When I was at art school, in what seems like a lifetime ago now, I used to attend a history of art class on a Friday morning. It was held in a huge tiered lecture theatre in the most inaccessible part of Newcastle’s School of Art and Design. Yet every week I transversed the building site that was the car park and bumped up the broken kerb to the back door (which I usually found locked) that led to the lecture theatre just because I was captivated by the stories behind the many paintings in the slides projected onto the screen.
One particular memorable Friday we spent the entire two hour lecture discussing this painting by Gustave Courbet, Ll’Atelier du peinter (The Painter’s Studio), and I found myself asking just before falling on the sword poised beneath me, “Is knowing that the shadowy figure at the back of the studio (which you can’t actually make out at all), who is meant to represent the art collector, Alfred Bruyas, an anti-government agitator, who’s wife (also in the painting) is having an affair with Courbet, going to make me a better artist?” Probably not but the last bit was quite interesting.
I loved art school for that very reason. It was full of trivia and inconsequential nonsense that meant nothing to anyone else except the artist. But I guess that’s were the “F” word comes in because if you can get a few generations excited about inconsequential nonsense and make a buck or two as well so much the better. And therein comes the second reason why I loved art school, because going was the first real two finger salute I’d made to the education mafia who said I would never make a living from art so go learn to type. And of course they were right, but who cared. I was doing something that gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and believe me I had had a good few years of not wanting to do that.
So if the hugely enthusiastic, Peter Pan-like figure of my art school days wanted to impress upon me that the white cat playing in front of Courbet represented independence, freedom and the creation of a French Republic I was happy to believe him regardless of whether common sense and logic told me that it was just a sweet, little cat playing.