TEDx Courtauld Institute explore ‘what is utopian art?’

On Saturday 12th March, TEDx Courtauld Institute collaborated with The Courtauld’s public programmes to organise ‘What is Utopian Art?’ the first undergraduate-led workshop for a group of 16-19 year olds. They planned a workshop for young people interested in learning more about art history and the idea of ‘Utopia’. This was in response to Somerset House’s year of activities around the same theme. The undergraduate students will explain a bit more about the workshop below! 

To fit in with the concept of TedxCourtauld 2016, Utopia; Breaking the Rules, we decided to introduce, discuss and debate the relationship between art and ‘Utopia’. We did this by tracing the concept of ‘Utopia’ through Thomas More’s original book, the Courtauld collection, and contemporary art work commissioned for both the TedxCourtauld 2016 and the Utopia 2016 festival at Somerset House.  Our aim was to create a journey through the different ideas of ‘Utopia’. We wanted to empower the young people at the workshop, to explore how art informs, reflects and helps construct ‘Utopias’, and how can they use this to challenge their environment through art.


At the start of the day the students heard an introduction to the UTOPIA 2016 marking the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. They found out about what More set out in his text: what his view of ‘Utopia’ was in 1516 and the issues with the text that we unwittingly evoke every time we use this word.We also discussed Somerset House’s architectural features and the history of the site.


To build on this concept we then toured two examples of contemporary artwork within Somerset House. By visiting Jeremy Deller’s and Fraser Muggeridge’s acid-coloured flag perched on top of Somerset house and the interactive space or ‘Treasury’, we considered the influence of popular culture and political context on their work.  We also went for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of Peter Liversidge’s work as Artist in Residence for TEDx Courtauld talks. He spent two weeks at the River Rooms with volunteers creating apolitical protest signs for an installation within the TedxCourtauld Institute talk space. We were able to visit their work-in-progress, getting exclusive access to a contemporary artist’s creative process, to understand how Peter’s work challenges the concept of Utopia by looking at the act of protest.


In The Courtauld Gallery collection we used Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art to dissect this knowledge further. We were taught that there are many different ways of reading artworks, with art historians putting on a different set of methodological glasses to view a work.  We used the days theme of ‘Utopia’ to interpret the artworks in front of us, with the student’s presenting to the group their thoughts when asking themselves ‘Can this artwork be viewed as Utopian or Dystopian?’ and ‘Was this the artist’s intention? Or has this view of the work changed over time?’


In the afternooon, the group collaborated to create a flag to symbolise their interpretation of Utopia. The finished piece was displayed in the foyer to represent TEDx Courtauld Institute 2016 to our two hundred guests. The young people tackled a section of the flag in a unique and collaborative way choosing to draw on different ways artists have approached ‘Utopia’ throughout the century, incorporating elements which could be traced back to the discussions had throughout the day!