An Oak Tree (1974)


In terms of student recruitment at the very least, the Irish-born and American-trained artist Michael Craig-Martin must be the most successful art educator that Britain has had since Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore at Newcastle in the late ’50s or Willam Lethaby at Central at the end of the 19th century. Following the changes which Craig-Martin and his colleagues made in BA and MA Fine Art pedagogy at Goldsmiths College over the 1980s, a group of young British art students were fired up enough to show with bravura a certain art exhibition in London called Freeze in 1988. Off the cuff, Craig-Martin invited Norman Rosenthal and Nicholas Serota to look around. Life astonishingly was never quite the same again. World money for contemporary art poured into London.

That’s the myth, anyway. Applicants definitely flocked to Goldsmiths – so acquiring for the art school there a reputation for excellence which has never really fallen away since.

Almost 15 years before, it was Craig-Martin himself who had made waves with a now famous conceptual art piece in an exhibition at the former guardsman Alex Gregory-Hood’s Rowan Gallery in Belgravia. An Oak Tree was a glass shelf positioned above head height to the right, with a glass of water on it. At waist height to the left was a Q&A text in which Craig-Martin asserted that he had changed the glass of water into an oak tree. The nod to Socratic dialogue played out there in the wall text demonstrated that the mid-century academic turn art had taken in America was now clearly at home in Britain, too. Much, much later (after the millennium) the Catholic Herald newspaper would write that this piece could also teach us about transubstantiation and the real presence…

Well, art education, oak trees and an Irish heritage oddly coincided in London again last month, but not so felicitously.

This time round it’s not an Irish artist telling everyone what’s what, but another Irishman, the construction industry economist John Raftery, now Vice-Chancellor of London Metropolitan University. He announced that in a scheme called ‘Project Oak Tree’, the Cass art school will be moved far from its East End home of 150 years to North London (halfway up the Holloway Road – 5 miles away). The project carries the slogan ‘One campus. One community’. Under that catholic banner, the old multicultural pluralism at the university may now be snuffed out and a new unifying orthodoxy established, instead (heresy is essentially partial and local, after all). Some £50m may be garnered in the sale of Central House (opposite the Whitechapel Gallery). Surprisingly, there is no new plan for art school admissions to accompany this move, despite the obvious wrench from the Cass’s recruiting heartland. All this to move into a campus which has shed applicants at great speed recently (under much the same management team). John now seriously risks losing in a very short time both a great art school tradition and a revived and flourishing Cass.

Let’s return to Craig-Martin, for he’s useful here. An Oak Tree lies at the heart of much art shown over the last two or three decades. The artist’s answers in his displayed Q&As might imply a one-way street: you’re the interested visitor – it’s art if I say it is.  The Cass (foundation) alumna and former Eranda Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Schools Tracey Emin once riffed on this in a remark about her tent Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995: “If people say it’s a joke or a confidence trick, I’d say they’re not very interested in art.”

I certainly feel at the moment (after a spiky comment directed at me from a short, bald senior manager following the Open Forum last week) that in moving the Cass so far from its natural catchment area, my university is saying the Fine Art course I lead doesn’t matter, that it’s trivial, that it’s a joke. Especially as there’s no new student recruitment plan, no commitment to new building plans for staff and students to see – absolutely nothing at all. It’s a shock to discover this after so much hard work, but Tracey is right: I’m coming to think my university just isn’t very interested in art.

I’m writing this publicly because the university doesn’t appear to act on what has been said privately in the university’s Forums. Perhaps it listens, but chooses not to hear, which is the regular and cynical meaning of consultation these days. Anyway, the pace of communication is glacial, when there isn’t the time for that. If I’m wrong, then come on, London Met. Get your act together, let’s have some ambition. Lead the way out of this by example, by showing you care now, this week. No hanging around – don’t let it drag out. Either let the Cass stay at Aldgate for good. Or show commitment to viability by revealing to Cass staff and students a vision of a new, purpose-built art school that will compete – one with a ‘big bang’ date on it and no temporary stop-gaps in the lead-up. Nothing else will do. Certainly not the years of building site and some grubby vacant classrooms that we appear to be promised now. Because that’s totally unviable for attracting art students! That much is obvious, surely? The lack of clarity from senior managers on exactly this issue means that everyone on the wrong end of the decision to move now thinks there’s a hidden agenda – the diminution or abandonment of the university’s art & design courses.

There’s a petition to Save the Cass here – please sign it.


One thought on “An Oak Tree (1974)”

  1. Reblogged this on Angie Noon and commented:
    What a fine piece of writing and indeed so many valid points. Why aren’t the board answering these questions and giving the teaching staff and students the answers to their futures? Please sign the petition and help us keep the Cass in Aldgate


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