February 19th, 2009


Art students (called Brian) observed

My next working trip abroad happens at the end of March, when I fly to Norway to give a lecture on my work (March 31st) at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. I'll also spend a day doing studio visits with the students there, something I've only done once before (at SVA in New York two years ago) but find deeply interesting.

It's one of my great regrets that I never went to art school. I did plan to apply for Central St Martin's in London when I was 18, but somehow let my literary side sway me, and went to Aberdeen to do EngLit instead. I think I'd have ended up doing the same thing -- making pop records, art, books, journalism -- if I'd gone to art school, but I might have done them slightly differently. I might have been a bit less Leonard Cohen, a bit more Brian Eno.

Talking of Eno, I've been re-reading a fascinating book I have in my collection, Art Students Observed by Charles Madge and Barbara Weinberger (Faber and Faber, 1973, out of print and worth $224.58, according to Amazon). This is a sort of thorough, empirical, sociological study of art students at two British art schools at a very interesting moment, the late 1960s (a moment when, as the book says, anti-art became the approved art, bringing all sorts of paradoxes to the fore). I find it fascinating that such a subjective thing as developing an art practice can be studied so objectively, but then I find it amazing that art can be taught at all. The book shows the tutors and students circling each other with wariness, coolness, misunderstanding, despair, appreciation.

There's a central section of assessments of individual students by staff and by the observers. No punches are pulled. "Liz is a stolid, puddingy student of consistent attitudes and a plodding work style. Mediocre certainly...", one begins. "Pam is a stubborn person who is capable of resisting advice or tuition, but not to her advantage," says another. "A neurotic student that adapts defensive attitudes." Students and staff are both given pseudonyms, and we're not told which art college this actually is. We do learn their final degree results, though: Pam gets a 2:1, Liz a 2:2.

The most interesting case study, for me, is a guy called Brian. It's very hard not to think that Brian is Brian Eno, who went to two different art schools at about this time, Ipswich and Winchester, graduating in 1969. As reported by Lester Bangs, "Eno enjoyed tinkering with multi-track tape recorders and in 1968 wrote the limited edition theoretical handbook, Music For Non Musicians. During the same period he established Merchant Taylor's Simultaneous Cabinet which performed works by himself and various contemporary composers, including Christian Wolff, La Monte Young, Cornelius Cardew and George Brecht. This experiment was followed by the formation of a short-lived avant garde performance group, the Maxwell Demon. Eno graduated from Winchester School of Art, where he studied painting, in 1969. But he "started playing with lights at the same time as I started playing with sounds - in my mid-teens," he says. "By 1975 I was deep into making records, and hardly touched any of my lighting experiments until I moved to New York in 1978."

Now let's look at the Brian in Art Students Observed:

Tutors' reports, 1968-69

Brian works hard and I believe he is seriously committed to his type of work, ie electronics. However he is adolescent in many of his attitudes and displays a smugness bordering on obdurate philistinism when it comes to dealing with areas outside his immediate province. He will have to grow up before he will be able to use his expertise towards art rather than be a small-time boffin. (Gibson)

Gives the appearance of knowing what he is doing. He may very well know what he is doing. He is certainly capable of working out precise technical data, and his awareness of his "objects" in this sense is good. What I wonder about is his general awareness of how his work relates to "Art". I get the impression sometimes that he is inclined to take up an "avant-garde" posture. In terms of describing what his work is technically, he is very good, but I am not sure how he means it! A little inclined to "strut". An interesting student. (Coutts)

From the observers' notebooks:

October 13th, 1967. Brian laid his radio-lightwave machine out along the studio. Everyone who walked in front of it interrupted transmission. Philip became interested, helped him fiddle about with the equipment. It reminded me of boys playing with electric trains.

February 14th, 1968. Brian is working upstairs in the staff studio because he needs a white wall. He has made some electronic equipment which operates so that the wall changes colour as you move towards it. He told me that painting is his hobby -- he does it at home! I asked what sort of painting. He said the sort of thing you see in Boots reproductions, mostly meticulous drawings of cars and machinery which he does because he enjoys it and not with any sort of irony. A couple of weeks ago he did a drawing of the sun, taken from Hokusai. Watson told him it was rubbish. Stone told him to go and do some life-drawing, which he took as a very critical remark, so he decided to keep this type of work as something that he does at home.

February 15th, 1968. Watson, Dyer and Brian had a long discussion about Brian's electronic machine. Watson had got Brian a grant of £17 towards building the machine. Brian had come up with some snags and intended to present his work in the form of a written report. Watson argued that this was not good enough; he would learn something by not only producing the machine, but in assessing the effects of its operation. Dyer said now that Brian had proved that the machine was operational there was no point in actually making it. Watson said to me afterwards that Dyer was basically an engineer and that Brian had to decide if he was an engineer or an "artist". Brian had finally accepted his point of view that the machine would have to be finished and operated.

November 28th, 1968. Brian gave his history of art talk. He said his work was a visual representation of his thoughts on cybernetics. He took the class into the lecture hall, turned off all the lights and played some records. Asked why he had presented the lecture in this form, he said it would have taken him at least three hours to explain his ideas on cybernetics, even supposing the others could understand it, but that the performance was a failure because he had not announced that it was about cybernetics and therefore people had not been thinking about them. (He seems rather arrogant in his assumption that no one can understand what he is concerned with -- he takes his ideas very seriously.) Abbot (in charge of history of art) took the event seriously at its face value and asked questions about its meaning and purpose which Brian was not prepared to answer. She agreed that Brian had learnt something from the feedback (or lack of it) from the event, and that it would be valuable if he did give his three-hour lecture on cybernetics next term, perhaps to the whole school.

February 14th, 1969. Brian told me he had reached a sort of crisis. He hasn't been able to work for the last three weeks and spends his time reading. This was partly due to Gibson's project at the beginning of term. Brian had come back to college with lots of ideas but the project had thrown him off course, he said.

Brian ended up getting a lower second class degree. I wonder what he's doing now?