Artist Yinka Shonibare, Keeper of the RA Cathie Pilkington, and curator Jennifer Gilbert examined how the art world defines, engages with, and values art made by artists both with and without formal training. The event was chaired by art critic and author Hettie Judah.
For generations, an artist’s art school has influenced their standing and reputation in the art world. Yet throughout art history, many artists have developed their practice outside of formal institutions. Methods such as self-teaching, community or intergenerational sharing of knowledge and, more recently, collectives and supported studios have produced an array of creative talent. More than this, categories and labels such as ‘outsider art’ and ‘art brut’ marginalise and brutalise ‘the other’.
Taking place at the Royal Academy, home to both the RA Schools and the Summer Exhibition (the world’s oldest open submission exhibition), this discussion explored the definition and value of formal and non-formal training, and considered how the art world engages with those who have developed their art practice in non-traditional ways.
Painting The Panel
Yinka Shonibare: is an interdisciplinary artist known for his exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalisation. He has exhibited internationally and his works are in notable museum collections around the world.
Cathie Pilkington: is an artist whose work engages with the canonical history of figurative sculpture, using a diverse array of props, materials and studio furniture. She was Professor of Sculpture at the RA Schools from 2015-2019 and in May 2020 was elected Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools.
Jennifer Gilbert: is a gallerist, freelance producer, and curator, working with self-taught, disabled, neurodivergent, Deaf and overlooked artists. She launched her Gallery in 2017, showcasing and empowering artists who create work outside of the mainstream art and art history worlds.
Hettie Judah: is chief art critic on British daily paper The I, and a regular contributor to art publications including Apollo, Frieze and ArtReview. She is also a broadcaster and lecturer and her recent books include How Not To Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents) and Lapidarium.
Souls Grown Deep Like The Rivers
The RA’s current exhibition: Souls Grown Deep Like The Rivers, explores Black artists from the Southeastern United States who have forged a unique art tradition. Working in near isolation from established practices, they have created expressive pieces that painfully articulate elements of America’s tragic past and present – the inhumane injustices of enslavement, the cruel segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, and institutionalised racism.
Drawing its title from the work of Langston Hughes, Souls Grown Deep brings together sculpture, paintings, reliefs, drawings, and quilts, most of which are being seen in the UK and Europe for the first time. Made from materials available locally – like clay, driftwood, roots, soil, recycled and cast-off objects – the 64 works range from the mid 20th century to today. Many respond to issues that are global in nature: from economic inequality, oppression and social marginalisation, to sexuality, the influence of place, and ancestral memory.
This exhibition re-ignited conversations around the selection process of artists and art works from both formal and informal backgrounds, and the gatekeepers and barriers involved in recognition and opportunity within the industry. According to panelist Yinka Shonibare, it is the Academy itself that needs to be diversified. Meeting many of the ‘maverick’ Royal Academicians, Yinka felt as though the institution didn’t adequately reflect the personalities and values of the humans within it. He went on to explain:
“There is nothing really new about, quote on quote, ‘outsider art’… If you think about what happened after the First World War with Dada and the Surrealists, it was a time when psychoanalysis was popular, so the Western Avant-Garde has literally been built on looking at ‘the other’. Picassos whole oeuvre – that was also based on looking at African art, art that was considered out of the European canon. After I joined, I felt very strongly that the Royal Academy was years behind in that regard, because the institution itself – and I’m not just talking about artists, but people who work in it across the board – it needs to recognise the points that are made by looking at ‘outsider art’. I’m not personally against formalised art education, there is a place for it, but there is no doubt that the curriculum needs to be diversified.”
Yinka went on to mention figures such as the self-taught African-American artist Bill Traylor; born into slavery, Traylor became an artist at the age of 85, producing an extensive body of work. While Traylor received his first public exhibition in 1940, it was not until 30 years after his death that his work finally began to receive broader attention, in the late 1970s. His distinctive characters with top hats frequently illustrate violent abstractions, and it’s generally understood that a trickster figure underlies most of his work – many of which hark back to African stories.
Although such pieces are not the kind of work that the Royal Academy’s academic history is built on, Yinka received support in his attempts to introduce such individuals to the RA, and called the developments “exciting”. Yinka himself studied at Byam Shaw School of Art, and described his studies as equally narrow in their approach to the predominantly academic.
Chairing the session, Hettie Judah went on to pull up an image of the Bauhaus School in 1926, feauturing Marcel Breuer, Martha Erps, Katt Both and Ruth Hollos. While the latter women are often dismissively referred to as ‘Marcel’s Hareem’, Hettie describes the attitude of the photo as contemporary – epitomising the art school experience in the popular imagination, as a place of free expression, experimentation, camaraderie and inspiration. “A world apart from the everyday”.
As Keeper of the RA Schools, Cathie Pilkington was presented with the question as to what it is that Art Schools fundamentally provide – time and space, skills, freedom, something more – or something that is mostly professionalised and transactional? Cathie was also asked where most of the learning happens – from tutor to student, or between and within students themselves?
Cathie responded by answering the questions within the context of the RA School itself, which she described as quite different from other programmes. “I’m sure the Bauhaus photo is actually of my current students, because that’s just what it’s like. And if we go to slide 19 I can prove it.” Pulling up a photo of a Tilda Swinton look-alike, with her bleached hair slicked back in a bright pink suit, recent graduate Agnieszka Szczotka is dramatically poised on top of a table in the GA room of the RA. “The GA room is where all the important meetings happen – council meets there, and it’s extremely formal, being covered in prominent historical and contemporary art works. Agnieszka staged her final piece here – as a critical performance of the critics. Not only do we form a community at the RA, but we’re very self-conscious about the institution that we sit within, and we encourage all students to debate that situation.”
“The thing that sets the RA apart from state school systems is that we have a three year post-graduate programme. We value that time, and the kind of transformation that we see in students because of it, is something we really believe in. Its time and focus, workshops run by contributing artists, practitioners and specialists, as well as tutorials, crits and lectures. I think all of the conditions are as close to ideal as you can get in terms of what it is that an artist needs to think about and develop their practice. But we’re really talking about unpicking a practice – and because we’re an independent organisation we can constantly open up to dialogue about what that looks like today… In terms of values, I think doubt is as important as all other attitudes.”
When it comes to the ‘brand image’ of prestigious art schools and the individuals that adopt such identities after graduating, Cathie responded that “there is absolutely a visibility and reputation aspect that opens doors for people. But I’d also like to turn that around and say that is mostly based on the opportunity they’ve had to dig deep into their practice, to ask difficult questions, to take risks, and to form critical communities – this puts graduates in positions of further growth and expansion. What we’re fostering is the strength of a life-long practice of creative tools, and an understanding of how things come apart and join anew. People are given the space to become much more assured about who they are, why they’ve made certain decisions, and what kinds of commitments they’re continuing to make with their work. Something is at stake – we’re not about producing luxury goods. The market is separate from education.”
Gallerist Jennifer Gilbert added that while it can be more difficult for self-taught artists to achieve similar formal recognition, she’s a firm believer that their dedication and raw passion often ends up opening similar avenues or alternative pathways. “The problem with traditional art schools is that they’re very exclusive and it traps out people with disabilities. For example if they’re autistic or neurodivergent, they won’t be able to contribute to crits or communities in the same way. Contributing to a set-up in that way is not formulated for everyone, and there’s a real lack of accessible and inclusive spaces to allow what are often misunderstood, and as yet poorly understood conditions and behaviours to thrive.”
Jennifer went on to cite Jade French, an academic who set up the Irregular Art School – working with a group of artists with learning disabilities. “It’s an art school that’s more personalised and suited to individual needs, allowing people to take their masks off and grow in a manner better suited to the ways in which their minds and bodies operate.” Representing the RA, Cathie interjected that the Royal Academy is really a “small school” rather than an “elite” one, in the way that they go about their admissions process and what they look for in applicants: “those aspects of care and inclusion are still central to what we do. More broadly in universities, it may be very different.”
Yinka added, “For a few years I had open schools resident in my space in East London. I’m doing other things now such as the G.A.S Foundation in Nigeria, but they are all alternative ways of doing art education. People are invited to do residencies, exposing them to completely different countries and spheres. The model of admissions for many art schools still needs to change – maybe instead of A levels and O levels, art education needs to be looked at more broadly. I don’t think you need academic qualifications to be an artist. I think it’s something else. Some of the most fantastic artists don’t come from educational backgrounds, so I’m not sure why we mostly insist on that model.”
Pulling up a slide from Andy Holden’s film Kingdom of The Sick, the still depicts an image of Andy finding the work of self-taught artist Hermione Burton, via a charity shop in Bedford. Hettie explains, “In his film, Andy charts Hermione’s life through her paintings, and asks questions about illness, death and legacy. He also ponders the labels that we apply to people. ‘What is Outsider Art?’ he asks, ‘it consists of sub-categories of yet more definitions, so all-inclusive – it is close to becoming meaningless.’ Self-taught art, auto-didactic art, contemporary folk art, art of the insane, naive art, art brut. It is raw, unfiltered art of the margins. Art that evokes qualities of the mystical, disconnection, reconnection, a different look at culture and community – untainted by the tastes or indoctrinations of so called sophistication.”
Exploring such language further, Jennifer elaborates “Where possible, I always ask the artists that I work with, how they would prefer to be spoken and written about. Personally, I hate a lot of the labels that exist. In terms of a brief overview as to how we got here – in 1921, there was a book that came out that featured the work of Adolf Wölfli, and was written by a psychiatrist. It was the basis for another book in 1922 called The Artistry Of The Mentally Ill by Hans Prinshorn – Jean Dubuffet saw this book, which is what inspired him to start his collection, and he coined the term ‘art brut’ in the 1940s.”
“Art Brut is made by people driven or compelled to create for themselves. They are generally not influenced by outside culture, so you’d say it’s ‘outsiders’ or ‘outliers’ of the mainstream. But when Dubuffet was collecting similar work, it was often from people working in institutions, or within their own home. Fast forward to 1972, and Roger Cardinal – a British Art Historian that passed away in 2019, wanted to bring out a book exploring Dubuffet’s collection. However his publisher didn’t like the title ‘art brut’ and its crude English translation ‘brutal art’. They therefore made the decision to use the term ‘outsider art’ instead. Today, the term is an umbrella word for so many different things that it was never really intended for. It often further dehumanises people that don’t fit the mainstream narrative as ‘weird specimens’, and further excludes those that are already marginalised. On the whole, art critics often refer to it negatively or disparagingly, so consequently the term is associated with poor connotations now and I prefer not to use it, unless someone actively wants to – usually because they like it, feel they need to, or want to make a point of doing so.”
In exploring the concept of ‘folk art’, Jennifer explains “It’s mostly an American term. People have been taught crafts or decorative work that’s been passed down over the years through their elders and family lineage – it might be basket making or quilt weaving. And then you have terms like ‘naive, self-taught and visionary art’, but in the disability arts movement there’s a saying – ‘label jars, not people’. I think it’s fair to say there’s cause for an artist just to be recognised as such.” At the same time, such labels have served as helpful to individuals, especially when seeking out accessible resources and environments for support and development.
Yinka adds that “Within American history, they are quite proud of the art of ‘ordinary folk’, and it doesn’t seem to have the same psychosis or oddity attached to it that it does in Europe. The European psychoanalytical thing – America doesn’t frame it like that. They have more exhibitions and spaces for it, and people are more exposed to it, so it’s less marginalised. In the UK ‘folk art’ is usually a sporadic exhibition that comes in and leaves again, whereas there’s a bit more consistency in the States. America doesn’t have the same class issues and establishment. I think that’s the main difference – when America became independent, it was a way of defining itself against the old culture.”
Cathie further notes that it’s often an issue confined to the visual arts, as ‘outsider writers’ or ‘self-taught musicians’ don’t exist in the same way. Moving onto ‘mediumistic art’, the work of Sobel was explored as a major influence of Jackson Pollock. However she has been described as a ‘primitive painter who was and still is, a housewife living in Brooklyn’. Hettie asks, “behind all of the labels and nuanced terminology, does all of this boil down to the question of who’s allowed to be an artist? And who conforms to the expectations and prejudices that we hold of such roles? The prejudices around age, class, race, gender, culture and mental health.”
To concentrate on this, Cathie talked about her own history of arriving at art school at the age of 19, with “very little cultural capital.” This formative experience led to her lifelong exploration of continually questioning such values, attitudes and languages, and the ways in which they interconnect and intersect with different spaces, processes and publics:
“When I became a Royal Academician, I explored this notion of how I would interface with the patriarchal history of the RA; One of the first exhibitions I did purposefully subverted the ideas of naturalism and anatomical teachings found in many of the RA’s male and mythical forms. I used ‘doll-like’ figures and the processes referenced and reconciled ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. It was a way of using a domestic material and stitching processes, to scale up very softly, making something ‘big’ – which is what’s superficially associated with ideas of success or confidence; it sought to gently obliterate the traditional casts in this way. I was thinking about that whole history of the master and the apprentice. I think the main thing that’s happening in the RA schools is this attitude of asking – what if?”
Yinka highlighted however, that such stitching and sewing wasn’t allowed in the RA’s Summer exhibition. “I know this because I work with a lot of textiles myself. And I don’t know what we do with terms like ‘outsider art’, but I do agree with this idea of reconceptualising the whole thing on a consistent basis. I don’t want to be a hypocrite and I do admit that you gain a lot from the opportunity to go to art school – it’s a huge advantage to be in a context where your work can actually be seen by significant players in the industry. But it creates this separation between ‘correct’ and extraneous contexts. The artists of the Souls Grown Deep exhibition have an education, but it’s been passed down through ancestry, it’s not the legacy of an institution. The question is how we can challenge people to programme and commission such artworks more often.”
“In many ways, the issue is that such pieces are just not seen as holding the same commercial value. The primary aim of such programmes is to sell tickets, and they historically don’t market or sell as well, perhaps in part because of these extraneous labels and reputations. It’s really about trends, and who or what the art world and gatekeepers suddenly decide to validate. One of the biggest things right now is Street Art. Banksy didn’t go to art school but he’s sought after. Who is it that’s deciding that value? What is this value? And who’s saying what does and doesn’t display these qualities?”
Such questions are especially intriguing within the art world, where function and utility appear to be of less relevance, or are less tangible than in other industries. Yinka believes that value in art is “mostly to do with questions of hierarchy and power – who is associated with the right institutions and people, and who has skin in the game. It’s subjective and irrational, and not as clear cut as just defining real or human value.”
In this sense, the commercial value of art serves as a reflection of society’s structure and values at large. A mirror to the wider context of the cultural capital of the times; Francis Bacon was untrained and learned through progressive mentors. However when Bill Traylor was offered the opportunity to be featured in the MoMA – it was offensively based on the condition that his pieces be acquired for a dollar. Clearly, they were deemed significant – yet worthless without having first been displayed, validated (and owned) by the ‘correct’ cultural context.
Formal or informal, Jennifer notes the importance of advisers and champions, as well as like-minded communities, even between those that prefer to work on projects alone. When it comes to gatekeepers, Cathie states that it’s just as difficult for ‘insider artists’ as it is for ‘outsiders’, and “for every person that does do well, there are a huge amount that don’t. But I think there’s largely confusion between what learning and education is – and what the market is. The whole circus around the market: the direction of flow of capital, and the expanding inequalities this creates, is problematic. But education is not about delivering people to a market.”
How Does The RA Judge Art By Children?
What links a ceramic sculpture of a crocodile in a bread bun (title: Hot Croc), a coloured pencil drawing of a tomato locked in jail, and a sketch of a cat in sunglasses? Welcome to the dizzyingly playful world the RA’s Young Artists’ Summer Show – a free open submission exhibition for UK students aged 4-19. Now in its fifth year, it consistently receives far more entries than the Summer Exhibition (21,000 this year), and approximately 250 are chosen for display in the institution’s Core Learning Centre – hung by the same technicians that handle masterpieces by the likes of Matisse and Rembrandt.
The panel of judges explain that the process can be as rewarding as it is challenging. “The works have got the full range of emotion” says Sarah Lea, RA Exhibition Curator. “They are filled with real humour, and certain things that children observe in the world, as well as the way they express themselves… Some of them are using art to grapple with very difficult experiences. We’ve got works depicting families directly affected by the war in Ukraine and experiences of migration. But then there are also features from the day-to-day joy of every day life, and the things that feature prominently in a child’s life.”
What are they looking for from the submissions? “Originality, creativity and skill” they agree. A panellist quotes the artist Terry Frost, who would check if an artwork gave him ‘a tickle’ as a measure of its greatness. One text-based art-work by Nico, aged 7, reads in elaborately decorative lettering ‘I don’t want to enter the Royal Academy Art competition’; The accompanying statement reads: ‘This is how I felt when I was asked to do the submission for the art competition. But then I realised I did want to do it. Art is fun when you put your mind to it.’ The judges are again unanimous, “A straight yes from us.”
Other works engage in contemporary politics, as seen through the eyes of a child – a reminder of how current affairs and the domestic sphere collide in often surprising and emotional ways. “It’s a place for children to address and explore these mixed concepts and feelings… But of course, you also have lots of pictures of cats. And that’s just as valid.” The show offers a springboard to the young artists, giving them a platform to experience what it means to exhibit publicly. “They are the next generation of artists and Academicians. It’s important for us as an institution and educational establishment to celebrate that.”
The judges also reflect on what they themselves have learned from being immersed in the minds of these children for the day. “It reminds you of the open-ended nature of art-making and world-building, and the possibilities of mark-making. The works transport you and that’s really inspiring. We can’t wait for the public to engage with them, and to share in that sense of wonder and delight.”
Is Human Nature Essentially Artistic?
Philosophy professor Alva Noë believes the answer is yes:
“Life and art are entangled. By this I mean not only that we make art out of life – all the habits and systems and meanings and certainties – but that art then works these raw materials over. Art works us over. It makes us anew. Art, finally, makes us… A work of art, in whatever medium, is a strange tool. In its strangeness, it unveils us to ourselves. But that’s not all, as in doing so, it gives us resources to change. For it tends to set us free from the habits of thinking, looking, feeling and being that hold us fixed. The very encounter with the artwork, something strange and inscrutable, is an occasion for us to reorganise.”
“Finally, what makes art special, is the process of making itself. We human beings, are makers, and we are put together ourselves – literally made up! Made up out of the ways we habitually make, do, think and feel. So we are, in our very nature, tied to art. We are both the products and producers of it. But this has the surprising consequence that there is no such thing really, as human nature at all.”
Philosopher Tom Whyman argues otherwise:
“If human nature is essentially anything, then I would say it is essentially historical. Of course we have a nature: we human beings are animals, with organs that respond to stimuli in a more or less uniform way. But the way in which our needs show up, and how we satisfy them, differ greatly across societies and epochs. For this reason, I would be hesitant to say that human nature was at its essence, ‘artistic’. Naturally, since time immemorial, human beings have indeed produced art – from daubing on cave walls, to typing a prompt into AI. But to lump all of this together, as if it were evidence of some immutable, ‘essential’ nature, seems flattening in the extreme: art is both culturally and historically situated; at its best it speaks the truth of some particular society (or individual) at some particular time.”
“If you wrote Don Quixote nowadays, it would not be the same novel Cervantes wrote. Art is also something of which we can be deprived. People do not ‘essentially’ have a painting or a novel somehow inside them. Even Shakespeare was a product of his time: he was enabled to produce what he did by all sorts of historical circumstances, both favourable and otherwise. Our ability to express ourselves artistically, is a historical achievement. It does no-one any good to pretend that this achievement has already been won.”
Siloing The Spirit
When it comes to deciphering the value of formal art training – we are asked to reconsider what value and values this entails: for whom, and to what ends? In what ways can we nurture the ability in disability? How and why might definitions of success vary at personal and societal levels, and is focus best placed on process or outcome?
Further to this, the increasing specialisation of disciplines over the years means that we are less likely to see the kinds of figures that decorate the exterior of the RA building itself. Individuals that cohesively operated across silos, with theoretical and practical pursuits beyond traditional, or commercial incentives and limitations. Harnessing interdisciplinary lenses that appreciate the art to life, they animated static frameworks in multiple industries, through personal experiences and shared imaginations.
In St James’ Piccadilly, artist Anna Higgins communes with a radical forebear. Cross the threshold of Christopher Wren’s church, and the hum of chatter and traffic fades. “I’m not religious but I’ve always loved being in churches. One thing the RA schools let you do is spend time thinking, and being idle in a church is a great space for the imagination to roam… The schools are a complex environment, and there can be an intensity that you need to get away from. For this reason, I find maintaining an emotional or spiritual life outside of its walls – vital.”
“I’m not praying, but I don’t think you need religious orthodoxy to have a sense of divine presence either.” Higgins’ bond with the Christopher Wren church deepened after she discovered that William Blake, a favourite artist and former student of the schools, was baptised there. “I’m fascinated by Blake as a figure who maintained independent thought and spiritual life, at an oppressive moment in history… Some of the things that angered him, students still battle with today – this idea that there is institutionally sanctioned art, art that is governed by the tastes of the ruling classes. Along with the fees and structures that limit mobility and accessibility – that hasn’t gone away. It might not demand that we paint portraits, but it’s still there.”
Higgins credits the RA for doing what it can to shield students from these pressures, but inevitably, the art world encroaches. It is, she says, a far cry from the scene she left behind in Melbourne, where artists, particularly students, attract less money and less attention. “It is less financially focused, which means there is a more experimental underground scene. In the UK, there are so many more connections between the establishment and artists.” Wren’s Church, its doors open to all, represents an enclave from this commercialism. Plus, Higgins finds that it grants her access to something ineffable and atmospheric, which she channels into her heart.
When it comes to having an art degree on a creative level, Yinka admits that “there are downsides and sometimes something is lost. You lose your innocence as an artist! And then you actually have to allow yourself to re-learn that again. I couldn’t make things for a while after I graduated – it took the fun out of it and it all became too much. I had to give it time and I did other things before I got back into it. It is a form of indoctrination on many levels.”
Cathie agrees, stating that “the draw that we have to ‘outsider’, ‘folk’, or ‘self-taught’ art – it seems to be about a desire to be free from rules and self-consciousness. Yet that idea of freedom is questionable, because there are always constraints to creation. It’s a process of unlearning. Art school is very much a rule-based activity, and the freest you can be is in your ability to ask the kinds of questions that reshape the rules within which you operate, so that they become your own.”