Art Students on Film
by John Beck and Matthew Cornford
You can blame the war for art students. At least, in typically flamboyant form, this is former life model Quentin Crisp’s assessment in The Naked Civil Servant (1968). ‘When peace broke out,’ he wrote, the ‘Minister of Education ran down to the water’s edge and, as our brave boys disembarked, scattered grants to art schools over the heads like confetti’. No one, according to Crisp, could pass up the chance to study without paying fees, so on the first day of term ‘a mob of would-be students pressed with Klondike intensity against the entrance to every art school in the country waving their grants above their heads like prospecting claims’. It is a charming, if ludicrous, picture of the glee with which the British public claimed a free education as a reward for years of fighting Nazis, but what Crisp does capture here is the broad sense in which, by the late 1960s, art students had come to embody the cultural transformations of the postwar period. Shifting gender and class positions, in no small part brought about by the widening educational opportunities available to a growing youth population, became a central preoccupation of British popular culture of the late 1950s and 1960s, much of it driven by art school trained designers, advertising and TV executives, performers and artists.
Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, ‘art school’ and ‘art student’ came to serve as shorthand for vaguely countercultural or permissive tendencies. The stereotypes are broad and unflattering, from the ‘long haired layabout’ to the ‘dolly bird,’ yet beyond these media caricatures there are also a number of plays and films that position the art school as the incubator of trends that carry significance beyond the imagined bohemianism of the life room. In most cases, from Shelagh Delaney’s celebrated drama A Taste of Honey (1958) and its 1961 film adaptation, through Edmond T. Gréville’s sleazy Soho exploitation flick Beat Girl (1960), David Halliwell’s play Little Malcolm and His Struggle against the Eunuchs (1965) and the film adaptation that followed in 1974, to Michael Sarne’s Joanna (1968), art school itself is not the focus of the narrative. Nevertheless, the presence of art students usually operates as a means through which changing attitudes toward, for example, inter-generational, mixed-race and same sex relationships can be explored and articulated. Art students are not simply depicted as rebellious, but they are also often positioned as the vanguard of the permissive society, indifferent to social norms and willing to explore alternative models of sexual, family and, though less often, class relations beyond the pinched demands of straight British society.
To complement our exhibition The Art Schools of North West England, showing at Bluecoat until the end of March, we screened two films related to the region featuring art student characters. A Taste of Honey is famously set in Salford, while Little Malcolm, though notionally set in Huddersfield, was partly shot in Oldham. These are very different films, from either side of the 1960s, but in their differences they capture something, we think, of the complexity of the idea of the art student as social innovator. While A Taste of Honey rehearses a largely benign vision of a post-nuclear, post-patriarchal family characterised by mutual respect and support, Little Malcolm seethes with poisonous male resentment. In the former, an unplanned pregnancy prompts a young woman to cohabit with a gay textiles student, while in the latter all the clichés of the so-called artistic temperament combine with the unexamined masculinist privileges and prejudices of mid-twentieth century Britain to create a pathetic portrait of thwarted creativity. A Taste of Honey has in many ways aged remarkably well and addresses with clarity and optimism issues that remain relevant to a twenty-first century audience. Little Malcolm is an uglier film, yet the posturing of its protagonist, as well as the bullying and casual sexism, speak no less directly to contemporary issues surrounding male rage and toxic masculinity.
A Taste of Honey is framed by a pair of shots of characters carrying portfolios. At the beginning of the film, teenage Jo and her flighty mother traipse from one bedsit to another, Jo carrying a folder of drawings that signals a muted creativity she later complains she cannot pursue because she needs to earn a living. In the final scene, as Jo’s mother breaks up the unconventional household Jo has established with her friend, textile student Geoffrey, the young man is pictured, portfolio under his arm, taking refuge once more in the shadows. The portfolio marks Jo’s and Geoffrey’s outsider status but also serves as code for inventiveness and freedom of the imagination in a world of severely reduced options.
Although not about art school, it seems important that Geoffrey is an art student (and the Jo could be one in a different life). Their social liberalism is implicitly associated with their artistic tendencies, and, while there is no extended discussion of Geoffrey’s studies, he paints freely on the walls of their gloomy flat and his interior decorating and domestic skills are celebrated without a sneer as a manifestation of a generally creative and resilient personality. While the film does not allow Jo and Geoffrey to follow through with their unconventional family arrangement, it is allowed to flare with possibility. There are other ways of living, the film allows us to think, if only fleetingly, for now.
Just out of school and pregnant following her liaison with a black sailor, Jo’s tale might, in different hands, have been a grim one. Delaney deftly sidesteps the clichés and rejects the misogyny and social climbing of the angry young man films of the day. Little Malcolm is not so fleet of foot but it also sees in the art student characteristics that speak to broader social concerns. Drawing on his experiences at Huddersfield College of Art during the 1950s, Halliwell explores the provincial will to power as it manifests itself in the vengeful fantasies of the alienated Malcolm Scrawdyke. Malcolm has been expelled from art school for a minor infraction of the rules that is the last straw for the college principal, who has become tired of Malcolm’s waywardness and indifference. Humiliated, Malcolm plots revenge and enlists the help of his impressionable friends to wage war on what he perceives to be the gutlessness of modern life and the ‘self-hatin’ eunuchs’ that run it.
In A Taste of Honey, Jo and Geoffrey free one another from the worst of their self loathing through care and concern. The self-hating young men in Little Malcolm offer a far less attractive model of community. The provincial art school setting of Little Malcolm gives Halliwell ample opportunity to explore the bathetic outcome of exposing working class youth to the highfalutin world of creative expression. While the play is intended as a parody of how weak and insecure individuals with deluded notions of their own importance can create totalitarian regimes, it is the art school that has given Malcolm the space to develop the torments of the artist manqué. The grim ordinariness of the characters and their petty grievances are inflated by Malcolm’s manipulative rhetoric to generate real mob violence. The play anticipates the student movement of the late 1960s (already over by the time the film is made) and it is hard not to detect murmurs of the kind of dissent against institutional bureaucracy that would flare up at Hornsey School of Art and elsewhere a few years later. In an early diatribe aimed at persuading his friends to leave college and join him in his struggle, Malcolm reveals something of the tension between the demands of art and the expectations of industry that so often characterise debates about art education: ‘Finals, N.D.D., what’s that? Nothing! Nothing Doing Diploma which’ll earn you the glorious privilege of designin’ dogfood wrappers or keepin’ a roomful of delinquents in order. Where’s art in that? Where’s life? Where’s any form of tangible satisfaction?’
While the others worry about losing their grants and being unable to get jobs, Malcolm has imbibed something else from his four years at art school that may not account for his anger and frustration but which has given him a pedestal from which to cast disdain on the impoverishment of a purely instrumental existence. It may be sexual inexperience that is responsible for Malcolm’s rage — he is wracked with anxiety about his inability to make the first move with the apparently willing Ann Gedge — but it is a conception of art, and of the artist, that drives his resentment. The huge shortfall between what art school notionally promises (the authentic life of the artist) and the prosaic reality of what is delivered (a mode of technical training) radically delimits for Malcolm the possibility of escape from dreariness that he demands.
Like the myth of Adolph Hitler as the failed artist channeling creative frustration into a quest for power, Malcolm forms the Party of Dynamic Erection, invents a new calendar that turns the clock back to year zero, and proceeds to plot his adversary’s downfall. The revenge on Allard, the principal, involves stealing a Stanley Spencer painting from Huddersfield Art Gallery, kidnapping Allard and forcing him to destroy the painting. The lads believe Allard has been having an affair with a student and think that the threat of exposure will compel him to go along with their demand. The intention, finally, is to renege on the bargain of silence and reveal Allard as both an adulterer and art vandal.
The kidnap plot is excruciatingly rehearsed by the boys but before they go ahead Malcolm insists on a show trial in order to expel his friend Nipples from the Party. Just as Malcolm’s power is consolidated, however, Ann arrives and, catching him alone, attempts to persuade Malcolm to see sense and stop the silly games. The return of his two main allies, though, prevents Ann from demolishing Malcolm’s thin defences and the group viciously beat her before she can get away. This brutal act is the only real moment of agency the Party achieve, because when the time comes for them to put the revenge plot into action, no one moves and the fantasy collapses immediately into recrimination. The play ends with Malcolm walking to a phone box to apologize to Ann. Whether he has the gumption to do it remains unknown.
A Taste of Honey and Little Malcolm are like the Woodstock and Altamont of art student narratives, one presenting a vision of creative youth as uncluttered by inherited prejudice, the other imagining creativity as corrupted by resentment, compensatory self-aggrandisement and violence. One imagines a world capable of emotional maturity and full of pockets of utopian potential; the other is fascistic, puerile and bitter. Taken together they capture something of the conflicted sense of what art school and art students might signify during the 1960s. The perceived social liberalism of art students sat alongside a scepticism toward the pretensions art school could support. Art school produced, from one perspective, enlightened individuals critical of outmoded social conventions and the corruptions of an emerging consumer society. From another, art students were a plague of state-supported social and sexual subversives. Malcolm’s shrill attempts at relevance were, perhaps, by the time Halliwell’s play is filmed in 1974, already anachronistic. There are few art student characters in films after Little Malcolm. Instead, as a sign of the type’s diminished social relevance, art students were, briefly, more often seen in TV comedies.
Stripped of subversive tendencies, art students on TV were largely figures of fun, most often depicted as work shy, unworldly, and disengaged. Characters of this type include the naive art student John, who features in the film version of the TV sitcom Rising Damp (1978) and Rodney, the morose brother of Thatcherite wideboy Del Trotter in Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003), who is partly defined as the hapless dreamer by the year he spent at art school and the drugs and liberal values he found there. Rodney eventually learns to work for a living, unlike Mike in Bless This House (1971-76), the unemployed art school drop out son of Sidney and Jean Abbott who continues to ‘practice’ in the family garage. Mike and Rodney are British culture’s revenge on the art student. What was once sexy, subversive and thrilling is now exposed as the contemptibly narcissistic posturing of the perpetual adolescent. Quentin Crisp’s extravagant image of the art school Klondike was always a fiction, but it contains the kernel of resentment — the suspicion that people were getting something for nothing — that continues to resonate in our more economically defensive times. If there is any bite to the notion of the art student as socially relevant, it might be, ultimately, it seems to us, in the emancipatory capacities latent in the humble maintenance grant, which could propel imaginative but marginalised souls like Jo and Geoffrey (and even Malcolm) out of their bedsits and into … who knows? Another reality of their own making.