The first day of college as a young creative scholar is one I remember well. There was a hint of trepidation in my steps, a sense of wariness that was underlying the excited ball of nerves inside my chest. It is, most definitely a stark contrast to the last day one spends as a student, when there is no hesitation upon entering the hallowed halls of the college. There is now a nervous energy in every fast paced step you take, were wariness has now been replaced by a sense of being lost and without purpose. The ball of nerves is still there, but whereby in the early days it spoke of caution towards a world unknown, now it resonated with being sense of being set adrift from a world which helped define you and your purpose as a creative being. Through this navigation of an emotional minefield, one also must focus on the business of the day… the Degree Show.
In Pakistan, a degree in the creative arts takes four years to complete (Fine Arts, Design, Film & Television etc), whereas a degree in Architecture takes five years. During these years, the students are put through their paces at a very rigorous and demanding schedule where they are taught skills and techniques to develop their abilities in their chosen field. There are two streams of courses which run parallel to each other during the period of study.
The first is the Theory course, which cover varying topics and become more complex as the years progress. Here, the students are made to understand the philosophical discourses which led to the birth of various models and principles upon which the art world evolved throughout history, and how these theorems were developed and applied to works and projects by the great masters across the spectrum. Indeed, all fields of art are without a doubt interconnected and have grown together, each undoubtedly influencing the other in its way of thinking and approach to creativity.
The second stream is the Studio course, perhaps the most important of two, and the most enjoyable for the students by far. Here, the students are taught how to develop their expertise and, quite literally, the tools of their trade and are introduced to various mediums by which they may give birth to the ideas which they visualize in their minds. The studio allows the students to explore, experiment and push the boundaries of creativity thereby giving life to their imagination and ingenuity. Yet, while the studio course may be deemed important and enjoyable, without the close relationship to the theory subjects, it is hollow and without meaning. For you see, the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship; feeding off each other so as to sustain themselves, as it is the theoretical frameworks, when studied and understood, which gives deeper meaning to the works created thereby evolving the theorems themselves and perhaps allowing the room for the development of new ones.
This process of growth and evolution ideally allows for innovative ideas which push the boundaries of what is acceptable and allowed, thus creating the level of maturity in the student to create meaningful interpretation of the social, political and cultural ideals which tend to influence a person’s perceptions of being and their connections and role in the world as we know it. Over the duration of study and practical application, one also ends up experiencing numerous degree shows on the road to their own. Those belonging to their own school, as well as of others within the academic sphere. It is a day every artist, architect and designer must face at the end of their scholarly endeavours. A culmination of the all the years of knowledge and skill gained which takes the form of a showcase that highlights ones talents and creative genius. It is the first of many (if you are so fortunate) platforms that you will be afforded to stand upon and declare your presence to the world.
While the degree show encompasses a large range of programs, perhaps the most direct impact on the success of the show is for the young artists, whereby the degree show – whether at BA (degree) or MA (postgraduate) level – is a valuable opportunity to highlight ones work to a wide range of people working in the art world. Curators, writers, other artists, gallery directors and many others visit degree shows as part of their research into artists they might want to work with in the future. It’s important that the showcasing artist’s work looks its best at all times, and that you are available and contactable in the months following your show.
Let us look at a short analysis now of the degree show written by Tom Morton in 2013 as an op-ed for Frieze online titled: Best in Show – The changing face of graduate exhibitions. He says,
“So familiar is the degree show, then, that it’s easy to forget what a peculiar kind of exhibition it is. When else do artists find themselves obliged to take part in a group show in which the curatorial logic begins – and, in most cases, ends – with the decisions of a college admissions panel, taken months or years before? Where else are the works they display ascribed (the impossibility of measuring the numinous be damned) a precise numerical score? Then there is the matter of the degree show’s public. A humanities student’s thesis is read by his or her supervisor, examiners and, perhaps, a particularly indulgent parent, before being immediately deposited in the dim basement of a university library, where it remains untroubled by talent scouts from academic publishers, or the attentions of weekend history buffs or philosophy dweebs looking for the Next Big Thing. Degree shows, however, actively court an audience, often employing professional-grade marketing paraphernalia (the art press advertisement, the celebrity catalogue forward, the commemorative tote) to ensure that the ‘right’ people attend.”
On the idiosyncrasies of degree shows in the UK, he also had an interesting commentary to add where he speaks on how artists in the past have used the platform as an occasion to propose counteract the limitations set upon them in a world which paradoxically pushes one to break boundaries,
“Given that the degree show traditionally operates as a kind of threshold between the art school and the art world, between studenthood and maturation, it’s unsurprising that some celebrated British artists have used it as an opportunity to present works that test institutional boundaries – examples include David Hockney’s print The Diploma (1962), made in protest against the Royal College of Art’s refusal to let him graduate without first submitting a written essay (the examiners eventually capitulated in the face of Hockney’s growing fame), and Gavin Turk’s blue heritage plaque Cave (1991), commemorating his time studying at the College as though he were already a sculptor of national standing (Turk was not awarded a degree, although the ensuing press hoopla thrust him to prominence).”
Now that we understand how the degree show affords artists opportunities to declare their presence to the world, there is also another aspect that one must consider when one talks about such opportunities to project oneself; the cost. No doubt, a degree in the arts is an expensive undertaking, even at the subsidized tuition rates that government institutions offer, for without the material to make the art itself, the process of creativity becomes null and void. And material is not cheap. When we think of the money invested over the years in art material, the degree show is also seen as a place where one may be able to redeem the expenses through work’s sold, if not the cost of putting up the display for the show itself.
When I was in art school in the National College of Arts well over a decade ago, there was a running joke between myself and friends who were not of the department of Fine Arts. Whenever we would view the thesis displays and see the prices that the artists and faculty and determined as the worth of pieces at that time, we would always say that we were in the wrong program, as no one would be interested in buying the computer aided drawings that were our tools of presentation in the department of Architecture. Who would be interested in buying printouts of plans? Unless those plans had been etched into metal plates and then rolled out on a printmaker’s press, or painted on canvases as part of an expression of the built environment and its contextual understanding. Even sketched in ink, pastels or pencils, or woven in cloth and stretched on wood slats. For you see, which each different medium, the worth and meaning of the piece changes as does the prospective buyer and purveyor. Where students of Architecture may use their works to impress prospective employers, the art student may use also use the work as a basis to determine their monetary worth in a competitive world.
Herein, the degree show also becomes a site for industry and institutional judgment…and this is where we come to the very real possibility that each and every single prospective graduate must face.
It is a fear, an insidious feeling that dwells deep in the mind and creeps into the soul. That you could make what you may consider to be the most original art or building or poster. You could weave the most innovative textile and or engineer a cutting edge product. Film, in your estimation, an award-winning documentary or compose an original piece of music to put you at par with the greatest of the masters. You could sweat blood and paint and tears for well over a period of four or five years, when the day which serves as the culmination of all one’s efforts finally arrives, the fear will be present with you like a silent companion, one that you cannot shake off. Your work, your passion…the very representation of your existence to date will be judged and could be found wanting. And yet again, it here perhaps that the fine art student is most impacted by the degree show itself. For it is these very same curators, writers, other artists, gallery directors and many others who visit degree shows that may deem the presented work unworthy of mention, thus in turn ensuring the demise of a young artist’s career even before it has begun. This seems to hold true of most cases. But the beauty of the show is where the where the artist stands tall and decides that no one critic on one single platform has the authority to determine his or her work to be of worth or not, for that is what they have been taught during their years of study is it not? That numerous famous and great artists in history had no patrons or sponsors and no recognition to their work for many years, if at all during their lifetime, but gained notoriety and fame at some point in their careers, if not posthumously.
And so, we may surmise that where, as mentioned earlier, the degree show symbolises not only one’s past and current educational achievements but also one’s speculative future and where the preparation for the show can be solitary and competitive, collaborative and public it is also undoubtedly a costly affair, both financially and emotionally. Yet it also a place which offers up the potential to be a space of disruption, occupation, agitation and protest, where you may be the next big thing to hit the art world while, simultaneously, leave without making a mark and take it up as a challenge to defy the odds which have been set against you. In all aspects, it is most definitively a challenge to be well met and surpassed.