Andre Wallace

Monday, January 25, 2016

Wanted some Avant Garde artists?

Today's 22.1.16 guardian has an article on the listing of public artworks in order to protect them. How this will work is a mystery, as lots of sculptures made of expensive bronze have been stolen over the past twenty years. Henry Moore's work is particularly vulnerable in this regard and several have been spirited away and melted down for the bronze according to the police.
"Historic England has been assessing post-war sculpture across England to build a better picture of the best examples of late 20th century sculptural art works. The exhibition will coincide with the announcement of a number of new listings, and therefore protection, of public art."
There is an interesting summary of the rebuilding of British schools after the second world war and it is apposite to contrast the forward looking ideology of local authority initiatives then as compared to the debt burden of Labours PFI constructions and conceits. To say that this was a more mature  society than that which pertains today is to understate the situation. Local authorities  managed to do it all without saddling the country with huge unsustainable debts being passed on down to the children's children.
Took this powerful exhibition in last week, which was a quiet revelation that didn't detract from the power of some of the imagery which was imaginative and very original. There were intellectual and painterly allusions to Poussin and the Pre-Raphaelites everywhere.

Meanwhile in Sunday's Times Murdoch press Waldemar Januszczak waxes lyrically about this being the year for Wimmin in contemporary art because Charles Saatchi has chosen this notion for his first exhibition of 2016. If only things were that straightforward, and he informs us that Chantal Joffe is now the Professor of Painting at the RA. Never could understand exactly what all the dribbled runny paint is supposed to do for the image? Contrast her figurative work with that of the above artist and ask which one is producing art. Then ask yourself who told you that Chantal Joffe had sufficient gravitas to be appointed professor at the RA by her Peers? Once again it emphasises just how easy it is to be the wrong kind of artist in the UK. Jelena Bulajic appears to have some promise though and her work seems to be dealing with serious issues in this exhibition.

This brings us to the Observer where the ICA supremo Gregor Muir is searching for the most significant avant garde artists of today to go beyond the challenge of the YBAs? Surely shum mishtake? Has he not noticed that avant garde lite is a pile of endlessly recycled and meaningless dross? Well apparently not so because he says: "This institute was founded by artists and enthusiasts as a place to go and make things. The reason for our existence has become more important. What happens to art if you loose that middle ground? What happens to the artist who is not yet a commercial proposition or who makes something with no obvious sales element?"
""It has never been an easy place to maintain – there have always been ups and downs,” said Muir, adding that his job was to continue the debate about what an avant-garde should be. “There is no other major venue prepared to lend its weight to territory so far away from the established view.”"

If he visits the Mall Galleries next door he can answer his own questions. But that is not the entire story; Without succinct, demanding, disciplined and intense art education you can't train any great visual artists. At a time when many actors are moaning about posh boys from Eton's drama dept getting all the good jobs - We see no working artists moaning about the fact that there are no good emerging artists. When did you last go to the ICA to see the cutting edge of art? No neither can we?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Art education and the Ebacc

This weeks post concerns Mr Toby Young, self appointed expert on education and sub editor of the Spectator who has had a pop at Sir Nicholas Serota for criticising the governments marginalisation of art education by dropping it from the so called Ebacc. The politics of this are for others, but I cannot recall the present incumbents ever really having been a friend of the arts. Mrs Thatcher, for instance did enormous damage to the quality of contemporary visual art in the UK. Be that as it may, I would like to post this repost to Mr Young which was published in the Jackdaw.

The Betrayal of Art Education 

"I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name."             William Morris The dream of John Ball 1888.

Plato mentions that youths were trained as painters at Heraclea. During the Middle Ages the training of the fine artist was subject to the Medieval Craft Guilds whilst sculptors were trained as craftsmen by master masons. A Tudor statute of 1437 broke the power of the Guilds, and from the renaissance onwards apprenticeships were the most common form of training artists across Europe. The first academy of art was established at the De Medici court in Florence in 1438 and it led to imitations throughout Italy and France and later Britain. Students were taught to draw from the nude with outline, shading and polished finish. They also drew from the skeleton and and studied anatomy and perspective. Pope Sixtus V established the Academia de San Luca in Rome with studios and debates in 1593 under Zuccaro. The academy model swiftly spread throughout Europe but the Rome academy was the primary centre of pedagogic influence until Paris took over in the 19th century; drawing from life was basic for training artists for 400 years.
The first UK academy was Sir Geofrey Kneller's Academy of Painting and Drawing 1711-1716 in Great Queen Street, London, which counted such artists as Thomas Gibson amongst its founding directors. It was taken over by Sir James Thornhill and in 1738 Hogarth, who had eloped with Thornhill's daughter, set up an academy in St Martin's Lane. His academy provided life models for members but no instruction. The Royal Academy emerged from disputes at the Society of Artists where two architects, Sir William Chambers and James Paine, vied for control of the society. Although Chambers lost control his formal proposal for a Royal Academy was accepted by the King in 1768 and the Royal Academy came into existence with the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds as its President. Entry to the RA school was conditional upon a chalk drawing from the antique cast, an anatomical figure and a skeleton drawing. By the 19th century instruction by the RA keepers, or instructors, was rated as very poor, and students had to be forced to attend the antique drawing class. The RA school was reformed by Lord Frederick Leighton and Poynter in the 1880s as the result of superior skilled artists returning from training in Paris ateliers and the Ecole de Beaux Arts which had been established in 1648. Many private art schools sprang up to train students for entry to the RA school, the Slade and the RCA. They also taught interested amateurs and produced drawing masters for the middle class. The last of these to open until recent times was the Byam Shaw in 1910. The academy system of training had slowly fossilised and as Courbet remarked even the Parisian ones had become mortuaries by 1890. 

The Slade, founded from a bequest for three professors of fine art at Oxford, Cambridge and UCL London in 1871 became renowned for the teaching of drawing.  A S Hartrick asserted that drawing was the study of form and that the expression of form is the end of drawing. The rigid type of drawing in government schools of art was not permitted at the Slade, contour replaced outline, although contour is but one aspect of rendering applicable to sculpture. The Slade's great pedagogic achievement was to establish drawing as the empirical search for knowledge through observation, which superseded the tedious outlining, measuring and shading of the RCA-based government school drawing system. The Slade was one of the few schools dedicated to fine art.  As late as the 1970s it was reported that it would be a tragedy if it lost its independent outlook or crucially Slade draughtsmanship. To see whether it does survive you could check last years students' portfolios online.
Local colleges of art were established throughout the UK by the Mechanics Institutes and Local Institutes of Adult Education in the early 19th century. Local art academies joined with the institutes to teach artisans science, literature and fine art. Instruction was very poor due to a lack of teachers, but despite that, colleges spread to meet the demand from the working class. This picture is further complicated by the history of design training, via the Arts and Crafts movement, the Art Workers Guild, and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. In 1884 a Royal Commission addressed the fact that industrial design had been neglected and in 1886 Walter Crane was invited to lecture in the National Art Training Schools. This began the Arts and Crafts movement and Crane became the director of design at Manchester Municipal School of Art in 1899. His course was annotated and spread by his extremely popular books: Line and form 1900, The basis of design 1898, and The claims of decorative art 1892, which made him the most influential teacher in Britain, particularly in those schools located in main manufacturing centres. He took over the Royal College in July 1898 and formed a design school there in 1901. In 1896 William Lethaby was appointed principal of the Central School of Art in Southampton Row where its Craftwork facilities were superior in quality and range to those of the Royal College. It has been said that without the Central School there could have been no Bauhaus and he employed the very best practitioners in each craft that he could find. He then moved on to the RCA in 1911. 

It was the technical instruction act of 1889 that gave every local council the power to form a technical instruction committee and levy a penny rate tax for a system of art teaching for artisans though ultimately it was for British industry needs. The municipalities took responsibility for teaching art from 1890 and many industrial design schools were renamed as local schools of art. LCC schools established many craft classes following Lethaby's example at the Central School, teaching everything from silversmithing at Birmingham, to lithography, ceramics, printing, enamelling, fabric design and even piano making. The magazine Studio was extremely influential in spreading the range of crafts from Glasgow to London. Municipal art schools were originally intended to develop along lines required by local industry demands though their range was often wider than needs. Manchester Art School was typical. Essential subjects were object and memory drawing, industrial design processes and materials, lettering, drawing from the cast or nature, anatomy, handicraft, flower painting, modelling, drawing from life, animals, plants or birds and architectural drawing taught within a strict hierarchy and progression.

The Board of Education Examination in Drawing was replaced by the Ministries' Intermediate Examination in arts and crafts for which the student submitted a work in craft, a small cast of the human figure, a life drawing, a costumed life drawing, an anatomical figure, a pictorial composition from memory and a general knowledge paper. In 1946 the NDD replaced the final exams in painting, modelling, industrial or pictorial design. Students could choose to specialise in any industrial craft from pottery to dress design. We can mark the decline in visual art provision from the Coldstream Report which set up the DipAD In 1959 which was a well documented severe contraction in provision. Sir William Coldstream chaired the National Advisory Council report to set up the higher standard DipAD to replace the NDD. This required a one year pre-dip or foundation followed by three years of DipAD. As is well recorded many NND students were rejected from DipAD courses in mid-study. The motivation was to drastically cut the number of art students and in 1962-63, 87 colleges and 201 courses applied for DipAD recognition and 29 colleges and 61 courses were given DipAD course approval.

This marked the beginning of the present problems with higher level art education; students started a sit-in at St Martin's which then spread to Guildford and other colleges. The sit-in that the writer experienced at Bristol lasted one afternoon; the College principal made it very clear he would tolerate no dissent. The DipAD was characterised by a lack of teaching and the insistence upon 15% art history and written studies. Many students had already had initial training on NDD courses and just transferred to DipAD alongside the new academic intake and many were just dispensed with. The assumption was made that students were capable of self education and apart from assessment by some hard-headed professional artists with severe pruning of the student body they were pretty much left to their own devices. The writer recalls a first year of DipAd sculpture term when his group were each given a one metre cube of polystyrene and told to get on with it. No prescription, no instruction, the resulting confusion led to several students abandoning the course and 20 students became eight by the end of the first year. The unrest was caused by a number of factors that now appear comic. The main factor was the DipAD entry requirement of five O level GCEs which is now ironically the basic Ofsted results measurement for all secondary schools - so much for grade inflation. Ironic too, that research has since found that the more academically-able students were the least successful as career artists.

The arguments were actually about how to improve art and design education and students declared that the courses they were doing were irrelevant and non-vocational. There was good cause for this, course content and teaching became minimal, relying on diluted basic design theory via Bauhaus expressionist learning by doing. Visiting artists were often irrelevant.  The writer recalls a bemused afternoon spent with Hockney showing films of naked men wrestling which caused outrage among the staff and students. This was the kind of precedent that the Coldstream report set. The bitterness of the Hornsey and Guildford affairs set an example for what was to come. The Coldstream-Summerson working party formed from the National Advisory Council for Art Education and the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design could not satisfy the radical students and teachers of 1968, particularly in that the courses were solely "to stimulate the personal development of the student and not to ensure any level of attainment". There was also the issue of the B courses which were designed to be craft-based and vocational and to produce design technicians to cater for the needs of industry. Professor Misha Black argued that the initiation of the A/B course distinction was a stupid mistake whilst Digby Jacks, the NUS leader, asserted that the assumption that all the design must be vocational was pure British philistinism. At the time it was believed that art and design being absorbed into the general Polytechnic/University system of education was to make scope for Arts Centres to develop at local level. This did not occur. 

In 1913 the Board of Education Teaching Certificate for teachers in art schools was replaced by the Art Teachers' Diploma. In 1933 for colleges of art and universities a written examination called Art Teachers' Certificate (now known as PGCE) was started in University schools of education. The breakdown of the Bauhaus in 1928 spread its teachers across America and Europe, the writer was taught very unconventional life drawing by a former Bauhaus teacher at a municipal art school in the 1950s whilst still at grammar school. It was the Bauhaus which was to break down the barriers between art and art education and this made it the most influential 20th century art school through imitation and dilution of basic design.

The teaching of drawing had started in UK grammar schools in the 1820s, whilst science teaching didn't start there until 1850. By 1850 there had developed a cogent and relevant philosophy for the teaching of art in secondary and primary schools largely through the efforts of Herbert Spencer. It was recognised very early on well before the ubiquitous Howard Gardner, that no subject in a school curriculum had any claim to superiority as a branch of human knowledge. Although the rot set in before New Labour, the Coalition has been very busy creating a profitable privatised state education system. This has been characterised by a retrograde amnesia which permits carpet manufacturers or nightclub owners to determine the content of the free school curriculum and those who know nothing of the precious, hard-won tradition of art educational theory and philosophy to foist upon the population, a utilitarian grad-grind school curriculum free of art. Lord Maclennan of Rogart said in a House of Lords debate on arts education provision in November 2014: "The extraordinary decline in professional arts teaching is something we most seriously regret .....The present secretary of state for education seems to be opposing the arts in favour of science. This is a great mistake, they are not exclusive."  How pathetically little has changed since C P Snow's Rede Lecture of 1959 when he remarked: "Between the two cultures a gulf of mutual incomprehension - sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all a lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can't find much common ground."

Poorly informed arguments for the value of an art education have focussed upon what art is good for and not upon art as a significant cohesive body of knowledge that enables the individual to negotiate symbolic meaning in an increasingly visual world. Many apologists have assumed that arts education should be burdened with any mission statement rather than examining what the actual content of art education consists in.
In the 1970's standard reference on the history and practice of art education Stuart MacDonald wrote as his conclusion "the most fascinating feature of art education is that a method evolves then thrives or decays according to the quality of the products, not the artefacts but the living products, the students." Any brief reflection upon the history of avant-garde art in the UK since 1950 provides ample proof of this depressing fact. One of the hallmarks of higher level art education has been the incipient paranoia of the product. I assert this without any sense of criticism. It is the inevitable result of a wholly defensive attitude to their desired function as an artist. No-one knows where they stand in the contemporary art world diaspora and there are absolutely no navigable maps apart from marketing strategies. Paradoxically, it is the quality of contemporary artefacts upon which controversy is centred and not the people, literally it is "by their fruits that you shall know them."  

University art education is now a top-heavy unsound market. David Barrett says: "It is through business models that we must now analyse art education". What happened to the duty to conserve knowledge or is there no knowledge? Key specialist courses have already been dispensed with. There is a reported decline of 58% in glass and ceramics courses and a 46% drop in crafts-based courses. Huge over-supply of arts graduates has led to employers exploiting the situation by filling the most menial posts with over-qualified and under-paid graduates, to say nothing of the slavery of unpaid internships, the nepotism and the closed social networks. The sector has reportedly become top-heavy with practice-based PhDs as these are more cost effective than foundation studies. This has presented business opportunities for Southbank Wide Open School, Mirza and Butlers Summer School, Open School East, John Reardon's schools, Barbican Art School Lab, Fack Forum, Wysing arts centre retreats, Turps Banana, PDF's School of Global Art and Sotheby's to set up alternative fee-paying art school models without offering any qualification. A current sit-in involving lawyers is taking place at UAL and the university says it is to lose a total of 580 foundation course places over the next two years. Barratt has remarked that "while the ivory towers are developing corporate glass atria suited to nurturing post-doctoral hot-house flowers, it may yet be the organic growth outside the walled garden of academia that will fuel future generations of artists in the UK". Without foundation, where will the PhDs to come from? 

To see where this leads we can examine the US model where several art teachers have been dismissed for refusing to force their students to purchase unnecessary digital textbooks. Zaha Hadid Architects director Patrik Schumacher has called for the abolition of state-funded arts schools, branding them "an indefensible anachronism". He said in Feb 2015: "Schools of art are not justifiable by argument, because contemporary art is not justifiable by argument, i.e. art is itself indefensible. Art is pure provocation. However, public funding should require rational justification in terms of determinate purposes and benefits. It should not be able to rely on a traditional, anachronistic reverence towards "art". Public funding decisions should not rely on an unexplained sense of art's "value" that lingers on even after 100 years of avant-garde efforts to debunk it and laugh it out of existence." This from an architect is to wilfully ignore the relevance of design education to the traces of our manufacturing industry. The purpose is abundantly clear, to push fine art out of the education system permanently. 

In 2008 Seth Siegelaub  defined art as an activity entirely absorbed by capitalism and Pavel Buchler (he who desecrated Eddie Wolfram's work) asserted that art is ruthless business and the last remaining unregulated sector of capitalist enterprise. How the does that help any art lecturer define the content of an art education curriculum? With this casuistic support it is not surprising that art education is at risk of extinction in universities where courses are said to be no longer fit for purpose. The Art Monthly discussion between David Beech and others from June 2014 contains a précis of an intellectual confusion at the heart of art education in our universities. Beech uses Michael Craig Martin as a support for his argument that art education is conceptual art education with this quote: "What's basic for one artist is not basic for another. You cannot have basics." Regardless of the truth or otherwise of this assertion, students have been asking to be taught basics such as how to paint by artists who are unable to teach them. This is the real failure at the heart of Beech's argument; the premise that art education is the creation of fully-formed artists or "market products" who have no complex practical skills set. He confidently asserts that traditional teaching reproduces obsolete theories and formats through the transmission of skills. If this were true and it is not even remotely true, then how did Hockney, Auerbach, Freud, Kitaj, Hodgkin or Moore, along with thousands of others, emerge as artists after an empirically-based academic training by the likes of the great Carel Weight or David Bomberg? 20th century modernism would not have thrived without Gustave Moreau, and the traditional atelier system. For hundreds of years artists had first to acquire the real skills, and then were permitted to experiment. The writer recalls arguments about the primacy of skill as far back as 1964. Beech's argument is further weakened by his summary of technique which he asserts "must be scrutinised, theorised, contextualised and historicised and not simply transmitted." This is totally useless sophistry: technique is one and only one aspect of skill and as such a means to an end. Michael Corris and others have pointed out that without a theory of what art is, the choice of values to be selected and conserved will inevitably be arbitrary. Without it you cannot even make a start on designing a sound curriculum. The confusion exists because the basic empirical content of art education has been slyly ditched as too expensive to run. Crucially there is a culture of indifference at university level. Writing about the necessity for the research assessment that is encouraging the development of PhDs Fiona Candlin, in a Birkbeck research paper, says: "... educational reforms are of great consequence to making art but this does not then imply that managerial recommendations determine the sort of art or theory that is produced. At Council level there is rarely any consideration given to the specific art objects made." So quality is as unimportant today as it was in 1968. All that the Coldstream report achieved was the embodiment of critique and it fostered its growth at the expense of the artwork itself. Yet there is ignorance at the heart of this form of literary theory, for every artist knows that not everything that is knowable can be articulated in language. "The limits of cognition are not defined by the limits of language", as Eliot Eisner said. To separate language and image is confused and mistaken, for to embody a meaning in a form is to give rise to new non-propositional knowledge. It is this that artists and educators should have been fighting for since Summerson but they have failed at every level of provision to defend it. As David Marquand says in criticism of our current hedonist culture, "the notion that the wisdom of the past can illuminate the ethical dilemmas of the present seems to them absurd and dangerous. For them there is no such wisdom. The past was steeped in ignorance and error. Its teachings belong in the dustbin of history."  How intelligent is that, given the evidence of today's US or UK art school product who is in essence no more than a dilettante? 

Art educationalists have been in many respects their own worst enemy; they have allowed their concerns and practice to be used and abused by all kinds of issues, yet their relevance to the curriculum is more basic than IT, sociology or media studies. Jan Jagodzinski listed these concerns that art education has been used to promote in US schools: "Contributors include arts-based educational research, electronic media interest group, committee for lifelong learning, caucus of lesbian gay and transgender issues, caucus on the spiritual in art education, design issues group, museum education division, design special-needs committee, multi-ethnic concerns, caucus for social theory in art education, etc." Things are not that different in the UK, and readers can probably find examples from their own experience. In pursuit of student popularity teachers and lecturers have generated and exploited dozens of irrelevant approaches and issues to engage students lacking any basic ability to draw. Art education has been seen as a convenient peg on which to hang anyone's social work and the blame for this passive acceptance lies firmly at the door of state conceptual art and the undesirable result that it has had upon the university product. 
Sir Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington College, has said of schools: "Students should come to understand the history of art from the classical world to Tracey Emin. Doing so will give them the means to enjoy and understand art and architecture - the environment that they live in - throughout their lives." The open threat to UK state school art education is exemplified by an article from the Telegraph in November 2014 where the education secretary Nicky Morgan asserted that: "Schoolchildren who focus exclusively on arts and humanities-style subjects risk restricting their future career path." There little evidence that art teachers are arguing their corner against oncoming cuts in provision at all levels of the system. This may be due to the mass of press coverage from the great and the good who have stuck their heads above the parapet but it is also symptomatic of the cavalier behaviour of school or college employers who need to be reminded constantly that in spite of their competitive business ethics they actually work for a student's education. It has become routine to sack art staff in ill-considered reforms and management replacement in state and public schools because often the decisions are made by managers with no background in education. Grad-grind targets deliberately belittle people and their access to holistic educational values. Business ethics have been foisted with Stalinist zeal upon all aspects of the education system. Single-minded results-driven management teams have been discouraging students from studying GCSE art in order to improve their school's position in league tables for some time, certainly since the mid-1990s. Weak institutions which insist upon the measurement of everything breed dishonesty. Endemic Stalinist psychological profiling is capable of measuring nothing apart from the ethical, moral and cognitive compromises of the text box writer or the examiner. Examination systems are certainly not capable of assessing art. Cheating has become accepted and endemic throughout the entire system, no-one is permitted to fail, but in truth the entire system is designed to fail people. And yet any art education should be the transmitter of integrity, morality and ethical right thinking. A consortium of organisations recently declared that, of schoolchildren receiving free school meals, more than a quarter have ditched subjects such as art, music and photography at GCSE level because the equipment associated with these subjects was too costly. Furthermore, of those children from low-income families who did take such subjects, the survey found that some ended up with lower grades because they had inferior equipment. It is always the poor who are cheated, particularly when Banksy is used for their art source material. Meanwhile, public school art departments go on teaching to a high standard but even here they cannot afford draughtsmen.
The Harland Report 2000 and the Henley Report 2012 have recorded the demotion of art from the core school curriculum. The Harland Report documented the fact that more outside agencies were being involved in providing extra curricula artists which in the 1990s were being funded by begging letters. The writer remembers writing numerous begging submissions for lottery or other funds extra to LA provision for Kathak dancers or theatre groups. This has resulted in patchy provision throughout the country and crucially art teaching is totally dependent upon the largesse of the antipathetic priorities of diminished LAs, Heads or specialist teachers. The Henley Report effectively downgraded the status of art in the school and legitimised the consensus that art can be subsumed under cultural education. This betrayed the fact that no-one in government or the creative industries seems to know what visual art is because (a) there is so little good art being promoted (b) little art is being taught. The teaching of objective drawing has declined considerably since the 1980s despite being enshrined in the National Curriculum because it requires discipline. To say that this puts the future at risk is an understatement.
So now we are at a wake which has yet to register. The Warwick Commission recently published their research Enriching Britain, Culture, Creativity and Growth, by Professor Jonothan Neelands from the Warwick Business School and Dr Eleonora Belfiore from the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies. In particular, the report notes that a significant number of pupils do not study any arts subject at GCSE. They say: "Education and skills, along with talent development, are key levers for social and cultural change and are vital if we are to achieve the triple win of a more diverse and representative Cultural and Creative Industries Ecosystem, powering greater innovation and growth, and full participation by all in our cultural life."  How many times have we read this and how very little changes? Yet every student has the right to a balanced curriculum. The Warwick Commission's key recommendations are these: 
  • That there should be an arts and culture premium for disadvantaged students to match the £45 million sports premium because the UK values football more than it does the arts.
  • All employers in the creative industries in receipt of public funds or tax breaks must support college and schools career pathways. 
  • That Ofsted should insist on schools providing embedded art to age 16.
  • The patchwork of commercial and public arts education centres should be mapped and co-ordinated to match demand and need.
  • Lastly the creation of a digital public space free from commercial and political interference to form a cultural library and resource retaining all the UK's cultural and artistic assets.
They quote the inevitable fashionable localism: "The challenge for the arts cultural and heritage sectors is to bring people from communities together in ways that reflect their identities and creative aspirations in a manner that can have a lasting impact on local society." Those who assert that the alternative to art education lies with new technology, should ask themselves what the student is actually learning from its use. 

In the new privatised education business, funding is being targeted very precisely away from expensive arts and crafts at all levels. The golden era of art education is dying and collective loss of memory rules from primary schools to Tate Britain. I can find no attempt to record or learn anything from those often great artists and art advisers who created a golden age. An emphasis upon drivel is ruining the entire field, typically: " A UK-wide competition is asking primary school children to think about what art means – using a toilet sculpture." (Exemplar by Korean artist Do Lo Suk and not Duchamp.) Launched by Artis, the competition challenges children and teachers to move beyond the idea that art is just a picture on the wall and respond to the question: “What is art?” This art-free nonsense is typical of precious time totally wasted, even worse - what does it actually say about the value of art?
Claire Fox said in the TES recently, "... arguments for arts as the ‘sixth pillar’ of STEAM appear self-serving and instrumentalist. They exaggerate the ‘risks’ of excluding the arts from the Ebacc, less out of a concern with the quality of children’s education than a desire to defend the interests of the cultural sector. In fact, the refusal to include arts in the Ebacc could be seen as an opportunity for a major revision of the role of the arts in schools". This is dissembling - all students have a basic human entitlement to access to at least one arts subject as part of a balanced education. Most third world countries aspire to achieving that status. Unesco argues that quantitative and qualitative data show that arts education can enhance extensive development of students such as aesthetic, socio-emotional, cognitive skill and academic development.
Carefully targeted access to a wide range of practical experience of making art is needed, but that demands from the educationalist a very firm understanding of what art is which does not always exist. If you have dispensed with aesthetic experience, you cannot teach anyone how to embody meaning in a form. To pretend otherwise is to betray the students.  Any educationalist visiting Tate Modern immediately comes up against ethical and moral problems of trying to convince their students that what they are looking at is in truth art. Students see through the obvious contradictions quickly and teachers cannot bluff without compromising their integrity.  Placing a rationale and validity of art and design education in the realm of conceptual art or naked capitalism removes any shreds of legitimacy it may have retained at any level of provision.

Content is the most significant bête noir of contemporary art as it is not just the poorly considered content of art education that is a problem. The content issue is the result of a divorce between the image and its purported meaning. There has probably never been a more serious time than now, to review the true value of visual art in education and its economic significance. Yet the 2014 NSEAD Manifesto does not do this, it repeats the tired old platitudes and mantra about the nature of art and design practice. It mentions little about rationale, content or even the reasons art education is significant for all.  The NSEAD document talks about a world-class forward-looking art and design curriculum that fosters a broad range of thinking, visual perception and visual awareness at a time when avant garde lite is dying on its feet from boredom and repetition. It also mentions making sound judgements about quality, values and meaning when this is impossible for most of the teachers trained in the past 25 years of art school critiques. Many insist that students at all levels must be exposed to what is relevant now, but why when they know little about the art of the past? Unquestioned beliefs about the relevancy of contemporary art (which in reality can be viewed as supremely irrelevant to most people's existence) are not very helpful in understanding what art is. We inhabit a completely aberrant and sick visual art culture. The result is that indoctrination has to occur everywhere from the poorest art department to the pages of the Guardian because no one will question state art as a viable basis for education values. Yet if art education is to be relevant to future generations it has to be through a concern with values, with excellence and with sheer quality. What is desperately required is an argument for the intrinsic value of art based upon value. Visual art is not about socially convenient constructs such as wealth, status, gender or discrimination, it has everything to do with the basics of life and death that are intrinsic to the human condition and this is where its relevancy to education lies.  Stanislaw Frenkiel wrote in 1982: "If art represents a realm of knowledge such knowledge has relevance to education through its concern for quality and excellence."  But how can this be taught?
The art as a language position is untenable. It assumes that you cannot teach art, despite the fact that visual art was taught for hundreds of years. James Elkins, who promotes this position, asserts that the problem with art world critiques is that "nobody knows what the terms of the judgements are." Critiques end up using the word "interesting" which is not a judgement. Elkins arcanely describes himself as a professor "who tries to prove to the world that he does not have to know what he is doing." What artistic and intellectual values does that statement represent?
This is what the NSEAD propose when they put forward an art and design curriculum that embraces "the historic, the contemporary, and the future". During the 1980s an imposition upon art teachers' autonomy occurred in UK schools through the enforcement of appreciation and criticism via the US/DBAE model. Making and creating was carelessly relegated to the status of a craft where it now is used as a term of insult. This enforced regression was enshrined in a national curriculum written by an archaeologist in 1982. One can assert that this can be viewed as the first step to disable the teacher's autonomy and impose centrally-directed knowledge.  "Conceptual art is entirely word-bound. It is, in fact, the kind of art that is exhausted in its verbal description."  (Alexander Stoddart, sculptor.)  It is also extremely cheap in art materials.  The writer felt at the time that this was a state attack upon his own value system.  Good teachers speak from their own value set; imposing Hunderwasser's artwork upon a teacher who has no respect for the artist was and is counter-productive.

As Louis Arnaud-Reid argued: "Making art is an aesthetically absorbing activity, where the making and contemplation of what has and is being made is enjoyed for its own sake and qua aesthetic for no extraneous reason."  This one suspects is why utilitarians are so keen to remove it from the curriculum. But there is of course much more to art than this, there are embodied values, meanings, ideas, expressions and historical insights. Yet no-one can discuss the knowledge content, but everyone at all levels of the art education system are dealing with distorted theories of value. A rationale for teaching art demands a complete re-examination of the knowledge and values that are being inculcated and - particularly - why. Weak and poor teachers are confused and descriptive, they spend hours discussing that which their faulty judgement system conflates as being of equal value to everything else. They openly declare and argue that anything can be art. Little wonder that they can live in confusion with art as unteachable and therefore unlearnable. Ironically, this does not stop them from practising as art lecturers but it is no teacher's bounded duty to legitimise kitsch because hedge fund managers buy it.

In 1984-5 Simon Frith was able to write that in Britain every small town has its own art school supported by the LCC, now they are almost all long gone. As David Barratt has reported: "The crisis in fine art higher education is nothing as compared to art and design's trouble in further education as the stand-alone provincial art school and institution of creative training long accessible to outsiders, misfits and all manner of local square pegs is squeezed out of government budgets." Local art schools are also a measure of the cultural value that has been lost in the attack upon local government. Despite countless cultural reports and the millions spent, will art in education vanish completely, because it provided a lone secure path for working-class students to gain a creative education or a craft training? Will Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, come to represent the interment of the once great tradition of UK art education? Sarah Selwood in 1996 raised the point that we know nothing about the long term careers of art students and whether they are satisfied with the careers that they make for themselves. This wasn't answered then and it still isn't known in 2015. 

Harold Osborne wrote this obituary for Louis Arnaud-Reid:  "If we owe anything to the future and this is the meaning and implication of educating the young - then it is our duty to work for the continued progress of the race in sensibility, feeling and intelligence ..... By giving preponderance to utilitarian and materialistic aims, man cramps his own mind and nature and proceeds backwards undoing all the advances that he has made." In 1982 Reid's "Arts in Schools" report for the Gulbenkian foundation recommended the establishment of a National Council for Arts Education with the express purpose of protecting art at all levels of the education system. Arnaud-Reid recognised that the experience of making art was a kind of love affair with the real world, and from this transaction comes a new creation. This, he frequently asserted, is how we come to know what art is. He would never have accepted that an art education was merely educating students in art. The visual arts give us an incredibly precious gift when they reflect the world back upon us. They are the true measure of a civilised society, and that is also to acknowledge the critical importance of craft and design to the industrial future of the nation.

L A Reid's generation and their hard-won tradition have been betrayed by the utilitarian domination of contemporary art and art education for specious business ends. Very high quality art education products are absolutely key to our countries future, and the state has a duty to fund them.

©  2015

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

New Year Blues

2016 will, like 2015, prove a trying year for the whole world, and it looks as if it's starting badly. Outside the window, as I type this, storm Frank is battering the UK, the result we are told, of global warming and El Nino. Which prompted the thought "Why are artists now so unwilling to engage with the real issues of the day?". Is it because they are more worried about loosing sales than the significance of the content of their work?

With serious issues in mind Laura Cumming in this week's Observer tackles rubbish. The exhibition in question is B Wurtz recycled rubbish. So we learn that ; "Born in Pasadena, California in 1948, he has been making and showing these wry and softly spoken sculptures for more than 40 years, during which time many people have assumed that he was, variously, a woman, a collective, or a parody of Marcel Duchamp (with B Wurtz as a skit on R Mutt, the signature on Duchamp’s urinal). But he is genuine, solo and apparently answers to the real name Bill."
So interesting isn't it, how the mere mention of the 'sainted Marcel' puts the conceptual dampers on the entire right on sustainable enterprise. Laura tries hard to sound enthusiastic; "If some of Wurtz’s works are too exiguous to have much staying power, there are occasions when the object and the idea come together to haunting perfection. "
So starting the year as we mean to go on, how depressing is that?  With recycled rubbish - surely the true realm of every below average art student, and skip diver but hardly worthy of the attention of the much promoted and exalted Baltic?