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"Als Ich Kan" (2007-11) by Jacob Willer 

How much do people know of what goes on in art schools nowadays, of what constitutes an education in, and for, art? Very little, I suspect, for even I, who had decided that art would be my life's occupation, knew next to nothing of it when I was preparing to enrol for art school. I wanted to learn to paint, and by visiting museums I knew how far I had to go; I wanted especially to be taught by those further on in life who shared my enthusiasms and ambitions. I never met such a teacher, despite my studying at one point or another in four different schools. At the first, for a foundation course, I lasted two days. Those days were enough to convince me I had nothing to gain by being there. By the time I had entered what was to be my final school, three years later and for a three-year degree course, I was no longer so naive; I knew what to expect, but I supposed — foolishly, it turned out — that it would be better, or at least would look better, if I were to finish something I had begun.

I didn't learn a single thing there that would be of use to me, or anyone else, becoming an artist. Thankfully I was then old enough, and familiar enough with the great art of the past, to be protected by experience from accepting the doctrines of the school. To others, though, these doctrines, and the attitude they encourage, are more damaging, and I watched as they effectively smothered the sparks of talent. My years in art school did serve to expose me to a sort of person, and a sort of thinking, that I would not otherwise have met; it was against these that I began to define all I valued. Now, years later, I have tried to consider my experience with more detachment, in order to characterise the ways by which art is too often taught.

Most of the famous art schools have a history of over a hundred years. Many of these schools once took students through a sequence of exercises intended to develop their facility and attune them to the manners and masteries of the past. Students copied successful designs, drew from casts and studied anatomy; then, having acquired the appropriate skills, they would move on to drawing, and eventually painting from, the live model. This has now all changed, yet the schools have kept their premises and names, and one of them, to the annoyance of its staff, still has a brass plaque on the door that reads "School of Drawing". This school, for the first year students at least, still runs a course called "Drawing"; perhaps there is a sense of duty to that plaque, but the tasks set are made sure to undermine its proud claim. One week there might be "drawing" with a pin, which means poking holes in a sheet of A4 in any pattern the student may choose. For the next week, it might be string, instead of pins, which can be hung in or strewn across a room. I remember only once when drawing meant pencil on paper, after observation; on this occasion the students were bounced in a bus over speed bumps, from which they were asked to draw an impression of the industrial wastelands that passed them at the windows, their hands shaken by the diesel engine.

This same school is, as far as I know, the last still to offer a compulsory anatomy course. But it skims over studying the skeleton, and the major muscle groupings, as the briefest preliminary — or pretext — so that it can rush the students to a medical school where they will draw from human cadavers in various stages of dissection. They are left to peer into dead bodies, with no idea how to distinguish tissues, let alone understand their function — but they would have no chance of usefully drawing tissues anyway, because they do not know how to draw an apple on a table, unless by private study. Clearly this anatomy course is not offered for practical improvement of the students' pictures — especially since most of the students would never even try to make a picture. No, the unspoken aim is to effect an emotional response. This is no more than a presumptuous, indeed impertinent confrontation with death.  

Every art school now runs a course in history of art, but such courses are coming to be called "visual culture" instead. You might assume the ostensible purpose of such courses is to ground the students' thoughts in artistic tradition, in the best precedents; but in fact they try for the opposite. Old art is not to be appreciated in its own right; it is made merely to serve as justification for whatever the teachers actually value. In my course the first lecture was the only one to mention an artwork from before the 20th century. It was Botticelli's Primavera, and it was projected beside a Jeff Koons basketball. There was an hour-long argument which somehow turned Botticelli into an excuse for Koons. The details now escape me, probably because they made little sense anyway, but the conclusion was clear: modern art, or contemporary art, despite appearances, is the same thing as old art, just a bit cleverer, since having been liberated from duty. Naturally, after this there was no need to look at old art ever again.

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Nelson Ferreira
December 30th, 2016
5:12 AM
Totally my experience in the late 90s at the Fine Arts college - I was lucky enough to have a couple of teachers who taught painting but the majority of the tutors attacked whoever painted. The moto back then was 'Painting is dead!' and the art university would drumroll the ever boring, essentially non-visual, pseudo-linguistic, conceptualist approach to art. Their definition of art is so disturbed that most art from before the 20th century and from non-western cultures would not be considered art at all! A lot of my painter friends from across the world went through this brainwashing and abusive bashing of their artistic call and gifts. Excellent article, it takes us straight back into the nihilist art school environment of the 90s and after (please note: this article does not apply to the reemerging world of classical artist ateliers). Shared!

July 31st, 2016
11:07 AM
Jacob Willer you then have never met my artist

February 16th, 2016
1:02 AM
So none of this applies to Ateliers (see ARC Renewal Center) so you still can learn art the same way the old masters did and there are three BFA programs in the the U.S. that teach that way and many more around the world. Most of the Ateliers are not degree granting, however.

May 30th, 2015
9:05 AM
You get out of it what you put in. Ask anyone, who taught you to make art - it's more who inspired them on their path to be creative. The myth is that you can't be taught to be creative, you have to do this on your own and the art school provides a structure and foundation to experiment, play around like minded people as you work out your skills for yourself. A good art school has everything available for you to try, all different aspects of art and design, it enables you to explore your ideas and creativity. It doesn't give you a map, it plonks you in the centre of it with directions.

September 6th, 2013
3:09 AM
Well written... i gotta say i chuckled outloud when i read "violated canvas" that was good. And its very sad that there is art in all mediums... painting performance sculpting writing designing digital layouts what have you, all deserve respect but none are being pushed to the background as much as painting, and as a painter it is disheartening and inspiring all at the same. When you mentions painting to someone theyre response 9 times out of ten retreats to history and some figure of importance as if paintings are some lost relics of the creative space. If its not morphing shape and color on a screen with music being played by horns made of old corn cobs being played by motion sensors attatched to timing triggers its not anything. And as a person who loves original artworks you cant knock the player you gotta knock the direction the games being manipulated into view by i dont know... whoever haha. But nowadays anyones got a plagform to have theyre artwork see if they want. And hopefully chna sooner rather than later will have full access to the whole of it.

Russ Coleman
March 29th, 2013
1:03 AM
I couldn't agree more. This mirrors my experience in the early nineties. The institution I applied to was an art department of a Further Education College that had changed to a Polytechnic in my fist year and was a University by the time I gained a degree. The old guard who believed in media and technique were retired out and replaced by tutors who didn't know one end of a screwdriver from the other and would proudly proclaim such, (they were supposed to be teaching me sculpture) When standing my ground and stating that I was a sculptor using plastic mediums to explore a visual language in an attempt to communicate what I was not able to communicate verbally. I was accused of being reactionary, over skilled, and an inverted snob. I was given a years grace when in my second year I was chosen as a "New Contemporary" a big deal at the time. My third year was executed at a distance from the inner circle of favourites. Whats the opposite of positive reinforcement? In the 20 years since I left art school the course has shut down but others have sprung up with tutors who are the progeny of those who taught in the early nineties who are at one more step removed from making and doing. Stack em deep took over and expensive workshops and technicians are a thing of the past, health and safety became a cover all excuse for a lot of cut backs and under funding. I still hit rock draw on paper and cast bronze though. Thanks for a great article and a reaffirmation of what I observed as well.

March 7th, 2013
8:03 AM
art schools only like ugly, stupid and sometimes, bad, art. Beautiful painting? Nope. You'll be laughed out of town. Go back to the masters, that's my advice.

Steve McQueen
October 6th, 2012
2:10 PM
Interesting article. This debate around what is taught has been running for a long time. I was at art school in the mid 80's and none of my tutors in Fine Art had empathy with non-painting. That is one thing, but my concern as someone now responsible for encouraging young people to apply for art school is the lack of practical disciplines and structured context to practice and ideas. In this I think Mr. Willer is on the money, best summed up in his paragraph on the 'anatomy lesson'. Art School produces a lot of arrogant and half-informed ideas and in a jaded world accurately reflects society, which is the point, many would argue. I would disagree. Just as most of my tutors were self-absorbed and unsympathetic in the 1980's, the problem persists. It seems that the (art)culture encourages laissez-faire. Still, while I wasnt taught much, it was a great experience and environment for some of the right and some of the wrong reasons.So long as you can hack it.

Bob Clyatt
October 6th, 2012
1:10 PM
Wonderful analysis and wonderfully written. What is intriguing to me is where this sludge meets the marketplace, and how it is 'sold' to a sophisticated, wealthy collecting public. Or not. Intriguingly there is a new class of gallery and collector emerging (in the US at least) looking for the "re-skilling" of art, for art that somehow bridges classical training and yet still speaks with a contemporary voice. No one should be interested in merely re-creating past masters' work except as a learning step, but taking that foundation and somehow mashing or meshing it together with Now is opening up some exciting new possibilities. Don't doubt yourself and don't give up!

October 5th, 2012
12:10 PM
Check out "Art School Confidential" by Daniel Clowes (the comic is better than the movie):

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