From Art History to the Philosophy and Politics of Art: on the new BA (Hons) Philosophy, Politics, Art

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How do you choose the right degree course, and where might it lead you? Will Hughes, BA (hons) History of Design graduate, describes his intellectual journey at the University of Brighton and introduces a new undergraduate degree that combines study of philosophy, politics and art.

I am Will Hughes. I come from Sussex in the UK, and am now approaching the end of my year studying for an MA in Cultural and Critical Theory, specializing in Aesthetics and Cultural Theory.

Early in 2010, I applied, via UCAS, for five different undergraduate degrees. My criterion for choosing between them was simple – that the courses they offered should be interesting. I accepted a place to study the BA in History of Design, Culture, and Society (now BA History of Design) at the University of Brighton.

I’d had no prior experience with design, and I hadn’t studied history since secondary school, but it seemed to fit the criterion. I felt that it could sustain my interest for the duration. It is one of the few major decisions that I have made because it was something that I wanted to do, rather than because of some immediate or future practical concern. In hindsight, it qualifies as one of my better decisions. Your decision about your higher education is too important to be based on what job you might want to do (or end up doing) in the rest of your life.

From the beginning, the content of the course was expansive. The courses on the degree looked at art, craft, and design – but mostly the latter two – from around the mid-eighteenth century to the present. From within this degree, I was able to develop my interests, which included politics in the focused sense (the implicit stratification of the arts, art as social engineering, etc.), which I pursued with regard to the nature of Modernism. I also developed an interest in politics in the generally accepted sense, which led me to investigate the design, poetry and prose of William Morris, the art and designs of Constructivism, and aspects of fascist architecture.

Will Hughes' dissertation, on set design in 1930s Hollywood

Will Hughes’ dissertation, on set design in 1930s Hollywood

In my third year, I completed a compulsory module on the reading of objects in conjunction with texts from other subject areas (mostly sociology, critical theory, and anthropology). This led me to the writings of Walter Benjamin, which I opted to explore in relation to industrial design and the historical avant garde. It is as a result of having studied on this course that I discovered that I wanted to study aesthetics and the philosophy of art.

After graduating, I enrolled on the Cultural and Critical Theory MA at Brighton, choosing the Aesthetics and Cultural Theory pathway. Though daunting at first, this was the work that I really wanted to do. I also followed the first term module ‘Foundations of Critical Theory’, which introduced me to continental philosophy. Keeping up with the reading was difficult. At least one new philosopher was introduced in the lectures each week. Between each lecture was the preparation for the seminar the following week.

Going from a state of ignorance to having a workable understanding of thinkers such as Kant and Hegel, each within a week, is difficult but I was nevertheless able to croak something intelligible in most of the small-group seminar discussions. Though difficult, this work was necessary to prepare me for the dissertation on which I am currently engaged – an identification of the deficiencies of Arthur Danto’s and Hegel’s teleological theories of art and of history.

The skills that I learned in my undergrad work on Art History are still applicable in Philosophy. I learned how to read texts critically, and how to craft an essay, and I didn’t accumulate too many bad habits in these areas. Ultimately, I want to organise my thoughts into a coherent view of the world. This is going to take some more time, some considerably more time. Consequently, I’m now thinking of doing a PhD.

Now Brighton is to have an undergraduate degree in precisely the area of my interests – the BA (Hons) Philosophy, Politics, Art. This degree will connect all of the interests that I had and have developed – art and representation, politics and political activism, philosophical reflection and theoretical engagement. My interest has always been in the connection between these critical moments of thought and action. Now this exists as a degree programme here in Brighton.

 

Volunteering at Fabrica: contemporary visual arts in Brighton

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Fancy volunteering in the visual arts? Student Rosie Clarke (BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society) gives a taste of her experiences a
t Brighton’s Fabrica.

Over the last year or so I’ve been involved with some of the events and exhibitions which happen behind closed doors in the cool, quiet atmosphere of an old church on Duke Street. You may have been inside Fabrica, or you may have walked straight past like I had countless times before, but now I urge you to stop and have a look.

It’s a wonderful building, with walls so thick that even the busiest Saturday Brighton tourists are muffled, and a roof that vaults high into shafts of sunlight. Fabrica hosts contemporary visual art exhibitions and holds all manner of events, from films to workshops to talks. It’s an organisation which commissions art works in relation to the building itself, creating a feeling that is unique to Fabrica.

My role as a volunteer means helping out during exhibitions: I talk to the public about the current artists on display and the work that Fabrica does elsewhere. So far I’ve been involved with The Blue Route (by Kaarina Kaikkonen), Resonance (Susie Macmurray), and A Cold Hand on a Cold Day (Jordan Baseman). When I applied to become a volunteer at Fabrica I wanted to learn how a gallery functions, meet some new people, and perhaps be inspired in my own creativity. However there is so much more to being a Fabrica volunteer than just standing in a gallery.

One great opportunity was being able to contribute to The Response, a magazine put together by Fabrica volunteers alongside each exhibition, featuring our own artwork or writing. It was great to be a part of the editing team and have the chance to get my work read by hundreds of visitors. We responded to Kaarina Kaikkonen’s The Blue Route, which used reclaimed shirts to project ideas about loss and longing. You may have seen some of Kaarina’s work wrapped around the clock tower in Churchill Square. We used the shirt as a starting point, and the magazine content grew from there.

During the set-up of Resonance I found out how to put together an installation, by spending a few days stitching reams of sheet-music into cones for the final piece – getting to know many interesting people along the way. It felt like time had stopped, if not for the fact that every time I glanced up there would be another huge new limb of the paper sculpture suspended above, the product of our labour. This photo was taken halfway through…

Installation of Resonance by Susie Macmurray. Fabrica, 2013. Photograph by Rosie Clarke.

There are also plenty of evening events that are held in conjunction with the current exhibitions, such as panel discussions and film screenings. In October I invigilated for “Nothing Lasts Forever (Nor Should It)”, a frank and heartening discussion about death and dying to compliment A Cold Hand on a Cold Day. The series looked at ways of dying (inevitable as it is) and raised the question, why are we so averse to talking about death? I remember one of the speakers describing pain, as “a vessel of grief.” Its moments such as this that I appreciate the depth and essence of Fabrica’s work, which goes so much further than the visual arts.

So within all these experiences, I’ve learnt that by engaging with unfamiliar things there’s a lot to be discovered. The best aspect of Fabrica is their willingness to encourage new ideas, and allow volunteers such as myself to take on more responsibility. If you’d like to get involved too, you can download an application form from Fabrica’s website, or come along to one of their events to find out more. Fabrica’s next exhibition features Jacob Dahlgren’s On Balance and it runs from 5 April to 26 May 2014.