Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution, Lisa Tickner, (2008)

London: Francis Lincoln, 203 pp., ISBN 139780711228740 (pbk), £12.99

The 1968 is known, in western countries at least, as the ‘year of revolutions’. To what extent a ragbag of protests against the Viet-Nam war, Soviet tanks entering Prague, counter and youth culture manifestations and student revolts on various campuses and city streets deserve this appellation is a moot point. Nonetheless, while these events took place some of those in power felt threatened and those who participated considered they were part of something important. Participating in these upheavals has influenced some participants’ subsequent lives. Those who were young at the time and for whom 1968 was fundamental in forming their lives are sometimes referred to as soixante-huitards. The fortieth anniversary of 1968 has been marked in a number of ways, including the publication of this book, which recounts the history of the now legendary student occupation of Hornsey College of Art (situated in north London).

In May 1968, Hornsey College of Art’s students decided to protest by occupying the main building. Although external events would have had some influence, this was a protest about their education tout court. What led up to this was a mixture of the prosaic, important everyday issues and the profound: they were dissatisfied with the decrepit toilets; the way they were taught and the structure of British art education. The protest lasted until the summer vacation, when students drifted away. Although some of the student demands were addressed in the autumn, Tickner (the author) reports that there was not a satisfactory outcome and many of the demands and issues were left hanging.

This is a book of ideas at the expense of conveying the drama. When the Tickner informs readers that after the Principal had told the media he was in control of the College ‘the Rugby team evicted him from his office’ (p.34) I longed for a little narrative detail to bring this and similar accounts to life. Although short in length, the book almost falls down under the weight of Tickner’s extensive research: the notes at the back of the book almost double its length. Not that these are uninteresting. In reading them, I decided that within this slim volume a much larger tome was waiting to be written. The latter would probably be about art education and feminism, a topic which seems to weave its way through the text and especially through the notes.

These two points are barely cavils; the book as is has many strengths and doubtless Tickner has played to her strengths in writing it.

Apart from the inclusion of a few photographs, this book does not provide a nostalgic trip down memory lane for those ancients soixante-huitards who are now hovering around retirement, nor is it merely a social history of a footnote to the main events of that year. What makes this of interest to art educators now is that, as Tickner emphasises, the student revolt at Hornsey was primarily about art education. During the occupation, students (and some staff) spent the days discussing the ideals and purpose of art and design education; they invented new curricula and proposed radical structures. All of this produced two concrete outcomes, a national conference on the future of art education, held at the Roundhouse, a public venue in north London, and

an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, called Hornsey Strikes Again, which also set out to initiate debate about art education.

Tickner reports that these debates centred on three main issues, although there were many others. The first was about who could study art and design and a desire for greater participation by those from less privileged background. The second was a perceived dichotomy between learning studio disciplines and also having to learn complementary, academic subjects such as art history. Although for a policymaker aiming to enhance the status of art and design qualifications this might seem logical and desirable, to students it could appear that they were learning two different things in completely different ways – and they only really wanted to learn one of them. The third addressed a dilemma brought about because the mid-twentieth century art and design curriculum, based on the poles of formalism and self-expression was unravelling under the influence of the incipient, conceptual art and of critical theories emerging from continental Europe.

One cannot help but notice that many of the issues debated at Hornsey and left hanging in 1968 have never gone away, even if student discontent is more muffled. They might have been absurdly idealistic but art education needs ideals. There has been a feeling in recent years that the training of artists and designers has failed to be guided by anything more than management theory, academic structures, procedures, committees and sub-committees, working parties, action plans, target setting, benchmarking, rules and regulations. All necessary perhaps, but is the tail wagging the dog? Indeed, is there still a dog left to be wagged?

The problem is of course that without ideals art education is at best uninspired. At worst it is marooned. There have to be pragmatists who can get things done, but they aren’t usually the people with vision, those who determine which direction to go. This brings about the irony of institutions and art departments full of activity yet going nowhere.

In Anglophone countries at least, this sense of malaise has led to the education of artists becoming a live issue well beyond the sanctums of art colleges, academies and university art departments. These concerns have recently been formally debated in various art journals (e.g. Art in America, Art Monthly), at art fairs and exhibitions and – once again – at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. All of which makes the book topical and with valuable material to feed into current debates.