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Rediscovering Tradition at City & Guilds Art School

Posted on the 02 September 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost

How shameful that I should have arrived on the first day of my Masters course at City & Guilds ready for fisticuffs; anticipating a torrent of abuse intended to throw me into a frenzy of self-doubt. Perhaps it will explain my excessive paranoia if I identify myself as one of those wimps who favoured an “academic” degree over going to art school. When I did finally decide to take the plunge and pursue my painting, the accounts I heard from my art school friends did little to assuage my fears: dogmatic tutors and a prevailing attitude of indifference towards all things deemed “traditional.”

I need not have been so defensive. Any misconceptions I had vanished upon meeting my tutors and peer group and finding that they were the most engaging and enthusiastic group of artists. The diversity of backgrounds and experiences amongst the students (from architecture, to film, to graphic design, and even philosophy) has made for consistently stimulating debate throughout the course. Most surprising has been the highly individualistic approach of the tutors who, far from having their own agendas and doctrines, are passionate about all kinds of methods and materials, and are interested in the various artists we are. This is not to say we have not each been challenged throughout the course, but the challenges have been to our own work, and have alerted us to new possibilities for our personal processes. I have witnessed countless twists and turns as the work of my classmates developed. As we have been encouraged to explore in different directions, we have infected one another with our inspirations and new ways of working.


Whether the attitude I have encountered at this school is unique, or whether it reflects a broader mood in contemporary art at present, it feels like a time of great democracy for art-making. Although there are undoubtedly fashions, no one mode or method reigns supreme. The question of originality and relevance lies in reinventing the wheel for your own time rather than in novelty for novelty’s sake. Almost a century on, T.S. Eliot’s words could not be more relevant – that historical sense is “a perception, not only the pastness of past, but of its presence.” It is a belief that is evidently held and furthered by the community of tutors and students at City & Guilds who demonstrate that tradition is not inherited, but rather earned through active engagement and learning.

The work produced by the students is exciting in its exploration and reinvention of received forms; it performs Tradition as a dynamic cultural force, whilst divorcing it from any negative associations of “traditional.” For instance, one student uses Renaissance painting techniques to create a series of portraits based on the unlikely muse of Japanese sex dolls. Another student combines paint with non-traditional materials such as household polyfilla to create large eerie portraits which are reminiscent of the Old Masters and yet distinctly modern. The refreshing challenge thrown at each of us has been to recognize the kind of artist we are, understand the particular traditions to which we belong, and to discover how we may begin to contribute to these traditions in a contemporary context.

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