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.

 

Design History in India: Brighton students and staff take their research overseas

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History of Design PhD
student Denise Gonyo reports back from India, where she presented her research at a ground-breaking conference.

It was an honour to be part of the Design History Society’s first-ever conference held outside of Europe, ‘Towards Global Histories of Design: Postcolonial Perspectives’, held at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, 5-8 September 2013.  I was able to attend by receiving the competitive Design History Society bursary and generous support from the School of Humanities. Tanishka Kachru and Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan, the conference organisers, provided a fantastic and historic experience for all who participated.

Everyone was buzzing when we awoke on the first day of papers to find that the conference was featured in the Times of India.  Proceedings began with a keynote speech from Sujata Keshavan, the first Indian woman to receive a postgraduate degree in design and founder of the most influential design firm in India, Ray + Keshavan. Sujata’s talk traced her experiences of modern design in terms of economic, social, and political contexts from Independence to the present day.

There was a strong University of Brighton contingent at the conference. I was part of a panel entitled ‘Exhibiting South Asia’, which featured papers from myself and University of Brighton lecturers in the History of Art and Design, Claire Wintle, Megha Rajguru, and Nicola Ashmore. I was thrilled when one of my academic heroes, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, attended our panel and provided us with fantastic feedback we can use to further our research. In another panel, Brighton MA student Pallavi Patke offered fascinating insight into the European adaptation of Indian embroideries in the late nineteenth century. Tom Wilson, a collaborative doctoral student based at Brighton and the Design Museum (and British Council Curator-in-Residence at the NID) installed a fascinating exhibition trail through the school entitled ‘NID Traces’. Tom’s paper on the Commonwealth Institute was well-attended and insightful, especially as the Institute will be the new home of the British Design Museum in 2014. Annebella Pollen and Cheryl Buckley, faculty in the History of Art and Design at Brighton and executive committee members of the Design History Society, chaired sessions on Postcolonial Textiles, Cultural Colonialism, and Fashion and National Identity. Megha and Nicola also staged a public sewing event from their ‘Remaking Picasso’s Guernica’ project.

Denise Gonyo at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Spiral staircase reclaimed from Victorian calico mill.

Denise Gonyo at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Spiral staircase reclaimed from Victorian calico mill.

Fascinating papers were given on a wide range of topics over the three days of the conference. Professor Alison Clarke, Director of the Victor Papanek Foundation at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, spoke on the subject of design for development, focusing on the design reforms of Victor Papanek and the legacy of the Ahmedabad declaration. Sheena Calvert gave a thought-provoking and provocative paper suggesting that the international export of EuroAmerican design education could be understood as a form of re-colonization. Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s passionate keynote speech examined the extraordinary Durga Puja goddess festivals in contemporary Kolkata, exploring concepts of design branding as well as the changing face of artistic identities fostered by these increasingly spectacular events.

Ahmedabad is also home to the Calico Museum of Textiles, a world-class collection of textiles from the Mughal era to the twentieth century.  It houses, among other treasures, examples of the extraordinary double ikat or patola textile technique that is unique to Gujarat, where each of the 100,000 threads is dyed separately before weaving into a complex patterned cloth. Nicola, Megha and I travelled a couple of hours outside Ahmedabad to Patan to see these textiles in production, all made by hand. Weavers told us the waiting list for one of their pieces is anywhere from 18 months to 4 years. I was directed to a photograph of the weavers meeting former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, presumably because I’m American, although I was more excited to see a photograph of the famous Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan paying a visit.

We have a definite cluster of scholarship on India in our department at Brighton, with at least five academics all working on different periods and topics. It was amazing to be part of such a historic conference and to witness first-hand the NID students who are the new vanguard of design in India, and to see how our university played a role in bringing this forward.

The Fashion and Textiles Museum, Inside and Out

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Hannah Rumball, PhD candidate, documents an extraordinary day in Bermondsey, London.

Founded in 2003 by British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, and still functioning as her London residence and studios, the Fashion and Textiles Museum presents a constantly changing series of design and jewellery exhibitions operated in association with Newham College. On 4 June 2013 the MA History of Design student group, joined by Professor Lou Taylor and Dr Annebella Pollen, were given unprecedented access to the museum’s current exhibition, Zandra’s cutting and print room, and even to her home. As Curator, our fellow Masters student Dennis Nothdruft was in a perfect position to provide an intimate behind-the-scenes tour of the site.

The day commenced with a visit to the hit show Kaffe Fassett: A Life in Colour. The gallery space had been skilfully curated as a unified flowing composition that also managed to represent the core themes of each of the craft practitioner’s creative phases through painting, knitting, textile design and quilting. The relatively modest size of the exhibition space and the overlapping arrangement of the exhibited pieces created an intimate and homely environment for the textiles, much as you may imagine Kaffe envisioned them in use. A heavy wool knitted handmade cardigan, for example, draped over the back of a chair, sat as if its owner had just abandoned it. A Wedgwood-inspired cabbage teapot stood as if ready for pouring amidst the vegetable and flower motifs of Kaffe’s Berlin wool work pillows and needlework furniture coverings. This compilation of recent and earlier pieces, featuring an example of the Victorian ceramics that inspired his earliest works and which he reinterpreted through his bold colour palette, was organised as a psychedelic garden tea party on the mezzanine floor in the space’s most striking curatorial composition. The exhibition perfectly reflected the life’s work of its subject yet also combined it effectively with the bold and distinctive aesthetic favoured by the gallery’s founder.

Widely recognised as one of the world’s most distinctive designers, Zandra Rhodes’ career has spanned more than forty years.  Rhodes originally studied printed textile design at the RCA, and this practice is still central to all of her creations. Her distinctive hand-printed fabrics formed the basis for her first fashion collections, with which she crossed the Atlantic to be featured in American Vogue in 1969. Her international profile among the new wave of British designers during the 1970s helped bring the London scene to the forefront of the fashion world. Renowned for her safety pin-adorned, torn and beaded punk-inspired creations, she later went on to dress Diana, HRH Princess of Wales and Freddie Mercury, amongst others. Her designs continue to adorn well-known figures, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Mirren, for both awards ceremonies and on-screen roles. In addition to her clothing brand, Zandra’s current output includes costume and set design commissions for opera performances around the world. Her tireless work in the field of fashion was honoured with a CBE in 2007. She has also received a spectacular nine Honorary Doctorates internationally and is Chancellor of the University of the Creative Arts. Zandra’s bright pink hair, theatrical make-up and daring jewellery have also made the designer into an icon as recognisable as any of her gowns.

Such exhaustive creativity can be witnessed first-hand when entering the rabbit warren of studios, offices and private rooms that make up the behind-the-scenes of the Fashion and Textiles Museum. Steep, narrow stair cases, lushly carpeted in bold patterns and crammed with artworks, connect the myriad of functional quarters that operate as separate sites for each of the specific stages in her creative process. Wandering through, every wall positively groans under the weight of stored and displayed material; every nook and cranny houses a design, swathe of fabric, finished garment or magazine from any of the past 40 years of her career. Zandra is a meticulous collector and archivist of her own practice and nowhere is this more evident than in the textile design studio in the lowest sector of the complex. As a functional site, the uncharacteristic concrete floors and grey walls signal the dirty-hands nature of the artistic work undertaken in the area. An enormous print table, easily 10 feet long, is bordered by neatly arranged wooden markers and screens organised likes books in a library. While digital techniques have been latterly introduced into Zandra’s textile design practice, this screen printing area is still a hub of activity. The print room also houses all of her original screens dating back to the 1960s, featuring her most iconic patterns. As we huddled around the expansive work bench, like children at an oversized dinner table, Dennis Nothdruft explained the function and significance of the space as creative site of inception, realisation and archive.

For many, however, the highlight of the visit was lunch in Zandra’s private flat, with the designer herself joining us for an M&S sandwich and a chat. Zandra’s vocal opinions remain razor sharp, and she keeps her finger firmly on the pulse of the international fashion and gallery scene. Perched on a leather lounger, surrounded by architectural plants, flamboyant artworks by the likes of Andrew Logan and a collection of her extraordinary dresses on rails in a corner, Zandra had the perfect backdrop as her private rooms reflect the kaleidoscopic aesthetic of her professional and personal style. With rainbow shades of blue, green, yellow and hot pink adorning every wall of the rooftop space, Zandra’s vision comes fully alive in the space she calls home. Venturing out onto the rooftop terrace, only the stunning views of a baking hot London skyline reminded us of the outside world.