FRANK WASSER CHRONICLES THE STANDARDISATION OF ACADEMIC WRITING IN ART SCHOOL.
Freshly emerged from an induction lecture at a university in London, where I lead a critical studies and studio practice research module, I am already prepared for concerned emails from my new students. The module, developed to aid students in pinpointing research questions and methodologies tailored to their artistic research and practice, mandates various submissions, including a fairly formidable 4000 word research essay. This module stands as the primary written endeavour; there is no voluminous dissertation looming in the background, only this weighty challenge. As I write the introduction to this article, the cascade of emails begins – each a plea, a protest, a grappling with the essay requirements. It’s halfway through the first day of term.
One student deems it ‘impossible’ to pen thoughts about art. Another, more rebellious, insists on the refusal to incorporate writing into their artistic practice in a very compellingly written email. Another asks me if I will be teaching them how to write academic essays. The subject line of one email reads, “How do I write an essay?”
Writing as an act, as a material, as a requirement within the contexts of many art schools across the UK and Ireland is often a conflated and contested subject among students and staff alike. The writing dimension within fine art courses, commonly labelled as critical studies, visual culture or critical cultures, consistently sparks a tension point amidst the ever-evolving, expansive experimental pedagogies that underscore much of fine art studio practice in art schools. The examination prerequisites for this writing component frequently clash with the immersive and critical teachings unfolding within the studio. Whether you’re a student who integrates writing seamlessly into your practice (often coined as art writing in recent decades) or a student engaging in experimental writing processes, the intrigue deepens. Art writing names an approach within contemporary culture that, in wanting new potentials, embraces writing as a problematisation of the object of art, its dissemination, and forms of exhibition.1 However, writing as a material is an intricate and expansive idea; it does not necessitate a static position. Consider the notion that fonts carry ideological weight; imagine this article, for instance, clad in the whimsical attire of Comic Sans. Wouldn’t you read it differently?
The students’ struggle often emerges as they grapple with the task of melding their studio research into the rigid framework mandated by university regulations for the writing component. There are arguably exceptions to this, and it is worth pointing out that increasingly there are flexibilities around these types of regulations. For example, the dissertation briefs of NCAD stipulate that “departures from these guidelines must be discussed and agreed with the thesis tutor.”
Structurally, the obligatory writing strand on fine art courses often constitutes 20 percent of the student’s overall mark. This takes the form of essays and a final written dissertation wildly ranging from 8000 to 15000 words, depending on the institution. The word count on the BA in Fine Art at NCAD is currently 8000–10000 words. Students must follow strict regulations when writing, for example, typewritten on one side only of A4 paper, margin at binding edge not less than 40 mm and other margins not less than 20 mm, both for type and diagrams/images, apostrophes used sparingly, specific fonts etc. All of this begs the question, why?
The emergence of the inaugural report from the National Advisory Council on Art Education in Britain (1960), famously dubbed the ‘Coldstream Report’, stands as a tangible moment of upheaval in the history of British art education, with implications on structures of art education in Ireland and the rest of Europe. The report signified a transition from an educational paradigm grounded in disciplined exploration of techniques and crafts to one anchored in conceptual thought and design. Arguably, it is its implementation that still sustains and determines much of the conflations around writing in the art school today.
Implemented by Margaret Thatcher, when she served as education secretary (1970-74), the Coldstream Report recommended that courses should be conceptualised as a ‘liberal education in art.’ It outlined four primary areas of specialisation – fine art, graphic design, three-dimensional design and textiles/fashion – and advocated for experimentation with various media and materials in the early stages of the diploma course, what we might call today a foundation year. Most notably, the study of art history was deemed essential by the report and should constitute around 15 percent of the total course, including complementary studies, as part of the examination for the diploma. The rationale of this structural change was that it would equip students with skills that they could use in the workplace outside of any art context, arguably preparing the students for work in fields unrelated to art making.
At the time, many artists and educators questioned the report’s implementation.2 The revelation that the shape of art education today is in fact a Thatcherite structure may come as a surprise to the reader, but it is one that must be met with further scrutiny. As art schools now attempt to continue to decolonise their syllabi, it is worth considering the political systems that underline the structures of the art school. In his text ‘Abolish the Writing Strand in Art Departments’,3 artist and educator Joseph Noonan-Ganley states: “It seems clear to me that the structural separation between writing and studio work in art education should be abolished. Bring the writing work in house. Allow the idiosyncratic reading that is already being done to be identified, supported and taught with the same spirit of self-directed learning that is crucial in contemporary art pedagogy.” This is not a statement against writing in the art school; rather it is a call out to readdress a clearly flawed component within art school education, to fix a historical discrepancy. With a shift in structure could come an imperative to artists who teach to convey the plurality of what it might mean to write. The space of writing happens on and off page and various places in between.
Frank Wasser is an Irish artist, writer and educator based in London who teaches at London Metropolitan University and Goldsmiths, University of London.
1 From 11 Statements Around Art Writing (2011), co-authored by Maria Fusco, Yve Lomax, Michael Newman and Adrian Rifkin, as part of the syllabus for the MFA art writing programme at Goldsmiths, University of London. The programme no longer exists as it was ‘absorbed’ into the MFA programme at Goldsmiths.
2 Most notably, Stuart Brisley, ‘Concerning the Coldstream Report – The Existing Art Educational System’ (1968). See stuartbrisley.com.
3 Joseph Noonan-Ganley, ‘Abolish the Writing Strand in Art Departments’ commissioned by the Sandberg Instituut, edited by Rosa te Velde and Michelle
Kasprzak. See comcrit.cc.