Art not academe, again

February 2, 2012

The touchingly recurrent motif of a university core executive afflicted by incipient narcolepsy informs Peter Hill's assessment of the divergent purposes of the art school and the university ("The art of the matter", 19 January).

In 1976, my first-year fine art tutor at what was then Leeds Polytechnic, Ken Rowat, published an article in The Guardian that patiently argued against the blandishments of academic respectability in the visual arts, which he saw exhibited in students opting for BA awards over the diploma in art and design. He additionally saw this attitude manifest among the heads of polytechnic art departments themselves, rather than their directors (although those with art training could prove "particularly dangerous"). Rowat's polemic culminated in his 1979 piece "The student artist as an academic outcast", which further condemned giving credence to the accommodations of scholarship.

Hill's narrative might therefore be not so much a "superfiction" as a retelling of the same story, with the subsuming entity replaced by the university. It is presumably known to your readers that in the early 1970s Joseph Beuys was sacked as professor of monumental sculpture at the Arts Academy of Dusseldorf and only reinstated after a legal battle lasting six years, despite Beuys being the sun around which a constellation of artists matured.

References to "theory", whether ill-fitting or not, bring to mind Sir William Coldstream's committee and its 1970 model of complementary studies teamed with a history of the practice, with an emphasis on the priority of the practice itself. If universities have failed to appreciate the academic coherence of Coldstream's quadripartite matrix of art and design studies and its inherent critical tensions, then my own experience as a lecturer holding to that medial role created by the higher award that is Coldstream's legacy can perhaps be offered.

In a teaching career that extends over 20 years, I have enjoyed only one permanently contracted post. When the redundancy selection process visited the choice between academics who were engaged by the university and those non-practitioners who came with the art school it had "hoovered up", who do you think kept their jobs?

Michael Marshall, London

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