City and Guilds of London Art School by Gerald Laing

Gerald Laing's address at the City and Guilds of London Art School Annual Award Ceremony, 19 June 2007.

First of all I want to say to you how sensible and indeed fortunate you are to be attending this particular art school.

We all know that comparisons are odious; but we are also aware that a deep crisis persists in the art education system as it exists in most other art schools.

Briefly, and without wishing to labour the point, the problem is that many of them do not seem to have a credible, useful and teachable syllabus, and if a teacher comes to work in the morning without a clear idea of what he intends to impart to his students, beyond perhaps something he’s dreamed up in his bath the night before, then it is a poor lookout for the students.
My second son studied furniture design at an art school which is celebrated for this particular subject. His own work was, and remains, outstanding – perhaps because he had the advantage that he grew up in the atmosphere of my studio, workshop, and bronze foundry.

But at his degree show it was apparent his contemporaries, after four years of studies, could hardly make a chair which would support your weight if you sat on it, let alone design one that had any style, intelligence, character, awareness or even humour about it.

On that occasion, my eldest son had his girlfriend with him. She was a medical student, and had also studied for four years. She knew a great deal about her subject, and would have been invaluable in any emergency situation; she was even capable of carrying out a caesarean if necessary. In other words, she had been given definite theoretical and practical skills exclusive to her profession. One did not have the impression that her time had been wasted.
This professional approach is one to which all art schools should once again aspire. Every other profession, from plumber to physicist, has its specialised knowledge and skills. It’s my belief that art education teaches less of these than any other.

That is why City and Guilds is so important. It has a talented and skilled faculty capable of imparting crucially important skills in drawing, painting, sculpture, carving, conservation and restoration. I am particularly impressed to discover the Humanities course, which presents information crucial to the discussion, criticism and creation of contemporary art. Lack of reference points and lack of awareness of what has already been done in the past, and why, makes intelligent and useful discussion of contemporary work impossible, and condemns the ignorant endlessly to invent and re-invent the wheel.

These vital resources of both practical and theoretical knowledge make City and Guilds one of the last strongholds of the arcane processes and real language of art and this position must be fiercely defended. I do not believe that I am overstating the case. You only have to look at the situation in what has become the art establishment, but which still has the cheek to think of itself as the ‘avant garde’. I am sure that you are all already aware of the point I am making; but even so I believe that, in the context of this address which you have so kindly asked me to give, I should state it publicly, unequivocally, and clearly once more, in support of the poor young souls (a number of whom I have met) who, having fought their way to a place in art school, are subsequently so disillusioned and demoralised that they give up after a year or so, or worse still, see out the course, waste the four years, and then find themselves in the real world without any professional skills which will enable them to survive.

There is, of course, a fully developed priesthood of contemporary art out there, speaking a newspeak language that we can all understand, even though we may think little of it. The priests serve at ceremonies in the great government supported temples of art where a limited selection of exhibitions are shown and shown again.

In Bilbao, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim looks like a crashed American helicopter, from which US Marines charge armed with the works of Jeff Koons and Richard Serra, virtually wiping out the old City Museum, with its collection which goes back a thousand years. The Director and his staff cower in their galleries amongst the smashed furniture, overturned filing cabinets, and shattered glass, bathed in the unearthly glare of a Dan Flavin fluorescent light installation.

It’s all part of a vast self-serving, self-perpetuating, monolithic and entirely arbitrary religion, which is largely irrelevant to any real concern of the human spirit.

Its profane, as opposed to sacred, manifestation is the commercial art world, where works of art are often only a pretext for the real creative act, which is the financial deal, and where the quick hit of success is much sought after. But while many are called, few are chosen. As Bob Dylan wrote,

“Teachers teach that you’re the one,
Who can do what’s never been done,
Who can win what’s never been won –
Meanwhile life goes on all around you.”

Much of this frenetic activity corrupts and blunts the sensibility of the people who are our audience; it’s a sort of art version of Big Brother or instant tourism. Such an art is generally, in my view, worse than no art, because it misleads and dazes the public.

There are many weasel words in the language bred to support it; my current favourite is the use of the word “mediate”. It means “to alter the significance of an object by changing its context.”
For example:
- This is a cast of a prehistoric sculpture known as the Venus of Willendorf. I expect you are familiar with it. The original is at least 26,000 years old. What it is, is obvious.
- This is a glass of water, half empty or half full. If I move it from here to there, and call it art, then, according to the New Gospel of Creativity, because I am an artist, it becomes art.

That is essentially what, in this context, the words ‘to mediate’ mean. The big question is what happens when there is no one here to carry out the mediation?

In the case of the glass of water, the answer is nothing.
On the other hand, the Venus of Willendorf requires no mediation.

A few years ago I was on my way to Houston, Texas for an exhibition. The papers that day described how two French boys had fallen though a hole in the ground and found themselves in a cave covered with prehistoric paintings even better and clearer then those at Lascaux. In Houston the new Cy Twombly Museum, designed by Renzo Piano, had just opened. My friend, who was the curator of this museum, said that groups of children had already added their own scribbles to Twombly’s on the canvases.

I fantasise a time in the future where the city is obliterated and Piano’s building ruined and covered with earth. Two boys in the far future fall into a hole and through the damaged roof of the museum. What would they see when they looked at the walls?

Do not be mistaken. I am not pushing here for exclusively figurative art, or traditional values, or anything reactionary. I speak on behalf of the visual arts. The visual arts should not require literary polemic in order to exist. Commentary is of course fine; but if an object cannot be seen as art at all without written support (and, often, a massive suspension of disbelief) then in my view it cannot be considered to be visual art.
I am asking for a proper education which will supply the practitioner with the skills and intellectual rigour necessary for the production of serious and useful art and artefacts.

For if you are going to survive the inevitable ups and downs of life as a professional artist or artisan – and, believe me, I have experienced plenty of those myself - it’s vital that you have some special skill to sell.
And if you want to be creative, it’s essential that your hand can make accurately what your mind conceives and your eye perceives.

These basic and obvious requirements have, I fear, been neglected; and without them your voyage would be perilous.

Out of the practice of basic skills comes, almost inevitably, creative innovation. It does not jump across the fence in one leap, but happens cumulatively and by degrees. When I paint or sculpt, I don’t touch the canvas or the clay unless I know what I want to do next. If I don’t know, I don’t continue; it is better to move to other concurrent projects and give my ideas time to mature and develop at their own speed.

Although I speak as a painter and sculptor, these principles apply to all creative acts, both visual and non-visual. We are unfortunate that in painting and sculpture the boundaries have been broken down so thoroughly that judgement is confused and chaos reigns. Earlier periods had stricter conventions, which, in the course of events, gradually changed. You can see by looking at almost any period of art in the past that these conventions did not in any way preclude the creation of masterpieces. Recent art history has removed all constraints and given artists absolute freedom to do as they will, but with this freedom comes a responsibility which is hard to bear.
Ultimately, no one can judge you but yourself. The creation of art requires pitiless self-examination and a very high moral standard. Do not forget that it is always a good thing to question the status quo. Do not be afraid to express yourself using the simplest tools of your trade; I mean the pencil, the brush, the modelling tool, and the chisel.

Thinking aloud, it seems to me that any work which requires words in order to establish its identity and existence is not functioning as visual art. Many contemporary commentators on the visual arts confirm by their choices and their concerns that they are not visually aware, or at least not primarily visual in their perceptions. Many of them seem never to have experienced the sensual joy and intriguing metaphors and paradoxes which can be perceived through the medium of vision.
You and I, we should keep ourselves firmly with in parameters of the strictly plastic visual arts. We should find new and pertinent ways of expressing the old and eternal concerns of the human condition through painting and sculpture. There’s nothing else worth doing in our chosen field.
The other arts - musical, literary, film, or whatever - also aspire to these objectives, but each in their own way. Whenever another discipline comes up with something relevant, some aspect of the truth, I applaud it. How they achieve it is their own business; and ours is ours. Only the truth is shared.

But we are now in a position where it’s possible for an art critic, in the course of a two-page article about an artist, to commend him for having produced a work which, in the critic’s words, is described as being “nearly not art at all.”

What on earth can that mean? What could possibly be its significance? Why should we be made aware of it?

It’s completely fatuous, and it avoids all the issues, which, when you attempt to tackle them honestly, involve all sorts of risks. Some of these artists seem to me to be paralysed like a rabbit caught in the beam of headlights at night. Terrified of risk, terrified of exposing themselves, they can only produce an art which has been emasculated.

In the area of crafts, I am tired of hearing people say that we no longer have craftsmen that can measure up to those in times past. It is simply not true. There is a massive amount of talent, skill and commitment available in our time. Demand for it is growing steadily. As with the visual arts, the public needs the opportunity of choice and the freedom to make it. As with the visual arts, there’s a cacophony of support in the media for indifferent work. At the same time, there’s a growing demand for fine workmanship, and intelligent and educated embellishment, especially in architecture. We are nearly done with pure engineering as a style. Form very seldom really follows function, anyway. Style always intervenes.

The buildings of City and Guilds are charming, individual and redolent of the creative activities that have been taking place in them for a very long time. You can not recreate this sort of ambience; and it is a valuable asset for all sorts of reasons. I would like to see the bohemian character of the school spread out further in to its immediate area. This character I am sure will be welcomed by those who live round about. For instance, if the painting school took their easels in to Cleaver Square from time to time and painted from nature it would be a very fine thing. The stone carvers could carve on appointed days in the square, demonstrating their craft to those with an interest. A very high proportion of the population is fascinated by these sorts of skills and endeavours, and they are ready to be engaged by them. The more the public is engaged, the easier it is for an artist to find a useful role in society.

In Paris the Ecole Des Beaux Arts understands this perfectly. The presence of the students on the Left Bank is very much in evidence. When I last had an exhibition there, for example, they had an extraordinary and very amusing band which played, with great good humour, lugubrious musical instruments outside each gallery in turn. A degree of direct integration with the public breaks down the barriers of suspicion and has a great potential to create opportunities for work.
City and Guilds should continue to take major initiatives in arranging to work with and for architects and designers, taking even more advantage of the student years for the production of comparatively low cost carving and thus creating future demand. There are endless opportunities for these types of strategy, and it is important to be pro-active in life.

And whatever the current causes for concern, the human spirit is a vigorous and independent beast. It has a way of overcoming difficulties. It won’t put up with nonsense indefinitely.

In bars in New York in the 1960s you would frequently see a sign which read:


Gerald Laing, June 2007