Art education is stuck!

Two years ago someone suggested I answer the question ‘What Happened to Art Education?’. This appealed slightly because it was a subject about which I thought I ought to know more than was the case. Something is clearly awry when so many complaints are aired about the poverty of tuition and when degree shows have become such forgettable, even laughable accumulations of artless clutter.

My own experience of teaching in art colleges has been limited. In the 1980s I was a tutor in the Photography Department at the Royal College of Art. Admittedly I was hopeless at it. Eventually I quit because of personal embarrassment that my contribution was inadequate and that students deserved better. One problem was that I couldn’t discover precisely how judgements of quality were arrived at – so much seemed arbitrary and capricious, obvious to others but opaque to me. During those years, and subsequently, I lectured and talked at many colleges around the country without ever considering myself an educationalist. Despite overwhelming feelings of being a charlatan imminently in danger of humiliating exposure, to my shame I never refused offers of work – infrequent as these were I needed the paltry fees they generated.

Not surprisingly the possibility of researching the story of how art education had come to be the way it is aroused my curiosity. As a functionary on art papers for over 25 years I’ve received hundreds of complaints from art students about the absence of practical instruction and of the coercion applied to force students to work in ways contrary to their natural instincts.

In contemporary art’s administration and education a dead end has undoubtedly been reached. For example, we’ve had nearly thirty years of sameness from the Turner Prize (see page 26). The kind of stunt featured in it now is much the same as it was decades ago. The unchallenged authority of State Art means that indifferent, instantly forgettable work will endure apparently in perpetuity. This year it’s a pile of coins, a few years back it was a pile of ash, and before that piles of second-hand furniture, clothes, rice and stones. Who now recalls (or cares) what all these pile-stunts ‘challenged’ or ‘subverted’? I know I can’t. For the first time stylistic evolution has stopped dead. We’ve reached the end of art history and the beginning of terminal boredom. 

In fine art education we have also attained the equivalent nihilist cul de sac courtesy of State Art’s stranglehold. Those who were taught to do nothing practical now demand others do the same, because this is all they know and their continued employment depends on conformity to an intolerant and self-satisfied orthodoxy. Around 1980, for the first time in 140 years, art education stopped evolving. Everything associated with the past had been dropped and replaced by the ultimate democratic liberty of everyone doing whatever they please. 

In this issue I am publishing my research findings. I’ve tried to précis the story of fine art education from its origins, concentrating on England, and particularly since 1945 when the downhill slalom began.

I encourage those with greater experience and knowledge to correct any errors and misapprehensions. Within reason I’ll publish all replies. The detailed story of what has happened to lead us to the present dead end needs telling. Regrettably, the inconvenient truth is that at the moment the Government can only afford to issue art students with a vocationally worthless but very costly piece of paper.

I haven’t been able to propose any way forward because I’m not sure there is one, the current system being so securely rooted in the Establishment. No improvement will take place while a convenient consensus continues to exist between political parties that State Art is all there is. The Left supports State Art because it wants to be seen as progressive, anti-élitist and open-minded while the Right is terrified of being labelled stuffy, reactionary and uncool. Thus, whoever is wielding power State Art will always remain the art of the State.At the end of the piece I’ve made some recommendations. If adopted these would make it easier for those who wish to receive a traditional art education without having to experience the prejudice which currently prevents them receiving equal treatment.