwhile at 3artington, a
new )7isual 4erformance) course was initiated by 6ally ;organ #an art course with a
&erformance remit% and, as ' understand, the re&lanning of all courses drew &artly from the
thinking that had informed "rt and 6ocial Conte(t.
De0el".!e)t( at Br(t"l
'n ,ristol, the new &ossibilities offered within a city #as com&ared to the rural surroundings of
3artington%, obviously &rovided an e(citing new challenge, both in terms of &ublic work and
the close links it gave us to &rofessional grou&s and individual artists working in our field. #"n
active link to )7i<ability), a community art collective, was es&ecially fruitful%. Fnder :ick 9owe
#a &erformance artist working with video and &hotogra&hy, who had recently done innovative
work with &eo&le in &rison%, the grou&B community &ro.ect element in the 6econd Gear
develo&ed and e(&anded, taking advantage of the wide range of schools and other
community organisations available. Through these &ro.ects, through third year residencies
and through work e(&erience &lacements, we were able ra&idly to build u& a very wide
network of contacts in ,ristol and beyond, which included the City Council, the main cultural
centres, such as the 5atershed and "rnolfini =allery, 6ustrans #the national cycle &ath
organisation%, the city markets, and a host of other official and unofficial bodies.
6tudents flowed out from the 1aculty in what became a series of seasonal migrations. 6econd
Gears set out on grou&B &ublic &ro.ects around the city in the autumn, then further afield for
work e(&erience in early summer. 6&ring into summer saw the Third Gears flow out to their
se&arate residencies around the city and immediate region. 6ummer saw the 1irst Gears in
grou&s creating site-s&ecific works around the cam&us. "t other times work &roceeded in the
studio.
=iven the close &ro(imity of the e(isting course in 1ine "rt, we felt the need from the outset to
make the revived "rt and 6ocial Conte(t as different to 1ine "rt as &ossible. 0ur students
began to make e(tensive use of &hotogra&hy, video, &erformance, and installation #as distinct
from the more traditional media then favoured by the 1ine "rt students%. The burgeoning of
new electronic technologies in the 9s also o&ened u& digital imagery as a medium and the
internet as a &otential conte(t within which students might work. To further distinguish the
work emerging from "rt and 6ocial Conte(t, the residency was e(tended, #initially% to include
the whole of the third year, thus ensuring that the final work of our students was Euite different
in aim and character from the &rimarily studio-based work in 1ine "rt. ,ut there were also
many overla&s between the two sub.ect areas, and increasingly as time went on, staff from
both sub.ect areas contributed across the board and students from the two shared studios
with resulting cross fertilisation of ideas and &ractices. 'n 1999 a common 1irst Gear was
introduced, thus consolidating moves towards this relationshi& within difference. 'n the mid
9s, "rt and 6ocial Conte(t changed its name to )1ine "rt in Conte(t) to locate it clearly within
what became known as the )1ine "rts 1ield). #The undergraduate course, now entering its
8Ath year of o&eration, still continues today, now under the slightly modified title, )1ine "rt and
Conte(t)%.
1or the undergraduate &rogramme, our work in the first ten years at ,ristol divided roughly
into three &eriodsD 1% an initial &eriod, which one might call curriculum and staff driven, in
which we &ut much staff effort into structuring and su&&orting the grou& and &ublic
dimensions of the work. 8% a middle &eriod, which was more student driven, in which we
loosened some of the reEuirements for grou& and &ublic work in order to encourage more
variety of a&&roach and allow each student more artistic room for manouvre. #This &eriod was
in fact marked by a raising of artistic and technical standards%. C% a later &eriod, in which we
sought a much greater degree of integration between what were by then three 1ine "rt based
courses. 't is no coincidence that these develo&ments also &aralleled a steadily falling staff
&rovision in relation to an increasing number of students. "lthough each of the above stages
had its educational rationale, each also afforded economies in staffing. 6uch moves were
reflected across the board in 2igher Education at the time.
't is hard to characterise the student residencies in ,ristol with .ust a few e(am&les, since they
were all so diverse and so &articular to each student)s interests. 0ne student chose a
residency at what had once been a com&le( of large or&hanages, contacting and interviewing
elderly &eo&le who had grown u& there. 6he then introduced into one of the buildings small
assemblages that commemorated &articular childhood incidents #each located in the &lace
the incident had occurred%. "nother student, through an e(&loration of &ersonal ads in a local
&a&er and subseEuent contacts made, set u& a &erformance in the back room of a &ub where
she enacted a rende<vous with #invited% individual viewers. "nother, again, worked with a
small grou& of schoolgirls to build a shelter, a small but e(otic folly in a local &ark. These were
not unty&ical of Third Gear work, which always connected out beyond the confines of art or art
education into some as&ect of ordinary life in local communities.
"s time went on #starting in 199$%, we were able to add to the &rovision of courses an ;.". in
1ine "rt in Conte(t, thus allowing a more Euestioning and &rofessional level of work than had
been &ossible at undergraduate level. 1or those of us who had taught on the undergraduate
&rogramme for some years, this was a welcome ste& forward in so&histication and an
o&&ortunity to de&loy some of our own research interests in su&&ort. The ;" also brought the
whole staff team and students together in discussions of some of the historical and
&hiloso&hical roots of our work. 1ollowing the establishment of the ;", a research centre was
created, in Conte(tual, 4ublic and Commemorative "rt, which was intended to formalise links
between the activities of the various staff &ursuing these themes in their research and
&rofessional &ractice. +ane Calow was brought in to coordinate this research which #as the
title suggests% ranged widely, e.g. from conte(tually oriented &erformance and inter-arts work
to historical and cultural research, and work related to &laces #as we &erceive and e(&erience
them or record how they change%.
3uring the 9s there had been a &roliferation of similar undergraduate and &ost graduate
courses to our own in universities and colleges elsewhere in ,ritain #18%. "lso, certain
educational institutions in other Euro&ean countries were following similar lines. 5e had
made working links through students, e(-students and staff with a number of these, notably in
1rance, 9u(embourg, and in =ermany, where the 2ochskul de /unst in ,erlin ado&ted the
title )/unst und Conte(t) for one of its ongoing &ostgraduate &rogrammes. ,ut in the F/ itself,
wider changes in &ublic arts &olicy and &rovision were occurring that would entirely change
the climate in which we had been o&erating.
I)(ttut")al a+("r.t") "# the c")te5t -ea
'n com&arison to the world which s&awned our course, "rt and 6ocial Conte(t, in the late $s
there has since been a &rofound re-configuration of the arts and an absor&tion into the main
stream of much that we were attem&ting. )Cultural democracy), the holy grail of community
arts, clearly did not come about, e(ce&t &erha&s tem&orarily, for a &articular community at
some s&ecial moment #e.g. Craigmillar%, nor was there a com&lete re-conceiving of "rt and
3esign education, such as was mooted in the19$s. Get, many of the a&&roaches to art that
e(isted only as fringe movements when we began, have since become an integral &art of
official cultural &olicy.
Today there is a huge subsidised sector of the visual and other arts #as distinct from the
commercial sector%. The funding &olicies of @egional "rts ,oards and The "rts Council of
England now clearly reflect an obligation towards the community at large. These official
bodies generally reEuire subsidised artists and grou&s to give convincing evidence that their
work will reach and benefit #&erha&s directly involve% some disadvantaged sector of the
community. 4ublic galleries, art museums, and arts centres, maintain highly active
educational and outreach &olicies. 'n addition s&ecific cultural grou&s, which by virtue of
class, race, gender, etc., were e(cluded u& to and during the 19$s, are now very deliberately
included within the collections and e(hibition &olicies of &ublic galleries.
Community "rts, 2os&ital "rts, "rts in 6chools, and residencies in general, have all been
taken u& and absorbed into &ublic sector arts &olicy. 4ublic "rt #often funded by )&ercent for
art) schemes% now graces almost all urban centres and the &resence of art in &ublic &laces is
now seen as )a good thing) by almost any &lanning authority or local council. 6uch bodies will
ha&&ily s&end sums on art as &art of urban regeneration, in the e(&ectation of a future
economic return from the environmental and social benefit. " network of inde&endent
agencies regularly commission &ermanent and tem&orary work in &ublic &laces #eg. "rtangel,
"rtists "gency, 9ocusH%. ;any lesser known and well known artists now make a career in this
field. #The success of "nthony =ormley as an e(&onent of &ublic art is a case in &oint%. "rt
thera&y #a continuing outlet for some of our students%, which was once regarded in the 2ealth
6ervice as a rather sus&ect and un&roven thera&eutic &ractice, now has a recognised system
of accreditation and has become an acce&ted &art of healthcare &rovision. " broad s&ectrum
of work under the heading )"rts and 2ealth) now also receives funding. 5hile the commercial
gallery world does not need to demonstrate any &articular sense of &ublic obligation, many of
the artists it fosters &ursue social, &olitical and cultural Euestions in their work and this is
rather more acce&ted today than it was in a more formalist and detached &eriod, say, thirty
years ago.
Taking all these e(am&les together, it is clear that conte(tual art in its many forms is now
firmly on the ma&. Fniversities and Colleges need to take account of the o&&ortunities for
graduating students. 6ince few make it into the gallery world as a career, this means that a
high &ro&ortion of those that carry on in art at all, will find themselves &ractising some form of
conte(tual art #many working both within and outside the gallery system as o&&ortunities
arise%. #1C% ;ost 1ine "rt courses now offer at least elements of conte(tual art &ractice within
their curriculum, even if not formulated as such. Get, 1ine "rt education in general seems to
remain dee&ly committed to the conventional image of the gallery artist. 'n his intelligent and
&enetrating essay, The =ood Enough "rtist, 3onald /us&it argued the need to -recover a
sense of human &ur&ose in art making- #1?%. 2is view #shared by many others%, was that the
over heroic and grandiose idea of the avant-garde artist, so &revalent in the 8th century, had
outlived its time. "vant-garde had become a self serving stereoty&e - merely a form of self
marketing. 5ithout going into his arguments, ' like to think that the student artist working )in
conte(t) is a &rototy&e of /us&it)s )good enough artist)....an artist for the future, not seeking to
heroically change society through uto&ian visions, nor, in another heroic stance, to see their
art as some su&erior form of suffering, but instead engaged in rediscovering a human sense
of artistic &ur&ose through relating their work to the realities of life as it is actually lived.
NOTES
1. " series of im&ortant e(hibitions at the ma.or &ublic galleries in 9ondon reflected a
general climate of change - e.g. "rt for 5hom> at the 6er&entine =allery, "&r-;ay 19$!,
selected by @ichard Cork* 'ssue, 6ocial 6trategies by 5omen "rtists, :ov-3ec 19!,
selected by 9ucy 9i&&ard* 9ives, at the 2ayward =allery, selected by 3erek ,oshier. "
social view of art was also &romoted at the time in certain key .ournals #see for e(am&le,
6tudio 'nternational, "rt I 6ocial 4ur&ose, s&ecial issue, ;archB "&ril 19$6%
8. 0ur ideas were not in themselves new. 5hat we did was to bring several dis&arate
ideas and &ractices together into an educational &ro.ect - a uniEue endeavour at the
time, given what those ideas and &ractices were.
C. The Elmhirsts) interest in making arts &ractice accessible to the ordinary &erson
was taken u& organisationally at 3artington, first in an )"rt 3e&artment), created in 19C?,
which had a &rofessional as well as an educational role, and later in the form of an "dult
Education Centre offering art classes to the general &ublic. #6ee ;ichael Goung)s
e(cellent book, The Elmhirsts of 3artington, @outledge,19!8%. The "dult Education
Centre duly develo&ed into a college, run by 4eter Co(, which from the mid 6s became
a nationally validated institution, offering arts education courses and later s&ecialist
degrees. 3artington)s unorthodo( and anti-institutional attitudes were not always suited
to official validating &rocedures. ,ecoming a recognised college within the system was
not easy and included some reversals of fortune. 't was achieved with degree courses in
;usic and in Theatre by the early and mid $s res&ectively. ,oth had elements in them
of community-based &ractice. 'n view of 3artington)s rural setting, out&osts were Euickly
develo&ed for urban, community-based work in 4lymouth and in @otherhithe. 6tudents
studying ;usic in the Community, validated a bit later, went to ,ristol for their &ractical
community &ro.ects #largely in schools%. The "rt 3e&artment had for a while run an art
education course directed by 'vor 5eeks, a 8 year H1 year arrangement with @oll
College in E(mouth. 't had established a 3i& 2E #two years at degree level% by 19$$.
?. 4aul 0liver, who took over as 2ead of "rt and 3esign in 19$C was recognised as a
brilliant &olymath, an artist-designer and &rolific author, who had &reviously taught at the
"rchitectural "ssociation in 9ondon and brought with him a vision of the generalist artist-
designer such as might have emerged from the ,auhaus. ,ut 4aul 0liver)s vision also
had a lot to do with the national crisis and debate about the role of art and design
courses in the immediate aftermath of the famous 2ornsey student revolt in 196!. #see,
3avid 5arren 4i&er #ed..%, "fter 2ornsey, vols. 1 and 8. 3avis 4ointer 9td., 19$C%. 1or a
detailed account of the history of the College see 4eter Co()s un&ublished memoir, ;y
Time at 3artington, vol. 1, 19?-$C and vol. 8, 19$C-!C - available in the 3artington
"rchive and the College 9ibrary, now also &ublished in summary as a bookletD Co(, 4.
0rigins, 3artington College of "rts, 88.
A. 4arallel educational develo&ments were also taking &lace in the late 19$s and
early !s at what were then East 9ondon 4olytechnic* at :ewcastle 4olytechnic and
,radford College. "t a later stage, similar courses arose at =lasgow #Environmental "rt%,
5olverham&ton, 6underland, E(eter #student residencies%, ,irmingham, Cardiff, #also
4ublic "rt ;"s atD Canterbury, 5imbledon, 3undee %, and 6t. ;artins in 9ondon #Critical
1ine "rt 4ractice%. "t around the time we began, a new critical version of art history was
emerging, countering the traditional Courtauld a&&roach. 1or e(am&le, Terry "tkinson,
=riselda 4ollock and others introduced a critical a&&roach to art and art history as &art of
the 1ine "rt course at 9eeds Fniversity. 't was sometimes argued that all courses in 1ine
"rt included an element of )conte(tual art) in the form of community &ro.ects which
occurred from time to time, therefore, why claim it as a s&ecial thing> 0ur re.oinder was
that for us it was an e(clusive and fully worked through focus, not a tag-on to a
conventional course of study.
6. ' used to visit many art faculties around ,ritain as &art of a recruitment drive aimed
at foundation students. ' 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. 0ften
it seemed to bear little relation to anything outside the studio. 't became a &ersonal
ambition that our own work would manifestly have something to say about the world at
large.
$. see, for e(am&le, ;alcolm 3ickson #ed..% "rt with 4eo&le, ": &ublications, 199A
!. see :ina 1elshin #ed..% ,ut is it "rt> The 6&irit of "rt as "ctivism, ,ay 4ress, 199A,
or 6u<anne 9acy)s own book, ;a&&ing the Terrain, :ew =enre 4ublic "rt, ,ay 4ress,
199A.
9. The late seventies and early eighties at 3artington, with a high &ro&ortion of female
students, became something of a hotbed of feminist action. " 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 a&&ointments became &ossible.
"mong the new female staff that .oined the de&artment was @ose =arrard, an artist with
a growing re&utation for her feminist work, in the form of installation and occasional
&ublic art.
1. ;y own &articular research and creative work linking art and dance through
collaborative &ro.ects with ;ary 1ulkerson and others, took off in this environment and
led to collaborative &erformances and a subseEuent book - Chris Crickmay and ;iranda
Tufnell - ,ody, 6&ace, 'mage, :otes on 'm&rovisation and 4erformance, 3ance ,ooks,
199C.
11. 0ur original focus on the art student )&lacement) or residency was directly ins&ired
by the "rtists 4lacement =rou& #founded by +ohn 9atham and ,arbara 6tavini%, who had
&ioneered the idea of &lacing artists #as )the incidental &erson)% in industry, government
de&artments and other settings. "rtists were given an )o&en brief) to work creatively in
that setting. This was an idea for bringing artists and &eo&le into close &ro(imity, which
would subseEuently be taken u& by the "rts Council and @""s, albeit in a somewhat
more conservative form as the "rtist)s @esidency.
18. Certain colleges suddenly #and we thought rather sus&iciously% e(&ressed an
interest in community-based work &erha&s as a lifeline, since 1ine "rt in England and
5ales was then under immense &ressure to .ustify its relevance or to suffer massive
cuts. The e(&ected cuts in courses never trans&ired, although effective cuts in funding
did. 9ike everyone else in the sector, we struggled to sustain a viable educational
e(&erience, des&ite fewer and fewer staff working with more and more students. 'n 19$!,
the staffB student ratio at 3artington was something like $B1. Today, ratios of ?B1 are not
unty&ical in 1ine "rt. The e(traordinary thing is that this can still work, though at what
cost>
1C. "rt and 6ocial Conte(t #with its em&hasis u&on )relevance) and live &ro.ects%, had
#and still has% much to offer vocationally in &osing the &roblem early to students as to
how, where, and with whom they might work in the future. 6tudents in fact scattered
widely in terms of subseEuent em&loyment, often after further &rofessional training, but
many found work in areas ma&&ed out by the course.
1?. 3onald /us&it, )The =ood enough "rtist), in 6igns of the 4syche in ;odern and
4ostmodern "rt, Cambridge F.4., 199C.
'n concluding this account, ' would like to acknowledge the work of my colleagues who over
the years includedD 'vor 5eeks, 3avid 2arding, +ohn 2all, 6ally ;organ, 6teve 2oare, ,ruce
/ent, +ohn =ridley, @ose =arrard, 6heila Clayton, 4en 3alton #a regular &art timer%, and from
the earlier years, 2arrison 3i(, =raham =reen and /aren 5atts. 1reEuent visiting staff also
included /ate 5alker and 1lick "llen. ' would also like to thank our su&&ort staff, es&ecially
=ail 9loyd, a well loved 3e&artment 6ecretary. Thanks also to 4eter Co( who created the
o&ening and then let us get on with it. Then, from our ,ristol years, ' would like to thank 'an
,iggs for making it &ossible, then #again% 6ally ;organ #with whom ' swa&&ed &laces, when
she became "ward 9eader and subseEuently 1ield 9eader in 1ine "rts%, also :icholas 9owe,
and our freEuent visiting staff, 3eborah +ones, 6adie 6&ikes, "lan ,oldon, "nnie ;enter,
"nnie 9ove.oy and +eanette ;c6kimming. "lso to be mentioned is +ane Calow, who began
as an e(ternal e(aminer, but .oined our team at a later stage. ' would also like to acknowledge
the contribution of all our colleagues in 1ine "rt, who became increasingly close
&rofessionally as time went on, and some of whom have now taken over the role of running
the undergraduate award in 1ine "rt and Conte(t. Then, ' would like to acknowledge the
significant contribution of students #3i& 2E, degree and &ostgraduate% over the years, who,
through their creative efforts as students and since then as &rofessionals, have &ut "rt and
6ocial Conte(t into action, often in ways we would not have imagined. 9astly ' would like to
thank our many e(ternal e(aminers who advised and encouraged us, es&eciallyD 3avid
5arren-4i&er, Caroline Tisdall, @ita 3onagh, +udith 5illiamson, 4eter ,yrne, /atie ;c9eod,
+ill +ourneau(, +ane Calow and Esther 6alamon.