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Beginning an MA in Fine Art

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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.

Episode 1
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.

Episode 2
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.

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The interview

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I had been invited for an interview.

The purpose of the interview was to discover whether I was suitable for a higher degree programme. The institution to which I was applying has achieved a very high status both in the UK and internationally. In consequence a Master’s degree from such a university is an esteemed qualification. I had completed an application and made an attempt to suggest that I was ‘good enough’ for a place. I had written a personal statement that was very short and, prior to my interview, my daughters had conducted two trial interviews with me.

These trial interviews had been very helpful because – as it turned out – I had not been used to answering questions about art in general or my art in particular. Just giving answers was a bit of a novelty and caused me to think more clearly about what I did and why I did it. In addition, one daughter had told me that nowadays art institutions are interested in a person’s experience and that I should draw attention to some of the places in which I had worked – such as Wormwood Scrubs maximum security prison in London as well as in an international high-tech IT company. The other daughter had told me that I should be as concrete as possible and not give vague or abstract answers. She also told me that I should bring along one or two of my past and present sketchbooks and any other ‘thing’ that might reveal something interesting about myself.

In preparation for the interview I had placed four rather small canvasses that I had painted in a bag, and, in another, three sketchbooks, three copies of a ‘zine that I used to produce and two rather weird books that I had made. (However, crazy as it seems, I never did manage to show my interviewer the books.) Three of the canvasses featured people and one represented a semi-apocalyptic landscape.

On the day of the interview I felt reasonably calm but just before setting off to the University I reached into an under-the-stairs cupboard to get a large plastic bag for my sketch books and virtually knocked myself out. I had bashed my head against a wooden box the edge of which left a deep wound to my head. This was not a good start. Anyway, I patched myself up but I did not really feel ‘all there’. However, I arrived on time and the woman at reception told me to fill in a form by ‘following the line’. Unfortunately I followed the wrong line on the form that she gave me and therefore I incurred her displeasure. This was not good.

I was given an identity card which I was told to hang around my neck. Then, after a few minutes the person who was to interview me appeared. I liked her immediately. I liked her voice. It was melodic and she smiled at me. ‘How do you do,’ I said. (This was something I rather regretted: one of my daughters had said that modern people do not say this any more.)

The interview took place in a surprisingly bare and rather large office. It reminded me of rooms in which psychological experiments take place: it was pared down, stripped back, minimal and functional. Some sort of air-conditioning apparatus seemed to be operating. I sat on one side of a table and A. the interviewer sat on the opposite side. I took my four canvasses out of the tissue paper in which they were wrapped and arranged them so A. could see them. They consisted of a Rohingya refugee, the blasted landscape, a Syrian refugee and the singer Jorja Smith. (People had told me that they were good paintings.)

The interview took on an almost conversational course. This meant that even if I thought we would end up somewhere we did not. It was as if we were in a labyrinth with no actual exit but which time alone would declare as the end point.

I was asked about the role art had played in my life and we spent quite a lot of time talking about my mother’s rather tragic life experiences – and the fact that I had begun to use art most explicitly in some of my lectures and presentations. We touched upon a number of artists and I mentioned how Marlene Dumas’ work and observations had had a very good effect upon me. (She had said something like ‘If you like an image, paint it.’) I reflected on the fact that I was deeply impressed by Rembrandt and his ‘presence’ as well as Jacques-Louis David and his ‘Oath of the Horatii’; in fact, I realised that I had forgotten the names of a number of artists that had intrigued me. The interviewer A. was not that impressed with my painting of the Syrian refugee (which was a bit disappointing) but she did react positively to the preliminary charcoal sketches that I had made of the same refugee and she said that she would have liked to see a wall filled with these drawings.

We touched upon some of my experiences during my two-year foundation course in art and then I surfaced a troubling fact: I told A. that a photography tutor had told me that I should not speak about my work in the manner in which I was so speaking. But the same tutor neither told me what was wrong with my type of speech nor how I ‘should’ speak about my art. As a result I was not confident about what to say about my work. A part of my response had been to ‘shut up.’ A. said that this was ‘a shame’ and that I might simply have had a bad experience but that it was important to move on and not ‘shut down.’

The best part of the interview occurred when I fished the ‘zine out of a small bag. ‘Ooh,’ she said; ‘What have you got for me? A fanzine!

Well, I’m not sure that it’s exactly a fanzine – it’s some sort of publication.‘ And then I told her that it was based on something brilliant that the people who produced ‘Go’ for Sheffield did some years ago.

I passed her a copy and said: ‘This is for you.’

This is when things became funny. She thumbed through the thing (it was about 32 pages long) and then I reached over towards her and tried to find the page which happened to include a random autobiography of myself. The autobiography began with a photo of me when I was a few months old. I was not an attractive looking boy and I was clothed in something resembling a dress.

Then I heard her say: ‘You were born in 1940.’

This struck me as very funny. It would have made me nearly 80. ‘Oh No! I’m not that old,’ I said whilst looking behind me and behaving as if I was on my last legs. In fact, because I have imperfect hearing she may have said that I was born in the 1940s (which I was).

This exchange left me with the feeling that the mood of the interview had changed. It was light-hearted, insouciant and completely free of pretension.

We covered more ground about my values and perceptions concerning some of the fundamentals of life (love, art, morals and power) but by then the air-conditioning was winning. I was frozen. In the last five minutes of the interview I was given an overview of the course requirements and its specific emphases. The trouble was that my body had decided to respond to the chill with involuntary jerks. I did my best to stop it doing this – but without success. I must have looked very odd. I was increasingly convinced that A. would wonder what sort of lunatic was sitting opposite her.

We shook hands at the end of the interview and she escorted me along a long corridor to the exit. Happily the sun was shining and I began to warm up a bit. A. struck me as a very agreeable, sympathetic, composed and authoritative person.

My response to the interview was to feel very highly motivated to do the course. Quite why I never managed to tell her about my online portfolio I do not know. And those weird books I had made remained hidden from view. Moreover I said almost nothing about how my background and experience would equip me to do the course. But I did enjoy the conversation with A. and the very last thing she said to me was: ‘I will write to you soon.’

 

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