On Hornsey Today

Anna Kontopoulou

27 Mar 2014
In view of this weekend's symposium that attempts to situate today’s art schools within the context of a historical self-organised legacy.

In view of this weekend's symposium that attempts to situate today’s art schools within the context of a historical self-organised legacy, Anna Kontopoulou looks back at the Hornsey Affair in order to interrogate its effects on the contemporary content of art and design education.

Education. Learning. Experience.

‘On May 28, 1968, the students and some members of staff of Hornsey College of Art, North London, took control of their college. It was a first step in a brave, inspiring, but short-lived experiment in communal education [...] For six weeks they reasserted in practice the age-old ideal of the university as a community of learning. That this assertion had to be achieved by a revolutionary act is a bitter comment on our current attitudes towards education', wrote the students and staff of Horney College of forty five years ago, whilst resonating contemporary debates on arts education and the current lack of democratic experience altogether[1]. The Hornsey Affair is a rare collection of demands, manifestos and documents like this, written by Hornsey students themselves during those six weeks of their legendary sit-in, nowadays viewed as a notable revolutionary moment in UK’s art school education. Alongside reflections on the physical fragmentation of the college to high and low art departments, the class barrier as a condition of their alienation, or the division of education to labour oriented or not (vocational or Diploma of Art & Design), the student-occupiers also recounted some inspiring stories around the sit-in’s ‘radical’ organisation structures, the role of ‘talking’ as a medium of agency, for example, or the teach-in as a life-changing learning experience altogether.

In this context, and in view of contemporary debates around art education, the story of Hornsey College of Art and its May ’68 occupation, is attracting a lot of attention lately, especially within art discourse, as a paradigmatic moment in ‘radical’ education history. A moment we should look back to, and admire as a unique instant of radical change within art school revolutionary history. Most of these accounts are contextualised within a backward looking, if not nostalgic form of ‘curating’ [2], which unavoidably introduces an academic historicist approach to this transitional period altogether, eventually managing to safeguard a distance from today’s students and their demands, rendering their resonances inaudible, if not irrelevant altogether.

Considering these arguments in today’s increasingly marketised higher education climate and the institutionalised precarity that follows, like the decrease in job security, or even recent phenomena like the rise of mental health problems amongst academic reseachers, it might perhaps be more fruitful to look at this manifesto-like book as a case study for examining not only the specificities of those students' particular demands for reform, in relationship to the political and economic changes going on at the time, but also the effects and consequences of these changes to today’s situation. My contention here being that many (not all) of these demands have already been ‘won’, not necessarily in the way the students of ’68 might have liked or anticipated, and that those of us in the arts education sector today are already perhaps experiencing the contradictory effects and consequences of that ‘victory’.

The Tyranny of Context

‘No system devoted to the fostering of creativity can function properly unless original work and thought are constantly going on within it, unless it remains on an opening frontier of development’ [3].

Back in 1968, the students of Hornsey demanded the implementation of research as an integral part of art and design education, arguing for a learning process where the student is able to assess the relevance and context of the subject of their study. They envisioned education as role and not goal oriented, and a democratic transformation of the educational system to the point where ‘lecturers’ and ‘students’ become partners engaged on the same task. They wrote: ‘One of the most potent motivators of student interest is the cohesive group, the members of which are familiar with each other, and who work over a considerable length of time on the same or similar projects’ [4]. Upon first look at these demands and their insistence against hierarchical structures involved within linear education structures, as well as the consequent separation of one class of students from another, or even the separation of teachers from students, one will soon recognise similar frustrations going on today. A separation of potential talent from its conditions of fulfilment is exactly one of the arguments against the recent increase in fees for example or the whole argument against monetisation and privatisation of education and the class barrier this might involve.  The lack of long-term investments in group work and the individualistic career-like orientation an artist-entrepreneur must pursue instead.

Before mythologising this argument in terms of class struggle history however and even though the impetus for revisiting these issues today, for the purposes of this paper, does originate from a genuine desire to connect such past struggles with today’s one, it is important that we try to unravel the contradictions these demands produce today, where the conditions of such democratic and ‘radical’ production have already been at least formally subsumed into the economy of consumption of the ‘new’, broadly defined by art school ‘cool’ and the cultural logic of late Capital. Where autonomous artistic knowledge production and commodification are no longer in an external relation of appropriation, but have increasingly become internalised to a more integrated system of ‘cultural economy’.

And where research itself has nowadays become art’s primary way of facilitating its own integration and by extension its own subsumption into university discourse, as a way of legitimising itself against fellow academic disciplines (and their sponsors), all bound with this new need for art to ‘curate’ and validate its social function altogether. With the merging of art schools into universities in the 1990s, and the consequent imposition of managerial ‘information control’, fixed academic systems of evaluation, and the introduction of computational technology for the administration of its own bureaucratisation, contemporary art eventually found new ways of abstracting itself in the discourse of ‘new’ and ‘original’ knowledge for the university, through a series of artistic practice turned research methodologies.

By extension, and in parallel with this ‘educational turn’ in the arts, one should also perhaps consider here the contradictions that arise with the simultaneous rise in the ‘curatorial’ as the ultimate interdisciplinary discipline that manages this by now necessary transference of artistic (non-) knowledge into information. Or perhaps by implication the effects this process of valorisation has on the ways we produce and display contemporary art altogether. Considering here the ‘relational turn‘ in art, as a potential counter-action to this tendency towards acedemicisation, for example, all in an attempt to move from data back into the ‘living’. As a consequence of these almost cyclical process of transference and ressentiment, more problems begin to arise when art attempts to organise such ‘relational’ models for ‘democratic’ participation inside the conventions and hierarchical structures of existing institutional systems of valorisation, curation and exhibition, management and administrative control. It is not surprising then how art is now in crisis, as it eventually needs to play along and in fact curate its own translation into manageable information for the institution, university or gallery alike.

The appropriation of autonomous art by Culture Industry is not a new phenomenon, of course. The function of ‘legitimation’ via theory (nowadays followed by the research pathway) in fact, has always been a structural feature of art history, as well as its allied fields, art criticism, aesthetic philosophy, art practice, connoisseurship, the art market, museology, tourism, commodity fashion systems, and the heritage industry. Nowadays however taking that to a further legibility of the very ‘presentedness’ of presentation via the curatorial (the display of the display), where the artist’s skills and the curators abilities to make connections feed into each other, all part of the same signifying machinery that appears to be historically driven by the dominant, yet at the same time consists of a series of real antagonistic economies that do not necessarily find their way into that history altogether [5]. The students of Honrsey however, prophetically warn us:

''Was the idea to integrate art and design training more effectively into the life of our modern, capitalist society? Or to produce people and things good by some other criteria, things good in themselves regardless of trends and commercial needs?’ [...] We want to create the culture and to be educated for this purpose, not be a consequence of its demands’.

Education for Critical Consciousness

How does one teach art nowadays to begin with? And does this have anything to do with a collective experience to begin with? What if as a requirement for entrance into university (including art school) you had to be a member of some sort of collective? Would you be able to even imagine such an alternative today? If you could take control of your education, what is that you want from it? Does one even know what it is they want to know? I would thus like to end here with the question of criticality. It was towards the end of a recent symposium entitled ‘Art School: The Future for Theory’, and upon discussing the role theory plays within the process of art’s institutionalisation, when a member of the audience claimed that art itself can never be taught, since one cannot teach art, but only teach relationships [6].

After all, to be human, as the advocate of critical pedagogy and radical education Paolo Freire argues, is in fact to engage with others and with the world, as a being of relationships. ‘Men relate to their world in a critical way. They apprehend the objective data of their reality (as well as the ties that link one datum to another) through reflection–not by reflex, as do animals. And in that act of critical perception men discover their own temporality. Transcending a single dimension, they reach back to yesterday, recognise today, and come upon tomorrow’ writes Freire [7].The dimensionality of time in fact, as Freire argues, is one of the fundamental discoveries in the history of human culture because ‘Men are not imprisoned within a permanent ‘today’; they emerge and become temporalised' [8].

In view of all of this and in order to avoid our potential imprisonment within the ‘contemporary’ context then, and by extension be able to develop a critical consciousness that can make connections with past struggles, recognise and relate to the contradictions embedded within the present and be able to imagine a way out, for the future to come, then perhaps one needs to be engages in the production of knowledge that is in direct relation ‘with the struggles and pressures that emerge out of our ‘contemporaneity’ to begin with’[9]. To activate alternative pedagogic spaces that imagine a dialogue between organising and art, where we can relate to the world around us in a critical way, through an open-ended collaborative investigation of the terms and conditions of our own subject formation with and through others. All bound with a belief in experimentation for experiment’s sake, and an insistence on dialogue. As one of the Hornsey College of Art students wrote, in order to avoid the ‘current apathy in schools’ we need to produce ‘a person that is capable of having meaningful relationships, a person with imagination and insight, and an understanding of the world around them, and an ability to communicate [...] For if this person does not have these qualities, he will not be able to relate what he produces to his social environment and hence to himself’[10], and hence the apathy will continue.

Anna Kontopoulou is a member of the ICA Student Forum, and organiser of New Terms: Radical Education Workshops, a group of students, educators, activists and artists, as well as all of those interested in actively engaging debate around the state of arts education today. The group meets once a month at the ICA’s studio (next meeting scheduled for Wednesday 2nd of April 2014 between 18:00-20:00).

[1] Back cover of The Hornsey Affair (1969), written by the students and staff of Hornesy College of Art, Penguin, London.

[2] Its worth noting here perhaps that the word curating comes from curare which means to ‘heal’. or ‘treat’.

[3] The Hornsey Affair (1969), written by the students and staff of Hornesy College of Art, Penguin, London, p129

[4] Ibid.

[5] One only need to look at the United Nations Educational and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) ‘Road Map to Arts Education (2006)’ a document that is used as a template and a set of overall guidelines to research on art education, set in place in order to meet the specific contexts of nations and societies around the world, and the conflicted use of terms like ‘cultural exchange’ or ‘creative economy’ and ‘creative workforce’ as tokens for a good outcome, in order to understand the paradox of this mutually informing and reciprocally conditioning relationship between culture and production, all bound up with the language of economic value terms. Tom Holert’s investigation into the history of the implementation of practice-led research in Art and Design in Great Britain is very useful here with regards to this historical transformation of the meaning of research, and its contradictory effects from Hornsey to today. In his article entitled ‘Art in the Knowledge-based Polis’, Holert refers to the 1996 the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) of the Higher Education Founding Council for England (HEFCE), which defined research as: ‘original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry, as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction’. As found in http://www.e-flux.com/journal/art-in-the-knowledge-based-polis/

[6] In that same conversation philosopher Peter Osborne in fact argued that art itself does not have a discourse, of its own, and quoted William’s ‘Philosophy is that which the history of philosophy is the history of...’, I would similarly suggest a paraphrasing along the same lines here, where in order to understand what constitutes art, and be able to teach it you, need to acknowledge that ‘Art is that which the history of art is the history of...’.

[7] Paolo Freire (2010) Education for Critical Consciousness, Continuum, London, p. 3.

[8] Ibid.

[9] For more on this see Irit Rogoff (2014), ‘Free’ in Education Actualized’ as found in http://www.e-flux.com/journal/free/

[10] The Hornsey Affair (1969), written by the students and staff of Hornesy College of Art, Penguin, London,p. 35

This article is posted in: Articles, Events