Martin Lang: Against life drawing

Advocating life drawing at art school is a deeply conservative and reactionary position. Arguments in favour of life drawing usually fall into one of two camps (or sometimes both). I am utterly unconvinced by both.

The first, and weaker, argument contends that it is necessary to learn the rules before you can break them. This is an authoritarian position where you must learn to draw “properly” before you can make other kinds of art. We can almost dismiss this argument out of hand. Imagine discovering a great artist, falling in love with her work, telling others how wonderful it is, but then finding out that her life drawing wasn’t up to much. Would you re-assess your judgement and decide that the art you once loved must be substandard? You probably wouldn’t dismiss your favourite musician if you discovered that he couldn’t read music: this is irrelevant if the music is good. Perhaps cinema might be a better comparison, since artists also work in film. Most people wouldn’t rubbish their favourite director upon finding out that he couldn’t draw very well. So why would you apply this criterion to an artist film maker? In both cases it is irrelevant if the films are good.

This first argument shifts the focus away from the artwork and onto the artist’s training. To accept the argument is to accept that you are unable to judge the quality of the artwork without knowing something about the artist’s education. This is a useful argument if you do not like Modern or contemporary art, where such training is not discernible. Under this perspective, Mondrian’s grid paintings or Rothko’s colour fields are acceptable only if they can first prove that they are able to make more conservative kinds of art. This is the concession to Modern and contemporary art that the conservative authoritarian makes, reminding us that Picasso was an excellent draftsman before he dedicated his life to learning to draw like a child. If you value any kind of non-representational art (such as abstraction), any kind of de-skilled art, performance or relational art, then the argument that the prior mastery of life drawing is necessary falls short.

The second, and more sophisticated, argument claims that mastery of life drawing is not necessary, but that it should be learnt anyway. Even if, after hours of classes, the art student is useless at drawing the figure, and even if she has no intention of making any kind of figurative drawing, painting or sculpture, there are still fundamental benefits to