DARTINGTON, O DARTINGTON, WHERE ART THOU?
by Sam Richards
Time flies. It’s ten years since the preposterous idea that Dartington College of Arts might close was leaked to the Totnes Times and all hell let loose for four years. And then, for all the protests and acrimony, the college closed in 2010. It was always a stich-up.
Whatever we might make of this catastrophic event, one thing is beyond dispute: the reputation of Dartington, and in particular the Trust that oversees its activities, plummeted. There has been an upturn over the past year since a new, sensitive CEO took over, but mutterings about the Trust continue, and no one has forgiven the powers-that-be (which numbered more than only the Trust) for destroying the college. This may not be entirely fair: there has been a complete turn over of Trust members since 2006-10, although it could be argued that the essentials of its political position may not have changed radically.
Those who bought the fiction that the college was “relocating” to Falmouth have had to admit that this transfer didn’t exactly go as planned – the loss of the Theatre Department, struggles to keep the Dartington approach in music, scrapping Performance Writing. Whatever else Falmouth University may or may not be, it doesn’t add up to a continuation of Dartington College of Arts.
Is it fruitless to cry over this now rather stale spilt milk? Not entirely: forgetting the wounds of the past can amount to a form of disempowerment. Even so, many would argue that the jewel in the crown was stolen long ago and, when all is said and done, we have today and tomorrow to deal with. This, in effect, is what was flagged up in the question posed by the current CEO for a series of open space public discussions over the winter of 2015-6: what can Dartington now be? For me, I have to say, this reminds me of the old joke about asking a countryman for directions to the village: I wouldn’t start from here. But I should explain.
I’ll do so initially via a framework that comes from an obscure source (of which more in a moment). Since the demise of the college Dartington has either initiated or played host to a number of worthy projects and continues to do so. Furthermore some magnificent enterprises continue on the estate – Soundart Radio and Park School spring to mind. However, I would like to pursue a particular framework, or model, which – it seems to me – fits Dartington rather well and helps raise further questions.
The framework comes from Theo Brown (1914-1993), the Devon-based folklorist whose breadth of vision was extraordinary. Coincidentally, she also knew Dorothy Elmhirst, co-founder of the modern Dartington. Brown’s classic study, The Fate of the Dead, argues for a threefold life of ideas and institutions, namely mysteries, moral and welfare. I call this Brown’s Cycle. She applied it to the history of the church, but it can be applied across the board – including Dartington.
Brown referred to the inception of a radically new idea or new concept as the phase of mystery. In terms of the Christian church, about which she knew rather a lot, the word mystery could be applied literally. The early Christians focused their attention on actual mysteries and their beliefs and outlook grew from what was mysterious about their fundamental narratives, practices and miracles. There was another element of mystery though: it could be said that the early Christians did not fully understand what they believed. In other words, they had no explanations beyond faith, hunches and experiences. They were attracted by the unknown and even by what they considered unknowable. It was this elusiveness that provided a worldview, a theology, with real motive force and integrity. New dynamic ideas do not need to be fixed. They may proclaim a new world with philosophical or theological elements at their core, but wiggle room is essential when the new idea is developing.
This is seen in the early days of the Elmhirsts’ Dartington. Their new idea certainly had clear principles behind it. It knew what it was not. But there was no clear five-year plan, no mission statement, and nor was there any complete picture of the Dartington concept. Leonard Elmhirst, indeed, resisted this. Instead, as with Theo Brown’s example of the early Christian church, there were impulses, intuitions, fascinations, and urges to act without necessarily knowing why or what the consequences might be. In a sense the mysteries are amoral – although this could hardly be said of the Elmhirsts.
This mysteries phase shades over into the morals phase. At this point ideas that were originally pursued for their own sake, for the truths they were seen to embody, are gradually turned outwards to tend to the morals of others, of society, of everyone. At this point institutions typically solidify into edifices – churches, doctrines – designed to cultivate and save a flock. Small, devoted coteries continue, but the main thrust of what has become a movement is now to look after the morals, or inner lives, of the laity. This is the era of good works, and it too can be seen at Dartington. To some extent, an element of good works was always present at Dartington as its privileged noblesse oblige. But interestingly, the Elmhirsts and their cahoots always took their work into society on the basis of what they believed, their own progressive ideas, rather than assuming or second-guessing what the people they engaged with actually wanted. This was the Elmhirsts’ strength – having ideas, no matter how far outside the mainstream, and putting them into practice. They had total faith in their ideas and assumed their usefulness. There was always a willingness to experiment. Nevertheless, there developed a strong moral element in the spread of Dartington and its ideas.
Finally the morals phase shades into the welfare phase which has two highly material aspects. The once-new idea now looks after the material welfare of the laity, and often argues that this is the route to the deeper, the spiritual or whatever. But it also focuses on its own welfare, its own continuance and survival. However, it is often the case that the link with the original mysteries can become tenuous. Or we might say that the original vibrant idea, the mysteries, now survives via compromises. In fact it is typical of an idea in this late, somewhat decadent phase, that it will recast, reinvent and rebrand itself merely in order to procure the supporters or followers that might guarantee its survival. So the leading question becomes something like: what does this institution have to do to survive, what new strategies and appeals can be dreamed up to attract customers and thus maintain the edifice? – rather than simply affirming or focusing on what we believe.
Political parties are often exactly like this. The Labour Party, for example, grew from the “mysteries” of socialist debate, from trade unions and progressives in the 19th century emerging from the growth of the proletariat created by industrial capitalism. Once it became a parliamentary party it entered the morals stage in which it saw the necessity of spreading its message as widely as possible – as competing in elections forces any party to do. Its complex history, however, well and truly entered the welfare phase under Tony Blair who was willing to sacrifice many of its founding principles (including Clause 4 that insisted on socialism) to the cause of getting elected – in other words to the survival of the party rather than its core ideas. It would have been argued, of course, that one should not be hidebound by original principles. We have to survive in the changed world.
Buddhism has a very similar threefold concept in its idea of the Former, Middle and Latter days of the Law, also known as the Correct Law, the Counterfeit Law and the Decadent Law. In the Former Day, perhaps equivalent to the mysteries, there is direct connection with the teachings of enlightenment. In the Middle Day, exactly like the morals phase, the teachings take root in society but become increasingly formalized. Finally, the Latter Day is conceived of as tainted by greed, anger and foolishness, the teachings having atrophied and the institutions exist mainly to serve themselves. This, of course, places a pejorative perspective on the three phases, whereas Theo Brown’s mysteries, morals and welfare framework merely set out to observe almost without comment.
Once you learn to recognize the signs the pattern can be discerned wherever you care to look: churches, political parties, artistic movements, small organizations (including community organizations), educational establishments, worthy causes and enterprises and – yes – places like Dartington. The challenge is, firstly, to see how the pattern plays out, to recognize where it might be in the cycle, and what – if anything – can be done about it.
Modern Dartington’s mysteries, of course, began with Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst and their purchase of the Estate in the 1920s. There was no grand plan, although there were grand ideas. It always had an element of “good works” and many of those works were very good indeed. The morals phase was simultaneous with the welfare phase. Much later, in the 1980s and 90s, a period of financial chaos, played out against the predominant neoliberal agenda of the day, saw Dartington move rather rapidly into its welfare phase whereby its own survival became a top priority. This was late 1980s-early 90s era when the Trust asset stripped like crazy resulting in big sacrifices for small and rapidly evaporating gains. Incidentally, this was the time when the College of Arts nearly folded and was baled out by the University of Plymouth. The mysteries hung on by their fingernails.
The college, as opposed to Elmhirst Dartington, fits almost too neatly into the Brown Cycle. Its early phase, highly idealistic, ran throughout the 1960s into the 1970s when it began to offer degree courses. These acquired elements of good works, for example when the theatre degree sent 3rd year students into the rough, tough lions’ dens of Rotherhithe (London) or Stonehouse (Plymouth) for a whole sink-or-swim year out. The college’s insistence on context in the arts implied relationships with communities, a negotiated relevance – often quite political, and a clear ethical, honorable agendum of participation, democracy and empowerment.
The fact that there are three phases in the Brown Cycle does not mean that each phase completely supplants the earlier ones. Dartington College managed to retain strong elements of its earlier mysteries, and even developed new ones such as Performance Writing, Visual Performance, or Arts and the Environment. It might be said that Dartington as a whole did likewise. On another level, however, the dramatic ditching of the college artificially catapulted the Estate, and everything about Dartington, even more firmly into the welfare stage, the stage in the cycle whereby the institution fights for its own survival – although it tries to do so via good works. Much of the discussion about Dartington from then till now has focused on its own survival.
A few years ago, when the struggle to save the college was still raging, there were posters around the Estate to the effect that anyone with a great idea should pitch it to Dartington and the poster told you who and where to contact. A peculiar desperation and absurdity lay behind this appeal. Neither in recent nor more distant history was Dartington ever short of ideas. Was this poster an admission that the institution could no longer generate enough good ideas itself? The Elmhirsts never ran out of ideas. The last thing they had to do was advertise for them. What would they have thought about their project of rural regeneration now touting for ideas, for direction? Was this a form of populism or evidence of sterility?
The appeal for ideas, however, was a typical welfare phase move. When you don’t know what to do, where to turn, and your survival might be in question – ask the people. In a way this is a blatant form of exploitation. Don’t anyone ever believe that they’ll get paid for giving away ideas. At best you might get a lunch.
If there is no motive force, no evident dynamism, no obvious place to go, no people around burning with the need to explore lines of enquiry which may or may not lead anywhere, if the mysteries have disappeared and all that has come in their place is some kind of consensus, forget it. It’s over. The poster – which I first saw in the loo of all places – strongly suggested to me that the Dartington enterprise was, indeed, over.
What now? Can an idea so far into its welfare phase really regenerate itself? There are instances where this does happen; they are often resisted by establishments, by entrenched conservative forces that make democratic or fashionable noises but really only chase hollow success and self-perpetuation. Dartington has no need of these. On the contrary, if it stands a chance of making real contributions it needs to do two things – both easier to write and talk about than to actually do: to find a heart and to open an arts college.
First, and most important, it needs to rediscover its heart – or maybe discover a new heart after having its old heart ripped out. When I can bear to go to the Estate these days, or when I have to for something like Soundart Radio, I am genuinely amazed and distressed by how little is going on there. Those six million pound theatre and music studios – nearly always empty; Higher Close – often deserted; the three accommodation blocks – empty more than half the year; the Courtyard – also frequently deserted; the sound of music and artistic exploration – nowhere. This is beyond the welfare stage. It is like a ghostland. Or I’m reminded of the words of Captain Beefheart: “I cannot go back to your land of gloom/where black jagged shadows/remind me of the coming of your doom”. Oh dear…I feel only the absence of heart.
The heart of an enterprise is not found by consensus. It is not found by inventing visions laced with caution as to how they might develop and how they might be financed. It is not found by consultation. It is not found by promoting a ragbag of good works couched in the jargon of buzzwords like excellence, collaborations, distinctiveness, community, the young, the disadvantaged…These are all irrelevant. They can and do emerge from the work that happens when the heart is in place. We don’t even need faith in that; it’s a fact. The heart of an enterprise is discovered, rediscovered or simply found again by reconnecting with the mysteries. That means embracing uncertainty. It means having no idea where you’re going or why – because those discussions belong in the work. It means risk-taking – as opposed to the prissy stuff that passes for risk in present-day management-speak. It means putting the real thrust of your ideas first. It means doing what all artists have to do if their work is to have any power – to discover their audacity. The Elmhirsts were virtuosi in these directions. It is true that money was no object to them, but allowing money, or the lack of it, to dictate policy is the way of mediocrity. Policy, activity, should dictate money. If it can’t do so, go elsewhere. The game is over. Integrity resides in the work, not how or if it is funded. The heart of Dartington may still exist (perhaps), but if it can be found again it can only be via reinvestigations of its mysteries, old and new.
Speaking of which the second thing Dartington needs to do is to (guess what?) open an arts college. It cannot be Dartington College of Arts Mark 2, although there were plenty of rich and significant aspects of the old college that could indeed be reclaimed and recycled. One should not be shy of past glories.
There are, however, various reasons for opening a new college, apart from the fact that the old one should never have closed. A new venture of this kind would be a new mystery. Much has happened in the arts even since 2010 when the old college closed. There would need to be an open-ended exploration of the contemporary. Within such practices the new college could possibly find its heart.
One social feature of the old college was its relationship the surrounding area. It was able to create and maintain this relationship because its students were resident for the entire academic year. They lived and worked locally. Part of the deep sense of hurt the community felt when the college closed was due to the sudden loss of this vibrant input into the area. This cannot be made up for by a succession of short courses. The Schumacher College does short courses, and excellent though they may be its students make virtually no impact on the locality. It is the continuous, year-long presence that counts.
But the major pragmatic reason for opening a new college is that, as with the old college, a year-round presence provides the Estate with a spine, a raison d’etre, a continuous and far-reaching relationship with the world outside. Again, this is much harder to do via short courses or occasional presences. When the old college disappeared Dartington began to look suspiciously like a folly – which is what it would be were it initiated today rather than in the 1920s. The college connected Dartington with the outside world which, in turn, gave it some urbanity, some real life everyday purview as opposed to feeling like Dingley Dell – as one powerful voice from the old college once described it to me.
Finally, it is worth noting that Dartington’s (and the college’s) initial mysteries – its progressive schools, its stance outside the ways of industrial capitalism, its swimming against the tide of rural degeneration, its progressive agriculture, its drawing on the newest and experimental arts explorations, ad perhaps even its deeply contradictory aristocratic socialism (which didn’t work particularly well) – all these were implicitly, and sometimes openly, oppositional or alternative to the prevailing mores of the day. All higher education institutions today are overwhelmingly infected by the Philistinism of neoliberal, market-led, management top-heavy systems which, certainly in the case of the arts and humanities, not only have nothing to do with teaching and learning but actually militate against them. If Dartington’s mysteries are to be discovered or rediscovered it will have to be alternative to the mainstream once again. That means no good causes because you can get funding for them, no artists tolerating obligations like having to do workshops when they really need to do their own work, no buying into the management-heavy ways of present day administration, no populism, no compromise to the idiocies of how a money-led populist mainstream culture invades the territories of the arts. Dartington’s strengths have always been its willingness to go out on a limb, to be different, to explore and innovate no matter what, to attract the wider world of the arts and artists because something unique is happening on its estate, to positively oppose, to retain its sense of its own mysteries. It needs a grand vision, not a series of smaller scale projects; a cutting edge consciousness, not a recycling of existing practices; something new rather than something that merely works.
I would go as far as to say that unless Dartington puts the opening of a new college with these principles well in its sights it will be doomed to live out its welfare stage by declining into further decadence.
Sam Richards’ “Dartington College of Arts: Learning by Doing – A biography of a College” was published in 2015. Available at Totnes Bookshop, here https://www.shopsatdartington.co.uk/Dartington-College-of-Arts-Learning-by-Doing-p/9780956170545.htm – and from usual online sources.