In Praise of the Degree Show
Degree shows are the privilege of the art student. If, like me, you studied something ordinary, you'll find your education petered out like a damp squib; the contents of your room reassigned to some old boxes and a staged mortarboard caper for the mantelpiece. But for undergraduates of Fine Art and Design, something more momentous is required to mark the culmination of the three year slog.
Traditionally, degree shows don't attract much of an outside audience. They are thought to be the designated haunt of bewildered relations and acquaintances; a place for trying to explain postmodernism to your nan, testing fairweather friendships with offers of free wine, and justifying several grand's fallout to your parents. In other words, it's Judgement Day.
Still, “That artist didn't spring from my loins” isn't much of an argument for not going to see some potentially great work, so perhaps it's time you showed up for a look. Expect a setting of high drama and intensity: the blood, sweat and tears invested into each student's final piece played out against a backdrop of big risks, gambles and surprises. You could be looking at the last of someone's overdraft exchanged for a thousand brass toadstools, or wind up being the unlucky soul who treads someone's masterpiece to dust thinking it was just part of the floor.
Maybe you'll witness a bit of seething resentment between students and the tutors who may or may not grass them up to moderators, or the jealous interplay between the class protegee and the class clown. The university, god love them, will have shelled out on some refreshments, so you can get lightly flushed on a glass or two as you inspect the art on display.
Amid the pressure, the degree show is a great platform for up and coming artists to demonstrate their practice and to discuss it with other visitors. It's the polar opposite of an exam silently completed in a sweaty gym, and one which allows a variety of responses. It offers a democracy not often found in the art world, giving students the chance to exhibit in a public space and letting them establish the validity of their own ideas outside of the studio.
You could be getting the first glimpse of new and emerging talent which wouldn't otherwise have the funds to be shown; an opportunity which will no doubt diminish after graduation as more and more galleries and organisations find their doors clanged forcibly shut. It's a chance to find out exactly how different insitutions and different cities represent their students, and which have the best taste in snacks.
So! This summer, hop along to some degree shows and treat yourself to a feast of hard work and perspiration deserving of a wider audience. (The hard work that is. For perspiration, see aforementioned exam hall.) If you've had your fill of tired old exhibitions by schmoozy big names, then you've nothing to lose by exploring some more low-key possibilities. We've tried to rustle up a few suggestions to get you started.
Galleries may be a dying art but degree shows are alive and well. And maybe this time “That's nice, dear, what is it?” won't be the only words echoing through the room.
2011, Article Magazine