RCA Society


During 1971 the students, staff and ancillary workers contributed towards an analysis of the RCA, which after much discussion and amendment was published as the RCA-Redefined, which proved an important catalyst in changing the educational opportunities and social structure of the college.
It followed the many challenges to the old divisions that dominated art education, allowing for the development of mixed-media collaborations and conceptual notions that are now commonplace, even creating a new orthodoxy that has provoked challenges.
Sadly, due to difficulties beyond our control, much of the documentation has disappeared, so we thought that it would be useful to consider marking the event by organising a 40th anniversary, possibly to ignite the current generation to analyse their role and the RCA's relevance to changing society.


RCA-Redefined- Lessons for Today

In 1972 the students of the RCA Union invited Jack Collins of the Kent Area of the NUM to explain why the miners’ union had called a strike and then agreed to show solidarity by joining the picket line at Battersea power station.

The NUM had rejected a small pay rise by the National Coal Board, which then withdrew all pay offers from the last three months, forcing the miners to call a strike that had a profound effect on all sections of society.

Thus, along with an array of trade unions, the National Union of Students, which had rejected years of Conservative leadership and elected a Labour-Communist executive with Jack Straw as president and Digby Jacks as vice-President.

The tactic of picketing power stations was so successful, especially at Saltley Marsh Coal Depot of the West Midlands Gas Board, Ted Heath’s Tory government introduced a three day working week to save electricity.

It was just another in a long line of attacks that saw the introduction of the Industrial Relations Act, the destruction of shipbuilding and our dockland communities before another miners’ strike in 1974 forced Heath to call an election.

Heath wanted a mandate to deal with the unions, but the Tories lost their majority and a minority Labour government was formed led by Harold Wilson.

I mention this because, despite incredible changes in our society, not least the silicon-chip revolution and the growth of finance capitalism, there are many parallels between then and now that we can learn from.

Today, we have a Conservative-led coalition embarked on the most massive attacks on public services, social welfare, pensions and wages creating mass unemployment while bolstering the bankers.

They appear to have learnt lessons from their history. No matter what the cost to ordinary people, capitalism thrives on chaos, since every cycle of crisis provides opportunities for the likes of Goldman Sachs to continue casino-capitalism.

It’s not much different on the war front.

Back then, while the British government didn’t show overt support for the US war on Vietnam it was providing covert assistance while still striving to maintain imperialist interests from Northern Ireland to apartheid South Africa.

Today, despite the peace process in Ireland and the overthrow of apartheid rule in South Africa Britain remains an active component of NATO and involved in regime change from Yugoslavia and Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya.

Resistance has been massive.

Apart from two million people marching against the Iraq war, there are now actions by every section of the society culminating in attempts by anti-capitalists to occupy the likes of Wall Street and the City of London

The situation outside St Paul’s has stood as a symbol, with those supporting the city corporations and finance capitalism being confronted by people who have refused to accept the orthodoxy of the political establishment.

While they may not provide a politically coherent alternative, the Occupy activists are increasingly attracting supporters who have lost patience with politically promoted police provocations and an abject parliamentary opposition.

Throughout this period there have been corresponding occupations in many colleges, not least the RCA. It was like history repeating itself as tragedy, especially since those involved were articulating all the same questions.

They include the role of education under contemporary capitalism, the reason for the increase in fees and alternative forms of funding, especially if we are to avoid education becoming the province of the privileged alone.

When I arrived at the RCA in 1969 it was in the wake of student protests against the Vietnam war, occupations of art colleges and a rapidly changing attitude towards traditional art practices, most notably conceptual and politically engaged art.

However, it appeared that much of this had bypassed the students. Without a NUS- affiliated student union, they had only a social club with facilities centralised in Kensington Gore along with most of the design departments.

Painting, sculpture, film-making, photography and fashion were on sites in Exhibition Road, Princess Gate and Cromwell Road, which students rarely had reasons to visit, using their local hostelries for their social life.

Worse, the RCA no longer enjoyed its pre-eminence in the art world symbolised by pop art, having long since lost the mantle of modernism to St Martin’s, never mind the developments in political and conceptual art.

It was time to reflect on its reasons for being — to cater to the massive changes introduced by the Industrial Revolution.

Established in 1837 as the Government School of Design and then being titled Royal College of Art in 1896, it was 130 years later to be granted a Royal Charter in 1967 and given university status.

Presided over by Sir Robin Darwin for 30 years it had slowly ossified and become socially and intellectually sterile, the separate sites working to create departmental divisions reinforced by many professors who considered them personal fiefdoms.

I was one of the first inductions into the newly developed Environmental Media section, set up inside Stained Glass to cater for students who didn’t fit the traditional practices of painting and sculpture.

There was one room for 10 students and a couple of members of staff on part-time contracts. It meant most of us having to find alternative spaces, which was difficult for those without further funds.

Having acquired a studio in abandoned stables in Upper Street, Islington I was forced to move because it became financially impossible and decided to demand the college provide space they had promised in the prospectus.

It led to a number of other dissatisfied students to meet up and discuss what should be done. They decided to set up what they called The Brecht Society and to publish a bimonthly magazine called BOO.

Printed with a Gestetner the first issue in November 11 1970 exposed the fact that the Cartography Department was funded by the Ministry of Defence and was engaged in producing maps to aid the bombing of Vietnam.

Over the next few issues it successfully organised resistance to closure of the creche, campaigned for the refurbishment of student accommodation and addressed the relationship to the college and the wider needs of society.

Realisation soon dawned that we need a proper student union with a sabbatical president and despite Darwin’s threats of expulsions, even cancelling the elections, succeeded as a result of consistent campaigning in establishing the post in February 1971.

The process provided the platform for the students and then some staff and ancillary workers to promote the production of a report on every department regarding its function, structure, resources and proposals for change.

After countless departmental meetings, It was published as The RCA Re-Defined in May 1971 and passed with amendments and addendum at a mass meeting of the students in the Gulbenkian Hall on May 26 1971.

The conclusion was simple — the RCA was moribund, an elitist institution which had not only lost contact with its founding principles of responding to the industrial revolution but contemporary society


Our slogan was  “A community of shared interest,” which implied breaking down departmental barriers, democratising college committees and creating a social and professional practice.

In short, a college fit for purpose, one that related to the needs of the students, staff and professional practice, as well as the requirements of a society that was witnessing the birth of a new technology revolution.

Throughout that period the new RCA Union involved itself in all aspects of college life from reorganising the common rooms to active solidarity with the miners’ strike and, most importantly, the Upper Clyde Shipyard workers.

The UCS inspired working people everywhere to realise that industrial action need not be confined to strikes. It showed that they could run their own industry.

Such creativity proved infectious.

Suffice to say, that the art world was turned on its head, with independent initiatives that would see inventive alternatives such as artist-run spaces symbolised in acronyms such as SPACE and AIR.

As the ICA debate in 1978 demonstrated The State of British Art was changing — artists were rejecting the so-called avantgarde, they were creating community centres and projects that related to working people’s history.

That such projects would be transformed by Thatcherism into tourist attractions paid for by the visiting public was reinforced by them denying government funds, despite this contradicting the intentions of  their Victorian founders.

Ironically, it was the Tate that kept the flag flying for free museums when it was pointed out by The Turner Bequest that he left his paintings for the nation, with any monies made from the charity he set up to provide for disadvantaged artists. 

Still, it didn’t stop them and other museums creatively designing the entrance to appear like a box-office, the sign saying free situated where it wasn’t visible, along with other marketing mechanisms.

The Tate effectively became a franchise throughout the country promoting a version of modernism that not only belies its social origins at the turn of the 20th century but has gone on to to promote postmodernist pastiche.

 It might as well be called the Tate Mausoleum, as it serves to perpetuate established notions.

Real creativity is a product of the culture of resistance, which will always exist while society is riven with class distinctions.

However, even that wasn’t the end. Their commercial success has encouraged a new generation of profiteers to seek to force them to be fully privatised, along with the education system and everything else.

Social profitability becomes private profit.

So, again, we’re witnessing a similar disaffection with a system that puts profits before people, especially as the Lords and Ladies of postmodernism parade their titles and wealth.

In fact, they simply serve as a red flag to a bull, the difference being that the new social-minded students can’t be fobbed off with the same old political platitudes, especially when fees are being increased to exclude the poor.

Being indebted to banks for life is simply a new form of bondage.  It’s a far cry from the days when we established the idea of free education, since it was envisaged as promoting social values.

The irony is that they only want community of shared interest, much like the Common Cause expounded throughout history by activists who sought to advance humanity from the moment they invented and then refined the first tools.

That’s the origin of art and design — tools and practice of trying to create a better world


The RCA Union that promoted the RCA-Redefined was similar in spirit to those alumni that formed the RCA Society in 1980 since they wanted to create something that offered more than commercial contacts and a social club.

The RCA Society was set up to promote the best professional practice and contribute to contemporary culture by continuing to provide a forum for critical discourse and active on issues relevant to enriching our society.

Society is the community of shared interest. 

If the RCA or any other institution doesn’t maintain its critical faculties, then its Faculties will become moribund, which is anathema to creative practices whether in industry or the educational system.

That’s the uniqueness of the RCA Society, one born of experience, aware of its history and determined never to slide into the morass of the mindless acceptance of the status quo through inertia.

It reflects the uniqueness of human beings, the fact that we’re social beings and create ideologies through social intercourse.

When they prove inadequate to our needs we change society accordingly.

The RCA Society should seek to keep the spark alive.


Information and Exchange

Universities are places for free information and knowledge exchange without boundaries and free at the point of use. They are not exclusive companies trading on knowledge drawn from intellectual sources.
Watch Richard Stallman's (Free Software Foundation) argument for openness and freedom... You Tube from 12":10 onwards - http://youtu.be/3o82P4V1vu0


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