Essay: What Happened to Art Education?

Introduction

Since its beginning, and until very recently, Fine Art education has been evolutionary. Received wisdom that the modus operandi of teaching art were static until being gradually upset in the decades after 1945 is an exaggeration. The objective to produce basic competence in practical skills in painting and sculpture was indeed a constant ambition, but the methods by which this was to be achieved were subject to regular twists and turns of emphasis and direction. Even in post-war years disputes were endemic concerning best practice among reformers before the current impasse of teaching nothing of practical worth had been reached. In contrast to this former development, art teaching today has never been more resistant to revision or extension, more blind either to remedial action or inflexion. Some would say that, like the Contemporary Art establishment in general, by being so pleased with itself art education has likewise placed itself beyond criticism.

The main difference between art teaching any time from the Renaissance up to the 1960s and today is that previously they taught the ‘skills’ of observation and craft whilst leaving the ‘art’ to abstract imponderables like ‘talent’ and ‘originality’. Nowadays the focus is exclusively on developing exclusively the ‘art’ ingredient. This is a little like playing tennis without lines, racket, net or rules, or even an umpire. It used to be accepted that talent was unequally distributed, the unavoidable result being that some artists are demonstrably, visibly, more gifted than others. We took this for granted. Now, courtesy of influential godfathers like Joseph Beuys, there is a generally held liberal belief that everyone has innate creativity which only needs unlocking.

What can’t be disputed is that over the last sixty years fine art education has undergone a revolutionary upheaval altering it beyond any recognition from those methods previously adopted. An art college is not a place you now attend to learn techniques, and neither is it a place whose staff are capable of showing you by encouragement or example how to acquire them.

It wasn’t always like this.

 

The Beginnings of Art Education

The history of art teaching in Europe can be summarised without serious misrepresentation. It was never complicated, the same fundamental principles applying for at least three millennia. All painting and sculpture was figurative, although some was at different periods, and in certain places, decorative or heavily stylised and sometimes even iconoclastic and reduced to pattern. Representation demanded more or less accurate depiction of figures in a convincing space, as though the viewer were looking at the world through a window. Any number of styles and variations might emerge from such a basic foundation of mastered skills. It is worth remembering that a similar methodology which produced artists as stylistically distinct as Phidias and Donatello, Botticelli and Rembrandt, also gave us Eric Gill, Picasso, Mondrian, Charles Sargeant Jagger and Jackson Pollock.

At no time since the birth of classical civilisations was a rigorous technical art training ever an impediment to individualism and experiment. Those who play down the teaching of drawing as some sort of mechanical trick easily acquired (like riding a bicycle – one minute you’re wobbling and falling off and the next you can ride confidently with no hands), conveniently forget that no two draughtsman’s works are ever identical: would anyone confuse a drawing by Ingres with one by Degas? Or a Hockney with a Kitaj?

 

We know little of art teaching methods in the classical world, though we can surmise with probable accuracy how the virtuosity of an Apelles or a Praxiteles came about. What alternative can there have been

to a system of apprenticeship? It is unlikely that the scores of accomplished, unnamed sculptors working on the Acropolis in, say, 438BC, a year when artistic activity on the evolving Parthenon was at its height, could have been trained in any other way. We have no idea where Phidias and his extensive team members were trained, or even whence they came, though we know them to have originated from across the entire Mediterranean area. It is reasonable, however, to speculate that each had learned his trade as an apprentice in the workshop of an older accredited expert. The same would have been true for painters, mosaicists, ceramicists and blacksmiths. Masters imparted what they knew to pupils and in return received assistance with the mundane chores of a busy working studio.

The practice of apprenticeship in an established atelier is unlikely to have emerged fully formed in the early Renaissance where we learn of its workings from detailed contemporary accounts. The known existence of classical sculpture workshops almost constituting factories – a busy one of these has been excavated at Aphrodisias in Anatolia, and another in Ostia – testify to the probability that apprenticeship was the preferred method by which skills were passed down.

That artists of the ancient world also drew throughout their careers in order to increase verisimilitude is supported by the example of Greek sculptor Pasiteles, who inaugurated a sculpture school in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar. Whilst sketching wild animals on the Tiber quayside, where exotic beasts were being unloaded for transport to spectacles, he was chased and narrowly avoiding a mauling by an escaped panther. And if you are astonished, as so many have been, by the realism of the British Museum’s 7th century BC Babylonian hunting reliefs, it is because the artists had undoubtedly practiced drawing lions and other animals from life – in much the same way that 2,500 years later Delacroix, in pursuit of heightened realism, drew lions over decades in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. In the absence of photography and printed books such expressive heights could not have been accomplished, as were achieved by Babylonians and Delacroix alike, with such intensely observed accuracy in any other way.

Only with the early Renaissance, and the survival of first-hand written sources, do we understand the detail of how apprenticeship functioned in a major artist’s workshop. Here is Cennino Cennini’s description in Il Libro dell’Arte, written around 1430, of what was in store for the art student, who, he suggested, should begin learning as early in infancy as possible:

“The basis of the profession, the very beginning of all these manual operations, is drawing and painting. These two sections call for a knowledge of the following: how to work up or grind, how to apply size, to put on cloth, to gesso, to scrape the gessos and smooth them down, to model with gesso, to lay bole, to gild, to burnish; to temper, to lay in; to pounce, to scrape through, to stamp or punch; to mark out, to paint, to

embellish, and to varnish, on panel or ancona (veneered wood). To work on a wall you have to wet down, to plaster, to true up, to smooth off, to draw, to paint in fresco. To carry to completion in secco: to temper, to embellish, to finish on the wall.”

Cennini is insistent concerning the importance of drawing:

 

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own house – which Hogarth himself seems to have attended (he also married Thornhill’s daughter). Hogarth then started the St Martin’s Lane Academy in 1735 the year after Thornhill’s life classes ceased. Another competing academy was opened in 1720 by portraitist John Vanderbank (1694-1739), who had trained in both Kneller’s and Thornhill’s schools – it went bust when the secretary absconded with the petty cash. This localised, ad hoc muddle of programmes demonstrated the need for a stable school with secure backing and a codified curriculum organised properly along institutional lines.

At the same time as these better known studios were operating other drawing classes were available in the capital. One of these, known as Shipley’s, operated at Adelphi on the Strand during the 1740s. Children were taught there, including sculptor Joseph Nollekens who, after Shipley’s, graduated in 1750 at the age of 13 to an apprenticeship in Dutch sculptor Peter Scheemaker’s studio. As on the continent, budding artists began young and always as apprentices, quite often to humble tradesmen such as coach and inn sign painters. Gainsborough was trained by a book illustrator; Hogarth by an engraver of trade cards; Reynolds by a second division portrait hack; Stubbs by a lower division portraitist, one Hamlet Winstanley, who was world famous in Warrington; and Richard Wilson by a portrait painter so obscure there appear to be no locatable works by him. Sir William Coldstream (1908-1987), co-founder of the fee-paying Euston Road School in the late 1930s more of whom below, was himself first instructed by a coach painter.

 

The Royal Academy of Arts, chartered by George III in December 1768, was the first attempt to meet the widely perceived need for a national school for art education to match those already established on the continent. It was modelled on the French Academy. Those forty artists who became founder members of the RA had been trained mostly by the time-honoured methods of apprenticeship described above in a painter’s or engraver’s studio, and extramurally by the private copying of drawings and paintings in the collections of nobles and dilettanti. What the Academy now taught was prescribed by Joshua Reynolds, its first President, in his Discourses, which were based on, mostly annual, turgid lectures to the students. Success in history painting, regarded as the main course in art with portraiture, still-life and landscape all considered side dishes, was promoted as paramount by Reynolds and teaching concentrated on those skills needed to succeed in it. Competence in relating accurately drawn and interacting figures was the sine qua non of succeeding in the history painting genre. Generally, Reynolds’s advice to students might be summarised in five words – ‘Michael Angelo’ and ‘Industry of mind’. For the first time at the Royal Academy an agreed course of intense study with clearly defined aims was put in place. In his sixth discourse to students, in December 1774, and echoing Cennini above, Reynolds advised:

 

“Study, therefore, the great works of the great masters forever. Study, as nearly as you can, in the order, in the manner, and on the principles, on which they studied. Study nature attentively, but always with those masters in your At least part of the motivation for opening the British Institution by a group of rich donors was to give art students an opportunity to see great works in the hope of improving particularly their appreciation and execution of history painting in which as a nation we were considered to lag far behind the continent. The fact was that most British students had little access to top quality reference material of the sort from which they were encouraged to learn. The reality was that until the early 19th century it wasn’t possible for most fledgeling artists to see original works by past masters because there were no permanent public collections or national galleries in existence. Neither did artists have the access to foreign travel enjoyed by aristocrats, even though they were generally considered improperly educated until they had studied in Italy. The most instructive works of painting and classical art were in stately homes google_ad_width = 970; to which few enjoyed the privilege of access. Acquaintance with masterpieces was at best via prints and engravings, necessarily in misrepresentative scale and in monochrome and whose fidelity to the original was often questioned. Only when taking into account this dearth of opportunity to see the best of the past can one appreciate the tremendous relief expressed by Haydon when, at last, he was able to learn at leisure from public exhibitions of Rembrandt, Rubens and Velazquez at the “admirable” British Institution – he was still drawing from Old Master paintings there in his 40s. In the case of the general public who didn’t see many pictures and who were prepared to pay to see but a single painting or sculpture, temporary exhibitions had the same invigorating impact on them as on juvenile artists: when the convenience of an exhibition presented itself the tendency was to look hard to the point of overdose. Often the exhibition of a single work was sufficient to attract large audiences around the country, and not just of art students. Thus, the same few great pictures tended to be known extremely well and were avidly discussed by art lovers and students alike.

Art schools opened throughout the 19th century mainly in order to produce ingenious designers for burgeoning industries upon whose merchandise for export the national economy was increasingly reliant. Britain needed to compete with the rapidly industrialising French and Germans who – according to Prince Albert, a campaigner for improved design – were beating us because of their much earlier recognition of the importance of design in the appeal of their goods. Equally unacceptable, indeed insulting, was that British manufacturers were even borrowing or buying in designs from abroad. The ‘look’, the visual seductiveness of every commodity now mattered, and the demand for consumer goods had expanded across a wider spectrum of society than merely the luxury market. Those working in industry needed an art training, again based on drawing, but with a different emphasis to that of the fine artist. The first example of such pedagogy for workers in industry was a drawing school in Edinburgh set up in 1760 “to encourage and improve Scottish industries through the teaching of drawing and design to artisans”. Fine art teaching in Scotland, meanwhile, lagged some way behind. The Royal Scottish Academy opened only in 1826 although life classes didn’t start there until 1840.

 

The Royal College of Art, initially called the National Art Training School (NATS), was founded in 1837 to meet this same vocational purpose as its Edinburgh precursor. It introduced a process of teaching distinct from that undertaken at the Royal Academy. Here, art for art’s sake came a distant second to the requirements of manufacturing, and especially the textile industries. The curriculum was strictly controlled and strongly founded on competence in drawing done from ornaments, life and nature. The first emphasis was on mastery of outline. As Edward Poynter (1836-1919), an academic painter and superb draughtsman who had been trained at the Royal Academy and at different times was head of both NATS and the first Slade Professor, observed in his collected essays (1880), concentration on outline was “a means of acquiring steadiness of hand” leading to sureness of touch. As a result of a national campaign colleges of design opened in most of the country’s major centres – Manchester’s School of Design opened in 1838 – followed by art colleges often in quite small towns where manufacturing specialisms might require niche teaching and skills. It was not all easy going. Disputes developed about the disparity between funding of the NATS’ South Kensington facilities, a rear wing of what is now the V&A, and the comparatively paltry

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sums awarded to the provinces resulted in concerted industrial action by art teachers in 1863. In the Manchester School annual report for 1862/3 occurs the following:

 

“It seems unjust that local institutions should be left to starve, while so much money is lavishly spent on the central institution at Kensington.”

 

Actual figures are startling: South Kensington received £57,000 a year whereas local schools receive on average £150 each. Nevertheless, by the beginning of 1873 there were 120 schools of art and design through the country

​ and 500 night drawing classes had been established specifically for the instruction of artisans.

The Slade School at University College London opened in 1868. Under Poynter an important tweak to fine art education was effected there. Poynter had observed the efficacy of the course at NATS in saving time. In his view its students achieved the same standard in drawing more quickly than those at the Royal Academy, where students laboured two arduous years drawing from casts of classical sculpture. Poynter was acutely aware that student time was of the essence at the Slade, which was a private and therefore fee-paying school, compared to the Royal Academy whose students (then as now) received free tuition and facilities. His approach was also informed by a detailed knowledge of the French atelier system of teaching which favoured immediate working from the figure, which, Poynter had observed, made French students’ efforts appear appreciably more competent and advanced than those of their British counterparts.

 

“[T]he question arises as to the best models for a beginner to work from. My answer would be that he cannot do better than begin with what he intends ending with, that is, the study of the figure. All else is usually but time lost; at whatever stage the drawing of the figure is taken up, the student will find it as difficult as if he started with it at first.” (Edward Poynter, Lectures, 1880, p 139)

 

At the Slade, students were set immediately to drawing outlines of objects and figures. Poynter sought to overturn the previous obsession with classical sculpture in favour of the living model – nature instead of the antique. It was more important to know as soon as possible how a figure worked:

 

“I shall impress but one lesson upon the students, that constant study from the life model is the only means they have of arriving at a comprehension of the beauty in nature, and of avoiding its ugliness and deformity; which I take to be whole aim and end of study.” (Poynter, Lectures, 1880, p 107)

 

When Poynter published his lectures he stated decisively that the only two places in Britain where a preparation for what he called ‘High Art’ could be obtained was at the Royal Academy and the Slade. All other colleges were teaching drawing as a vocational aid to design in industry.

It is worth pointing out here that throughout the second half of the 19th century there were continuing and often vicious disputes as to the best approaches to the teaching of drawing. Throughout this time there were private academies teaching drawing and painting according to the individual precepts of those who ran them, the two best known in London being Sass’s Drawing Academy (later Cary’s) and Leigh’s (which later became known as Heatherley’s, which still exists). A principal function of these was to train students to the standard required in order for them to apply either to the Royal Academy or the Slade; John Everett Millais, William Powell Frith and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, all started at Sass’s before graduating to the Academy. Also, before entering the Royal Academy, Poynter himself had been trained at Leigh’s.

The new national network of colleges was accompanied, crucially, by museums inaugurated in many centres following passage of the Museum’s Act of 1845, which allowed local councils of towns over 10,000 population to raise a ha’penny rate for the opening of art galleries – councils were not allowed to charge more than a penny for admission to these facilities. This was followed in 1850 by the Public Libraries Act enabling councils to open free reading rooms. (Curiously, the main reason for these reforms adding to public amenities was not their purely educational potential but as a diversion to reduce the incidence of vices caused by public drunkenness among labourers.) The first of the many subsequent combined municipal free museums and public libraries was opened at Peel Green in Salford in 1850, a facility which still exists to this day in its original buildings.

 

What was the status of women in art schools? Prior to 1861, when they were admitted for the first time to the Royal Academy Schools (that is, approaching a century after it was founded), opportunities were almost non-existent. Most women artists prior to this were either married to painters or daughters of them, and learned through their kinships. Others tended to focus on genres for which detailed knowledge of anatomy was not essential, portraiture or still life being the favourites – for full-length portraiture most artists used lay figures. Those, like Rosa Bonheur, who refused to be thwarted by inflexible moral codes forbidding women to work from nude male models presumably learned from drawings and engravings

and from Old Master paintings in galleries. In 1768 the two female founder members of the Royal Academy (out of 34 in total) were Mary Moser, predominantly a flower painter, and Angelica Kauffman, a history and mythological painter and portraitist, both of whose fathers were artists. Kauffman caused ribald gossip among colleagues concerning a rumour that she had privately drawn from the live nude without the presence of another male. The truth was never established convincingly one way or the other, but you get the picture – the playing field was far from level. It is hard to believe that ambitious women artists, like Kauffman, did not engage in clandestine drawing from the male nude in order to improve their competence. For the most part women engaged with art as amateurs taught by wandering drawing masters (sometimes watercolourists of repute) who instructed otherwise idle ladies how to paint pretty washes depicting their estates. As an indication of the slowness with which women artists were accepted as equals, there were no other female members of the Royal Academy until 1936 when Laura Knight was elected. Allowing women to draw from the nude or nearly nude male models only became common in most British art schools towards the end of the 19th century, although on the continent and in North America regulations tended to be loosened and become more liberal earlier. At the Pennsylvania Academy, for example, all-women classes drew from nude female models from 1868 and from male nudes from 1877. (I have been informed that as late as the 1950s at Camberwell women students were only allowed to draw male models wearing jockstraps.) From the beginning of the 20th century the field in art schools was more or less level for women and men alike, at least as far as their training opportunities were concerned. However, as late as the 1960s, women art students in Britain often reported encountering a patronising attitude from male staff who failed to take them seriously because they deemed women principally as homemakers and not as career artists. In the 21st century more girls sit A level art than boys, although this commitment to art is even in 2016 not reflected in the market, exhibition or prices paid for women’s art relative to the dominant positions held by men.

By the beginning of the 20th century most large towns and cities had opened their own colleges of art and design, many with their own bespoke courses. Some, which had evolved around remarkably gifted individuals, became renowned for recherché specialisms and attracted students from considerable distances.

From the end of the 19th century, as Modernism spread in continental capitals, new schools were inaugurated by its devotees, most notably during the interwar years at the shortlived but influential Bauhaus in Weimar. Here, studios were called laboratories and alternative methods of teaching were introduced aimed at inspiring new solutions to old problems under the influence of equally recent expressive and psychological demands. It represented a complete overturning of what had gone before. Old academic rules and mores were here irrelevant. Whereas previously art schools had taught the necessary craft and left the ‘art’ bit to talent and originality, at the Bauhaus they wanted to eliminate the craft altogether and encourage only the ‘art’ mentality. When opening the Bauhaus in 1919 its first head, architect Walter Gropius, declaimed:

 

“Together let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise towards heaven from the hands of a million workers, like

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the crystal symbol of a new faith.”

 

Gropius’s idealism would be reflected in the speechifying of the post-1945 British ideologues intent on Bauhaus-like reforms in our own art education. What was the repeatedly heard mantra of staff working at the Bauhaus – “starting from zero” – also reflects the belief among the most reforming British lecturers of the bottom-up change in approach necessary to bring art teaching up to date and abreast of stylistic developments in Modern Art.

There was another significant reason why the Bauhaus was influential. It was the place where was born, for the first time, the idea that art is only good if it is novel, novelty being assumed to signify the best. As Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said in 1922 while he was a teacher at the German school:

 

“Creative activities are useful only if they produce new, so far unknown solutions.”

 

Not only were figurative styles being loosened to embrace new experiences, sights and sensations courtesy of physics, industrialised warfare

and social reform, but the western traditions to which artists had always adhered were being infiltrated by the art of distant cultures whose approach to the human figure was anything but naturalistic. Two obvious examples of this new openness to distant stimuli were the Japanese prints in which Vincent van Gogh discovered compositional and abstract/expressive possibilities and the Polynesian sculptures inspiring in different ways to Gauguin and Picasso. Even ‘primitive’ or untrained painters such as ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau might indicate potentially productive avenues for further experiment in flattening space and exaggerating local colour with symbolistic intent. There was developing throughout visual art a willingness to see and to explore the merit in work from sources other than western traditions. Thereafter, instruction, inspiration and learning might come from anywhere; indeed, formal originality might be borrowed from wherever it could be found. Reading about early exponents of Modernism there is no question that its devotees’ omnivorous openness to influences represented an exhilarating freshness of approach in these pioneers. Boundaries were beginning to disappear. Roger Fry explained that the new art was “the work of highly civilised and modern men trying to find a pictorial language appropriate to the sensibilities of the modern outlook”.

British artists were slower than most to feed at the new colourful banquet, our art schools remaining more conservative in their teachings than continental counterparts. The gap between what more radical artists were producing and what a general public liked to see was, however, opening up. Having become aware of continental novelties prior to 1914, mainly as a result of two landmark exhibitions of ‘Post-Impressionist’ paintings organised in 1910 and 1912 by Roger Fry, the Futurist realities of the Great War put the brakes on enthusiasm for artistic progress. Prior to 1914 the only British movement encouraging the replacement of bourgeois art and tastes was the Vorticism of Wyndham Lewis and his young followers. Having seen in the trenches what uncontrolled worship of the machine might portend, the post-war stylistic retreat of its adherents was dramatic. Nevertheless, during the 1920s and ’30s some British artists belatedly awoke to continental art and began experimenting with the most advanced international styles. Studying at the Slade from 1926, William Coldstream stated that he was being taught how to draw like Leonardo da Vinci whilst reading Clive Bell and Roger Fry: “We spent a great deal of time discussing aesthetics.” In 1932 Paul Nash alluded to conflicting issues in many artists’ minds:

 

“Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today… the battle lines have been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.”

 

Modernism in Britain was back on track by the time of Henry Moore’s first exhibition at the Warren Gallery in 1928. Adoption and an understanding of Modernism was indeed patchy but an avant garde did exist although it was one needing support from private collectors, notable among whom was a young Kenneth Clark. The takeover by Modernists of the Seven and Five Society led to the first exhibition, at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1935, of entirely abstract works and the creation of a journal of abstract art, Axis. This tour de force, the establishment in 1933 by Paul Nash of progressive artists group Unit One (documented in a coeval book by Herbert Read), the publication in 1937 of Circle, a book celebrating and explaining constructivist art, and exhibitions such as the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in //--> 1936 … all became major talking points. During its three-week run, the Surrealist Exhibition was visited by a thousand people a day. In the catalogue to this significant exhibition André Breton wrote of the situation facing artists:

 

“In the modern period, painting, for instance, was until recently preoccupied almost exclusively with expressing the manifest relationships which exist between exterior perception and the ego. The expression of this relationship became more and more deceptive and insufficient in proportion as it became less possible for it to attempt to enlarge and deepen man’s “perception-consciousness” system, whose most interesting artistic possibilities it had long exhausted, leaving only that extravagant attention to exterior details of which the work of any of the great “realist” painters bears the mark. By mechanising the plastic method of representation to the extreme, photography dealt a final blow to all this. Painting was forced to beat a retreat and to retrench itself behind the necessity of expressing internal perception visually. I cannot insist too much on the fact that this place of exile was the only one left to it.

The only domain that the artist could exploit became that of purely mental representation… We say that the art of imitation (of places, scenes, exterior objects) has had its day…”

 

A new phenomenon had arrived. Artists were encouraged by their greater ability to travel abroad, by the freer exchange of avant-garde publications, by an increased frequency of foreign artists exhibiting over here, and by the presence in England of trailblazing Modernist artists from the Continent who, escaping persecution by stylistically deterministic Nazis and Soviets, used London as a stepping stone to their ultimate destination, The Land of the Free. These developments were not without opposition. With a candour typical of his writing, Sickert dismissed the decades of Futurism, Cubism and Roger Fry as “the nonsense boom”.

There is no doubt that where art education was concerned Britain had plenty of catching up to do. For one thing an increase in high ambition and seriousness was required, not to mention the appearance of proselyting individuals with a lighter touch than the arch and snobbish Fry could manage. The curiously unambitious state of British art schools in the 1930s was referred to in a 1992 interview by sculptor Bernard Meadows who had trained during that decade at Norwich, Chelsea and, later, at the Royal College:

 

“Up to the war schools of art tended to be run as sort of spare-time art clubs, never on the basis of anything like a professional training.”

 

Meadows escaped this unsatisfactory inadequacy by volunteering for the time-honoured system of apprenticeship. From the age of 21, in 1936, he became a part-time assistant to Henry Moore, eventually graduating to become full-time chief assistant to our best known Modernist.

 

Revolution: Art Colleges Fit For Heroes

Only after the Second World War when a young generation of eagerly anti-establishment British artists, many of them returning from military service which had interrupted or had caused to be deferred their art training, were alternative teaching methods adopted that were deliberately calculated to prepare students for a future in advanced Modernist experiment. Twenty five years later, abstract painter Patrick Heron would refer to their work as “The brilliantly successful revolution of the art education of this country.” These ambitious and proselytising individuals promoted boundless latitude of expression and a releasing from what was increasingly seen as the academic, drawing-based straitjacket of the past. They were uncompromisingly opposed to tradition, had no interest in furthering what they saw as exhausted conventions, and they were damn well going to be heard.

Post-1945 was a different age. A new Government had been elected to represent the interests of the working class. Figurative painting and sculpture were irredeemably bourgeois and class-ridden and demanded what later Leftists called “a class way of seeing” in order to understand it. It all had to go.

The beliefs of these young turks were undoubtedly part of far-reaching changes in society generally in which removal of class divisions became an almost obligatory belief. These ideas were a natural part of Prime Minister Attlee’s reforming agenda whose target was greater equality of access and nationalisation of strategic infrastructure. With its posh connotations few subjects were more riddled with class associations than art. The mores of a traditional art education were an obvious sittting duck.

A long history of snobbiness was deemed ripe and overdue for demolition. The new mood identified conventions as no longer sacrosanct but breakable. New art for new audiences everywhere was the order of the day. Unfortunately, as we shall discover, the direction of the new current in art education eventually meant that one form of supposed snobbery – the ‘middle class’ art //--> of figuration – was replaced by another far more recherché version of art which even fewer could understand, recognise or even cared about.

Post-war years up

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to around 1970 were those in which the ethos of British art education changed irrevocably, first to embrace and then to be replaced by experiment for its own sake. This revolution was remarkable for the speed of its widespread, seemingly unopposed adoption. Revisions irrupted simultaneously in art schools around the country, as though an unstoppable new idea had suddenly come of age.

Belgian theorist of art teaching, Thierry de Duve, has summarised the change which took place in the first half of the 20th century:

 

“Soon, art schooling was affected by the avant-garde. As the examples and standards of the past could no longer be trusted, as imitation and observation could no longer provide the basics for the apprenticeship of art, the teaching of art had to look elsewhere for roots in both nature and culture. This it achieved in two ways. The figure of Man – the universal measure of all things in nature – was relinquished as outer

model for observation, but was recouped as inner subjective principle. Psychology replaced anatomy in its function as foundation discourse for a new artistic humanism. The new doctrine stated that all men are endowed with innate faculties which it is the function of education to allow to grow. Thus, specialisation in the visual arts meant the specific training and growth of the faculties of visual perception and imagination. How to train them became the pedagogical issue … In principle, if not in fact, the learning of art became simple: students should learn how to tap their unspoilt creativity, guided by immediate feeling and emotion, and to read their medium, obeying its immanent syntax. As their aesthetic sensibility and artistic literacy progressed, their ability to feel and read would translate into the ability to express and to articulate. Nurtured perception and imagination would produce artworks of a different kind.” (From an essay in The Artist and The Academy, John Hansard Gallery, 1993)

 

The most famous initiators of what became known as Basic Design (though few of its adherents ever admitted referring to it in that way), which openly acknowledged its adoption of precepts practised at the Bauhaus, were the forceful personalities of William Johnstone (Principal of Central School from 1947), Tom Hudson, Harry Thubron in Sunderland and recently apostate figurative painter Victor Pasmore at Central School in London. The move towards a free-spirited approach gained significant momentum in Newcastle from 1954 with the appointment of Pasmore and his personal appointee Richard Hamilton, who was straight out of the Slade and had previously been expelled from the Royal Academy Schools for “not profiting from the instruction”. Pasmore himself had abandoned figurative painting after seeing the Picasso/Matisse exhibition at the V&A in 1946, an epiphany which left him in no doubt as to what the future direction of art and art teaching must be.

The ideas and programmes of these individuals spread quickly, in part through their running of summer schools for art teachers, most notably in Scarborough. Their precepts received a surprisingly sympathetic hearing, especially from a newly minted breed of working class art student forged in rebellious youth cultures and inspired by the exhibition of in-your-face vanguard work from abroad.

 

Debate and discussion around the purpose of art education under Modernism, often acrimoniously conducted in the newspapers by eminent artists of mutually hostile opinions and stylistic persuasions, emboldened other schools to encourage a relaxation in their teaching conventions. Leeds School of Art, to which by the mid-’60s Thubron had transferred, soon became a hotbed of anarchy where students were encouraged to do as they pleased, including on one occasion setting fire to the place. James Charnley’s recent account of this period at Leeds School of Art gives a detailed, often amusing critique of the liberating ferment and chaos which inevitably results when one regime is superceded by its diametrical opposite. Leeds was probably the first art school in Britain where the cut with past teaching methods was absolute. Patrick Heron

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deemed it “the most influential [art school] in Europe since the Bauhaus”.

Artist Derek Hyatt remembered his experiences of Leeds in the mid-’50s; that is, even prior to the Thubron regime:

 

“In 1956, Eric Taylor and his staff set in motion a daring and experimental approach to art education. Official Ministry examination requirements were side-stepped. Final year painting students still completed a set piece figure composition, but it was clear art was taking other forms. The vacuum former, the power drill and sander, the film camera, became fine art tools along with brush, pen and charcoal. Fine art studios became workshops, knee-deep in plaster and perspex offcuts. Paintings became reliefs, constructions became mobiles filmed in motion. Time and space became materials of art, like line and colour.”

 

Soon after this there was no recognition at Leeds whatsoever of traditional skills, and no going back. Lecturers who had worked under Hudson, Thubron, Hamilton and Pasmore spread the word when they joined the staff of other colleges. Art schools in Leicester, Portsmouth, London (Central and Goldsmith’s), Cardiff and Coventry were soon also embracing change and formulating courses based on theoretical novelties. Those requiring yesterday’s tuition were politely encouraged to go where such skills and regressive attitudes were still taught, for there remained sufficient colleges where old disciplines were indeed still adequately instructed. It is worth pointing out that drawing was also encouraged in Thubron’s initial courses, the significant deviation from convention being that students drew from moving not static figures.

 

Other reasons obtained as to why even the most conventional art colleges couldn’t hide from what was happening elsewhere. There was no avoiding the fact that after 1945 a fundamental shift in stylistic priorities of painters in particular was taking place. Sir Alfred Munnings’s infamous and embarrassing speech at the Royal Academy dinner in 1948, broadcast live on the Home Service, in which he drunkenly expressed a desire to kick Picasso’s backside, was really the last feeble fart of an establishment which for the young had become a laughing stock. For the new generation everything a clapped-out hierarchy stood for was epitomised by a pissed, one-eyed horse painter, speaking alongside Monty, Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, mocking a founding father of Modernism to the general approbation of a lot of complacent stuffed shirts.

Internationally in painting the dominant idiom was now abstraction not figuration. Investigation of abstract form was the core component in Pasmore’s teaching. Until this moment every abstract painter from Mondrian and Kandinsky onwards had received the same art education as everyone else. The same had been true for Pollock, Kline, Still, Newman, Rothko, Gorky, Motherwell, Hofmann and the rest of the American abstract expressionists, whose works were being exported to Europe in bulk and avidly promoted as a style which rendered everything else passé. Here was a new art for a bright new democratic consumerist world. All of these American titans had evolved naturally, logically from figuration to abstraction. For most of them it had been a long and rational step-by-step journey, an edging forward towards the Promised Land of purity Clive Bell had described as “significant form”. But students were now emerging who wanted to learn abstraction straightaway. Art schools needed to accommodate this and other sudden novel demands for which there were no pedagogical conventions. Thus was introduced the tricky problem of how a college established to teach one approach could adapt to teaching, in the instance of abstraction, another style which had only existed at the very earliest since 1910 and for which there were no accepted criteria of either tuition or judgement. Before there was any developed market for their work (not least on account of its massive canvases being incapable of accommodation anywhere but institutions or the 5th Avenue mansions of the superrich), abstract painters taught in schools where they could doubtless pass on the gnomic alchemies and ‘skills’ of their chosen style.

Abstract painter Patrick Heron, a teacher at London’s Central School and a vocal advocate of experimentation in art schools for its own sake, and who was also at this time an influential critic on the New Statesman, wrote that in his opinion works produced by the eight major American abstract expressionist painters between 1948 and 1952 changed everything utterly, forever. The most influential British show of this work was held at the Tate in 1956. Virtually everyone who was there at the time (and has subsequently written a memoir) testifies to the effect of this exhibition on art students who from then onwards began devouring art magazines for

inspiration in order to keep immediately abreast of seemingly weekly evolving trends, particularly in America. The pressure of outside vanguard forces was becoming irresistible. From now on learning from the art of the past would itself be a thing of the past. Innumerable art college lecturers from this time have bemoaned the uncontainable tendency of art students to derive their ideas from art magazines rather than from the world about them and their own place in it. They copied anything new and saleable, for here was also the beginning of student desires for instant success and financial reward. Writing in The Listener in 1937, William Coldstream had observed:

 

“None of us ever sold any pictures; we had the idea that only second-rate artists could sell their work before they were dead.”

 

How the mood had changed in only 20 years. The greatest dread of students was now being left behind, their worst nightmare being mocked as ‘square’. Following Moholy-Nagy’s belief cited above that only the innovative is worth attention, the assumption that the only significant art was subversive and novel now became the First Commandment of art teaching. Thus, art magazines replaced national galleries and museums as the dominant source of inspiration. As late as 1976, the year of R B Kitaj’s The Human Clay exhibition at the Hayward Gallery – this being a collection of figurative artists working in London standing up against “the rigid avant-gardism of the time” – David Hockney was still referring to this period as one when “Abstraction was king”.

A 1959 exhibition, The Developing Process (conceived for and first shown at King’s College, Durham) at the ICA, a gallery opened by young artists in 1948 to be a showcase for new art and ideas which probably wouldn’t have been shown or aired elsewhere, and in which Pasmore played a critical role, set out the philosophical foundation for alternative methods of art teaching. The content and date of this exhibition are crucial because it demonstrated that new thinking in art education was already well established and racing along the back straight before the watershed of the first Coldstream Report, whose authors must have been well aware of the groundswell represented by the show’s contents, not least because Pasmore was also a Coldstream committee member.

 

The Coldstream and Summerson Reports

It was inevitable that the Government would eventually have to get involved with art education. In 1959 William Coldstream, Euston Road School painter, principal of the Slade School since 1949 and, from 1958, Chairman of the National Advisory Council on Art Education, was asked by the Education Secretary to look into art schools, whose egregious anarchy was raising eyebrows in the papers. Part of the political objective in forming this committee was ultimately to make art education less expensive by, if possible, amalgamating institutions and departments, where this could be achieved, and by raising an agreed standard so that the eventual qualification became degree-equivalent – it would in fact take over a decade to integrate art schools indissolubly into the wider system of higher education. There was also a growing anti-élitist faction in government which believed that numbers in higher education needed to be dramatically increased to match levels of access to tertiary education witnessed abroad, where many times more young people were at universities. Coldstream was charged with making “recommendations dealing with the content and administration of courses for an award to take the place of the National Diploma in Design (NDD).”

The NDD had been created by the Ministry of Education in 1946. This Diploma was awarded as the culmination of four years of study, the first two of which qualified the candidate for a Certificate in Arts and Crafts. At the time of Coldstream’s appointment and his committee’s deliberations there were 106 art schools offering a two-year NDD producing around 1,700 students a year. The failure rate was just under a quarter, and the majority of those who passed who didn’t go into industry went on to teach at secondary level, where art was a subject taken far more seriously then than now.

The resulting Coldstream Report, a brief document of only twenty pages published in October 1960, and its fine-tuning supplementary addenda, called Summerson Reports, until the final Coldstream report in 1970, are frequently and flippantly claimed to have laid the groundwork for the destruction of art teaching. It has become customary to blame Coldstream and Summerson, both of them political and artistic conformists, for everything that has subsequently gone wrong. It is certainly true that the reports changed art’s organisation and certification, but in truth there is little in the wording of the main original report to suggest a

path was being embarked upon leading to the state reached today where there are ‘right’ styles and ‘wrong’ styles, and where the learning of traditional skills has been all but eradicated. The Report encouraged liberalising tendencies and experiment, but always with the longstop of a necessary foundation of skill, an awareness of art history and a complementary general knowledge.

 

Coldstream, who had had his views about the need to make art appeal to a wider audience encouraged by experiences with Mass Observation and the GPO documentary film unit in the 1930s, had earlier written privately:

 

“The slump [of the 1930s] had made me aware of social problems, and I became convinced that art

ought to be directed google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; to a wider public: whereas all ideas which I had learned to regard as artistically revolutionary ran in the opposite direction. It seemed to me important that the broken communication between the artist and the public should be built up again and that this most probably implied a movement towards realism. But such a direction was difficult for me to take wholeheartedly because my generation of painters had been taught to regard all movements except those away from realism as reactionary. A direct realistic approach was considered to be something which had been finished with at the end of the nineteenth century.” (The Listener, September 15th, 1937)

 

It is unlikely that one holding such opinions, and whose own style of painting was stalely academic, would have endorsed a trajectory leading to what we endure now as the end product – namely, styles totally divorced from popular interest, appreciation or understanding. Those who wish to find a scapegoat for the current disastrous situation in which nothing at all is taught, and in which contemporary art has placed itself beyond the care or ken of the majority, need to look further than Coldstream for reasons, for, plainly, blame resides elsewhere. It is, however, true to say that Coldstream’s report did nothing to arrest a pre-existing and anyway irresistible momentum in the direction of wholesale change. Whatever the Coldstream reports may have stated as their intentions it is hard to find evidence of anyone anywhere who appears to have taken the slightest notice of what was contained in them. Those already eagerly re-inventing art teaching appear to have continued as they had before, except that now the end certificate awarded bore a different name.

In Coldstream, the four years of the Certificate and NDD qualifications were replaced by a one-year pre-diploma, which, in a 1965 addendum to the report had its name changed to ‘Foundation Course’, followed by three years leading to a Diploma in Art and Design (DipAD). Only in unusual circumstances – such as conspicuous natural ability – would a pupil be allowed to begin the new three-year DipAD if the introductory year had not been completed. Objectives of the courses were: “to train students in observation, analysis, creative work and technical control through the study of line, form, colour and space relationships in two and three dimensions … A sound training in drawing is implicit in these studies. All courses should include some study of the history of art and some complementary studies.”

 

The report was not as prescriptive as it might have been about how these vaguely stated objectives were to be achieved. Crucially, it left the details of imposition to individual schools. Variants of the phrase “art schools should be free to work out their own ideas” are repeated throughout the texts.

Too much emphasis on this point shouldn’t be made because, like most speculations in hindsight, it can’t be conclusively verified, but the presence on the committee of Victor Pasmore, who had previously disagreed with Coldstream over future art school policy, and who had already spent over ten years re-configuring art courses with which he had been associated, may have been significant. He was in a position to ensure the sort of ambiguous final wording allowing the revolution in art education he had helped kickstart to continue unimpeded. (Pasmore and Coldstream had been colleagues and co-founders of the shortlived Euston Road School in 1936 until their individual stylistic paths and teaching philosophies diverged.)

Any familiarity with what was happening in art schools during the 1950s and the contents of the Coldstream Report lead to an inevitable conclusion that the Report was responding to pre-existing movements instead of dictating new directions. The Report was an attempt to give the impression that changes in art education were under official control whereas, in truth, they were anything but. It was in the interests of those who were already way in advance of any principles in Coldstream to leave the Report’s conclusions as open as possible to interpretation to enable those of a progressive bent, of whom Pasmore was one, to proceed much as they had before without hindrance. Hence, the Report states:

 

“Within the simple structure that we propose art schools can construct their own courses free of complicated rules.”

 

However, this wriggle room is underpinned with:

 

“In the area of fine art the fundamental studies are painting with drawing, and sculpture with drawing.”

 

Such remarks doubtless satisfied conservatives, like Coldstream himself. And so the Report could be everything to everyone.

Difficulties created by the 1960 Report

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were caused not by pedagogical novelty or prescription but by the replacement of the NDD with the DipAD and the administrative upheaval caused by implementing this change. A document (no. 46) produced during the Hornsey School occupation in 1968 (see below) put its finger on the problem:

 

“Precisely at the period when the new diploma courses were being conceived, the historical conditions they reflected were disappearing for

British art and to encourage good practice relating to painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, printmaking, mixed and new media, film and video.”

 

The British Council, which currently harbours a stash of 8,500 items, also switched policy to buy work by predominantly fledgling artists. In the 1960s they began exporting to foreign venues exhibitions featuring almost exclusively the young and their new styles. Britain was promoting itself to backward foreigners as conspicuously ‘swinging’ and ‘cool’. Patrick Heron later observed that the positive face which Britain was able to present to the world from about 1961 was in large part down to the success and ferment under way in British art schools. Like the Arts Council and the Tate, the British Council now collects work almost exclusively from “emerging” artists, not least because limited funds mean it can’t afford any other kind. Courtesy of public subsidy, which began as a treasury grant of £40,000 in 1940 to the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) but which increased exponentially after the war, these bodies would have sufficient resources to promote their personal preferences.

Progressive instincts in these crucial organisations had not arrived out of nowhere. They were guided from above where a culture had been quietly fermenting. In the wake of Roger Fry’s promotion of Post-Impressionist styles cited above, throughout the 1920s and ’30s there had emerged a cabal of individuals in influential public positions eager to promote at every opportunity avant-garde British artists. Clive Bell, Maynard Keynes, Kenneth Clark and Herbert Read were typical of such clubbable committee men devoted to advancing the cutting edge to the virtual exclusion of everything else. They used their influence to promote work by those whose painting and sculpture, while difficult for an innately conservative public to follow, needed support and encouragement in order for it to survive and develop, especially during the 1930s when private sales of art effectively dried up. Progressive work was, however, mostly of a still recognisably figurative kind, some aspects of which a less-informed public would eventually warm to appreciating. Generally, bureaucrats eager to take art to a wider public were always of this persuasion. They had an evangelical belief in Modern Art which they were eager to share with others even if it came to inflicting the stuff upon everyone else whether they liked it or not. In Clark’s case he used his own money to support artists experiencing hardship, though he later drew the line at supporting or defending abstraction which he interpreted as an obvious dead end. By the 1950s when he was appointed head of the Arts Council he owned scores of works each by Moore, Sutherland and Piper, who probably couldn’t have survived the dark years without his patronage.

The likes of Fry, Bell, Keynes, Clark and Read appreciated what others hadn’t and their insight in fostering the experimental outsider became a template for future art bureaucrats. A mindset devoted exclusively to novelty, like theirs, is today an unwritten qualification for occupying any position of authority in the contemporary visual arts. Non-conformity is not permitted, it being a passport to career oblivion.

There was early evidence of this condition’s existence and spreading influence. In ‘Art for the People’ exhibitions toured during the 1930s, as well as those shows circulated during the war to maintain morale by CEMA (a body created in 1939 and headed by Keynes from 1941, and which, in 1946, fused seamlessly into the creation of the Arts Council), the desire to include vanguard artists led to a correspondence in The Times in 1944 in which (even at that early date) more traditional artists accused selectors of “subversion” and bias against their own more conventional styles.

In 1943 Keynes had written:

 

“We seek to aid all those who pursue the highest standards … in all branches of the arts to carry their work throughout the country, and to accustom the great new audiences which are springing up to expect and approve the best.”

 

‘The highest standards’… What Keynes meant by this phrase was ‘the highest standards’ src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> as considered by those like Keynes himself who were devoted apostles of the avant garde. They knew best and would decide for everyone else. Perhaps for the first time, this introduces the fact that those in authority – those with the correct opinions about the right kinds of artists – will enjoy copyright on what constitute ‘the highest standards’. The avant garde, the cutting edge, challenging contemporary art – call it what you like – automatically corresponds to ‘the highest standards’. Here, therefore, is the equation by which we have all come to receive art:

 

avant garde = highest standards = we say so

 

And so it is that since the Second World War, if not earlier, the history of art overlaps exactly with the history of art-world approved work as determined by the heirs of Fry and Keynes. From now on the control of contemporary art would always be an inside job.

 

Universities and Degrees

A key ingredient in the reorganisations recommended by the second Coldstream Report (1970) – one alluded to above – was to unify art qualifications with those awarded elsewhere in polytechnics; namely, to turn the new DipAD (created by the first report) into a degree. This process was now accelerated. Following agreement in the early ’70s between the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design and the Council for National Academic Awards, the first degrees in Fine Art were awarded from 1972. Degrees followed the established principles of grading from first class through upper and lower second to third.

Here began in earnest the running sore of grading works which, because of their increasingly solipsistic, esoteric, minimal and conceptual nature, were in visual terms either not comparable or effectively indistinguishable from one another. It is, we are told by those claiming expertise in the field, in the nature of conceptual art that what we see is an indicator only, a pointer in the right direction. The true quality of a work resides chiefly in the authority and originality of the ‘idea’ informing the object’s creation. Judgements of conceptual art, where they are intelligibly communicated, have a habit to outsiders of appearing suspiciously arbitrary, based on a fad or simply, like ex cathedra pronouncements, taken seriously only because of the apparent ‘professional’ authority and position of the person uttering them. Thus, one week in one place a blue monochrome is pronounced worthy of a first while the next week and somewhere else a white monochrome is scarcely worthy of a third. A cynic might conclude that official arbiters of such material make it up as they go along.

 

The irony in awarding degrees for art (and these now include an abundance of MAs and PhDs) is that they were instituted precisely at the moment when any independent criteria of evaluating art had been eliminated, not least upon the request of students themselves. Skills and techniques could be tested whereas what replaced them could not. The very designation ‘Degree’ implies something measurable, and even suggests the existence of a yardstick, but these are precisely what can’t be applied to an art form whose principal qualities and ingredients can not in theory be actually seen. None of the old criteria now applied but, beyond generalities, no one took the trouble to explain what precisely the new measures of ability and accomplishment were. In many cases degrees have been /* xin-1 */ awarded according to the extremity of outrage caused. In 1998 a group of 13 students at Leeds University were awarded a 2:1 because they spent money given to them for their degree project on a holiday in Malaga, later revealed as a hoax, the documenting photographs having been staged in Scarborough. This caused heated comment in national newspapers. The students appealed their grade as a result of which their degree was raised to a first.

When today’s official answer to the question “What is art?” is “That which is produced by a trained artist”, the certificate received by a graduating student assumes palpable significance. Without one you can’t claim to be

an artist. The certificate is

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the stamped endorsement, the carte-blanche passport, to doing whatever you like. It is the licence informing others that you are to be taken seriously, in the absence, that is, of your accomplishment being obvious from visual evidence of what you make. That the
work by itself is no longer an indication of ability, or often even identifiable to most others as art, was recently demonstrated when, while this report was being written, gallery cleaners swept away yet another ‘important’ installation which was to the domestics indistinguishable from the general detritus of everyday life.

All of the foregoing begs the question: if art schools had been allowed to remain independent, and not been guzzled up by polytechnics (from 1992 these were all allowed to call themselves ‘universities’), which so many consider to have been a fatal blow to their identities, would they still have ended up in the same place they are at now? The answer is undoubtedly yes. A change of name didn’t matter. The tendency towards anything-goes in art colleges had already gained sufficient pace to establish its direction of travel irrespective of whether they called themselves ‘art school’, ‘polytechnic’ or ‘university’. A trend had been ignited and it was merely a matter of time how quickly the inevitable fire spread while consuming everything in its path.

The sculpture course at London’s St Martin’s College in the 1960s, then said (by themselves) to be ‘the most famous in the world’, demonstrates the breakdown in boundaries between disciplines and the varied activities that now came under the umbrella of ‘sculpture’. From 1965 painting and sculpture schools were joined. (This is an early example of the collapse in accepted definitions and disciplines which today results in sound recordings and videos winning prizes for – of all things – ‘Drawing’.) In the mid-’60s Anthony Caro was leading a sculpture department at St Martins producing a stream of alumni who were welding together metal off-cuts into abstract shapes. This was, of course, what Caro and his fellow tutors specialised in themselves: they spawned a school of epigones, who were famous for fifteen minutes but are now forgotten. Also in the department were Bruce McLean, a brilliant short filmmaker and organiser of Happenings and other performances; Gilbert and George, who met at St Martin’s in 1967 and designated themselves ‘Living Sculptures’; Richard Long, who took long walks, moved stones into google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; circles and drew lines on Ordnance Survey maps; Hamish Fulton, whose main artistic tool, like Long’s, seems to have been a pair of hiking boots; and Barry Flanagan who filled sandbags and stacked hessian blankets.

Bruce McLean, the most accomplished and amusing artist/performer of that generation, summarised what attending St Martin’s at this period involved:

 

“I began to understand what it was all about, which was nothing. All the discussion centred on the proclamation that sculpture should be placed on a floor and not on a base. It seemed to me quite daft that adults should spend their time like that. It dawned on me that what it was really about was the making of a name for oneself.”

 

In 2008 painter Ken Howard RA described his own experience of these times following graduation from the Royal College in 1958:

 

“When I finished studying I taught drawing at London art schools two days a week but very soon we were being accused by the degree colleges of ‘overteaching’, when all we were doing was teaching craft. I finally gave up teaching in the early ’70s when a fellow member of staff expressed the opinion that teaching drawing was a waste of time as students had cameras, and the head of school told me that drawing must now be called “mark-making with intent”, which was surely the godfather of all artbollocks. I resigned.”

Even at the Slade, always understood up to that time as among the more conservative schools, and of which the aforementioned Bruce McLean would eventually become a departmental head, change was afoot. A revealing PhD thesis (Birkbeck College) by Alexander Massouras describing the evolution of new attitudes to young artists in the post-war years, draws attention to the changes:

 

“In the Slade this can be seen by contrasting the diploma exam description in the 1955–56 Slade prospectus with that in the 1964–65 prospectus. The former required six drawings of the human figure from life, four drawings of a plant or still life from the object, and six other drawings. The latter required simply a portfolio of at least twenty drawings, and either ten paintings, at least two of which had to measure 36 x 28 inches or larger, or ten sculptures. This change was analogous with broadening definitions of departments which accompanied the transition from N.D.D. to Diploma in Art and Design (‘Dip.A.D.’).”

The second Coldstream Report of 1970, which, like its predecessor, is a curious cocktail of dogmatism and flexibility, recognised that the very definitions on which past judgements were based no longer applied. If painting and sculpture could not be understood as autonomous subjects, definitions had collapsed beyond repairing. Short of shutting everything down and starting again from scratch, the Committee had no alternative but to endorse the fait accompli of what had happened years before at places like St Martin’s. A crucial paragraph early on in the Report reads:

 

“We do not believe that studies in fine art can be adequately defined in terms of chief studies related to media. We believe that studies in fine

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art derive from an attitude which may be expressed in many ways.”

Even Coldstream no longer believed

in hard definitions. This was about as close to a complete official capitulation to outside forces as you could get. The past was dead. A new beginning had been given an official stamp of approval. It was game, set and match to Thubron.

With the removal of boundaries, the victory of the Bauhaus’s “total unity”, the fusing of disciplines and the removal of any criteria of quality, and the awarding of ‘degrees’ for which gradings were arbitrary, there was nothing left to teach. And where nothing is taught there is nothing left that can be tested.

The experience at this time of artist Veronica Ricks, who now directs the previously mentioned Heatherley’s private art school, which still specialises in teaching the ancestral principles of painting and sculpture, is revelatory here. Her art college years at Manchester and the Royal College straddled 1970, the year of the last Coldstream Report. She was taught the basic skills of painting and sculpture, which, nevertheless, she still felt needed augmenting afterwards.

 

“The college staff gave us a basic grounding in traditional techniques while encouraging us to experiment. I formed a strong impression that they were not teaching me as thoroughly as they themselves had been taught.”

 

At exactly the same moment as Ricks’s experience, another talented student, now distinguished arts journalist and editor Mike von Joel, was subjected to similarly unhelpful experiences:

 

“The art school system seemingly took pleasure in destroying my natural flair for drawing. They killed my natural spontaneity. Many tutors were obsessed with how you make a career for yourself. It seemed to me there could be nothing more off-putting for a student than being told how the ‘Art World’ works.”

 

At a crucial moment in the history of art education, these descriptions indicate that the gradual dilution of emphasis away from the traditional was already well under way. Twenty five years later, with the complete victory of fashion and novelty for their own sake, and the removal of the previous regime of teachers, nothing recognisable of the old ways was left.

 

The Degree Show

By the late ’60s it was dawning on artists that they no longer need wait years for fame to arrive. It was now possible to enjoy instant acclaim providing they could demonstrate cutting-edge credentials and create a ferment of intrigued confusion and media curiosity around their multifarious novelties. Getting noticed by way of shock or experimentation became essential. Thwarting conservatism by encouraging innovation at all costs became an imperative in art education.

Thus, the Degree Show became an exhibition of make-or-break importance. It developed rapidly from what had been previously an exhibition of work-in-progress to a show of mature, finished, market-ripe commodities deliberately intended to tempt dealers and the collector/speculators these commercial middlemen were grooming to appreciate new investment opportunities. With shrewd promotion reputations might be manufactured out of thin air. Sensationalism and causing deliberate offence were two of the most recommended tactics for getting your work talked about. The wider public ceased to matter.

In order to have any expectation of a future students needed to get themselves noticed, and fast. This encouraged a career-consciousness which became as important as producing the work itself. Time previously allocated to perfecting skills and bettering the work was now spent on strategic career thinking encouraged by college courses called, for example, ‘Professional Art Practice’. Students were now encouraged to get business cards printed, write wordy personal statements in approved but often incomprehensible jargon and to network like mad.

Wiser heads were immediately alert to obvious potential problems. They warned that an unfortunate result of this obsession with youthful originality was the growing fear among students that if they hadn’t made it by the age of 25 they were failures doomed to permanent obscurity. The belief is now common that if your degree show goes unnoticed it will take a major event to turn prospects around. By the 1990s successful artists were having ‘mid-career’ touring retrospectives (courtesy of the Arts Council) in their early thirties. It became easy to miss the boat. As a result of this, postgraduate degrees became a profitable university growth industry taken up by those who hadn’t succeeded in making a splash with their first degree, but who still harboured hopes that, courtesy of a second go, their fortunes might pick up. The need for universities to encourage students to stay on for postgraduate degrees (cue an even larger debt) has been a persuasive reason for awarding first class degrees like confetti – there’s

nothing quite like raising a BA’s morale as a potential stimulus for generating additional revenue in postgraduate course fees.

 

For those lucky enough to be picked up from college, the passage from student to gallery was immediate. From the mid-’80s Charles Saatchi made a habit of speculating in this way with bulk purchases from degree shows. As an advertising executive he knew only too well that with the right pitch, a monopoly of supply and blanket news coverage you could convince most gullible rich people and ambitious curators of almost anything. Owning his own spacious galleries and publishing lavish catalogues to

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promote his investments also came in handy. Rapid turnover of exhibitions needed quantities of new work from students every year, which itself is a deterrent to working in the laborious manner demanded by conventional styles. This new product-hungry market couldn’t wait for artists who worked slowly. Paintings and modelled/carved sculptures couldn’t be manufactured quickly enough. Assistants or other contracted fabricators, on the other hand, could produce ‘Concepts’ on a production line, in editions if necessary. Thus, many artists began to produce easily repeated identifiable lines of merchandise, so-called ‘signature’ works. The advantage of this was that more or less the same exhibition could be shown in many places at once. (By 2013 there were over 1,365 Damien Hirst spot paintings, all but the first 25 having been painted by teams of assistants. Hirst later admitted that he got to the point where he “couldn’t be arsed” to paint them himself.)

Naked desire for instant commercial success was formerly considered infra dig in an art student but undergraduates were now more than willing to play along. Colleges encouraged them to network in the demi-monde of curators, dealers, fixers and rich collectors who enjoyed trendy slumming, to get themselves known and be photographed, and to attach themselves to the coteries of well-known artists. Visibility was all that mattered. Featuring frequently in newspapers, however dubious the context, was more influential for building a career than having under one’s belt any number of accomplished works or complimentary notices from critics, who were themselves desperate to be involved. Networking associated with art became part of the social scene especially for the well-heeled eager to speculate in the burgeoning contemporary market. Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, described the fizz around new art: “Art is money-sexy-social-climbing-fantastic.”

Attending a degree show in 1998, Doris Saatchi confessed to being “appalled at how careerist the artists had become”, which was rich coming from her since it was she and her former husband Charles who had contributed significantly to encouraging such vaulting conceit in the first place.

 

A New Academy

The 1950s marked the inauguration of all the practices and policies, good and bad, that today most now take for granted. What started as a guerrilla movement in selected colleges quickly spread and subsumed the entire system until art schools became what they have been now for a generation, breeding grounds only for that style of art officially endorsed by the State.

Conceptual Art’s position as an orthodoxy has been reinforced by two recent, roughly coincident developments: the emergence of what the editor /* xin2 */ of Art Monthly dubbed the ‘yBa’ (young British artists) phenomenon; and the Turner Prize, which is still awarded annually by the Tate (currently £25,000 for the winner), and is the official face of what the Arts Council has approvingly dubbed ‘Challenging Contemporary Art’. Starry-eyed art college wannabes now not only had a gang of fêted individuals to emulate but something quickly lucrative to aim for.

The yBas were trained in the late 1980s mainly at Goldsmith’s College where liberties encouraged by Thubron and Pasmore in the 1950s found an apotheosis engineered by their most enthusiastic devotees. The main characters of the movement – the names we’ve all come to know – were ingeniously promoted by aforementioned advertising executive Charles Saatchi, an art dealer who bought their work in industrial quantities for stock and later profitable sale (for example, the famous shark – now deceased and replaced – bought from Damien Hirst in 1991 for fifty grand he unloaded to an American commodities broker in 2007 allegedly for $8 million). Building on previous successes and once again using promotional skills perfected in his day job, as well as conspicuous gifts of work to national collections (some of which he had previously tried and failed to sell), he made sure the papers couldn’t get enough of it. These were the first generation of art students who espoused wholeheartedly developments of the recent past, particularly as exemplified in the fame-obsessed self-promotion of Andy Warhol. Seizing the moment, they did everything they could to get seen and become notorious, thereby demonstrating the accuracy of the old adage that all publicity is good. As Warhol had advised other artists: ‘Don’t read your reviews weigh them’. The Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, comprising works entirely owned by Saatchi, was the apogee and swansong of this phenomenon. Soon after the exhibition’s tour to Berlin and New York was completed the works were disposed of in the same bulk with which they had been acquired.

Other art students were so desperate for a piece of this scene that by the end of the 1990s they were producing work deliberately intended to catch Saatchi’s eye in the hope that they too would be pitchforked into the limelight on the back of nothing especially remarkable. A main ambition of students was to be bought by Saatchi, not least because where he led other suggestible wealthy collectors were prepared to follow. A belief became common that Saatchi was the reincarnation of King Midas; all he had to do was buy and the price

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far from this simple but the perception prevailed. Other rich individuals identified Contemporary Art as an easy way to make money when other historic forms of investments were not just losing profitability but looking fragile.

By the new century the yBas had become such a part of the establishment that the Professorships of Painting and Drawing at the Royal Academy were at one stage held respectively by Gary Hume, a now oBa who can’t paint, and Tracey Emin, an oBa who can’t draw. With these ridiculous appointments the long march started by Thubron half a century before in Sunderland had reached its logical conclusion. Even the ‘Academy’ had surrendered. The Royal Academy postgraduate schools, upon which this institution’s charitable status is based, had succumbed years before. As its recent appalling degree shows demonstrate, and especially those in 2015 and 2016, nothing either quantifiable or judgeable is now taught there. Indeed, there is no discernible difference in the quality of work now produced for first or second degrees: it is impossible to tell them apart.  

The Turner Prize, which had started in 1984 (and was, it was rumoured at the time, financed by the architect of Saatchi’s massive private gallery in St John’s Wood), was re-jigged soon after Nicholas Serota took over the Tate’s directorship in 1988. From 1991 the prize became a reward for artists under 50; a tinkering which played to youth and rubber-stamped the yBas’ eligibility, and nearly all would either win the prize or be nominated. It was the official seal of approval for what was claimed to be ‘avant-garde’ art. The contradiction of an ‘avant garde’ being promoted and exhibited by the State (and sponsored by a company run by the multi-millionaire inventor of junk bonds – later imprisoned for racketeering and fraud!) was conveniently overlooked by almost everyone. In fact the Turner Prize has always been the art of a tiny closed-shop establishment. In its first fifteen years artists from only four commercial dealerships won the prize and in the first ten years after Serota’s re-vamp the average age of the winner was 33. In a moment when young people became increasingly enthused by a manic pursuit of money and celebrity, the prospect of a Turner nomination with its promise of approaching a year of non-stop and uncritical media worship was irresistible. Of course, the kudos associated with a nomination for their alumni was also attractive to art colleges eager to develop reputations as spawning grounds for success, and thereby appeal to increased numbers of would-be fee payers.

 

The effect on art education of the Turner Prize and the examples set by the yBa generation cannot be underestimated. They have been disastrous. Fine Art education is now aimed at producing conceptual artists who work in a manner which – if the right heads can be turned  – might secure a Turner nomination. It is as though endorsement by the State is all that matters, and winning its support is the predominant objective of colleges. In a new age in which students have been encouraged to be lazy and mercenary, self-advertisement has naturally overtaken any desire to produce a work of art either profound, long lasting or visually accomplished. Hence most colleges’ emphasis on self-promotion. Part of this involves receiving tuition in how to write ‘artists’ statements’. As Tom Wolfe observed in The Painted Word as long ago as 1975, “without the words there is no art”. Unfortunately, it is not just a few words, for as American critic Hilton Kramer cynically stated: “The more minimum the art the more maximum the explanation.”

Accepting that it is not possible to understand fully the meaning of a conceptual work without consulting its written explanation, and accepting that State Art galleries frequently declare it their pious duty to inflict new art upon the widest possible uncomprehending public, one might have thought some effort would be made to ensure the language used is clear to everyone. But this is hardly ever the case. If the words really are so very important the least art colleges

might do is insist students write these statements in lucid English. Of course, the leading question is then begged as to why they don’t do this.

 

State Art Now

We arrive at today with an accepted consensus establishment view permeating all areas of contemporary art. In The End of the Line, an exhibition about drawing at the Hayward Gallery in 2009, its curator took

for granted this official status quo, writing in the catalogue:

“In the western academic tradition, drawing was considered the foundation of art education, the essential discipline underlying all others. In the 1970s with the conceptual overthrow of old orthodoxies, drawing in many art schools was abandoned as an irrelevant throwback to past times.”

In an earlier Art Council exhibition, Drawing the Line, staged in 1995 at Whitechapel Art Gallery, selector Michael Craig-Martin, the recently knighted Goldsmith’s godfather of the yBas, summarized attitudes which have conditioned advanced art teaching since the Bauhaus. His words can be regarded as Establishment lore, as influential therefore as any Manifesto from the tubthumping days of infant Modernism:

 

“In a way unique to our times, artists today must discover, select, and develop for themselves the forms of expression appropriate to their needs and abilities. Our emphasis on individuality, innovation and originality is the inevitable consequence of our cultural circumstances. What our pluralist society has sacrificed by the loss of cultural coherence has been more than compensated for by the unprecedented growth in the range of expression… There have always been two types of artist: those who open new possibilities of expression and those who consolidate the achievements of others. Obviously, there have always been more of the latter than the former. The artists from the past, the few from each period who are remembered and admired, are those who were radical in the terms of their own time. The best art has always been radical, innovative by necessity (the artist’s need to overcome the inadequacy of the existing modes of expression) and extremist (taking something to its extreme). Contemporary artists honour those of the past by following their example, not by aping their work.”

 

Here is encapsulated the thinnest of  arguments in support of the dullest of modern academic traditions. The dictatorial unfairness of this blether barely needs stating. In Craig-Martin’s view only those who fall into the ‘radical’ category deserve to be taught and, presumably, thereafter taken seriously. Looking back it seems incomprehensible that traditional art forms should have been so comprehensively extirpated from public education, and that scarcely anyone should have vociferously stood up for them. Today’s art colleges arrogantly pretend that they know what is good for all students irrespective of what individuals may see as their vocation. The collective motto of art colleges has been: ‘This is what we are prepared to give. Take it or leave it.’

State Art has made a virtue of being unskilled in any form of previous art craft. To demonstrate skill in virtually anything but self-promotion is anathema.

Is this new pedagogy succeeding? No. According to polls of students, in 2008 six of the ten worst performing ‘universities’ were art schools. At 7.4% art has the fifth highest drop-out rate for university subjects. Currently 80 universities offer art and design courses including the University of the Arts in London… which is 80th in university league tables. The University of the Arts, formed in 2004, is an amalgamation of previously distinct London colleges. It was recently recommended by inspectors to effect a turnaround in its curriculums and teaching. One recommendation read: “By the commencement of the next academic year the University should formally develop and disseminate a strategic, institutional-level approach to enhancing the quality of students’ learning opportunities.” One cynic interpreted this euphemistic waffle as the need to start teaching something, indeed anything at all.

In 2003 artist Rosalind Davies wrote of her recent art school experience:

 

“Most distressing was the fact that the students with a clear visual perception of their own were mocked for being figurative and traditional. They either abandoned their vision, worked at home, or jumped on the conceptual bandwagon… Many of the students who qualified with me were left with nothing, no foundation of technique and with their own personal vision destroyed.”

 

In 2006 comedian and short story writer Alexei Sayle reflected on his days as an art student:

 

“My arrival in Chelsea as a student in the early 1970s coincided with the widespread acceptance of the idea, cooked up by drunken philosophers and left-wing theorists in the bars and cafés of the Boulevard Montparnasse and then misheard by a man from Leicester, that it was impossible, divisive and hierarchical for a teacher to attempt to teach anything to anyone, that indeed the very idea of there being such as thing as “teacher” and “student” led directly to the war in Vietnam and the fact that your Mini would never start if it had been raining… The staff at Chelsea Art School took to this idea with particular enthusiasm and decamped en masse round the corner to the club. After that, if you had a tutorial or a general studies lecture or you needed to get a form signed, the only way to do it was to go round to the Arts Club, but unfortunately seeing as you weren’t a member they wouldn’t let you in. In my three years as a student the only way I managed to get any tuition at all was either to disguise myself as a dishwasher repairman or to get a member to sign me in as a guest by promising them sexual favours in one of the reasonably-priced bedrooms.”

 

Little has changed since. Writing in 2015 Graham Crowley, a former Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art, recently endorsed this position:

 

“Art departments in universities shouldn’t be confused with art schools. They aren’t sufficiently resourced to sustain proper full-time studio-based courses. They should stop taking money under false pretences for what is effectively distance learning. Charging almost £30,000 for a certificate that says the bearer is a qualified artist is both absurd and criminal… Fine Art courses are now validated by people who have negligible experience of art or art education… Fine Art education has come to resemble group therapy. And in answer to those who constantly complain that “… they don’t teach drawing anymore”, it’s much, much worse than that; they don’t teach anything anymore. Something as dismal as this warrants a boycott… The sense of loss can’t be overstated – what was once transformative and improving is now sordid and costly.”

 

What we need to avoid in the future is more of what follows, the testimony of a distinguished writer and artist who wished to remain anonymous:

 

“Of the many criticisms I could make of what I have seen of the current state of art education in this country… the first is the lack of instruction in fundamental skills. A talented young man I know recently graduated from Winchester College of Art with a first class degree in “fine art”. He had specialised in sculpture. He proudly showed me his card, which he had printed with his name and address and the words “Artist and Sculptor”. He cannot draw, paint, carve or model and he knows practically nothing about the history of art. He now earns his living by washing up surgical instruments at the hospital where his father is a surgeon. He has no prospects, but he is slightly better off than most of his fellow art-students, who are on the dole.”

 

In an open letter written to explain their action to the public, students occupying Hornsey School of Art google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; in 1968 wrote that they were constructing an educational ideal, namely:

 

“… the right of rational young men and women to have a say in the education they receive and through which their individual and collective needs and aspirations must be met.”

 

Nearly half a century later, following a protracted period during which the reforms sought by Hornsey’s revolutionaries, notably the liberation from past doctrines deemed irrelevant to them, have been tried and, for some, have failed, their plea still applies /* 9-970x90 */ today. Those students requiring an alternative to another rigid orthodoxy should have their criticisms listened to and acted upon.

The trend in art education from 1945 to the present was perhaps vulgarly summed up by a degree show student in summer 2016 who was graduating from the University of the Arts in London. She danced around wearing what looked like a Dickensian urchin’s rags – it was the Fashion Department – and on her back was written src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> in crudely scrawled graffiti the legend “FUCK THE RULES”.

Jarndyce v. Jarndyce

Argument inspired by the success or failure of fine art education are by now longstanding, entrenched and irreconcilable. Depending where you stand on contemporary art, fine art education has either never been in ruder health or is failing almost everyone who comes in contact with it. Such are the intractable convictions of opposing camps that no common ground or possibility of conciliation seems to exist. As with most areas of contemporary art, an autocratic educational establishment is complacently impervious to change and any criticism of it routinely derided as backward-looking.

If you are among the chosen few who have benefitted from the institutionalising of  ‘challenging’ or ‘cutting-edge’ contemporary art, and its monopolising of public subsidy for more than a generation, the answer to the question ‘What Happened to Art Education?’ is ‘Nothing, it works perfectly’. Indeed it does, it runs like a purring limousine, with more than sufficient numbers of certificated ‘artists’ being produced annually to feed the publicly funded gallery machine – not that so many are actually needed now that foreign artists are just as eligible for British taxpayer subsidy. Confirmed apostles of what has emerged as an officially endorsed state religion, that code of belief which annually brings you the Turner Prize as the apogee of what is humanly possible in visual art, believe that art education is doing a quite spectacular job. Conceptual Art and its extended family is a recognised international industry, a brand even, and our system of art education in which innovation, self-expression and theory take precedence over the acquisition of skills is unarguably a crucial determinant in this high international status.

Supporters of this petrified status quo point to the popularity of Tate Modern as easily the world’s best-attended museum of modern and recent art (largely a result, it must be said, of foreign tourists availing themselves of Britain’s generous policy of free entry for all to national museums) and to the alleged vibrancy of the London art ‘scene’, which has become a magnet for art students from every continent. They also point to the important role of the creative industries in the overall economy, although most of this has no connection to fine art.

 

For those supporting this side, teaching and art are antithetical, the mastery of traditional techniques an unnecessary encumbrance. Students should be free to pursue any avenue they please, even dead ends. With deferential kowtows to godfathers Duchamp, Beuys and Warhol, it is believed that to be an artist is a state of mind only – the rest is merely a matter of making whatever it might be, and whose manufacture might just as well be farmed out to someone else. The difficult work, they claim, is in formulating the idea, of which the art object itself is only an illustration needed to fulfil the requirement to have something to show and to sell. This encouragement of freedom of expression into the realm of ‘concept’ or ‘idea’ has led to a commonly held belief that fine art departments in art colleges are places where nothing is actually taught and where students do whatever they wish providing, that is, it doesn’t require concerted tuition, quantities of studio space, equipment (excepting computers) and conventional art materials, all of which are expensive in capital, instruction and accommodation.

It is only natural for those who have prospered at the hands of what is now an impregnably reinforced ‘State Academy’ of style to defend zealously the system which produced them. They themselves have done well without the encumbrance of learning practical skills, so why should anyone else want to acquire them?

Standing in the opposite corner to this argument are those who interpret much of contemporary art as over-hyped, facile confections of little demonstrable visual merit and even less popular appeal. No criteria exist for judging what is produced, self-promotion and self-importance seeming to be the chief ingredients determining an artist’s success. The stated qualities of Conceptual Art seem too often to have been invented in language alone, words which too often have only a tenuous relationship to what is actually seen. On the basis of visible evidence alone reputations can appear undeserved.

This establishment-approved prejudice has been forced through at the expense of more traditional arts which are unsupported and uncollected by a state subsidised gallery system whose staffs are driven by instinct and teaching if not expediency into following what has become an unshiftable orthodoxy. And this doctrine is not just a firmly held creed but a form of state-sanctioned censorship of any other approach than the approved one. Traditional arts have withered because of official lack of support and because the basic skills required to practice them competently are now untaught in the university system. Additionally, as increasingly the blind are being asked to lead the blind, the teachable fundamentals of these ancestral skills are in danger of being lost altogether. There is no better denunciation of the present state of affairs – and it would have been possible to cite many other similar

testimonies – than that given in figurative painter Stuart Pearson Wright’s impassioned account in 2001 of his recent experience at the Slade:

 

“Few people these days really know how to paint well. Representational painters work in google_ad_height = 90; isolation because there is little critical or magazine coverage of this kind of work. Left to their own devices at art school, it seems that the only way to learn about figurative art is to study the work of the masters. It is easy enough to see the work of Rembrandt or Memling in the National Gallery but where can one see the work of one’s contemporaries? … Whose responsibility is it to buy for the nation worthwhile landscapes, narrative scenes, portraits of anonymous sitters or other forms of representational painting? There is no national collection of contemporary representational painting as there is of installation, conceptual or minimal art… The most worrying manifestation of this artistic dictatorship is its impact on art schools. Anyone who has attended a London art school in the last five years and has attempted to paint an easel picture will be aware of the feelings of antipathy towards representational painting that have passed down through the art establishment hierarchy and now strangle young painters. The pressure from tutors on young impressionable students to conform to the dictates of the market for trendy installations is inescapable for all but the most willful individuals. I have heard a talented student warned by a tutor with great authority: “Include those self-portraits in your degree show and it will adversely affect the outcome of your grade.” Not everyone wants to draw and paint, but proper professional provision must be made for those who do. If the art school experience is to be of any value tutors must keep their prejudices to themselves and be willing to help students develop their own particular interests. At worst they should leave them alone to get on with it.

 

The dictatorship of the conceptual/theoretical approach described by Pearson Wright is now so absolute over the apparatus of contemporary art and learning that state-run galleries, especially those created and funded by the Arts Council, almost never stage exhibitions of traditional painting and sculpture whose adherents have been officially dismissed as “the wrong kinds of artists”. Official bodies responsible for unfairly administering contemporary art are thus biased against conventional styles. This art of the state enjoys a stranglehold on all levers of influence in contemporary art from education to exhibition and collection.

In any other field of learning the exclusive promotion of a narrow doctrinaire position in an academic department of any serious university would be intellectually unacceptable, yet in the teaching of art it is celebrated as the norm.

 

Conclusion

The earliest, most complete and readable paintings in western art are frescoes and murals in and around Pompeii. Though now inland the town was, before its spectacular destruction, a prosperous mercantile port idyllically situated on the Bay of Naples. Some paintings are at least 2,200 years old, yet we can read them perfectly, as if they had been painted yesterday. The drawing is expressive sufficient to convey exactly those subtleties of emotion and meaning the painter intended whilst convincingly illustrating the required narrative. Gestures, postures and facial expressions, right down to the most complex and tricky foreshortenings, are instantly legible, utterly convincing. We have a good idea what these people might be thinking. In one suite of beautiful pictures by an unnamed artist at the Imperial Villa at Oplontis, built for Nero’s wife on the outskirts of the town and painted only a few years before the Vesuvian eruption of AD79 which buried and preserved them, the drawing of figures is as acutely observant as Goya’s sketches of everyday folk in the streets of Madrid 1,700 years later. This ability still to communicate feelings between distant cultures, individuals, economies and social structures across millennia is surely not a connection between people to be so casually jettisoned, and especially when figurative art is still so demonstrably popular with artists, audiences and collectors. Whether it has ‘bourgeois’ connotations or not the art form beloved of the majority is, incontestably, figurative art. This should not be a cause for derision, but for some reason it is.

And yet, perversely, figuration is the one style that finds no place in art schools. We have a duty of responsibility to teach properly this now alternative art form. Those skills needed to master it should be available in at least selected art schools alongside the currently exclusive diet of ‘theory’. The truth is that there will always be a need for artists of a non-radical kind requiring specialist tuition.

Despite desperate claims to the contrary by the art establishment, there is no significant audience for conceptual work, except among those whose careers rely on its continued ascendancy – and not forgetting those who hoard and speculate in it. Conceptualism is as much an art form exclusive to the rich as ever was any aristocratic (or bourgeois) art of the past – the only difference being that the new aristocracy try to forcefeed their whimsies down our throats at every opportunity whilst pretending that it is the best of what is currently being produced. And just as in those former days most working people never encountered an oil painting, so the same group now never see a work of conceptual art, at least not one they will recognize as such. The overwhelming majority own no interest in conceptual art and wouldn’t walk two feet to see it. Even those purporting religious devotion to it certainly can’t accommodate most of it even in their mansions. Recent ‘Challenging Contemporary Art’ is an art form made for institutions, theorists, and colossally rich investors, and for the great profit of storage repositories. It is certainly not for general audiences and domestic consumption.

Thus, two generations of students of painting and sculpture have already been let down by recent tendencies in fine art education, not least its refusal in many cases to teach anything practical. The uncompromising prescriptiveness of official contemporary art, in its Minimalist and Conceptualist forms, is intolerant and unreasonable and should be revised in order to accommodate those wishing to learn a different approach.

Art schools must surrender their current dictatorship. They should provide the necessary tools required by artists of all stylistic leanings and not solely of one approach that has become accepted by default as the officially approved method. No reason suggests itself why different philosophies of art and its education should not co-exist in mutual respect. And no plausible reason obtains why the learning of skills should be considered so oppressive, especially if this is the student’s wish. Neither is there any reason why the so-called ‘de-skilling’ of art education should be considered laudable, as

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indeed it is by many of the art establishment’s younger adherents who have no experience of any other methods.

Whither Now?

Is the approach underpinning current fine art teaching in universities likely to reform any time soon? The simple answer is ‘No’. In order to change a system which has served its carefully selected devotees so assiduously would require a miracle. Nothing will change until a more vocal and influential groundswell exposes the obvious

inadequacies within the present system. Those in authority have hitherto easily deflected opposition to the status quo as the opinion of reactionary cranks. When control over all aspects of decision making and supervision are allocated only to undeviating true believers dissent can be brushed aside, ignored until it goes away. Those responsible for having engineered the current system are in positions of unimpeachable authority; as previously stated many are considered beyond criticism and some have even been awarded the highest honours for their ‘contribution to art’.

The status quo is endorsed wholeheartedly by the Establishment, and is ferociously defended by them against all opposition. For those sinecurists secure in positions of power, and supported in their dogma by sympathetic national institutions, their boards of trustees and influential artists who benefit from current policy, there is no pressure to alter a system which operates like clockwork and which delivers the raw materials institutions, galleries, rich collectors, investors and markets require. Any change would depend on the agreement and co-operation of predominantly young staff members who have never known anything other than what is on offer. They are unlikely to agree to an undermining of their authority or the widening of a curriculum to include tuition in practical skills they are so demonstrably unequipped to teach. And the prospect of improvement is not advanced by the unhelpful fact that a supine Department of Culture, from where any policy change would have to originate, is a transit lounge for second-raters eager to do nothing that might jeopardise quick promotion to a grander department.

There is, however, a possibility that the edifice of fine art education might eventually collapse under the weight of its own redundancy, complacency and arrogance, not to mention the widespread public mockery of such an educational travesty. Weighing the prospects of a qualification rendering them redundant of either skills or job prospects, future students may calculate that the resulting piece of paper is debased currency not worth the expense incurred to acquire it. In this case universities will have to make the content of courses reflect what students want rather than the limited fare they are prepared to offer.

The most probable catalyst for change, therefore, is likely to be market driven. Since 2010 when tuition fees were increased to £9,000 a year, students have become more demanding of courses they believe are failing or inadequate, or cost too much for their limited offerings. Facing an average debt on graduation of £36,000, BA students as a tribe are increasingly vocal when they believe they are not getting their money’s worth. In these circumstances, and ever mindful of losing valuable revenue, universities will have to be more responsive than they have been. Students requiring something that is not on offer, but which they believe should be, are in a powerful position to force provision of such services.

 

Any sort of reform would, however, encounter insuperable difficulties not least because of the extremity that has been reached. Like Modernism itself, which hit the buffers when it produced the reductio ad absurdum of a white monochrome painting, art education has itself reached the full stop of teaching nothing at all. With such a terminus reached there is nowhere to go, forwards or backwards. Change would require reversing a current which began in 1837; that is, when the stranglehold of the most conservative teachings was first recognised as inappropriate for everyone. This won’t happen. And neither should it, because, like it or not, conceptual art is here to stay and has achieved in its relatively brief life some stimulating innovations. Besides, museums, galleries, storerooms and tax-free depositories the world over are packed with the stuff. A nine-floor extension has recently opened behind the already enormous Tate Modern in order to house yet more of it. We must all learn to recognise excellence across the diversity of styles and techniques now being used by artists. It is not my purpose here to suggest an end to anything, or its replacement by something else – that was the autocratic, ultimately destructive approach of Thubron, who stupidly believed he knew better for everybody – but merely to encourage a broadening of what is on offer in art education in order to meet the specialised requirements of those who have not been properly catered for since the last century.

While this has the obvious shortcomings of exclusiveness and considerable expense, increased availability of private alternatives to public art education has assisted the acquisition of skills by many figurative artists still succeeding in the non-fashionable gallery system. Cutting-edgers may have won after 1970 but conventional painters and sculptors didn’t go away – far from it. The considerable number of surviving and prospering figurative artists is testimony to an art form which, despite an absence of official teaching provision for it, has refused to die, inspite of institutional and critical forecasts to the contrary. Figurative art is also enduringly popular – every year the country’s most popular exhibition of contemporary art, at least in terms of raw attendance figures, is the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery.

As stated previously figurative painting is the style preferred by the majority. A walk through St James’s and Mayfair demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of galleries sell figurative painting, compelling evidence of a living demand. Hundreds of galleries nationwide give the lie to the mantra first stated in 1840

way of developing intelligence and forming judgement,
for one learns to see, and seeing is knowledge.”

 

Echoing this sentiment, painter John Wonnacott said recently:

 

“Every art school should have one life room, with one teacher who loves drawing always present, and it should be open all the time. There is no point in the existence of art schools if they don’t do this.”

 

Desirable perhaps, but, notwithstanding the unavailability of space, is the teaching of drawing, with its required concentration and focus, any longer realistic among students with a mindset conditioned by worshipping two successful generations of artists who get other people to make their work for them and whose fame and wealth have arrived easily and certainly, in the majority of cases, drawing free? I’m not convinced that it is.

As the take-up at private art schools demonstrates there are quantities of students still willing to dedicate themselves to the perfection of extremely difficult crafts. Those who require ‘skills’ are getting on with acquiring them despite the public art system. But given that there exists a market condition in which there is already a surfeit of artists whose average annual income is, according to Arts Council England, significantly below the state-designated poverty line, it is not obvious that we need more artists of any kind. On the contrary the only sensible conclusion is that we need fewer and better.

In such unfavourable circumstances what changes are practicable now?

Immediately possible is to allow private art schools teaching the traditional arts to award degrees for their full-time courses. This would enable their students, who are currently denied access to loans because of the non-degree status of their courses, to enjoy the same qualification as those attending universities. It is unfair to discriminate against students simply on the grounds of their stylistic preferences.

 

Degree adjudication bodies should be instructed not to prescribe what private school courses must teach for fear of diluting what made them independent in the first place, or of coercing them towards the nihilism available in the public art system. Current curricula of private art schools must be accepted for what they are and their distinctiveness respected. Students select these courses precisely because they offer the skills, tuition and materials they need.

As I write the success of private art schools is underwritten by the fact that both the winner of the 2016 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery and the 2015 Jerwood Drawing Prize were won by students from The Royal Drawing School – BP winner Clara Drummond had in fact previously been taught at the Rome Academy and had passed a period of apprenticeship under a recognized painter before attending the drawing school in London. Indeed, out of 53 works exhibited in this year’s BP Portrait Award 31 of the artists were trained in academies abroad and