Degree shows: an exposure

Degree shows are yearly events, ones that happen at universities that host art and design courses. These universities open their doors and place themselves and their final year students on the whitest of plinths in order to showcase their artistic endeavors, practices and relevance as institutions. Although this is a great opportunity for parents to see what their children have been engaged in and an opportunity for the selected few to be approached by the Caitlin guide and the likes, it has to be asked: what are the other functions and issues that accompany such a ceremony?

One of the most intricate issues of art in general is that of judgment. Who decides if a work is good, and how? Outside of education, we have an art market that decides. I’m not indicating this is the correct way to judge art, but it is a system in place to judge the success of an artist’s practice. So how then are works judged in art schools? I would personally imagine it’s through the ability to communicate their intention to an audience, as well as the validity and clarity of this intention.

In this educational environment, however, the task at hand becomes convoluted by the fact that a degree show’s audience varies. On one hand you have to perform to the tutors and professors and make work that addresses a very highly trained art audience; on the other, you have to address the general public, parents, other students and an audience with little or no experience of art. Because of this dichotomy, the importance placed on degree show work is slightly ironic.

I imagine that when designing marking criteria, there was a utopian vision that the most universally successful artworks would be those that manage to tick the most boxes – but that doesn’t happen. The ability to present research nicely, to write dissertations or to regurgitate the ideas of Barthes or Heidegger doesn’t equate to a person’s success or failure as an artist.

Degree shows can also fall victim to favouritism, placing emphasis and praise upon the larger, flashier, shiner pieces that take centre stage or the biggest space, or the most photographable space. This leaves little room for more experimental works, such as sound, performance or immaterial practices – and that’s a huge failing.

The issues with scale and flashiness reaches beyond notions of ego and into the financial. Students with more money can make bigger work with better materials. They can fully see their intention through, whereas those without the same budget are in a constant negotiation of compromise. There is also the problem of what is actually allowed by institutions, health and safety regulations, what needs to be censored, what is offensive and how to translate those practices into something that is approved of.

The point I’m trying to make is that it isn’t a level playing field.

Issues with the financial also show up in those degree shows that are accompanied with price lists. The “art market” and the “business of art” is rarely discussed at university, which is a gigantic disservice to students, and the degree show price list is real clarification of this. Students are expected to price their work, with no help or guidance. I graduated as a Fine Art student this year and the only advice I received on selling artwork was that smaller paintings sell for less than larger ones. In 2014, after studying Fine Art for three years, that was all I knew of the art market.

It seems to me the sole purpose of degree shows is exposure. Exposure for both the university and its students, in order to get as many people as possible to see the work. It also allows students to speak with curators, to be in publications, to be offered other exhibitions and to meet other artists. This sounds positive in theory, but means that prospective students will flock to those universities that offer the most exposure and the universities with the largest marketing budget, regardless of educational standards.

The art world is supposed to be a place of progression, innovation and imagination. However, in my opinion, young artists are being stifled by the current state of art education and its marking criteria, censorship, curation, marketing and finance – all issues that come to surface in the degree show.

Article and picture by Jeff Ko


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