Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

RCA: 175

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2012 at 13:04

Tracy Emin, The Perfect Place to Grow, which lends its name to the title of the RCA Exhibition.

This morning, on my way to the National Art Library for another day of writing, I stopped in at the RCA to see their exhibition, “The Perfect Place to Grow”, which celebrates the school’s  175th year. The exhibition is to be part of a year long celebration of ‘the world’s oldest art and design school’.

The first room of the exhibition consists of what is essentially a timeline of esteemed alumni and staff: starting with Henry Cole and ending in James Dyson, with Sylvia Pankhurst and Tracy Emin in between. Although there are occasional references to internal shifts which mark greater social change (eg. admission of female students in 1841), this does quickly become quite a monotonous homage to the RCA celebrity-design-genius I think I’m pretty bored of reading about.

The rest of the exhibition is divided into four key themes: Art and Industry, Public Purpose, Personal Expression and Political Expression. In many ways the first section sets out the dominant theme for the whole exhibition, which seems to me to be the complex relationship between art and design at the school. The text to this section acknowledges that this debate, and the schools attitude to it,  has been unresolved or, as Christopher Frayling put it in his history of the school in 1999, ‘swung back and forth like a pendulum’. Interestingly, it also stated that this debate had been ‘laid to rest’ with the acquisition of the Royal Charter in 1967, after which the school had become more comfortable with the idea that ‘artists inspire designers’ and ‘designers inspire artists’. There was certainly evidence of how this had worked in some parts of the exhibition, particularly in the ‘critical design’ section in which designers used artistic ideas to challenge the commercial pressures of industry.

What was perhaps most interesting to me was the statement that today it is proud of the ‘cross-fertilisation’ between the two, which has made it a ‘formidable educational model’, when in fact from my research I know that the relationship between the two has been a source of anxiety rather than intent. If, as the press release states, on the of the main aims of the exhibition was to explore ‘the politics and polemics behind the perennial question of how Britain should train its artists and designers’, it would seem to me that the answer was that the RCA had arrived at its particular model by accident, rather than by design.

The exhibition had some really iconic and classic pieces of art and design by past students on display which will certainly cement the idea, (if it needs any further cementing), that the RCA is the place to study to really make it in design and that it has undeniably played a major role in Britain’s design history. What was missing, for me, was a greater sense of the character, values and ideals of the school which have been inculcated and handed down from generation of student to the next. Although the names of the students were boasted throughout, their voices and viewpoints were notably absent from what could have been a really fascinating exploration of what it has actually been like to study there.