When artists lose the plot

November 27, 1998

Art schools are turning out romantic narcissists, ignorant of the real world, argues Paul Bonaventura.

There is, I believe, a fundamental problem with today's visual arts. Put simply, the larger public picture, which painting, printmaking and all the rest routinely addressed in the past is slipping off the artistic agenda. Politics, community, ideology - topics that fascinated artists up to the early 1990s and featured habitually in their work - seem to be fading from view.

Take the 1998 Turner prize. Of the shortlisted candidates only Chris Ofili routinely positions his art with reference to a wider socio-economic and cultural framework. Similarly motivated artists like Mona Hatoum are exceptions to the apolitical rule.

One of the reasons behind this escalating disengagement with the real world has its roots in the way art is taught in art schools.

In the September issue of art journal AN Magazine, graduate Faye Claridge bemoans the division between life in art school and what the education system had led her to expect in the professional world beyond.

She questions whether she can think of herself as an artist on the strength of having completed a fine art degree. "I certainly can't pay my rent on this premise," she complains. "I don't know that (art) is necessary to society, though I feel that I've been led to believe in its importance by the very existence of my course and the hundreds like it."

The teaching of fine art in higher education encourages the unrestrained growth of romantic introspection. Up and down the country the discipline is mostly promoted as a narcissistic enterprise, divorced from the geopolitical, industrial and demographic worlds which define all other human endeavours.

Is it any wonder that student artists, who subscribe to the notion of artistic activity for its own sake, find themselves having to question their beliefs when they move outside the academy?

Seen in that light, this year's gimmicky sitting of the GCSE art exam by the high-profile brother-sculptors Jake and Dinos Chapman becomes less of what has been described in Frieze magazine as a serious critique of the institutional criteria employed in evaluating art and more an unashamed cry for help, direction and purpose.

I read numerous academic essays by student artists. The standards of writing about art are high. When I look at those same students' work, I find good examples of art of a self-reflexive, postmodern bent. However, should some courageous soul decide to direct their efforts towards the world away from the studio, the result is usually ill-informed. Why is this so? I suspect students are poorly educated in other subjects and are led to believe there is nothing wrong in flaunting their naivety about non-art subjects.

Nor are they disabused of their solipsism by art critics, whose writing usually falls into two groups. First, the apologetic catalogue text, normally a half-digested pot-pourri of critical and cultural theory. Second, the uncomprehending hagiography restating the hyperbole of the gallery press release. Both contribute to the vacuousness that suffuses today's art world and do nothing to help artists understand the wider consequences of their actions.

Artists get into the news now because they are mad, bad and dangerous to know. They have no responsibility other than to themselves and account to no one.

There is renewed interest in British art, but alongside the marketing and show business strategies that underpin current creative behaviour, there is a place for artists whose work presents the public with learning and scholarship.

We need artists with a well-defined intellectual reach. Historically, the world was meaning-rich and data-poor. Today, our lives are data-rich and meaning-poor. Just when we need lateral thinkers to help us to make sense of the zeros and ones of our digital age, artists are losing the plot.

Paul Bonaventura is a research fellow at Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University.

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