I was about to begin my MA in Fine Art.
I had prepared for the induction week which was about to take place at the local university. I had been asked, by the course tutor, to bring along, on the first day, a pice of art that I had made that had to be presented in the form of an A4 digital print. I had duly identified such a piece of art which I was looking forward to showing and to discussing if the need arose. My piece featured a kind of ‘case study’ relating to the issue of culture and identity. (It consisted of a black-and-white copy of an original birth certificate of someone born in 1956 in Paris, a carved inscription from a church (also in black-and-white), and, a display of devotional candles that I had seen in Notre Dame Cathedral prior to its roof catching fire – so there was plenty of information about culture and the individual.)
Of course I was a bit nervous about the first meeting that was to begin the MA programme. Things like, what to wear and how most sensibly to present myself had occupied me. I had decided to be understated and quiet.
On setting off, on foot, for the University I was caught in a downpour. (I had not fore-seen this and, although I had an umbrella, the wind was ferocious; in consequence my umbrella was only moderately successful – and my jacket and trousers were soon soaked. I also forgot to bring my piece of art with me so I had to dash back home to get it!) Not a good start.
The group met below a sign in a quadrangle. The lead tutor for the course – a woman I liked – recognised me. I thanked her for giving me a place on the course and, as I did, she introduced me to two women who were also about to start the MA process. The woman may have been aged about 50. They were pleasant and I rather enjoyed meeting them.
We then set off for a particular room and the course leader began to brief us on what to expect and what was in store. The seating arrangement was rather like being stuffed into the fuselage of a plane. I could not see the faces of most of the new students. I could vaguely see the woman next to me. Actually she seemed rather cryptic and spiky and responsive and good fun.
Anyway, the course leader’s briefing began by emphasising three things at the heart of the programme. They were: friendship, ambition and community.
On top of this she aimed for us each to be ‘a sustainable artist’ and added: ‘It’s about being confident as a sustainable artist.’ This meant accessing and becoming part of the Fine Art community. We were then told about the forthcoming and various formal educational experiences (tutorials, seminars, lectures and symposia – as well as group criticisms). Research, too, was named as a ‘really important’ part of our work output. Trips to galleries were emphasised and the need to collaborate was important because we would soon be showing our work in galleries.
At this point the course leader turned to focus upon the final degree shows of previous students. As far as I could tell the huge majority of the work was in the form of installations. I had seen a number of them because I had visited the MA degree shows in previous years. I saw, again, as one example, an ironic take on the whole trend of telling people to ‘be themselves’ and perhaps ‘go beyond their limits’ and to ‘believe that if they believed enough they could do anything’ (which, of course, is empty, bogus and ludicrous.) This installation also exhorted people to ‘follow the course’. Obviously, I thought, it all depends on which course one follows: Perdition awaits the unwise. Lots of other installations were shown. But, if the truth be told, I am slightly dubious about the fashion for this form of art. There is a simple reason for this: I think most installations are too abstruse, obscure and abstracted to help the viewer grasp what the thing is about. They do not provide sufficient clues as to how to read the work. This means that the viewer has to work hard at ‘getting’ the work. There is nothing wrong with having to work hard to ‘get’ something but sometimes it’s just like hearing a Martian speak something unintelligible.
In the course of looking at the presentation on the slides of these installations I wrote down: ‘I am feeling a bit like an alien.’
The person sitting next to me (who, I realised, had strangely-coloured hair) asked me if I was a ‘traditional type’ of artist.
“Not really,” I replied, “It’s just that I do not want to be blackmailed by fashion.”
“That’s great,” she said.
I liked her easy-going responsiveness. She seemed straightforward, natural and unaffected.
The second episode unfolded in a lecture theatre. The whole of the new intake of students in both Fine Art, Photography and something else (possibly Digital Screen Art?) was to convene in the lecture theatre. Various of the groups arrived in dribs and drabs. I found myself separated from the relatively small number of MA Fine Art students and, on entering the theatre, I noticed an empty row quite near to the front. Then a few members of my same group began to fill up the same row – but did not place themselves next to me. I wondered if they simply thought I was irrelevant because I was old – or whatever.
Once everyone was now in the lecture theatre the Head of Department – a sprightly-looking man, bald and perky and obviously quite animated – began his address. I did not particularly like his address. (I think this is because it was mainly pitched to an audience much younger than me!)
He began by emphasising that this was now our ‘new community’ and then requested us, group by group, to say ‘Hello’. It was an odd sort of ‘Hello’ experience. He made some light-hearted comments after each ‘Hello’. The ‘Hello’ was a kind of non-directional event that was not like any usual ‘Hello’, and when our group dutifully said ‘Hello’ he commented on the fact that we were the ‘rich’ ones. (This was a rather injudicious thing to say because some people in the MA group are not at all rich.)
His address consisted of him showing a) how to get to his office and b) the fact that he had an open-door policy and that a draw in his desk contained tea, coffee and biscuits – and perhaps some tissues. After this he repeatedly made reference to the fact that everything was going to be ‘exciting’ or ‘amazing’ for us – and that we would all have or be guaranteed ‘exciting and amazing experiences.’ I had a vague sense that we were being infantilised. We heard about a trip that most of us could make to the Venice Biennale which was ‘the world cup’ of the art world. I suppose his approach had some ‘chummy’ value but, as a form of communication, it did seem overly ‘pop’ (and surely we are better than this.) But the most uncomfortable thing for me was when he looked at us all – and recognised that some amongst us would be shy or reticent or withdrawn or an introverted type of person and he underlined the fact that we need, instead, to be ‘loud’ and ‘shouty’. (In fact, he may not have said ‘shouty’ but he did say something about the need to make a noise about our work.) As I sat in the lecture theatre I realised that I was on the edges of the art-world culture. BUT I did not want to be ‘loud’ or have to ‘shout’ about my work. There is enough noise in the world as it is. Actually, I left the lecture theatre with a number of misgivings.
It all seemed such a shame. I had made many preparations for the programme. I had begun to clarify my ideas about the role of sensibilities in art. And more: I had grappled with the brilliant text, ‘Painting as model’ by Bois and begun to understand painting and the place of thinking in painting. I coud see how ‘models’ and how we deploy them in and over time are central to our art.
But would I be able to adjust to the wider art world culture and would I be enhanced as a practitioner or would I end up being corralled into making work in order to conform? I wanted to make a special case for myself: I wanted to say, ‘ I will meet all the criteria necessary to obtain a Masters in Fine Art. But I cannot guarantee that I will always have something constructive to say about the abstruse production of installations and their obscure, elusive and unreadable content.’
That night I felt most unwell. In the morning I decided that I might have to withdraw from the course.
However, I decided against this. With a bit of luck things will go well.