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Last April, my colleagues and I in the Glasgow School of Art’s Forum for Critical Inquiry organized a seminar on “The Role of Critical and Contextual Studies in Art School Education in Scotland,” which aimed to facilitate and stimulate scholarly debate on art and design higher education and to establish a regional network of Scottish faculty who teach Critical and Contextual Studies. The seminar was funded by the UK’s Council for Higher Education in Art and Design and formed part of their Regional Seminar programme.

Since 1962–63, university level art and design education in the UK has included an “academic” element, which was originally referred to as the History of Art and Design and Complementary Studies and is now better known as Critical and Contextual Studies (CCS). This element was introduced to give “degree equivalence” to what was initially a quite technically focused diploma by providing context to studio practices and developing a broader range of skills in students. Topics taught under this rubric include histories of art and design, film and media histories, critical theory, aesthetics, and, more recently, curatorial and art writing practices. Recent changes to UK art and design higher education, precipitated by diverse drivers such as funding cuts and the emergence of the PhD by practice as the terminal degree, has brought the debate about the role of CCS back into sharp focus. A central question for this debate is: if the role of CCS is no longer “to elevate” and “lend academic credibility” to studio practice, as was originally the case (outlined in the Coldstream Reports of 1960 and 1970), then what do we see as its role both now and in the future?

This is a recurring (if not perpetual) question for art schools in the UK and Ireland where CCS still represents a sort of “minor” subject that underpins the “major” studio practice; the relationship between the two is never quite at ease. The question has been addressed by my institution, the Glasgow School of Art, three times through departmental review since I began teaching there in 2000, and it has not been satisfactorily answered to date. The most recent iteration was prompted by a recommendation in the Glasgow School of Art’s Fine Art 2013 Periodic Review, which advised that CCS be divided and brought under the management of the institution’s three schools (Fine Art, Design, and Architecture) rather than be managed centrally and provide cross-institution curriculum.

Across the UK there exists a variety of curricular and organizational CCS models, which are reflected in the different approaches of the four Scottish art schools: Glasgow School of Art; Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh; Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee; and Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. By focusing on the regional context, we hoped to identify issues and opportunities that may be unique to the Scottish higher education sector, which differs from the rest of the UK in a range of ways, including a tendency for four-year degree programs; no tuition fees for home or European Union students; the ability of Scottish students to start university at the age of seventeen; and a focus on educational breadth at the undergraduate level.

Thirty-five delegates from across Scotland and the UK attended the seminar, and for the opening keynote, Dr. Annebella Pollen from the University of Brighton presented an overview of a piece of pedagogic research that was recently published in Design and Culture.[1] In the paper, titled “Theory and Practice: Objective and Subjective?,” she critiques the perception of the “academic element” of studio-based programs as lacking in subjectivity and personal investment, instead arguing that design history is an embodied, reflective, and affective discipline.

Two lecturers from each of the four Scottish art schools then gave short presentations on CCS within their institutions, offering either overviews of their respective curricular and operational models or focusing on examples of innovative practice that, for instance, combine studio and CCS methodologies and techniques (such as visual presentation, collage, assemblage, collecting, curating, and writing) to design CCS courses.

Numerous differences emerged in the various models and approaches employed by each of the four institutions. It was clear that operational models have a considerable impact on learning and teaching practices. For example, the Edinburgh College of Art and the Glasgow School of Art can offer team-taught courses and a diverse range of electives because they have separate CCS departments that work across programs. In contrast, the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design faculty tend to be attached to specific programs and work in a more isolated way or, when possible, in pairs. (Certainly there is no sense in having a strategic approach to CCS provision—and related research—at an institutional level at Duncan of Jordanstone.) Perhaps because CCS at Gray’s School of Art has been through several different operational and pedagogic iterations over the past ten years (from being a separate department, to being fully integrated with studio, and then back to being a separate department), the school seems well placed to propose courses that endorse innovative practices to engage students with CCS.

The closing keynote by Neil Mulholland from the Edinburgh College of Art, provocatively titled “Juche: Art School State of Mind,” was based on his article for the New Art West Midlands 2014 exhibition catalogue and is part of his sustained research project into art school pedagogy.[2] His central thesis posits that, while there is an exciting scope for developing radical pedagogies within art schools, the insular culture fostered therein since the mid-twentieth century stymies opportunities for curricular diversity. Having broad-based contextual studies goes some way toward challenging the monoculturalism that art and design education can, at times, endorse; it does so both by fostering critical thinking and by facilitating the student’s development of a different skill set.

We hoped that the keynotes from Pollen and Mulholland would provide a sort of framing, and they did by asking provocative questions about what art school education is and should be in the twenty-first century, and by considering how to challenge ossification and reconceptualize the role of contextual studies as part of a diverse curriculum. The short presentations from the four Scottish art schools gave us a chance to see what and how we teach, and allowed us to share good practices. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the seminar was the opportunity to meet and talk about the issues we share as contextual studies faculty working within art schools, thereby kick-starting a range of collaborations between CCS staff within Scotland, from informal teaching exchanges and joint writing projects to developing cross-institutional research funding bids.

Scottish higher education institutions have a strong tradition of collaboration due to their relatively small number, geographical proximity, and shared well-defined regional/national identity, yet Scottish CCS staff have rarely collaborated. This lack of collaboration may be partly attributable to a lack of organizational support and recognition of this “minor” subject, but it is also a result of there being no natural home for an interdisciplinary subject area that spans art and design history, cultural studies, philosophy, film and media studies, gender studies, ethnography, and various other subjects. Individual CCS faculty tend to participate in professional networks tied to one or two of these disciplines, but there is something distinctive about teaching and researching in an art school context that requires another kind of network and other kinds of support. Currently Scotland is bereft of this kind of support, and we therefore need to build this support at regional and national levels while simultaneously connecting with major national and international organizations such as the UK’s Council for Higher Education in Art and Design and the College Art Association, which have long recognized the need to support art and design higher education across studio and contextual studies.

[1] Annebella Pollen, “My Position in the Design World: Locating Subjectivity in the Design Curriculum,” Design and Culture 7, no. 1 (2015): 85–106.

[2] Neil Mulholland, “Juche: Art School State of Mind,” in New Art West Midlands 2014, exh. cat. (Birmingham, UK: Birmingham Museums Trust, 2014), 25–28, at, as of October 19, 2015.

Filed under: International