31 May 2014 -

The Art School: The Future for Theory?

Dr Marquard Smith, the newly appointed head of doctoral studies in the School of Humanities at the Royal College of Art, convened this one-day symposium at London's ICA to address the future of theory in art and design schools. Grappling with a host of complex issues, speakers touched upon the myriad ways artists utilise theory through practice; how, and even if, theory should continue to be taught in art and design schools; and how the production of, and engagement with theory has shifted through the proliferation of new access platforms beyond the book. Including such platforms as TED talks, the online visual art network e-flux, and the ever-popular 'Art History in the Pub' series.

For the most part, delegates responded to the symposium's brief with refreshing honesty, sharing personal insight into the way theory has affected their own work as artists, historians and critics. The subject of theory's future in art and design schools proved ripe for further exploration, and by the day's closing remarks it was clear that the questions raised will continue to permeate and inform discussions among students and educators.

The first part of the day, 'New Voices', gave a platform to early career PhD candidates. In a peculiar turn of events, given the symposium's subject matter, the speakers skirted around an identification of themselves as theorists, or of their work as theory-led: a sentiment which echoed in other presentations. Steve Smith, an artist pursuing a PhD by practice, described his recent output as informed by theory, not illustrative of it, which inspired further discussion. The consensus seemed to be that work illustrative of theory remained at surface level, unable to meaningfully engage with particular theorists' work. Judith Brocklehurst, also a PhD by practice candidate, then suggested that superficial engagement with theory by some art students had developed from a damaging culture of hoop-jumping and name-checking to secure funding for postgraduate art courses: a situation evidently experienced by others. The last speaker, Mirko Nikolic, explored the new territory of theory which is accessed and digested digitally. Nikolic touched upon ways that new types of access could lead to theory being used by artists in malleable and discursive ways, terming it 'a theory that walks'.

The second session consisted of Chantal Faust (RCA), Zoë Mendelson (CSM), Annie Davey (IoE, University of London), and Emily LaBarge (RCA). Each speaker presented engaging papers which sought to blur the traditional and restrictive boundaries between practice, writing, theory and history. Zoë Mendelson conjured up her alter-ego theorist, Nell Fuller, wrangling with theory as 'an impossible medium', questioning whether it should be treated by art students as any another material or tool. Considering the logistics of teaching theory like art, Mendleson / Fuller asked whether theory should be taught in a studio or workshop in art schools, or how theory would benefit from being taught in geographically relevant spaces such as Foucault in a prison, or Sontag in a drag club.

This session's Q&A confronted the changing role of theory in art and design schools since the 1970s. Professor of Art and Critical Theory at Middlesex, Jon Bird, argued that theory in current academia had become overly effervescent and apolitical, whereas in the past, theory was firmly aligned to politics, creating high stakes for its use. The morning's speakers countered that theory now benefitted from being broached in less monotheistic ways. Through new means of access, new approaches, and new interdisciplinary studies, theory in art and design schools was emerging as a materiality which was not restricted through alignment solely with artists or writers, critics or historians. As Mendleson and Nikolic suggested, it was now a malleable, impossible and enjoyable medium.

The afternoon's two panels saw speakers presenting papers on taught theory, and how theory should (or should not) be taught in the future. Dr Julie Louise Bacon from Kent made a strong case for the continued importance of teaching theory, stating that theory is not redundant, unless thinking is redundant. Professor Peter Osborne from Kingston, meanwhile, spoke on the uncertain future of art schools themselves, and questioned the value of academia in practice-based PhDs, whilst disparaging the multivalent use of theory through the rise of interdisciplinary subjects.

Finishing the symposium, the indomitable Professor Adrian Rifkin, who had a huge hand in the development and implementation of theory in art and design schools since the 1970s, spoke on the significance of teaching theory both then, and now. Rifkin reminded audiences that 'wrestling with the angels', as the late Stuart Hall had termed it, was a crucial, valuable exercise, and one which should continue well into the future.

Lauren Fried


Want to contribute to the blog and newsletter? Contact us


Keep informed of all Society events and activities, subscribe to our newsletter.