Since 1962–63, university level art and design education in the UK has included an “academic” element, which was originally referred to as the History of Art and Design and Complementary Studies and is now better known as Critical and Contextual Studies (CCS). This element was introduced to give “degree equivalence” to what was initially a quite technically focused diploma by providing context to studio practices and developing a broader range of skills in students. Topics taught under this rubric include histories of art and design, film and media histories, critical theory, aesthetics, and, more recently, curatorial and art writing practices. Recent changes to UK art and design higher education, precipitated by diverse drivers such as funding cuts and the emergence of the PhD by practice as the terminal degree, has brought the debate about the role of CCS back into sharp focus. A central question for this debate is: if the role of CCS is no longer “to elevate” and “lend academic credibility” to studio practice, as was originally the case (outlined in the Coldstream Reports of 1960 and 1970), then what do we see as its role both now and in the future?
The closing keynote by Neil Mulholland from the Edinburgh College of Art, provocatively titled “Juche: Art School State of Mind,” was based on his article for the New Art West Midlands 2014 exhibition catalogue and is part of his sustained research project into art school pedagogy. His central thesis posits that, while there is an exciting scope for developing radical pedagogies within art schools, the insular culture fostered therein since the mid-twentieth century stymies opportunities for curricular diversity. Having broad-based contextual studies goes some way toward challenging the monoculturalism that art and design education can, at times, endorse; it does so both by fostering critical thinking and by facilitating the student’s development of a different skill set.