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

Eric Coombes

The near-destruction in the western world of a centuries-long tradition of visual education could be described – hyperbolically but not misleadingly – as having been accomplished overnight. The inherited gifts of that tradition are now being casually, ungratefully and even malevolently thrown away. In its chronologically long-range survey, What Happened to

400 Bad Request

Art Education? provides the context in which the extraordinary rapidity and grievousness of this loss displays itself.

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

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

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

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

Before moving on, I want to make one specific point about ‘skills’. Traditionally, the central ‘skill’, for all the visual arts, including architecture, and – partly in a slightly extended sense, sculpture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this route for the academically able has been made more arduous, because of changes in how art is now taught and examined. Superficially, these changes might seem benign. When I did O-level art at school, we took, if I remember rightly (the exact details are unimportant), three three-hour papers: drawing from the human figure (a boy in his gym kit); still-life drawing; and a painted pictorial composition. For the last, one was given a (small) choice of subjects in advance, in order to prepare for the examination, which one did by working out a composition through sketches, and possibly making studies from observation. But this preparatory material was not allowed into the examination room, where one tried to complete a painting in three hours. At A-level, the procedure was essentially the same, except that to the three O-level papers was added a fourth design paper, and, if one might be a candidate for a state scholarship, a paper in art history. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about those talented but ‘un-academic’ students, who rightly concern Paul Wilks in his contribution to the previous issue? I strongly suspect that, in the past, 400 Bad Request the need for their dispensation from the academic entry requirements arose far more from deficiencies in the schools than from innate deficiencies in the entrants themselves. In any event, because of the general devaluing of qualifications, the loss or curtailment of those concessions is probably no longer of much consequence. They may not find it difficult to gain admission to degree courses in ‘Fine Art’, but what prospect does that offer to the talented of exploiting their talents? The very abilities in recognition of which they might once have secured dispensation from the academic entry requirements are precisely those which, in current circumstances, they will have no opportunity to develop. In any case, who would recognize their talents?

Drawing, Tradition and Peter Clossick

In 1941, Augustus John contributed A Note on Drawing (from which I quoted a few words in the previous issue) to a book edited by Lillian Browse, containing reproductions of his own drawings. John records his sense of good fortune in having been a student at the Slade, and thereby spared an oppressive training in ‘the substitute for drawing’ prevailing in other places, notably the Royal College of Art or its immediate precursor at South Kensington.  This substitute was ‘Stumping’: ‘An innovation having no roots in tradition, it pretended to provide the student with a means of representing form without risking the use of a line. … the student was instructed to copy the objects placed before him by means of a prolonged smudging and stippling process.’  This system ‘… blighted every trace of talent which suffered under its inexorable discipline.  Many a lad and lass, their souls alight with that flame which in the young only art and love can kindle, were fated, after a course of “Stumping” … to retire beaten at last …’  At the Slade, by contrast, ‘a very different system prevailed under Frederick Brown and his chief lieutenant Henry Tonks.  There “Stumping” was severely banned and the students had to do the best they could with the point of a stick of charcoal and a sheet of “Michelet”. They were even encouraged to study the Old Masters!’.  He continues with some remarks about Brown’s use of ‘rhythmical lines’ and ‘Tonks’ insistence on the Contour [which] was equally sound and in the great Tradition …’

Two themes in this brief note are closely connected. First, John was repelled by a system which eliminated the risk of using line, because it extinguished for the students the very source of joy, which had motivated them to study art. It did so by making mindless precisely what should engage the mind in the endeavour to find and articulate an intelligible visual ordering in what is drawn. This endeavour cannot bypass the decisions, the revisions of decisions and, indeed, the mistakes and attempted corrections, which are brought to judgement in the determinacy of line. To eliminate this essential feature of visual thought is to render drawing mindless and deny its very nature. It was clearly important—to invoke the second theme—that this ‘substitute for drawing’ had ‘no roots in tradition’, whereas at the Slade drawing was understood and taught as the unifying central strand in ‘the great Tradition’, and students were encouraged to study the Old Masters—a policy whose fruits are illustrated in this book by the astoundingly accomplished drawing after Watteau which won John a prize awarded by Tonks in 1897. The ‘great Tradition’ was defined by a canon, in which the practice of the masters provided models of drawing as a medium of thought. 

It does not, for present purposes, matter greatly if John was exaggerating (as he probably was), or being to some extent unfair, in his eloquent denunciation of what went on in South Kensington. What does matter is that he intuitively understood drawing as essentially an exercise of thinking, which cannot be reduced to a mere technique, still less to a fail-safe technique. The gesture of drawing a line is an action integral to the draughtsman’s thinking, and the trace remaining is alive with the meaning with which that action imbues it: the risk of not immediately getting it quite right is just the risk that attends and is inseparable from thought itself. To eliminate that risk is to withdraw the mind from its internal relationship to drawing—that is, the relationship in which drawing is thinking, not merely the product of thinking—leaving nothing but an inert routine: a ‘substitute for drawing’.

It is misconceived, therefore, to take the ‘skill’ of drawing to be merely a technique, merely the means to the end of producing a certain kind of artefact, which might, in principle, be produced, equally well, or more conveniently, by some other technique. Something like this misconception must underlie claims that photography, for example, can be considered a form of drawing, and ‘Stumping’ as described by John could almost be described (with qualifications unimportant in the present context) as a pointlessly laborious procedure for manufacturing substitutes for photographs.

In a previous issue Dr Selby Whittingham cited Finberg as complaining in 1910 that ‘the only kind of training that is provided for English art students is training in this capacity of reproducing objects of sight accurately.’. Finberg may well have had good reasons for complaint, but his actual words here, if taken perfectly literally, make no sense. Drawings, of their very nature, cannot possibly ‘reproduce’ ‘objects of sight’ (accurately or inaccurately) except, perhaps, in the limiting case where the sole ‘object of sight’ is itself a drawing. Now as in the past, however, visual representation is often naïvely described in this way. Even so sophisticated and powerful a thinker as Ruskin is guilty of this confusion, most obviously (if inconsistently) in The Elements of Drawing – although what is there posited as the object to be copied is an appearance, incoherently understood as an array of coloured shapes, already a kind of picture of the scene to be represented. But an appearance is of a different ontological order from a picture and is logically uncopyable by any physical entity. One might as well say that a debt can be copied by a coin. This common misconception, which is derived from a notoriously fallacious strand of empiricist philosophy, is extraordinarily tenacious, and by no means dead.

In the practice of art, and even in the practice of criticism, this confusion need not be disastrous: a better understanding advances and articulates itself in the practices themselves, even where less defective conceptions do not emerge into the light of theoretical reflection, or emerge only inchoately in criticism. But it matters much more when, as often happens today, the misconception deforms both teaching and practice. Fifty or so years ago, most art teachers at every level intuitively understood drawing as much more than a technique for making something that might as well be done with a camera, although they probably saw no need, and perhaps lacked the capacity, to explain this at the level of theory. They were content in the knowledge that anyone to whom this was not intuitively self-evident had not yet fully appreciated the gifts of the tradition that defines what the visual arts are. But nowadays the very word ‘tradition’ may meet with incomprehension, bewilderment or automatic, unfocused hostility; and its invocation may aggravate rather than deflect the vindictive resentment of uncultured ignorance. But, to touch again on John’s second theme, it is through the tradition of image making that perceptual capacities are cultivated which sustain drawing as a medium of thought. In this respect, drawing is analogous to language. 

A photograph, of course, ‘reproduces’ the ‘objects of sight’ no more than a drawing does. But in the confused view we are considering, it might be thought of as a device whereby visual appearances are mechanically copied. The tenacity of the ‘copying’ error derives, presumably, from the experience of naturalistic painting where the vividness or immediacy of the depicted scene may engender the sense of looking at something ‘just like’ the scene itself. Less naturalistic modes of representation may then be conceived of as deviations from a naturalistic norm, although there is, in fact, no norm of naturalism. It is in a way surprising that this misconception remains so common, even among those supposedly educated in the visual arts, and even since the publication of Ernst Gombrich’s justly celebrated book, Art and Illusion. This book made a huge impression, quickly found its way onto countless reading lists and initiated a chain of discussion, still continuing after more than fifty years. Since it is also very readable, quite a few students asked to read it might have actually done so. Few, if any, serious theorists would now endorse all its arguments and conclusions without important reservations (not least about Gombrich’s use of the notion of illusion); but among its indisputable intellectual achievements is that it put beyond all question the erroneousness of the ‘copying’ conception.

We need, then, to distinguish a visual representation from a mere simulacrum or surrogate, which cannot, as such, embody thought (although it may contain information). This simple conceptual point has many implications for our understanding of the visual arts, and various lines of discussion may converge on it. It has an application to the history of early modernist painting, when associated theorizing was informed (though not always explicitly or clearly) by those implications, largely under the (not necessarily direct) influence of Schopenhauer. There is much more to be said here. But I must content myself with stating the following: A representation, as such, does embody thought about what is represented, which, in the case of visual representation, is essentially thought about how things look, including how things look in imagination and memory. (It is important not to misunderstand this by unduly restricting, a priori, the kinds of thought supposed capable of being internal to perception.) A drawing, as a drawing, is essentially about what it represents: it has the property of aboutness – or ‘intentionality’ to use the philosophical term. We see the drawing as the record and embodiment of the draughtsman’s actions, understood as the movement of essentially communicable thought. The example of the embodied gesture in the decisively drawn line makes the point particularly clear. But the principle must be generalized to include not just line, but all the resources available to the draughtsman. It must also of course, be generalized to include painting, because painting is drawing – drawing with an extended range of materials and tools, and (usually) the additional dimension of colour. And with a little reflection we see that this also extends to sculpture. 

To understand a drawing, painting or sculpture is not merely to know that it embodies a thought, but to perceive it as doing so. The possibility of its being so perceived is essential to its nature as a work of visual art. It is not enough for it to be arbitrarily associated or linked with some thought, which remains external to its perception. This requirement by no means excludes the possible relevance and efficacy of supplementary information or critical elucidation, but it does exclude what is now typical of state art and of the sad travesty now presented in Fine Art finals shows: things which cannot so much as pretend to bear meaning without elaborate and often absurd ‘explanation’ – alleged meaning which remains entirely unperceivable even when it is made known to the viewer. The requirement of perceivability can be fulfilled only if the materials constituting the work are raised to the status of a medium. The medium of painting, for example, is not just paint but paint as used in the art of painting. And paint functions as a medium only when its use is perceivable as such. However idiosyncratic or personal a particular pattern of use may be, it must produce what can be appropriately seen by the viewer, or else fail as a medium. It is here that we understand the centrality of a tradition within which the necessary perceptual capacities are cultivated through the production and reception of work which itself demands the exercise of those capacities – by both artist and viewers. 

Culture, as I’ve put it in the Introduction to What is Wrong with Us?, is constituted by its own continuity; and the central duty of education, now extensively abandoned, is to sustain that continuity, which amounts to sustaining us. Traditions are the particular institutions, the social organisms of continuity, needing cultivation and nourishment. The visual tradition was once supported (with varying levels of efficacy!) by the work of the art schools. But the collectivized zombies, the living-dead remnants of the art schools, have joined the apparatchiks of state art in their murderous assault on that tradition. 

A few recent exhibitions remind us again of how recently the tradition was in a state of vigorous health, and how recently it has been not quite broken, as I nearly said, but marginalized in the sight of the state-art establishment. One is the recent Paul Nash exhibition, although, despite Nash’s great importance and achievement, one might have found in some of its constituents portents of a failure of cultural nerve in the decades following his death. Another, titled The Mythic Method, was at Pallant House. Its subtitle, Classicism in British Art 1920-1950, is actually a little misleading as to the contents, which include the work not just of classicists as usually understood, but also, for example, of Edward Burra, Ceri Richards and Wyndham Lewis, the last represented by a particularly fine portrait. 

A much smaller exhibition at Felix & Spear, Viewpoints, furnishes a recent example of the resilience of the tradition, still defying the malevolence of the state-art establishment. Organized by Peter Clossick, it displayed one recent work by each of sixteen members of the London Group, of which he is a past president.  Four of these were contemporaries or near-contemporaries as students at Camberwell School of Art between the mid-1970s and the beginning of the 80s: Julie Held, David Tebbs, Susan Wilson and Clossick himself. In picking out these painters, I imply no disrespect for the admirable work of the other exhibitors. But these four are particularly interesting to me in the present context, partly because I am very familiar with their work, but also because they all insist on the importance of the discipline of observational drawing, which was still maintained vigorously at Camberwell when they were students there, although it was already sinking to varying depths of dereliction, corruption, deformation or outright destruction in many, probably most, art schools. From their shared grounding in that discipline has evolved the individuality of quite different, though inter-congenial, artistic personalities – demonstrating that disciplined study, far from flattening individuality, is what supplies the means of realizing it. They have received none of the support, still less the imbecile adulation, lavished on the Hirsts, Emins, Lucases, Creeds etc., but have continued with their serious and life-enhancing work, not in the easiest of circumstances, during the thirty-five years or more since they were at Camberwell. A model for such long-sustained effort could have been provided by one of their most respected mentors there, Tony Eyton, who also had a small painting in the exhibition. Now in his mid-nineties, Eyton has enjoyed considerable success, and  – not only in my opinion – among the most distinguished painters of the last half-century, he continues to be ignored by the state-art establishment.

A small solo exhibition of paintings by Peter Clossick, also at Felix & Spear, will run through May, under the title of ‘Spirit & Matter’, words which evoke Bomberg’s well-known references to ‘the spirit in the mass’. Clossick’s painting immediately brings to mind the work of Auerbach and Kossoff, of that growth within ‘the great tradition’ which owed so much of its strength to the example and teaching of David Bomberg. Far from being a fault or weakness, it is greatly to Clossick’s credit – central to his strength as a painter – that he does not self-consciously will himself to deviate from their example, by seeking novelty for the sake of novelty in a factitious show of differentiating his work from theirs. He knows that, for the painter, true individuality arises, unforced, only from participation in a shared visual culture, which sustains the media of thought within which individuality evolves. His painting embodies an individual sensibility all the more powerfully, because it does not rely on meretricious contrivance. He is not bamboozled by the contemporary crassness that confuses novelty with originality.

We might approach his painting by returning to the understanding of drawing as embodied action, which I endeavoured to elucidate earlier. Of course, if this is right, it is not just true, but, in a broad sense of ‘logical’, logically true – true of all drawing, including smoothly finished presentation drawings, and not only of drawing which ostentatiously exhibits the physicality of its production. It is therefore true of all painting; or, if we wish to exercise pre-emptive intellectual caution, at least of all representational painting. But this necessary truth gains a kind of visually exhibited emphasis or salience in Clossick’s painting. It is as if the painter wants to retain, or reconstitute, the early impulse of drawing in the final painting, the kind of drawing which Augustus John’s ‘note’ brings to mind, in which the action of representing finds an obvious image in the clear trace of physical action in the decisively drawn line.

Typically, space as depicted in Clossick’s painting asserts its significance through the vigour with which it is invoked in the constructed morphology of the paint surface. The thick paint retains the texture which records the movement of the brush or other implement applying it, so that we have a very immediate sense not simply that a complex structure is described as something that was there, but that it has been reconstructed or reimagined in and through the process of making the painting.

Our perception of space has an essential kinaesthetic dimension, and even when we are just sitting still, that element is integrated into our perceptions – at least subliminally – through memory and imagination, as potential movement. An important aspect of Clossick’s painterly idiom is that it enables such potentiality to be made explicit and salient in the construction of the painting itself, in the gestures embodied in the highly worked surface of the paint. Provided that the depicted space is established by the disposition of sufficiently recognizable forms, it is possible for imagined movement through that space to be embodied in gestures that are not constrained by an imperative exactly to follow a specific form, or which, in following it, withdraw from explicit or determinate definition, to register the less focal character of the attention we give to parts of what we perceive. A clear example of this is provided by Clossick’s painting in the group exhibition: Santon, a vertical-format painting of a reclining female nude. She lies back on a bed, or bed-like raised surface with red covering; her feet are towards us, her right leg crossed over her left, the foot approximately touching the virtual picture plane, so that it is life size. Although it is so close to the viewer, however, the foot is remote from the psychological centre of the attention we give to a person, and, being so close, can be – literally – overlooked. Though not in itself the subject of focal attention, it is at the culmination of a powerful visual thrust towards the viewer from the knee, drawn with an emphatic sweeping thick line, or visual pathway, of dark paint, as much movement through space as description of form in space. At its culmination, that movement is turned back into the virtual space, by the equally emphatic and inventive drawing of the foot – or not so much of the foot, which is rendered with conviction but quite indeterminately, as of that counter-movement itself, as if the foot’s significance lies mainly in its being at a major articulation of the spatial construction. The movement is picked up by an emphatic, but depictionally inscrutable, mark running back from us across the surface of the bed, bringing this space defining movement to rest. This complex movement – from the knee, turning at the foot and back to a point on the bed near to the model’s left hip – marks a kind of semi-enclosure in which the space seems to take on a kind of virtual substantiality or ‘density’ of its own – a quality hard to describe but characteristic of Clossick’s painting. 

Movement of many kinds is inseparable from human life in all its aspects, and does, of course, take place in time. But a painting is realized in a static object, and cannot simulate movement or the passage of time. To mention this particular ‘incapacity’ is to remind ourselves that representation is surrogacy in respect of movement no more than in respect of physical objects or space. The representation of movement in painting or sculpture is a big topic. But here, in discussing Clossick’s work, I’m concerned not so much with the representation of physical movement in depicted objects as with the movements of thought or perceptual attention involved in the painter’s engagement with his subject-matter, including, but not confined to, the relatively straightforward example given above of imagined movement through the depicted space.

Clossick usually works on his painting in the presence of its subject, often scraping a painting down at the end of a session, so that only its ‘ghost’ remains when he returns to it. This does not mean that the session was wasted; and the ‘ghost’ serves as the site of further exploration, gathering to itself the memory of what went before and prompting the finer articulation of what is still inchoate. Each session is a stage in the process whereby the painter is getting to know the subject better (including the subjectivity of the human subject), discovering what he thinks about it, gradually bringing into focus his thoughts about its visual and emotional complexity, and finding ways of dealing with them. He tries to reach a point where the perceptual explorations have, as it were, reached a kind of conclusion, and settled themselves into a stable resolution or crystallization which embodies their discoveries and memorializes the process.

The ease of moving between varying levels of representational determinacy is exploited (not necessarily in a highly self-conscious way) in Raft (earlier titled Carol Floating), which depicts an unclothed woman reclining on what appears to be a bed, which is resting on, not to say nestling in, what it’s irresistible to call a ‘sea’ of broad blue brush marks, which can certainly be ‘read’ as water, but can equally be understood to signify the desultory movements of Carol’s dozing mind, projecting an unresolved image of water, as she dreams of being afloat and drifting away. Here it is as if the painter seeks to incorporate the subjectivity of the model in the construction of the painting.

This empathic relationship with his human subjects is revealed in many of Clossick’s paintings. One I particularly admired when I saw it some months ago at the Anna Lovely Gallery is Sophia, a tender, sympathetically observed image of vulnerability, which seems to me to have fully achieved that state of ‘stable resolution’. This painting, in my judgement, is one which exemplifies the virtue and individuality of Clossick’s sensibility especially strongly. It also, incidentally, is one where he seems even closer to Bomberg than to Auerbach or Kossoff. The quality of sympathy is especially important in an earlier painting, the portrait of Trevor Aston, who was a close friend of the painter, a troubled man of some distinction whose life ended tragically.

In conclusion, I return to my starting point in the thought that Clossick seeks to ‘retain or reconstitute the early impulse of drawing in the final painting’. The technique of ‘thick’ painting seems to facilitate that, since it allows for redrawing or additional drawing, even at a late stage, by working freely into the un-dried or semi-dried paint. This engenders a quality of directness equivalent to the directness achieved with ‘drawing materials’. It also accommodates the registration of varying levels of determinacy in the depiction of different elements in the depicted scene, corresponding to the different levels or kinds of attention occurring in our actual experience. In some passages, a close inspection reveals something surprisingly close to line drawing, as in the heads, for example, in Raft and in Santon – drawing which is delicate, and even detailed to perhaps an unexpected degree. Being worked into the surface of the paint, rather than merely superimposed on it, this drawing integrates itself seamlessly into the broad structure of the painting, just as different levels of determinacy come together seamlessly in our perceptions of the world. 


For relative ease of exposition, I’ve written almost entirely about drawing and painting, and I apologize if this has not achieved ease of comprehension. But I think it worth adding a brief postscript about sculpture. For of course, the discipline of drawing is as vital to sculpture as to painting, especially if we make a small and natural extension of the denotation of ‘drawing’. 

It is no longer necessary to enter art galleries to observe directly the consequences of the abandonment of drawing. For some time, public spaces have displayed ‘substitutes for sculpture’, to adapt Augustus John’s phrase, in the form of objects made from body casts, by Marc Quinn and other culprits. In addition to this we now have, in the technology of three-dimensional scanners, another ‘substitute for drawing’, the misuse of which is already polluting public spaces with parodies of sculpture, by such as Mark Wallinger. These ‘sculptors’ are completely untouched by any understanding, intellectual or intuitive, of sculptural form. The very notion seems beyond the grasp of them or their supporters. Wallinger’s ‘sculptures’, for example, have all the sculptural energy of petrified blancmange.