Portrait of Darryl Clifton by Fredrik Andersson. Andersson received his BA in illustration from Camberwell College of Arts in 2016.

As illustration programme director at London’s Camberwell College of Arts, Darryl Clifton couldn’t be better placed to consider the complexities of an illustration education in the current climate. Illustration agents are less common, graduates are weighed down by steep student loans, and working life is—as it is for many—increasingly precarious.

With degrees in illustration from Kent Institute of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, Clifton has co-founded Mokita, a curated event platform for critical debate around the subject of illustration, is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Illustration and Varoom, and is a board director at the UK’s Association of Illustrators. We couldn’t think of a better person to speak with about the value of art education, especially how technology and social media is impacting the potential to build a community in an art school. Here, he also considers how illustrators might be employed for their thinking process as much as their ability to draw.

What are the core values that are at the heart of an education in art and design?

I’m conscious of how personal liberty has been co-opted by a really aggressive, neoliberal, capitalist model. Education is shifting—we’re moving towards mass education systems—and I personally don’t have an issue with it. I’m happy to move away from the highly selective notion of education for the so-called talented young people, because it’s sort of a bullshit construct. It has to do with access, privileges, and the implicit and explicit biases of people who are making the selection. We need to rethink our approach: What does it mean to effectively operate a diverse, contradictory, and ambiguous education program? I think it’s feasible if we’re able to countenance the idea of not being experts, not in the sense of “let’s punish the experts,” but in terms of reconsidering our sense of where authority and knowledge lies.

Are we able to support the handing over of the education to the students? It’s a fight, because this is a generation of students who’ve been brought through an incredibly instrumental, formal education system, particularly in the UK, which is driven by grades and outcomes. We aim to offer scaffolding and support, which can be easily removed when students are developing their own mode of learning. They have every capacity, they just need the affordance to do it. To flourish and be agents of change, they need to hold on to the controls. 

How have you observed the sense of community shifting within student cohorts?

There are a number of obvious factors [impacting the viability of forming communities at university]. A fundamental factor, and it’s in relation to a profound cultural shift, is the ubiquity of mobile technology. It’s an obvious thing to say, but you can’t discount the effect social media has had on a generation of young people.

People are so willing to share every aspect of their work—the literal physical process via something like Instagram—in reward for likes, followers, and potentially money. There’s an absolute openness about that, and with a proportion of the students, a total embrace of the notion of the entrepreneurial self—and worryingly, a lack of critical objectivity, in terms of what that larger structure might ultimately mean. Working harder and harder, adjusting one’s own subjectivity in order to become more and more pliable and synchronized with the mindset and desires or a large-scale corporation.

Questions around community-building can’t be disentangled easily from issues around sense of self, and identities that are formed online as much as they are in the 3D world. They are bigger issues that institutions in isolation can’t necessarily address, but what we have to be, is open to the possibility that these changes are happening. We have to support young people through a difficult transitional period.

What potentials do you see for the role of the illustrator, and how can new applications of illustration and illustrative thinking be encouraged within the curriculum? 

It’s about trying to extend the role of the illustrator beyond the artifact or the product. What would it mean if an illustrator didn’t make an illustration but was situated inside of a place affecting some sort of change? Now seems like a good time to be having that discussion, particularly in the UK where, to bring it back down to a brute reality, the fee structure [for editorial illustration] hasn’t really changed in the last 25 years. If it can’t function on that level, if it’s tailing off financially, and if we’re looking at widespread automation being a significant affecting factor, there has to be something else that we can utilize. There has to be something in the vast majority of the work that leads up to the production of the artifact that has value.

What would it mean if an illustrator didn’t make an illustration, but was situated inside of a place affecting some sort of change?

We’re moving towards a point of revalidation [at Camberwell], we’re re-writing courses and talking about this a lot. I’m interested in pre-existing educational models, like that at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, where there’s a focus on thinking about how you contextualize your practice, how you flavor or inflect it with an understanding of a context. At Camberwell we’re thinking about introducing these “flavors,” which students will be able to align themselves with. We call it ‘Illustrator as…’ and then the inflections will be ‘as activist,’ ‘as author,’ ‘as educator,’ and ‘in industry.’

My aspiration would be that we’d be able to take inspiration from dynamic groups like Artist Placement Group [a London-based, artist-run organization formed in 1965, which sought to refocus art outside the gallery]. The organization announced itself as an artist consultant for big business. It seemed ridiculous, but in reality there’s massive potential—through the type of education and the organization that goes on just in terms of running your own project—to do that. I like the idea of breeding a bunch of sort-of saboteurs, who are able to go and change things from the inside, and be convincing and persuasive.