Cornford and Cross
The End of Art School

David Cross

What is the relationship between teaching and research in art and design? To address this question, I shall draw on my experience as a student and then as a practitioner and lecturer, and try to show why it is my practice as an artist that makes my teaching possible and my research meaningful.

While studying graphic design at St Martin’s School of Art in 1987, I was finishing a piece of artwork for my first major critique. Having spent most of my time researching the subject and formulating my idea, I was running late. Inexplicably, a fellow student (I later learned his name was Matthew Cornford) offered to help me prepare my presentation. After the critique, I asked Matthew why he had helped me: surely professional ambition demanded competition rather than collaboration? To an onlooker, the ensuing discussion may have seemed more adversarial than conciliatory, but I see now that what we began was a Socratic dialogue1 in which we each had to articulate and defend our assumptions about the purpose and process of art and design. To support his views, Matthew passed me articles from Flash Art magazine; I retaliated with copies of The Ecologist, and in conversations marked by a provoking mixture of converging interests and diverging opinions, we established the basis for a discursive, collaborative art practice which continues today.

This fusion of dialogue with collaboration is one example of how my experience of art school set up a ‘positive feedback loop’ in which enquiry, action, and learning began to inter-relate and reinforce each other. Gradually, Matthew and I moved away from specialization and towards interdisciplinary work. Recognizing that our projects were most unlikely to be realized if we stayed within our department, we decided to enjoy the freedom that the art school environment allowed, and cut across subject disciplines to engage with the issues that interested us. Each new project involved a search for something particular — materials, tools, information, services or expertise. Negotiating access to what we needed across the institution, and in obscure parts of London and its hinterland involved first-hand encounters with the inextricable links between visual culture and its geographic, economic and social context. The tensions between our ambitions and the limitations which emerged as we attempted to realize them shaped my understanding of practice as the basis of the relationship between concept and form.

Learning to take part in creative and critical enquiry, pursued along sometimes wildly disparate lines of enquiry, remains one of the great benefits of art and design education. While enjoying such a privilege, I grew less inclined to accept representations at face value, and more curious to understand how meaning changes according to context. I felt that in addition to producing aesthetic and contemplative experiences, a key function of contemporary art (and a vital part of the design process) could be to test concepts, assumptions and boundaries in everyday life. I began looking for ways to associate material and intellectual ways of going about the world.

After graduation, Matthew and I decided to collaborate as artists. Given the critical tendency of our projects, we didn't expect to make money, so whenever industry or commerce could be persuaded to offer support, it came as a welcome surprise. We recognized that to establish an art practice we would need a particular combination of just enough economic security, plenty of cultural stimulation, and a great deal of intellectual freedom, so it was clear that we should work in universities. With a succession of completed art projects, we became ‘research-active’ lecturers, which made us eligible to apply for peer-reviewed funding for the research aspect of our work. Being in regular contact with students, and taking part in the wider university life has enabled us to maintain a questioning, experimental approach, while obliging us to articulate the contribution to knowledge made by each new project. Plus, a major benefit has been to escape from the commercial imperative of developing an artistic ‘signature style’ (with the attendant risk of being swept up into a spiral of meaningless wealth and celebrity!).

Although my career as an artist has been unpredictable, my commitment to Higher Education has been, and is, sustained by three views. Firstly, I see the acquisition and sharing of knowledge as vital to an open, democratic society. As the Subject Leader of the MA Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Arts, I encourage students from different disciplines to experiment with ideas and materials, to take creative and intellectual risks, and to develop their opinions. Each student is asked to set out a research proposal, which builds on their skills, engages with significant issues, and which allows them the opportunity to collaborate with people and organizations outside. My students' projects are so diverse that I could never know enough to cover the detail of all their specialist interests. Fortunately for me, neither the role of tutor, nor that of artist and designer, is to be a repository of knowledge; instead, I see my role as being to stimulate ambition, encourage difference, and support enquiry. So, I encourage students to share information and ideas, to make regular presentations to their peers, and to discuss how their work and profession relates to the wider context of current affairs.

Secondly, I see change as inevitable. As long as economic and political instability, ecological destruction, and technological revolution continue, so the context in which culture exists will undergo profound and complex changes. Whether such changes bring opportunity or threat will depend on how adaptable societies, organizations and individuals are. There are countless examples of how adhering to established procedures is rewarded, and conforming to received ideas brings acceptance. But the sense of security they produce can be false. Responding to dynamic situations involves facing risk and making decisions on the basis of incomplete or uncertain information. External change may mean that a research question must be re-phrased, a methodology revised, or an objective re-defined, any one of which can be enough to cause doubt and anxiety. A supportive learning environment is not one which protects students from experiencing such doubt and anxiety; rather it should help them question assumptions and motives, raise and test hypotheses, and try different creative problem-solving strategies without fear of failure.

Thirdly, I see visual culture as part of the public sphere. Today, consumerist ideology pervades societies around the world, altering public language and occupying private thought. Although art school and university have important connections with business and industry, what most interests me here is higher education’s function as a counterbalance to the market. Rather than judging artefacts, signs and ideas by their potential for profit alone, in art school they can be considered in relation to a broader context of cultural difference and social value. From climate change to biotechnology, certain problems and opportunities we face are too grave or too great to be left to private individuals, which is why their representation is a matter of public concern.

Perhaps such problems and opportunities have reached a critical and urgent state because, not fitting existing structures of categorization, they fall into liminal zones, where responsibility can be avoided and action deferred. In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle proposed that there were three basic activities of man: Theoria, Poiesis and Praxis, which have truth, production, and action as their respective purpose or end. Yet as Marxist scholar Tom Bottomore notes, ‘In Aristotle’s own school the question of whether to divide all human activity into two or three fields was decided in favour of a division into the theoretical and the practical.’2 What this momentous decision secured in clarity, it sacrificed in subtlety and balance. The conflation of production and action privileged production and suppressed action, resulting in an understanding of artistic practice as materially engaged, yet removed from the sphere of everyday activity, and subtly disempowered.

During the twentieth century, the ideological positions informing various art 'movements' have compounded this problem in different ways. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s seminal contribution of the ‘readymade’ posited art as an intellectual activity divorced from material production. This was reinforced in the late 1960s by the definitive achievement of Conceptualism — the ‘dematerialization’ of the art object. Even Pop art’s celebration of ‘mass culture’, while appearing egalitarian and anti-intellectual, served to privilege artistic strategies of ‘outsourced’ production, and implicitly endorsed the division of labour in manufacturing.

If we define artistic practice as a form of cultural production, it is possible to understand the denigration of action following an analysis based on material conditions rather than ‘movements’. As cultural critic Fredric Jameson has so eloquently shown, culture can be most clearly understood as the corollary of economic activity.3 Beginning in Britain, the Industrial Revolution rendered many crafts redundant; later, the transfer of manufacturing to low wage economies overseas resulted in a radical de-skilling of the domestic workforce, and accelerated the decline of craft skill. More recently, the technological revolution driving the ‘information society’ has positioned mental rather than physical activity as producer of ‘added value’. Today, in the context of UK Higher Education institutions for art and design, teaching and research are understood as inherently valuable activities which complement one another to the benefit of society. But it seems to me that ‘practice’, perhaps because of its subsidiary relation to production, still invites a more ambivalent response. I think the issue is not only the meaning of ‘practice’ in art and design, but the dichotomy between Theory and Practice in which it is held. In order to reposition practice in art and design as more than the application of theory, we need to reclaim action as distinct from, and equal to, production, and to locate it within a three part model similar to that of Theoria, Poiesis and Praxis. Furthermore, I would advocate that Praxis should be understood in the spirit offered by political economist Karl Marx, and developed by critical theorist Jürgen Habermas: where Praxis means using all the faculties in conscious, ethically grounded and transformative (inter)action.5

As influential expressions of the way we think and act, art and design do not passively ‘reflect’ the turbulence and stability of the social world; they are actively implicated in it. So my art practice as part of Cornford & Cross is based on a paradigm of ‘action research’.4 We make ‘live’ interventions into situations, which involve debate and collaboration with people who may have little interest in contemporary art. Each project involves a cycle of discussion, fact-finding, writing a proposal, and (hopefully) realizing it. However, ‘realizing’ does not mean presenting a resolved statement, but inviting viewers to engage with a paradox manifested in action and form. This can involve working so closely with people, that I become immersed in situations which demand I re-examine my opinions, and shift my point of view: in identifying with others, I challenge my own sense of self.

Just as my impulse to make art springs from a lively sense of dissatisfaction, I am not motivated to conduct research unless I see a certain lack or need. I teach because I share my students’ conviction that things might yet be better than they are. The combination of making art, conducting research, and teaching, though often inconvenient and far from harmonious, brings me closest to connecting the world of ideas and the world of lived experience. The ability to envision alternative possibilities, and to choose from amongst them as an act of free will, is both a means to an end, and an end in itself: the end of art school.

1 Socratic dialogue.
Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy
2 Tom Bottomore (ed.) A Dictionary of Marxist Thought.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1983, p.435
3 Fredric Jameson Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
London: Verso, 1991
4 Action Research
5 Tom Bottomore (ed.) A Dictionary of Marxist Thought
Oxford: Blackwell, 1983, p.439