From the series Bungled Memories.
David Bate is a visual artist, teacher and writer based in London. He is known specifically for his work on avant-garde photography, art & culture. He was one of the first artists to experiment with digital photographic processes in the UK. His work includes Bungled Memories, a series of still life pictures about unconscious accidents which occurred in his kitchen. He was recently Artist-in-Residence in Melbourne, Australia where he shot his new work Australian Picnic, about ‘globalisation’. His writings include the two books Photography and Surrealism and Photography: Key Concepts. The series of photographs ZONE and other works are also forthcoming as monographs. He is currently leading photography research at University of Westminster, London.
David was my course leader at Westminster so I thought I’d ask his opinion on the university route into art.
SB: What are the pros and cons of the academic route into the life of an artist, in your opinion?
DB: The answer to your question depends on what you mean by ‘academic’. To describe something as ‘academic’ in everyday language is often used as almost an insult, to diminish something as not important at all.
‘Get out there and do it’ or ‘Go study it’? These options are not so mutually exclusive as some would like to think. A student of life or a student of books is not the real division.
Invention of necessity may well come from invention of study. Picasso’s famous invention of cubism came from his ‘study’ of sculptures and images from other cultures. Van Gogh studied the work of his rivals. Many, many examples show that ‘academic’ interest in something drives it forward, even if it is not actually in a university. So in that sense, an academic route is inevitable to the life of any artist. Perhaps I am being over sensitive.
Traditionally universities were not the place where one could study photography. Up until the late 1970s you would have been laughed at if you asked a university if they had courses on photography. Photography developed in art schools and the Polytechnics in the UK. Polytechnics were thought of as technical and art schools as creative. Today that has all changed, universities are often aimed now at mass education, rather than an elite. In changing the aim of their address they have changed what they offer.
Certainly, being in a University does not guarantee anything in terms of artistic life. However, it does offer a space where things might happen to someone in developing their practice. You cannot underestimate what the environment of people creating things has on a group for those who are willing and able. Last summer I did a photography workshop. With the energy of people, students and teachers it was unbelievable what could be achieved in a week.
Maybe this is all an academic answer though …
Have any of your students ever blown you away and how?
I hope you mean with their ideas rather than a gun. If so, yes of course, many, always with their work.
What classic mistakes do you frequently see students make?
It is a big mistake to think there is a correct way to do things and to try to second guess what tutors want. Tutors don’t want anything except to see good work, that is, apart from those tutors who set out to produce mini-me versions of themselves.
What are your hopes for your students?
To enjoy themselves, find out something they didn’t know, to think, to respond to the things that are important.
Do you think artists with an intellectual understanding of their work go further than those who don’t?
Yes. Ideas are a process, if you cannot engage with that process it all ends. If there is no process of thinking the work is empty.
What advice would you give anyone considering an MA? a PhD?
Think about what you want from them and why you want to do it. Do this before you start one.