Richard Wentworth, Master of the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, initially seemed slightly taken aback to discover that he was the sole panellist on what was advertised as ‘A Panel Discussion’ of the Role of the Art School in the 21st Century. Yet, with renewed confidence, Wentworth announced that the audience, which was comprised of past and present students of various art schools, art teachers and some very dissatisfied and discontented members of the ‘Artworld’ (the existence of which Richard firmly denies), would be the ‘panel’.
A handout was passed around which detailed the compilation of sixties tracks which Richard had selected to play in the background. With the music in full swing, Wentworth expressed his concern that he was, ‘doomed to prattle about the sixties’ and consequently imparted a detailed, animated depiction of life at art school in the sixties which contained hints of nostalgia. For Wentworth, the sixties was characterised by the fact that it was illegal to be gay, the invention of the mini-skirt, the Profumo affair and the lack of central heating. He attended the Hornsey College of Art, which he described as a fairly radical move. The students didn’t refer to the teachers as ‘Mr’ or ‘Miss’ and he remembers his main activity not as sculpting, painting or carving but as ‘making long bendy things stand’.
Having provided a thoroughly envious picture of his free and easy time at Hornsey in the late 60s, seeing the likes of The Who live at Goldhawk Road, he opened up the ‘discussion’ to the audience. There emerged varying degrees of satisfaction with the art school. While some current students whined about the degeneration of art schools and described them as ‘disorganised’ and ‘infertile’, others raved about the nourishing ‘space’ (a modish, oft-repeated word) it provided for them to broaden their engaged, curious and inquisitive minds. A major issue of contention stems from the fact that, since the sixties, loans have replaced grants. Consequently, there has been an increased preoccupation with what students ‘get out’ of what was described as a fiscal ‘transaction’. While some complained that the art schools did not ‘forge careers’, the majority seemed to think that this was not, and should not be, the purpose of art schools. There was a rather acute level of tension between the ‘art school for art school’s sake’ contingent and the realist ‘What is the point in an art degree when you end up washing up for the rest of your life?’ argument.
The audience member who surely stood out in the minds of all was the disappointed, frustrated and, possibly disillusioned gentleman who had spent 1968-75 at various art schools only to have been left with an astonishing level of bitterness. For him, art school provided a free, almost fantastical world which could lead to psychological instability. He complained numerous times that the talk hadn’t answered the question of what the role of the art school in the 21st Century was. To an extent, this complaint was justified as the majority of the discussion was spent with people recounting personal experiences rather than directly addressing the question. But the gentleman was after the impossible; he wanted an answer which would both dissolve his deeply entrenched dissatisfaction with art schools and reveal the materialistic, career-orientated benefits of an art school degree. I doubt whether any discussion of the role of the modern day art school would have been able to achieve this.
by Francesca Angelini