This is a very long first post and I would like students working with me this year to read it and make some comments. Communication is a two way process and I need to know how much is getting through.
This blog is part of a dialogue between myself as a facilitator/tutor and groups of students who are on the second year of their BA (Hons) and FD programmes. It is also an arena where issues raised can be explored and the usefulness and appropriate nature of content can be debated.
I will start with my worries.
The first thing I am concerned about is whether or not as students you have had a bad experience in the first year. Contextual studies is often seen as something that is not central to the educational experience in art and design. It can be thought of as an add-on that feels as if it isn’t helping with a student’s main study. So how can I demonstrate that it is useful and prove to students that it can be directly used to support what they want to do?
This all goes back to my own experience.
I am a practitioner who has over the years always found myself engaged with some sort of research in order to develop my practice.
Trained initially as a printmaker I have worked commercially running a print workshop, gradually broadening my practice to eventually include industrial interior design, interactive digital media, public art, fine art painting and illustration. Over the last 10 years specialising in illustration/fine art image making and leaving behind the computer as a tool for working with. One area has though remained constant, I draw and out of drawing I get ideas. I never worried about which area I found myself in, I tended to follow my nose as to what was at the time interesting. I have taught fine art as well as design, in the past covering everything from typography to sculpture.
So how did I find myself working in Contextual studies?
A bit of history.
I have been teaching for over 30 years. When I started this area was called Art History and Complementary studies and as I had a Commendation in Art History as part of my DipAD, I was asked to teach art history to Foundation students in the early 1970s. However as the design areas grew in size and importance, design history was added. Then as media studies entered the fray, it was decided to call the whole lot cultural studies and I found myself having to read all those people like Foucault and Derrida in order to broaden what I was teaching. This however became confused with University Cultural Studies departments that tended to take a very Marxist view on how society worked. It was then decided to call the whole area Critical Studies as this would highlight the critical thinking which it was expected the area would develop. Practical areas objected to this as it implied that practitioners were not critical thinkers. Hence the present title, Contextual (Historical, sociological and cultural contexts) and Theoretical (Philosophical, Psychoanalytical, Sustainable etc.) Studies, but, it could be argued there is slippage between the two, as theory is as much a context as history.
When the Coldstream Report looked into art education in the 1960s it specifically highlighted the problems in starting to award degrees to practical art and design courses. (I have a Dip AD because art courses were not awarded degree level parity with academic courses until the mid 70s) It decided that degrees could be awarded if these courses could demonstrate parity with other academic degrees by ensuring all students undertook an academic aspect of their study. This was why the initial Art History and Complementary Studies modules were so important. The dissertation remains an important element in an art student’s final portfolio, as external moderators still look to the mark of the dissertation as an indicator as to the final grade if it is on a cusp and MA courses often ask for dissertation grades and a report from such as myself, as proof that the student can study at a higher level, which of course usually requires writing a dissertation or thesis.
So where is it useful? It’s probably at its most useful in consultancy work. My partner runs a public art and design consultancy. Each project demands research and contextualisation to get it off the ground and secure funding. For instance a local authority might want a public art policy written or they might want to commission an artist or designer to help regenerate a city centre. They need reassuring that decisions made are based on knowledge and awareness of the parameters within which the city planning regulations work. This demands researching everything from local planning law, to historic documents as to the importance of local areas of interest, to potential audience make-up and their interests, to concepts of regeneration through the arts, to theories on how space is used and understood, to historical examples and contemporary examples of practices in both art and design. On top of the research there has to be the ability to then present all the information as a clear written proposal. This is not too dissimilar to a cross between the dissertation and a feasibility study, as it includes all references and has to have a narrative and an argument as to why the activities proposed are needed.
The other area within which contextualisation has been useful is my personal work. Initially it was mainly building up an awareness of what other artists and designers had done, if only to be able to show a potential client what it might look like or to give myself something to aspire to. (Historical and contemporary art and design) But the more subtle use has been that wider awareness of philosophy, psychology, literature etc. that allowed me to develop reasons for what I was doing. (An informed critical dialogue) This has been of growing importance to me as when I have exhibitions or need to contact people about my work they want text that explains things for them. If I can do this it gives them confidence that what I am producing has some meaning. More importantly it has fed my own ideas as to what I am doing and why.
So what as students do you want to get out of this? What are your worries? How can I help?
I also know that you need to pass this module and that the marks will go towards your overall result. I am experienced enough to know what that means in terms of what you need to do. So can help you achieve this component of your degree. So try and follow this blog which will develop as the year unfolds.