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Student art: only for the privileged few?

Whether you love it, hate it, or love to hate it, it is undeniable that the student art scene remains a fundamental space for young creatives to explore their self-expression while at university. The breadth and diversity in voices, the chance to define and redefine yourself and the potential to be subversive is what makes student art so incredibly fascinating for myself and many others. However, amidst the highly competitive nature of “putting yourself out there”, the question of who exactly these spaces are for all too often gets brushed under the rug.

In an ideal world, art would be for everyone. We even hear it in the way that we describe our artist friends as “gifted”, “talented” and having “a natural flair.” Natural talent doesn’t discriminate, and anyone can be born a creative genius – or so it goes. In fact, after decades of funding cuts to state schools, the skinning of arts departments and subjects, and a lack of lower class and state-educated representation in the creative industries, it should come as no surprise that those from privileged backgrounds are given a leg up in the art world as early as university.

According to a BBC survey of over 1200 schools, 9 in 10 admitted to cutting back on lesson time, staff or faculties in at least one creative arts subject, and the gradual decline in those taking arts subjects has been well-recorded. Like many other state school students, I was warned against “narrowing my options” when I expressed an interest in taking an arts subject instead of an extra science at GCSE (a concern that definitely was not echoed when I suggested taking history or computer science instead). Yet how can pursuing a career path in the creative industries be deemed as a one-way ticket to an impassable dead end, when that same industry brought in over £111.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018 alone? Clearly there’s opportunity there – but for who?

In a world where the arts will always be first on the funding hit list, countless students are not given the adequate resources or spaces to explore their creativity in an uninhibited way, purely for personal development, without the pressure of matching a specific style to attain the correct grade and ensure the school meets its targets. Though it is far from the fault of the dedicated arts teachers working their hardest, for many, school art classes bring back memories of frayed paintbrushes, limited and well-worn materials and dossing around with friends for an hour. A disadvantaged background further exacerbates these problems, as the necessity for part time work around studies and expenses of materials or classes means that students are often left without the opportunity to develop their creative skills beyond a limited classroom hour a week.

In comparison, advantaged and privately educated students can afford extra-curricular classes to compensate for cuts, attend schools where donors and fees ease financial pressures on departments, and have adequate classroom sizes and spaces for studios and stages. These privileges help students develop the confidence to network, as well as provide the tools to explore and express themselves in articulate and creative ways from a young age. Of course, this is not to deny the amazing hard work, talent, and dedication of these students. But when given ample opportunity to practice, the likelihood of finding friendly faces already involved in the scene at your chosen university, and experience in working with a variety of styles and mediums, it is natural that the process of getting a foot in the door may be a bit easier. For those with nobody to instruct or invite them to the right events, limited access to materials and time, and little prior exposure or experience in various approaches, the student art scene can appear utterly baffling at best; inaccessible at worst.

Student art is brilliant because it is an expression of the student voice. Arguably, we will never have as much opportunity to experiment and try new things as we do at university. Yet when one group of people has an advantage over the other, part of the student voice is muffled, and creative industries truly do become the “narrowed opportunity” our teachers warned us about. As other pervasive structural inequalities, from race, sexuality and gender, reinforce these problems, the result is that the artistic voices of minorities end up being ventriloquised and sanitised through a predominantly privileged perspective.

Whether it’s through establishing more beginner’s spaces or holding more workshops on how to respond to commissions and pitch, we need to ensure that our student art spaces are accessible and enabling. We need to create an environment in which everyone can have the confidence to put their work forward, regardless of experience, and receive the feedback and exposure that’s needed to grow. After all, art can never be representative of the student voice if only one type of voice is heard.

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