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

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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, google_ad_height = 90; 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 /* 9-970x90 */ 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, google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; 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;

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and this src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> 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

is that education is now largely in the hands of the uneducated.

Before moving on, I want to make one specific /* xin2 */ 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

our discovery (helped by those mentors) through reproductions and visits to galleries, of what is possible – which turns google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; out to be even more
revelatory than we had, to begin with, realized. The masters
show google_ad_height = 90; 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

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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 google_ad_width = 970; 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 google_ad_height = 90; 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,
in order to prepare for the examination, which one did

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by working out a composition
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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

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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