Book review: Creative License: From Leeds College of Art to Leeds Polytechnic, 1963-1973 by James Charnley

Published by Lutterworth Press

I approached this review of James Charnley’s book Creative License a little less than enthusiastically. The sub title From Leeds College of Art to Leeds Polytechnic, 1963 – 1973 seemed to describe a text of limited appeal. Perhaps only to those who had been students/lecturers at that time or had other connections with this particular institution, social historians re-visiting the period or even TV producers planning their next time travelling adventure show. In fact the book is far more than a narrow history of a period in the development of a regional art college. The text illuminates a world that is far removed and unrecognisable from any phase of education today.

James Charnley writes in a clear style that avoids jargon and any attempt to over theorise or confuse the reader with esoteric language. He moves from a description of Leeds in the 1960s, drawing on valuable testimonies from ex-students and lecturers, to an overview of the development of art education in higher education going on to describe the move to polytechnic status with all the consequent issues of lack of understanding, increased bureaucracy, control and status. Students and tutors are given their voice in Part two with a personalised conclusion in Part three.

Part one is, as expected, a journey through the formative period for the college from the early to late 60s and the ‘Leeds experiment’. Charnley illustrates his history with a wealth of detail and contributions and many connections are made with notable figures in the broad spectrum of the arts. There is some danger here of overload and I was beginning to become lost in the plethora of names and links before reaching the end of this section. However, also emerging were some of the larger themes that give greater significance to the book and which should provoke debate with anyone concerned with education and art education at any phase and particularly in higher education. Does a very liberal and well-funded regime guarantee success or creativity? What are the roles and the responsibilities of tutors in a post Dada experimental environment? How far can structure and tradition be overthrown or ignored? What conditions can be put in place to allow art and creativity to flourish? What was the gender balance, in the 1960s tutors were all described as ‘decent blokes’. Even when women made a late appearance as tutors their numbers in no way reflected the student cohort which was consistently around 40 per cent female. Should governments have any role in planning and structuring education and if not, who then acts as a reasonable ‘gatekeeper’?

These themes are re-visited throughout the book. What begins as a form of celebration touched with tenderness and fondness for a time and place of great significance to the author gradually takes on a more critical stance as the cracks in the revolutionary and anarchic approach of some, but powerfully influential, tutors is questioned.

From the freedom that enabled the Leeds experiment to flourish to the funding available to support adventures that today would raise more than a few eyebrows (e.g. College paying for pies and whiskey as elements of performance events) this was a time of challenge to the perceived established order. The author sees 1963 as the real birth of the 60s and provides a compelling list of examples from the arts and politics in support. Tutors at Leeds were recruited less for their formal art practice but more for their belief in a post-Dada challenge to orthodoxy and tradition. Hiring could and did take place in the local pub and the financial rewards were great, tutors receiving £100 per day when the average weekly wage was around £16.

This abundance of financial support was unprecedented but, the author argues about whether this led to any significant developments or improvements in art education? A glance at the previous two decades produces a number of artists who went on to achieve national and international reputations, Auerbach, Riley, Morley (first winner of the Turner prize), Blake, Kitaj, Hoyland to name a few. The years following 1973 are by comparison rather impoverished and reading some of the ex-students’ stories in Part2 we can perhaps see why. Here we have creative individuals who are described as dreamers with grand visions but no concept of how these might become realised (was realising visions not part of the tutors’ role I wonder?).

Charnley’s own journey, honestly and sometimes painfully recorded in Part 3, mirrors the journey of his institution. He describes his anxieties, missed opportunities and the fleeting recognition that attended work he produced for the ICA exhibition in 1972. This show seems to have been both a celebration and an obituary for the Leeds experiment.

A telling metaphor from Brian Seals a fellow student, describes the end of the journey as coming to ‘the end of the pier’. Charnley elaborates on this ‘the image of a pier with amusements, fun fair and candy floss, an artificial structure raised on high…we had promenaded on believing we were on our way to greater things’. Does this sum up the Leeds experiment? If so was it of value or, as Miles McAlinden is quoted as saying ‘Our self-confidence seems alarming now…how many students benefitted from being there and how many we gravely wounded’.

In conclusion Leeds can be seen as a one-off experiment and as such it had success, impact and was hard to ignore. That it lacked definition and structure is acknowledged by the author yet should we not celebrate a system that at the time allowed such experiments to take place? My only reservation is the sub-title as being so specific on time and place this could well discourage some readers and they would lose the opportunity to engage with the themes and issues presented so clearly here.

Ted Kennedy

Paperback: 322 pages
ISBN: 978-0718893477
(RRP: £25.00)

29 Apr 2015