Is this compulsory? Reflections from the 2018 Fine Art Degree Show

It is degree show time in the UK art education world. Last Friday, marked the opening of the University of Wolverhampton 2018 Fine Art Degree Show. It was my fourth in a row. The first I attended as a future Wolverhampton fine art student, the second I took part in even though I wasn’t quite graduating yet, the third was for my graduation, and this one, I participated in as an interloper, as an MA student ‘one year on’.

The title of the catalogue this year is: ‘Is This Compulsory?’ I’m not sure where the title came from or what it means to the students graduating with their BAs but it resonates quite strongly with me, a one-year-on graduate in fine art.

To me the question ‘Is This Compulsory?’ reflects a more direct, less friendly question I have been asked a lot since I took up art 6 years ago after a hiatus of 20 years. That question is: ‘Why are you doing this?’

The question is bold, yet I have been asked it a lot in many guises (and it is often accompanied by a look of bemusement). The sentiment behind the question has many elements: Why are you spending your time engaging in something that probably won’t bring you fame and certainly won’t bring you fortune, costs you money, definitely doesn’t pay the bills, and isn’t academically or physically difficult (of course, this is a naive, and erroneous view)? Why are you being so selfish? Why aren’t you putting your family first? It isn’t compulsory, they say, so why do it, why? It doesn’t lead to a ‘better job’ they cry. It doesn’t feed your family, they add. Art isn’t necessary, it is the lesson you doss about in at school. It is a luxury, a self-indulgence or it is a sign that the real world is too much for you to take. In summary, it is just a frivolous waste of your time. 

The big question

My answer to these questions within the question is: I don’t know why I am doing this, I just am, and it is compulsory, to me, I cannot stop and I won’t stop. In fact, I refuse to stop. It is intellectually challenging. It is supporting my family (in their creative education and development) and it is physically demanding.

Looking around the exhibits at the degree show this year I see that there are many other people who share this view. They also feel the compulsion to create. They share my need to view the world through a visual lens. They are unable to resist the impulse to make, paint, draw, construct, speak, act, live, breathe and be art. They want to communicate with the outside world, with you, with me, through colour, shapes, images, words, sounds, effects, emotions and objects. They are art. Art is compulsory.

From Caitlin Doherty’s massive, temporary nudes which pulse with emotion and essence to Colin Marshall’s thought-provoking visual reflections on the image in the digital age and to Kirsty Adams’ quirky, hyperreal cyber shop of social media delights (which my children loved) I could feel this compulsion coming through very strongly. I felt it elsewhere too of course – in the colours, textures, shapes, words and painterly skills I saw. I particularly felt it during the opening night with the buzz, the heat, the noise and the excitement. The annual show is  a celebration of compulsion and obsession, and I felt this even more so this year. Even today, three days later, when the show is still open to the public, yet without the buzz and bustle, I still feel it. The work on the walls is whispering, a bit like the boys in the black-and-white photographs in the scene in Dead Poet’s Society who whisper to the current students: ‘Carpe Diem, Carpe Diem’. The artworks are whispering to the doubters out there: ‘Art is compulsory, art is compulsory’.

Art is in the blood of many. It is in the heart of many. Yet why do so many regard it as a fuzzy, frivolous, superficial superfluous extra of human endeavour, including those in charge of education and budgets? This is a tragedy and completely wrong and ultimately very, very worrying for the future of my children and their children. Art needs to be celebrated, championed, and encouraged for all. It is a philosophy, it is a way of problem solving, thinking up ideas, communicating, translating, reflecting, narrating. It is a way of life. It is human nature. It just is.

Art is compulsory. And that is also why I am wearing this t-shirt today: Save Wolverhampton Arts!

My t-shirt


At least that is how art is for me. I cannot yet see the end to my art. And why should I?


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