Bringing in art students through the front door

January 12, 2001

Sir Christopher Frayling says art and design practitioners are still victims of a Victorian hierarchy.

At my very first meeting of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (as it was then called) five years ago, someone from one of our more ancient seats of learning asked which institution I represented. When I told him it was the Royal College of Art, he replied: "Oh really, isn't that where they mend fuses?" Only afterwards did I think of a printable reply.

There has been a deep-rooted snobbery between interpreters and practitioners, analysts and performers within higher education for a very long time. In the case of art and design, it goes back at least as far as 1837, when the first central governmentfunded institution specialising in design education was launched in London's Somerset House. This was the Government School of Design, a distant precursor of today's RCA. There was no publicly funded university sector at that time, hence no debate about the differences between education and training. Instead, the model adopted was derived from mechanics' institutes.

As regional and metropolitan universities sprang up, the sense of a hierarchy of different educational worlds began to be felt. Henry Cole - the senior civil servant (himself a product designer under the pseudonym of Felix Summerly) who helped to ration-alise the Public Record Office and to mastermind the Great Exhibition of 1851, as well as overseeing this nationwide art and design sector within higher education - often wrote about the unproductive snobbery between interpreters and doers among educators and policy-makers. His dream, which he had achieved by the mid-1850s, was to unite the contemporary practice of art and design with an art and design museum in the form of the Museum of Manufactures (later to be known as the Victoria and Albert Museum). An art and design school would be at one entrance; exemplars of the best of the past would be at the other. Heritage and contemporary were to be part of a continuum.

Over the ensuing century, the divisions that Henry Cole disliked so much were, if anything, exacerbated within higher education. The practice of art and design came to be seen as the tradesmen's entrance, their interpretation as the marbled front door. After the second world war, an unfortunate social hierarchy had become part of the mix as well. Access to art and design courses was more broadly based, it was said, than access to ancient and modern universities. The heroes and heroines of the sector tended to be charismatic ex-students from working-class backgrounds, who launched themselves into the professional worlds of art and design armed with a college exhibition and an NDD, or a Dip AD, or a degree: David Hockney, Ian Dury, Zandra Rhodes and so on. Even today, after the 1990s expansion, the numbers of successful applicants to art and design courses from the state sector are far, far in excess of the equivalents in traditional universities. And the cultural richness of art schools has been, in large part, because of this breadth of access rather than in spite of it. The recent squabbles between art historians and studio-based artists and designers about whether or not they should be in entirely separate categories for the purposes of the Arts and Humanities Research Board perhaps also show that some Victorian hierarchies are alive and well in branches of higher education.

It has been extremely rare for educators within the art and design sector to be mentioned in dispatches. Henry Cole was knighted, but the Great Exhibition seems to have been the reason, rather than its legacy. So was the painter William Coldstream, who chaired the influential inquiry of the early 1960s. And so was Robin Darwin, my predecessor as rector of the RCA, when the college became a university institution in the mid-1960s. When the letter came about six weeks ago informing me that I was to be recommended for a knighthood, all these thoughts flashed through my mind: that put-down about mending fuses; interpreters and practitioners; the access debate; the interesting ways in which the situation has improved over the past few years; my belief in the central importance of art and design education firmly embedded within higher education, complete with research as well as close partnerships with the professions as contributors to the economy and society. Had all this led to a chip on my shoulder? Maybe, but it took me about five seconds to make up my mind to tick the acceptance box and return the reply card to Downing Street. This one, I like to think, is for the whole of art and design within higher education and for the RCA, as well as for my endeavours since leaving postgraduate work at Cambridge in the 1970s and crossing the line, against the advice of all my academic colleagues, into art school.

Christopher Frayling, rector and professor of cultural history at the Royal College of Art, was knighted in the New Year's Honours. His book on Sergio Leone is reviewed by Michael Coyne in the Books section.

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