The degree show is a very awkward tradition set in place by the institution as self-branding for themselves and upcoming graduates. This conventional expectation takes place every year, whereby every student is expected to muster up a penultimate creation to sum up their entire art school education. Its safe to say that this is a doomed prospect from the outset. This almost unquestioned element of art education is what I wish to explore in this article – do we make work that plays to a high traffic public, rather than question what it means to present a defining artwork vital to our exposure as an artist?
My feelings towards the degree show, admittedly, stem from the nature of my course. Fine Art: Critical Practice at the University of Brighton which places theory and practice as equally important, where you develop a practice which tests itself against discussion and analysis, considering the mode of authorship, the context of the work and how it engages with an audience and society. As part of a group of fourteen students, we all agreed that it has always been a flawed process whereby each year the studio is transformed into aquasi-gallery space, purely to accommodate the degree show. I just want to clarify that we were all aware the necessity of a degree show (for logistical reasons) and the platform it gave us to expose our previous post-studio show, Art Fare.
Art Fare was a two-week exhibition attempting to remove contemporary art from inside of the gallery, and took place across the in-service Brighton and Hove buses. By engaging with a wider audience in a public and accessible space, the exhibition explored the value of art in the everyday. Many works were advertised, whereas others deliberately slipped under the radar, allowing an element of uncertainty on some journeys. Due to the unique transit, post-studio nature of this exhibition, the works were difficult to capture in its entirety. This exhibition captured the ideas we wanted to challenge; so to then create a degree show two weeks later would always exist in the shadow of Art Fare.
Being aware of the exposure the degree show presents allowed us to collectively produce a documentation show of the exhibition. We did, however, actively refuse the conventional form of a documentary gallery exhibition and instead we continued the trajectory of show through Art Fare: The Shop. For those who saw the bus-show, the items in Art Fare: The Shop functioned as souvenirs, and for those who didn’t see the show, they were compensation for the missed opportunity. The work in the show took the understated forms of postcards, key-rings, cushions, posters, and other merchandise – each documenting the essence of the context-specific works.
The exhibition was inside a purpose built white cube, set inside the studio and leaving the majority of the space empty to place emphasis on the structure. Often there is no acknowledgement of its role for the previous three years as a functional, cluttered studio – it was this exact issue that we firstly wanted to avoid, and then came to directly address in our show. Aspiring to this, the white cube structure played on the false pretence given during the degree show; that the work is in a legitimate gallery environment, when in fact it has just been remodelled to appear so.
It often seems that London art schools set the precedent for expectations for work within a degree show – most likely instigated by the YBA’s. Through their use of shock tactics, throwaway materials, and wild living, they achieved considerable media coverage and dominated British art during the 1990s. Famously, many of the artists were supported and collected by Saatchi. For many people, the degree show acts as a platform to uncover their identity as an artist to collectors, potential employers and the press. Now don’t get me wrong, this works very favourably to a lot of people, I just think it leaves a strong reputation for expected spectacular works of art like Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine, and Tracey Emin’s My Bed, a disheveled double bed surrounded by detritus.