ARE LIFE MODELS ARTISTS? (all words © Dominic Blake 2016 - 2022)
I believe that life modelling has the potential to be a physical mode of artistic practice within which the model uses their body as their medium of expression to draw in space. The ephemeral, hieroglyphic forms I create are direct emotional responses to the environments I am located within, the people I share them with, internal dialogues and to my body itself. I reject cultural paradigms that have existed since the Renaissance suggesting that life models are mercenary drawing instruments, muses or objects with no creative agency. Life modelling is not a form of anatomical data entry.
In 2016 I conceived a lecture series, 'Are Life Models Artists?', the first of which I delivered at Mall Galleries in 2019 and then at venues including The National Gallery, Hampstead School of Art and the RCA Drawing academic research portal. Examining life modelling through art historical and experiential perspectives I discuss the existential realms within which the practice exists. While not claiming in an absolute sense that life modelling is an artistic practice, I advocate a more enlightened perspective proposing that it might be given particular motivations on the part of the practitioner and given particular contexts. My next lectures will take place in February 2022 at the Royal College of Art, and in May 2022 at The University of Kent's Aesthetics Research Centre. You can view a mini-version of my lecture, recorded in December 2020 above.
Themes I discuss within my lecture include the changing role of the life model throughout art history (and misunderstandings of it), the possibility that life modelling might itself be an artistic practice within the realm of performance art, the attitudes of art schools towards life models and how they shape wider cultural perceptions, distinctions between the 'muse' / sitter and the life model, issues of objectification, the way in which differing contexts alter perceptions (with particular reference to the gallery and museum spaces). The recent updates to my lecture (from 2020 onwards) include discourse about the changing post-pandemic landscape and the way in which models have been afforded the possibility to reclaim their practice from the hierarchical power structures defined by art schools.
In preparation for my lectures I interviewed the Directors of several major galleries, museums and private collections, practicing artists, life models and curators to gain their insight into the question I posed. Included within the group of interviewees was Christopher Le Brun, Past President, Royal Academy of Arts; Simon Martin, Director, Pallant House Gallery; Jo Baring, Director, The Ingram Collection; Lara Wardle, Director Curator, The Jerwood Collection; Gill Saunders, Senior Curator, V&A Department of Word and Image; JJ Delvine, Artist (BP Portrait Award 2018, 2011, 2006); Desmond Healy, Artist and Fine Art Tutor; John Close, Artist and Fine Art Tutor; Suzon Lagarde, Portrait Artist and life model; Robin George, life model.
'Are Life Models Artists?' has received coverage in the mainstream art press: The Guardian published a feature about my work in August 2019 and I was also interviewed by BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio Guernsey and Soho Radio. You can listen to the BBC R4 and Soho Radio interviews above.
Symposium: 'Revaluing the Life Model' - In association with the British Society of Aesthetics and the University of Kent, 2022
I am co-curator with Dr. Aurélie Debaene of a symposium within which related issues will be discussed in 2022 at the University of Kent's Aesthetics Research Centre. Our successful application to the British Society of Aesthetics was awarded generous funding in 2019. Prominent members of the academic and artistic communities will participate through panel discussions and lectures including Jo Baring, Professor Jean Wainwright, Dr. Anna Pakes, Professor Anne Eaton, Anne Noble-Partridge and JJ Delvine. I will be one of the keynote speakers and sit on the panel with Aurélie.
Charleston Trust 2021 Commission
In 2020, The Charleston Trust commissioned Aurélie and I to write a chapter within Charleston Press No. 4, a journal of essays in response to Charleston's 2021 retrospective of Nina Hamnett's work.
Campaign against the exploitation of life models by art schools
I have been actively campaigning since 2016 against the exploitation of life models by art schools. The attitudes of art schools toward life models may be revealed through the poverty pay rates they are often awarded: It is difficult not to conclude that most art schools view life models as expendable commodities. Dickensian justifications for this iniquitous situation are routinely cited by art school directors ('we are a small charity'; 'we have significant rental costs and other overheads to bear'; 'our class sizes are dwindling'; 'we wish we could pay more, our budget is limited'; 'we undertake significant community outreach'). It is not the responsibility of life models to subsidise an institutions charitable status, overheads, community outreach or failing business model.
Rates of pay always begin as ideological, not financial concerns. Cultural paradigms grounded in the Renaissance suggesting that life models are ‘mercenary drawing instruments’ or muses are all pervasive: When remuneration committees meet to determine rates of pay, they invariably conclude that life models are worthy only of among the lowest rates, several times lower than the tutors who they collaborate with. Most art schools claim that they pay 'the living wage'. This raises an important existential question: Why is it that art schools deem the 'minimum wage' or 'living wage' to be appropriate measures via which to assess a life models pay rate? In any case, it is a distortion of reality to suggest the rates art schools offer meet the living wage in real terms when travel expenses, time and other costs are factored in. Typical rates are closer to £6-8 per hour.
I worked as a life model full time for several years with almost every art school, life drawing group, museum and gallery in London. At the start of 2019, I began moving away from art schools having decided that I could no longer tacitly endorse exploitative work practices by participating in morally bankrupt systems of oppression.
Life models undertake physically and emotionally demanding roles. They are freelance, skilled professionals. Art schools should immediately raise their minimum rate to £20 per hour or else stop delivering life drawing classes until they are in a position to do so. The disconnect from reality is obvious: Models are on the wrong grade and this must be adjusted.
© Dominic Blake 2016 - 2022
Please scroll down to view a photo-journal including images of my lectures to date: