art and social context by chris crickmay
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"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 1970s, Chris Crickmay went on to lead the team that developed the degree in 'Art and Social Context' at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, between 1978 and 1991 (the degree itself was established in 1986). Following the announcement of impending closure of the course he was then instrumental in transferring it to Bristol Polytechnic (soon to become the University of the West of England) starting there in 1992. At this point he handed over leadership of the revived course to Sally Morgan and became a part time member of her team. Sally Morgan continued to develop the undergraduate course and subsequently established an MA and a research centre in the same field. A year ago the team that had taken the course forward at Bristol disbanded leaving others to take over. Here, Chris Crickmay looks back over almost 25 years of 'contextualised art' in education and what it stood for. The cultural climate of the late 1970s 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 1960s into the early 80s. Around the time the course began (1977), there had been a growing sense of crisis nationally, both in the purpose of art and design education and, more broadly, in the role of the arts in society. In answer to this sense of a crisis, there were also emerging a number of new and exciting forms of art practice, new ways of thinking about the role of the artist and new forms of criticism. 'Community arts' and 'public art' had developed from the late 60s onwards, seeking new venues and new levels of participation in art; in the spirit of this, Joseph Beuys had made his famous pronouncement "everyone an artist" - and had led the way for many European artists in terms of social and political engagement (a major seminar at Kassel in June-October 1977 drew together politically active artists from all over Europe). Feminist art had gathered momentum, with pioneers like Judy Chicago influencing a whole generation of women artists in Britain and America. Her collaborative feminist work, The Dinner Party, was created in the mid 70s. A bit earlier, John Berger had delivered his famous, Ways of Seeing, broadcasts on BBC TV (the book of the programmes was published in 1972). A string of exhibitions in major public galleries had adopted social themes (1). Several art critics and writers including Lucy Lippard, Caroline Tisdall, Paul Overy and Ian Nairn, were promoting and reviewing socially conscious art. New movements in conceptual art, performance art, installation and land art, were deliberately subverting the concept of art as commodity. Numerous British artists, such as Conrad Atkinson, Margaret Harrison, Peter Dunn, Lorraine Leeson and Stephen Willets, were reflecting social concerns in their work that had not hitherto appeared in art galleries. It was symptomatic of the times that Suzi Gablik's book, Has Modernism Failed?, appeared in 1984 and, of course, post-modernist theory was soon to take hold in art colleges up and down the country recognising a sea-change in the arts and culture of the late 20C. But the account which follows is not about this time of ferment. Rather, it tells the tale of one small (but persistent) course - how it was conceived and developed in response to these larger changes (2). The Dartington background The story of the arts at Dartington had already been through many chapters by the time this account of the course Art and Social Context begins. Dartington's original involvement in the arts came from the interests of Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, a visionary couple, who established Dartington as 'an experiment in rural reconstruction' in 1925. This involved the revival of rural industries and farms, and the creation of a progressive school, and other enterprises, all inspired by the Indian philosopher and poet, Rabindranath Tagore (himself a founder of a university committed to its social context). In addition to being enthusiasts and patrons of art, music, dance and drama, the Elmhirsts "believed profoundly in arts education and the involvement of amateurs" (Cox, 2000 - see note 4). The college was a much later addition to this project, growing from an arts centre to eventually offer fully fledged degree courses in art, dance/ drama, and music. (3) The original Dip HE and its development A two year Dip HE course in, Art and Design in Social Contexts, was validated in 1977. It was conceived by Paul Oliver (then Head of Department) with his team of staff, most of whom had trained at Corsham in art education. The innovative idea of the course was to produce a generalist artist-designer, capable of responding to the unpredictable creative challenges that
R. Tagore: las artes, la educacin, el context rural y el elemento amateur.
arise in a community setting. Key ideas in the new course included: the importance of process over product; the value of group work; the development of environmental and ecological awareness; the use of live community projects; and the introduction of semiotics and certain aspects of anthropology as instruments for understanding contemporary art and image making. (4) David Harding and I arrived a year later in September 1978. With the other staff, we had the task of taking this rather ambitious concept devised by Paul Oliver and making it work as an experience for students in the light of the professional contexts we were familiar with. We were also expected in due course to turn it into a full three year degree, a development that did not turn out to be possible, nationally or institutionally, until the mid 80s. Fairly soon, though, the 'design' element implied in the original course title was dropped and the work became focussed within the specific theme of Art and Social Context. At this particular historical moment, the course could rightly claim to be virtually unique, since there were very few courses in Britain or abroad with any thing like this focus. (5) What we meant by 'context' I have been asked countless times (by students, prospective students, by validating committees, etc.) what 'context' means in terms of art. In reply to the question, I would usually say something to the effect that art and context is to do with bringing art practice out of the studio and closer to everyday life - achieving this in any and every way one can think of. Also, that awareness of context applies at many levels, including the immediate context (where and with whom one works - who the work is for), as well as the wider cultural contexts in which we live. The sceptics would often say, "isn't all art in a social context?" While true, this was really missing the point. The course was specifically addressing the issue of context - therefore different to courses and practices that left this aspect of art unquestioned. Also, we were primarily relating our work to places and groups within which art is not normally practised (i.e. not just any context). Ideally, contextual art was an art that would only make sense (and sometimes could only exist) within its chosen setting - as John Latham had put it - 'The context is half the work'. In actual fact, our explanations concerning context never really came home to students until they experienced what it meant in practice - in terms of their own work applied in particular settings. (6) The course content and its sources Art and Social Context encompassed what was actually a fairly loose assortment of approaches, some of which (on the face of it) were in conflict with each other. However this could often be a fruitful conflict and the juxtaposition of these different approaches and positions was what made the work interesting. The approaches, as described below, were not rigidly built into the course structure (we were at pains to avoid simply a training in any existing category of practice), but they did reflect various camps and affiliations within the staff and student body. They also reflected a range of what was going on in Britain at the time in the realm of 'contextual art' (although the actual term was to emerge much later). The approaches were as follows:
a) The aim of widening access to arts practice (participation outside the realms of professional art: This focus drew upon the traditions of Dartington and the early manifestation of the College as an arts centre. Ivor Weeks, a key member of our team and a previous Head of Department, had originally run inspirational adult education courses in art as part of this arts centre (George, of 'Gilbert and George', was an early student). In terms of our course, this focus upon 'art for everyone' was to do with training the artist-teacher, capable of working, not so much in education itself, but in the wider community. Some of the students interested in this approach would continue into Art Therapy or Art for Special Needs (Bruce Kent's professional involvement in the latter also provided opportunities for students). In the short term, this aim of widening access to art, catered to the personal creative development of each individual student. My own particular interest in strategies for creative work, also fed into this aspect of the course. In pursuing this interest I had been inspired by such writers as Marion Milner and D.W. Winnicott, who understood creativity as being at the heart of all human life, not on some rarefied edge of it. b) Community Arts: Paulo Freire's book, Cultural Action for Freedom, had appeared in a Penguin edition in 1972. It articulated a view that provided the spirit of community arts. This was that cultural production w