Andrew Lambirth

Quick-fix solutions

Andrew Lambirth looks at why art schools are producing so many conceptual artists

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Here's a random sample of my postbag: an invitation to a mixed exhibition of nine artists' interpretation of 'focus' through painting, photography, digitisation and computer manipulation; notice of a show of photo-text, photo-document and photo-juxtaposition-cum-montage pieces about HIV and place; and the press release for an installation of scarlet mobility scooters which is supposed to be 'a reflection on age, youth and contemporary Britain'.

Clearly Britain is in a bad way. A watered-down conceptual art is the current orthodoxy. Much of what looked new and radical when it first emerged in the 1960s is now being run past us again, and it's limping badly. And so much of it is the same. It really looks as if art students were issued with a pattern book of how to come up with a show – six ideas on the back of an envelope: good tried-and-tested old concepts that won't cause anyone too much trouble. How has this come to pass? The decline of one of our greatest glories – the art schools – has much to answer for.

The artist Ian Welsh (born 1944) is ideally situated to comment on the situation. Besides making his own work (Welsh is a distinguished painter specialising in the depiction of water and reflections), he taught for 25 years in the public and private sectors because he believes that art schools can offer a unique education. He himself studied painting at Chelsea School of Art (1963-66), when it was in its heyday under the enlightened direction of the painter and art historian Lawrence Gowing. He then studied sculpture as a postgrad with George Fullard (1966-67), after which he began to teach himself. He returned to Chelsea to do an MA in printmaking in 1976-67, and was finally appointed head of printmaking there in 1992. He gave up teaching in 1993, utterly disillusioned with the way art schools were now administered and structured.

So what has changed so much? The pressure is on the student to be instantly fully formed, successful and original, because the art school has to be seen to perform in order to justify its existence. This kind of context is inimical to the slow but steady development of talent and understanding which art schools are supposed to nurture – that particular combination of thinking and acquired skills which needs time to mature.

'All this really started when art schools were swallowed by polytechnics, which began in the 1970s,' says Welsh. 'The emphasis changed then. The idea that courses had to have results at every stage was introduced. Coupled with the ever increasing concerns about finance within higher education, the very thing I fell in love with when I went to Chelsea, and which made me want to teach as well as be an artist, was undermined. And that was people truly finding out who they were through the process of working and acquiring knowledge and skills, and putting those things together to stumble their way through to making something that they could recognise as their work.

'Nowadays, art schools have less and less space, less and less teaching, fewer and fewer craft skills available, because they're expensive both in space and time and staffing. How do you, as a department or college, maintain the output? By encouraging conceptual work, which is a way of coming up with the goods which doesn't require the space, the money, the materials or the range of workshops. But you have to abandon a lot of the things which are fundamental to the process of making work and replace them by a series of dogma and quick-fix skills.

'Anybody can pick up a video camera and it doesn't matter if it's shaky or lit properly or audible because that's part of what it's supposed to look like as "an art video". Most of it doesn't carry any meaning except that it looks vaguely contemporary. I don't have a problem about what people use to make their work, but it has to be thought through properly and it has to have the appropriate skills to make it work. I suspect that all this has been short-circuited. And I still don't think that such a large percentage of young people are naturally drawn to conceptual work, but it's virtually the only thing they can do within the system.'

Welsh recalls a very different situation 35 years ago. 'When I first started teaching there were about 20 kids on the Foundation course at Harlowe, and there was a very good chance that three of those would be fine artists and the rest designers of one sort or another. At that time there were something like 28 disciplines in design you could do a degree in – there was Foundation Design, for instance, which was for undergarments, corsetry and so on. Later, when I was at Norwich Art School running the Foundation course, the then shadow minister for the arts came to talk to the senior staff of the Art School and the University Art History Department. He looked around at us and said, "The trouble with you lot is that you all live in ivory towers." Where do you go after that?

'The sad thing is that he missed the point. In the mid-Seventies, when the British car industry was disappearing fast down the plughole, there were something like 200 senior design posts in the car industry throughout Europe. Of those 200 key people, 180 had been through the Royal College of Art – which has a very fine course in automotive design – but they were working in Europe and not the UK. The government was looking at art schools and thinking they were full of painters – people who sit around smoking dope waiting for inspiration – whereas 75 per cent were design students, like the graduates in furniture who went to Milan. The quality of British art schools has been completely missed by those in positions of real authority.

'The moment that institutions of higher education had to become businesses it was the death-knell of education. It's a contradiction in terms. And that's from somebody who actually ran a little independent art school as a business.' Welsh ran his own private art school from 1986 to 1989, the Mill House Atelier, in the Suffolk village of Weybread. 'We set it up as a way of surviving, not as a flourishing business. What we did was to allow people time and space with as much skill-help as possible to make work that was to do with them, whether they were housewives who wanted to paint the landscape or people who wanted art as a career.'

Unless there is a full-scale revolution in the funding of higher education, which seems unlikely, hope for the future probably lies with these private art schools – if you can still find the people to run them.