Monday, 13 March 2017

Exhibition Review: The American Dream - pop to the present

The American Dream: pop to the present runs from the 9 March – 18 June 2017 at the British Museum. 

The American Dream is a major new exhibition being shown at the British Museum, devoted to contemporary printmaking and art of the United States, and to the social and political commentary of its artists. From the space race, to AIDs, to feminism, The American Dream explores cultural issues through the innovative medium of print.

Considering I am not a lover of contemporary American art (or contemporary art of any country for that matter), I was surprised at my simple enjoyment of the exhibition as a whole. A number of pieces caught my interest, and stimulated my critique of where the art met history.

Room after room explores works of art that, no, your child could not have drawn, or even conceived of, but nonetheless demonstrate a base simplicity that makes many question the value of the pieces. While I was there, I heard a number of visitors make comments to such an effect. (I suggest Susie Hodge's book, Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained, or even BBC's iWonder series Why can't a four-year old paint a Pollock?)

Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Two Flags in black
Lithography, 1980
© The Artist
Jasper Johns' Two Flags was the first to catch my attention; not the brightly coloured versions, but the black and white. From a distance, the flags merged into imagery of a stark landscape, but up close the lines separated, instead evoking suggestions of bodies, strewn and discarded. The more I looked at the piece, the more I saw anguish and pain. A reference to war and its horrors perhaps? A strangely emotive work of art, dark and monochrome in a sea of colour that surrounds it in the room.

Other works of art line the walls, and demonstrate the evolution of the genre, and the changing cultural times. Bold lines and strong colours contrast well with the odd sculpture and dappled canvas of that harkens back to expressionism and Pollock.

What most impressed me, however, was the use of space. The exhibition design is in itself a work of pop art, with bold lines and colours drawing the visitor into the strength of the works themselves. Windows into the other rooms, not successive in time, style, or focus, provides a rich contrast of how pop art maintained momentum across six decades.

Total rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

University vice-chancellors' pay: implications for higher education

A recent article by the Guardian has revealed that:
University vice-chancellors received an average salary package of £277,834 in the last academic year – more than six times the average pay of their staff – according to a new survey by the universities union.
In this piece, vice-chancellors have been labelled as 'academic fat-cats', who take large salaries despite rising tuition fees and the financial burdens to students. The blasting continues, with vice-chancellors named and shamed, and financial benefits piled on top to give the impression of play-boy-style gallivanting around the country and the world:
In addition to salaries, it examined heads’ spending on flights, hotels and expenses. It found that vice-chancellors spent an average of £7,762 on flights, [and] two-thirds of those flights were taken in business or first class... Vice-chancellors also spent an average of £2,982 on hotels.
This is, you'll agree, a remarkable amount of money, as academic and teaching staff have suffered minimal or no pay rises over the last few years, and slipping standards in working conditions.

The rise in tuition fees, the removal of the recruitment cap for clearing, and the upcoming changes to higher education from the Higher Education Bill, put mounting pressure on every level of academic and support staff in universities. We are expected to deliver greater standards of education and support than ever before, in an attempt to meet goals set by imperfect metrics (such as the DLHE and TEF), with fewer resources (be that staff, technology, or time).

The most telling part of of the Guardian article is the use of the term 'fat-cats'. We think of this phrase as referring to bankers, although it is worth mentioning that
more than 4,000 City-based bank workers were paid more than €1m (£850,000) in 2015 – including one fund manager who received nearly €34m.
University pay - even at the top - isn't nearly in this league. But the use of 'fat-cats' tells us something else - that higher education has become commercialised, and is mirroring the corruption we see in other, financial industries. Education has become about big business, and as such is attracting the kinds of leaders that require big salary pay-outs to motivate the work that they do.

Surely this, if nothing else, should set alarm bells ringing about the state of higher education in the UK? These pay gaps - between vice-chancellors and 'on the ground staff' - demonstrate the economy of scale (or lack thereof). Greater and greater pressure is being placed on those that teach and support learning, whereas the financial rewards are being dolled out to those at the top.

One Russel Group spokesperson said that salaries were so high because "first-rate leadership has been crucial to success." But first rate leadership shouldn't cost the earth - and a good leader would recognise that such gaps between the pay of those at the top compared to those at the bottom only serves to demotivate and alienate colleagues.