Eric Coombes: The Destruction of Art Education and Its Implications for School Pupils

The near-destruction in the western world of a centuries-long tradition of visual education could be described – hyperbolically but not misleadingly – as having been accomplished overnight. The inherited gifts of that tradition are now being casually, ungratefully and even malevolently thrown away. In its chronologically long-range survey, What Happened to Art Education? provides the context in which the extraordinary rapidity and grievousness of this loss displays itself.

The enormity of the threat to our culture is evident to those responding to David Lee’s essay in last month’s edition of The Jackdaw. There is broad agreement that art education at the higher level has been wrecked by the jettison and denigration of traditional skills (usually by those incapable of acquiring them), and the imposition of the ‘intellectual’ in their place. This judgement is grounded in a true perception of an appalling state of affairs. But we need, in my view, to take care not to make our observations in misleading terms. James Charnley, for example, suggests that ‘[t]he way forward is to take the intellectualism out of art’. This, however, could be taken to imply that what was displaced by ‘intellectualism’ was itself without an important intellectual dimension. It might also seem to presuppose that the practice of ‘art’ as it is now generally promoted at the ‘higher’ level of ‘education’ is dominated by the exercise of intellect. Who provide the models for this exercise? Such towering intellects as Damien Hirst, ‘Professor’ Tracey Emin or Martin Creed? If intellectualism needs to be ‘taken out’, then ‘intellectualism’ must be understood as something hostile to the cultivation of intellect – as an arrogant imposture, the infantile pantomime of self-important pretence that now constitutes ‘education’ in the visual arts.

Following the recommendations of the Coldstream and Summerson reports more than forty years ago, a formal requirement was introduced for Dip.A.D. and then degree courses in art and design to include a modest element of ‘complementary’ studies, generally art history, theory and sometimes aesthetics. It is worth remembering that the devil’s work of utilitarianism, though already well advanced, had not yet reduced higher education quite to its present state of ruination; and this requirement was intended to enhance the humane benefits of art education, as education – as something of value in itself, rather than a mere preparation of students for their putative future roles as economic units in a world understood entirely in terms of commerce. (It should, in passing, be emphasized that the political context of crass philistinism in which this attitude has triumphed is by no means attributable to one political party rather than another.)

There was no reason why this provision of genuinely intellectual material (wherever the actual provision could properly be so described) would threaten the learning of traditional skills – no more than a course in, say, the philosophy or history of mathematics would hinder a mathematics student from doing mathematics. The bogus intellectualism that now prevails is a very different matter, since it has invaded and subjugated the domain of practice and thoroughly poisoned the soil in which skills were cultivated.

What, exactly, are the skills that have been scrapped? Well, in the case of painting, for example, the correct answer is the tritely obvious one: they are those required to make paintings. In what sense are those skills not intellectual, by contrast with what has displaced them? Clearly, some of the necessary operations involved have, in themselves, no significant intellectual dimension – such things as preparing grounds and so on. But consider what a level of organized complexity can be achieved in painting, even in a simple still-life, let alone in such stupendous achievements as, say, Poussin’s Adoration of the Golden Calf. Such a work embodies an awe-inspiring exercise of intelligence. Does that not count as – among other things – an exercise of intellect? In what sense of ‘intellectual’ is this not intellectual, while gobbledygook posturing as thinking is? The uneducated find what is intellectually demanding indistinguishable from the merely confused, illiterate, pretentious or fraudulent, and may therefore suppose that the more something is incomprehensible to themselves the more they must pretend to understand and value it. And, as a few important but disregarded commentators have pointed out, a major problem of the contemporary world is that education is now largely in the hands of the uneducated.

Before moving on, I want to make one specific point about ‘skills’. Traditionally, the central ‘skill’, for all the visual arts, including architecture, and – partly in a slightly extended sense, sculpture – was that of drawing. I have added scare quotes to the word ‘skill’, not because the word is incorrect in this context, but because it may have inappropriately modest connotations, especially when applied to drawing. If drawing is a skill, it is a skill in much the same sense in which the use of language is a skill, and, like language, it is a medium of thought and not merely the technique for producing artefacts of certain kinds. This is why, before the comprehensive vandalization of art education, drawing was understood to have paramount importance, as something fundamental and indispensible. And unless an understanding of this indispensability is regained, we shall have destroyed our visual tradition, which is as much as to say that we shall have destroyed the visual arts themselves, leaving only a deposit of artefacts as inscrutable items of cultural palaeontology.


Here I merely assert this point, essentially without argument. With the editor’s indulgence, I might return to it in a future article, where I would attempt some elaboration, elucidation and justification. But I now turn to an aspect of the present situation not explicitly dealt with in his essay: the predicament of the young person preparing to enter higher education from school, wanting to pursue an interest in the visual arts, but confronted by the chaotic and hazardous wreckage of the art-school system in which help might once have been found. Deprived of life by the managerialist philistines into whose malign custody they were delivered, the mortal remains of serious and sometimes distinguished schools of art now rest in the huge charnel houses that have ousted and plundered them. Under a regime of licensed fraudulence, these bloated conglomerates often boast such preposterously vainglorious titles as The University for the Creative Arts. (What, may one ask, are the uncreative arts?)

But, it might be objected, they have no difficulty in recruiting students – do they? Well, perhaps not – no more than do any of the other entities now allowed to boast the once meaningful title of ‘university’. What is the significance of this fact, if it is a fact – in a situation where, in consequence of government policies, a university place – no longer perceived, as it once was, as a privilege contingent on achievement – has become, for nearly half of each cohort of school leavers, something like a right which it is almost compulsory to claim? It might be worth reflecting on the hugely varying levels of ability or attainment needed to gain places at these institutions, and – connectedly of course – the unprecedented magnitude of variations in the levels of well-informed esteem, or disesteem, which they enjoy within the informal hierarchy of institutions now labelled ‘university’.

Let us consider the likely path to art school taken by able young people in the past. Many children, probably most, will, if encouraged, enjoy using art materials, and often fall happily into the habit of drawing – a habit that can be cultivated, unhampered by cumbersome paraphernalia, using very modest, easily portable materials. As we grow up, those of us who develop a strong interest in the visual arts are usually, I imagine, encouraged by teachers or parents, or, best of all, both. At least, that was, I think, true for many of my generation: I feel less confident that it is still the case. Our interest in making art or, more accurately perhaps, what is not yet art – proto-art – grows along with our discovery (helped by those mentors) through reproductions and visits to galleries, of what is possible – which turns out to be even more revelatory than we had, to begin with, realized. The masters show us what is possible, but this is disclosed gradually, since the ability fully to experience what they reveal itself depends upon the development of perceptual capacities which are cultivated only through acquaintance with their works.


The particular kind of satisfaction we take in making images becomes inseparable from our sense of participating in an activity defined by the practice of the masters, not simply through knowledge of the fact that it is of the masters, but through finding that our experience of their work leads us towards an intuitive grasp of what – in our tradition – drawing is. This involves the dawning understanding – not necessarily verbally or self-consciously articulated – that when we enjoy a drawing by, say, Rembrandt, we are following the articulation of a thought of Rembrandt’s, inseparable from that particular drawing, and not merely recognizing the subject-matter. We could almost say that we follow that articulation by imagining ourselves making that drawing, and perhaps wanting to do something not the same, but in some sense equivalent, or in the same spirit. The joy that comes from any modest little successes in this endeavour engenders an aspiration, an inner voice which will not be silenced, which may ultimately deflect the young person from the path of prudence. Sensible suggestions to enter the law or accountancy are rejected, and the seduction of art triumphs over the cogently argued merits of social and economic caution.

It is still possible, though less likely than it was, for sixth formers to be in something like that state when contemplating where to go after school. But the seduction of art no longer leads them to art school (or ‘University of Blah Blah’), or, if it does, they have made a big mistake (I know of one such mistake); for they will almost certainly find themselves required to devote time and energy to what bears no discernible relationship to the difficult but rewarding activity that brought them there, but prevented from trying to do better what they actually want to do. Why would an intelligent young person animated by the joy to be found in drawing, painting and sculpture – which is still what usually leads the young to art – gladly submit to a peremptory requirement to make videos, discover a hitherto undisclosed enthusiasm for ‘installations’, or rejoice in solemn but idiotic projects under the rubric of ‘conceptual art’. What have these things got to do with the visual arts? Not only will students not be taught to draw, they will probably be virtually forbidden to engage in what can properly be called drawing – although they may well be told that photography, videos, installations and, for all I know, pastry-making, yo-yos, pub-crawls, ping pong or bouncy castles are forms of drawing.

The consequence is that, the ‘lad or lass’, to borrow some words of Augustus John’s, whose ‘soul is alight with that flame which in the

young only art and love can kindle’ will, if both intelligent and well-informed, decline to enter an institution purporting to provide higher education in the practice of the visual arts. Any unfortunate enough to be misled are destined to probable early withdrawal, or to the endurance of shamelessly pretentious diseducation, to frustrated hopes and huge debts, acquired entirely wastefully. I leave it to the reader to judge whether these institutions are filled with lads and lasses whose souls are alight with that flame which, in the young, can be kindled only by videos, installations and ‘conceptual art’. For myself, I have to admit that I regard that hypothesis with scepticism.

400;">Degree courses in art, therefore, especially in ‘Fine Art’, may enrol unprecedentedly large numbers – criminally large numbers – of students. Whether they have many young people actually studying the visual arts is another matter entirely. Indeed, one may doubt that successful art students – successful by the criteria (or whims) of the system they have entered – are really interested in art, given that they may have little acquaintance with what it is they would be interested in. More than with most professions, the propensity to pursue a career in art seems until recently often to have had a strong familial element. In all the (not unnumerous) cases where I knew, each of my own older ex-colleagues had a least one child, sometimes more, who had followed father or mother in attending art school. But among my own contemporaries and those following this seems not to be so. I reluctantly advised my own children against this course, despite their great enthusiasm and capacity for drawing and painting, and I know of others, similarly placed, who have done the same. Those most capable and motivated to study art – and also best informed about the condition of art education – may well be those most decisively rejecting degree courses in the practice of art.

An important consequence of what I’ve so far said is the near certainty that there has been a precipitous decline in the average abilities – abilities of any kind – of students enrolling for art courses. Nearly all young people going on to first-degree-level courses in any subject, including art, will have first completed A-level courses, or some equivalent thereof. It is only after this that full-time study of art can usually begin. Art remains just one subject among many that might be pursued after school, and, for obvious reasons, not one which the academically able always get much encouragement to pursue in the sixth form. There was a time, however, when the academically able sixth former might have continued with art as an extra A-level subject, fitting the work into the spaces between other timetabled subjects. In that way, an officially recognized interest in art, with the possibility of further development, was retained, even as the preconditions for entry to more conventional and secure careers continued to be established. And such a sixth-former might finally be unable to resist the promptings of a soul ‘alight with the flame’ kindled by art.


But this route for the academically able has been made more arduous, because of changes in how art is now taught and examined. Superficially, these changes might seem benign. When I did O-level art at school, we took, if I remember rightly (the exact details are unimportant), three three-hour papers: drawing from the human figure (a boy in his gym kit); still-life drawing; and a painted pictorial composition. For the last, one was given a (small) choice of subjects in advance,

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in order to prepare for the examination, which one did by working out a composition through sketches, and possibly making studies from observation. But this preparatory material was not allowed into the examination room, where one tried to complete a painting in three hours. At A-level, the procedure was essentially the same, except that to the three O-level papers was added a fourth design paper, and, if one might be a candidate for a state scholarship, a paper in art history.

There is much to be said against this system, and much was said against it. It was sometimes thought unreasonable to expect candidates to make a painting in a mere stressful three hours. But we could make paintings in those circumstances, and were sometimes not entirely displeased with the results. And whether it was really more intolerable, or potentially unfair, to have to make a painting under these conditions than to write three or four mini-essays under similar conditions for other subjects might be regarded as a moot point.

On first consideration, the current system might seem to promote a more serious and more ambitious engagement, since pupils are assessed mostly on projects which need to be sustained over longer periods, during the two years of the GCSE or A-level course, rather than on the outcome of three stressful periods, each of three hours. Projects will probably be based, or supposedly based, on some such abstraction as ‘metamorphosis’, ‘flexibility’, ‘proximity’ (you name it): the tired old genres of landscape, still-life or figure composition are presumably not thought, merely in themselves, to challenge the intellectual and ‘creative’ capacities of the candidate. The development of these projects has to be recorded (or appear to be recorded) in notebooks, written as well as visual, and by the filling of portfolios. Everything has to be explained in written notes, whether standing in need of such explanation or not.


A minor part of the assessment does involve producing a piece of work under examination conditions, or a very loosely supervised variant of examination conditions. But a total of ten rather than three hours is allowed for this; there are no restrictions on what can be brought in for use during these ten hours; and, as with course work, records must be produced of the preparatory evolution of ideas, which may be needlessly, if not fraudulently, elaborated. Whereas under the old system, the work was sent off to be marked by an examiner unknown to the candidates, under the present system, everything, not just course work, is marked by the candidates’ teachers, though subject to external ‘moderation’. The assessment, at least in theory, is not simply of the quality of the final outcomes, but, at least as importantly, of the processes – as presented – through which those outcomes have supposedly been reached, together with the candidate’s written accounts and written assessment of those processes. If I could bring myself to write a full account of the 55 pages of Edexcel’s mind-numbing ‘specification’ for GCSE in Art and Design, I doubt that any readers (whose patience may already be tried) could bring themselves to read it. Suffice it to say that it is impossible that any intelligent person could regard its multiplication of arbitrarily invented criteria and of bogus distinctions between different aspects of the ‘creative’ process as anything but a kind of bureaucratic or managerialist fantasy: the fantasy that, if something is broken down into enough components, even if those components are themselves invented for the sole purpose of sustaining the fantasy, then assessment can be made more ‘objective’ by reducing its outcome to a kind of arithmetical sum. But some inkling of the quality of thought informing the specification will be gained by an inspection of Edexcel’s preposterous ‘assessment matrix’. (I reproduce here, opposite, the one in use when my daughter did GCSE art. The A-level ‘matrix’ was essentially similar.) It will be seen that each candidate has to be given a mark for two ‘strands’ relating to each of four ‘assessment objectives’. That is, the final assessment is determined by the sum of no less than eight marks – not marks for eight pieces of work, but for qualities supposedly displayed, or not displayed, throughout the ‘course’.

It will be noticed that no competence of a traditional nature is specifically required (none, that is, of the centuries-old tradition of western art), and the central discipline of drawing is not even mentioned. By contrast, under the old discredited system the ability to draw from observation was not only required, but explicitly examined. As at the ‘higher’ level, it amounts to the same thing, whether drawing is dismissed as unnecessary or obsolete or whether almost anything but drawing itself is promoted in its place as an alleged form of drawing. It is as if we suddenly decided that it was no longer necessary 502 Bad Gateway for writers to know how to construct sentences or mathematicians to acquire fluency in using the system of symbols in which mathematical thinking is conducted. (But ‘educationists’ have gone a long way, if not yet quite so far, towards implementing those decisions too.) It should be noted that, even for the most talented, to draw well is very, very difficult, and therefore requires discipline, the demand for which is now regarded with suspicion. It is also the most teachable element in a proper art education. But teaching it requires competent draughtsmen willing to teach, that is to undertake that other ill-regarded and obsolete thing: instruction.

Under this system, it is, in fact, possible for enlightened teachers, where they preside, to establish a regime in which their pupils receive some genuine visual education. If they have any sense – which is not always the case – art teachers in practice assess their pupils’ work much as they always have done, and then divide the overall mark into eight fantasy marks. They may also, if necessary, prompt their pupils to ‘find’ additional preparatory work or ‘records’ of such, to complete the trail of ‘evidence’ establishing their adequate compliance with the requirements of both ‘strands’ in each of the four ‘assessment objectives’.

Despite the enormous amount of nonsense, bogus intellectualism and pretence bound up with it, this system might seem, in significant respects, an improvement on previous systems. Since it demands more work, or at least time, from pupils, does it not now seem a weightier element in the curriculum, and thereby gain in prestige? In fact, any parent whose children have been through the elaborately but counter-productively regulated system we now have will know that, in most subjects, pupils’ workload has become heavier, more time consuming, more onerous and tedious than ever, while it is simultaneously contrived that less than ever is actually learnt. No subject, however, has been made more time-consuming than art, largely through the requirement not only to preserve or record preparatory work, but for pupils to become archivists of their own ephemera.

Compared with this system – counter-intuitive though it might at first seem – for academically able pupils, taking perhaps nine other subjects at O-level, and perhaps three others at A-level, the old system had distinct advantages. At A-level, art has become so time-consuming that it is not practicable to take it as an ‘extra’ subject. When my own children were entering the sixth form, we knew of several young people who reluctantly decided against continuing with art at school, mainly because of this hugely time-consuming aspect – not, in these cases, because their parents were otherwise opposed to their doing so. But these were pupils with academic ability at a high level, who had not at that point definitely made up their minds what direction to take after school: for such pupils it would have made sense to take art to A-level only if they had already decided to continue with it as undergraduates. But they were potential candidates for places at ‘top’ universities to study academic subjects, and had not, at that stage, decided against seeking those places.

Academic high flyers were always likely to be under pressure not to take what was seen as a needlessly risky route through the sixth form to a higher level course in the practice of art. The possibility of their doing so must be further weakened if the objections to continuing with art in the sixth form are reinforced by these additional pragmatic considerations. But we now have the sad and bizarre situation where, in considering the good of both the visual arts themselves and the young people concerned, this is, in itself, something impossible to regret.


What about those talented but ‘un-academic’ students, who rightly concern Paul Wilks in his contribution to the previous issue? I strongly suspect that, in the past, the need for their dispensation from the academic entry requirements arose far more from deficiencies in the schools than from innate deficiencies in the entrants themselves. In any event, because of the general devaluing of qualifications, the loss or curtailment of those concessions is probably no longer of much consequence. They may not find it difficult to gain admission to degree courses in ‘Fine Art’, but what prospect does that offer to the talented of exploiting their talents? The very abilities in recognition of which they might once have secured dispensation from the academic entry requirements are precisely those which, in current circumstances, they will have no opportunity to develop. In any case, who would recognize their talents?

Eric Coombes
The Jackdaw