The power of language and the way we articulate ideas is well recognised. We define our world through language, and the notion of ‘walking the talk’ – of turning a declaration into practical action – contains life-changing possibility. And so it is with the way we speak about the teaching we deliver. The concept of ‘employability’, and what constitutes the teaching of it, differs depending on the person considering it. In an art and design institution, the very word can send staff and students running in the opposite direction, in the belief that employability is about teaching students to become briefcase-toting, pin-striped-suit-wearing employees. In much the same way, the term ‘enterprise’ may be interpreted as an ethically unsound form of commercialising creativity, and the idea of being part of an ‘economy’ or talking about art and ‘money’ in the same breath is often seen in creative circles as, at best, anathema and, at worst, sacrilege. This may seem extreme, but the words we use to describe the subjects, agendas and skills we aim to teach make a difference between engaging students and staff – or not. (And if staff are not engaged, neither will the students be.) The question regarding employability, therefore, is: Does it matter what we call it?
Students Adam Benmakhlouf (Year 1 Fine Art Painting and Printmaking) and Emily Penn (Year 3 Sculpture and Environmental Art) devised and led a forty-five minute workshop as follows:
This workshop was designed to explore the language that is used around employability and business. Its aim was to explore the meanings of these words and to help participants understand how this language could be applied to their own professional practice. Moreover, Adam and Emily wished to discuss the relevance of creative industries concepts, such as economics and enterprise, to art and design practice.
Around 30 participants were split into six smaller groups, mixing GSA and BNU students and staff. Each of the groups was asked to spend five minutes coming up with a brief definition of one of the following terms: employability, professional practice, business, economics, enterprise, career. Afterwards, the groups read out their definitions. It was interesting to note how the groups’ descriptions were similar to dictionary definitions. Adam and Emily then handed out a sheet of definitions* based on those within the Oxford English Dictionary, and asked the groups to spend ten minutes devising a new definition, using both the ‘official’ one and the one they had created previously. These new descriptions were then read out and debated within the wider group.
The group recognised hesitancy in applying conventional terms to an art school education.
The participants acknowledged that their own interpretations of the language used to define terms are coloured by what they make them mean, rather than what they are used to describe within the context of an art education and career.
While there was a sense that all the groups were comfortable with conventional definitions of the key concepts, the discussion became more difficult when the whole group began to consider how these terms should be employed in the context of an art education. Most interesting was the identification of existing aspects of courses that are not usually recognised as being orientated towards employability which, when given further consideration in this context, emerged as highly relevant. This was especially the case when discussing the term ‘enterprise’, which was seen to have a significant relationship with the structure of studio practice and crits. As the discussion progressed, it became apparent that genuine parallels existed between the skills demanded within an art school and those required in a professional working environment: self motivation, ideas generation and new perspectives, discipline in developing initial ideas and the confidence to defend one’s own work.
Insight was also gained when the idea of ‘economics’ was considered. More specifically, discussion took place in relation to ideas around ‘value’ and ‘success’ in the context of an artistic career. While in the case of design there might be an easier relationship with conventional concepts of profit and loss, within fine art a fluid concept of value persists. The decision about whether or not a particular work or enterprise was ‘successful’ is based on whether or not an artwork or project achieves what its creator intended.
Employability —Whether a person is qualified and ready to work
Professional Practice — A decision to acquire and convey knowledge and skills in a chosen field
Business — An organisation or economic system in which goods and services are exchanged for one another or for money.
Economics — The branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption and transfer of wealth.
Enterprise — A project or undertaking, especially a bold or complex one.
A business or company
Career — An occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress