Don’t Go to Art School if you Want to Learn to Paint

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.

With obligatory courses in drawing, anatomy, and history, it might seem that all is well, that the traditions hold. But these terms are used only to ridicule tradition, by making them mean anything they are not. It is deliberate, and quite clever. For example, the brochure of one prestigious art school reads:

The course… encourages you to test the boundaries of drawing practice… You will be asked to explore drawing as an end in itself as well as a means for exploring other modes of art practice such as sculpture, installation, performance and film … the course offers a distinct approach to drawing fine art practice.  

“Test the boundaries of drawing” means to do anything but drawing. Exploring drawing “as a means for exploring other modes of art practice such as sculpture, installation, performance and film” really means dissolving drawing into everything else, and calling everything else drawing, until drawing has been redefined, and defined out of existence — till it can mean pins and strings and bus-rides. A “distinct approach to drawing” indeed, but sadly, it is “distinct” in many art schools today.

My head of painting did writing, albeit on canvas, and the head of sculpture did performances which he sometimes filmed. I remember a fellow student once “testing the boundaries” of painting, and no doubt using it to “explore other modes of art practice”, by hanging a torn blank canvas on the wall through which protruded a pink plastic vibrating penis. I found it impossible not to laugh as we were gathered to contemplate this “piece” and the head of the school pronounced that it had a certain pathos. But, comedy aside, note that paint was nowhere involved, although this was the painting term. The violated canvas was judged a sufficient reference to the accoutrements of painting, and irreverent enough to be passed as “painting” — and four full weeks’ painting at that.

All my anger wells when I read that devious phrase: “You will be asked to explore…” You won’t be asked; you will be compelled. This is no secret. On my foundation course, when I was being prepared to enter a degree course, the teachers explicitly warned me not to say at interview that I wanted to be a painter. I must say that I am ready to be led away in “new media”. These days, if you apply to an art school and declare that all your thoughts are directed towards art, all your travels are made in pilgrimage to art, and suggest that all you ever want to do is paint well so as to make even the slightest contribution to a tradition, you will not gain admission. I didn’t say all that; I lied, as I was coached to do. But then I found that if you actually go ahead and draw and paint in an art school, things will become difficult. Art schools have always fostered cliques with agendas and, as a result, have been known for bullying. (I have met painters of older generations, still resentful decades on, who felt they were persecuted in their own day at art school simply for preferring to paint from imagination rather than observation — of course, were they at art school today, their old foes would be their firmest allies, united against the rule of those who refuse altogether anything to do with painting.) I was always assigned awkward spaces to paint in, away from natural light (significantly, painting was mostly confined to the basement). And my spaces were often encroached upon, sometimes even at the suggestion of teachers, because pictures are small and flat — and trivial, by implication — compared to installations and the space needed to stage a performance. One encroachment on the corner allocated for my painting resulted in a bottle of oil smashed in my bag, ruining materials and many of my drawings. I began to argue with the school’s authorities whether it wouldn’t be better for everyone if I painted at home instead.

The art school brochures, inevitably, tend to waffle about tolerance, and diversity. I hope I have shown that this diversity is not lauded for its use in the artistic development of students, but primarily because it is an effective weapon in the decimation of artistic traditions, and this seems to be one of the unstated, and perhaps even unconscious, aims of our art schools now. It is so effective because it is stealthy. Undermine, subvert, and displace traditions on their own terms, and few will be bothered to notice — fewer still if you use more jargon; an outright assault would at least cause some debate.

Not that an outright assault would be on anyone’s mind today. The teachers’ attitude is casual; they themselves are not radicals, but they are the complacent heirs to very successful radicals. One need only read the passionate but cynical manifestos of the early Modernists, developed over a century ago, to find the modern art schools’ ideological heritage; in those manifestos there is no pretence of tolerance, and there is boasting, instead of denial, of the most destructive ambitions. In 1909 Marinetti wrote: “We wish to destroy museums, libraries, academies…” and “What on earth is there to be discovered in an old painting other than the laboured contortions of the artist…?” And: “Divert the canals so they can flood the museums!… Oh, what a pleasure it is to see those revered old canvases, washed and tattered, drifting away in the water!… Grab your picks and your axes and your hammers and then demolish…” It would be absurd for our art schools to make or support such exclamations now — not just because tolerance is fashionable, not just because they would risk losing their funding, but mainly because many of the manifesto’s calls have, at least sentimentally, been satisfied far more thoroughly than Marinetti would really have hoped. Today’s art teachers are young; very few over 45, and they were taught just as they now teach. They are not, like their forebears, agitators for ugliness, because ugliness has won. It was one thing to be ideologically opposed to aesthetic pleasure (Marinetti: “There is no longer any beauty except the struggle.”); it is quite another to assume dispassionately that such pleasing was regular and easy; the favourite saying of a teacher of mine was “Beware of beauty!” — as if beauty lurked round corners ready to pounce. This is much more disturbing than any mere provocative pose, like Marinetti’s, because it suggests a profound distance from our tradition and the values it once embodied, and that those values now seem so foreign as to be not worth understanding at all. These teachers are sentimentally radical, and by ethos anti-traditional; rebellion may as well be their motto, but they have never had anything to rebel against, having for long been in authority themselves. In order to go on, they have to blind themselves to the fact that what is rebellious now is to love old art, not to ridicule it. In discussions I tried to argue the absurdity of their position, that there is nothing left for them to subvert; that all I had ever heard was from them and others like them, so for me to think differently must be a sign of independence and imagination, not indoctrination — I was alone, they were legion. Couldn’t they see? No, I needed to “open my mind”. And there are all sorts of snobbery at play here too. For them it is only a certain sort of person, or class of person, that still bothers to look at old art. And surely this sort of person only does it to reassure himself of natural privilege. As far as these teachers know, there is no such thing as an honest response to art. They will already be suspicious if you achieved good grades in academic subjects, and if you speak in competent sentences. They are not that sort of person, and they loathe that sort of person — unless, of course, he has come to buy their artworks.

How has this come to be? There is a well-known anti-historical tendency common to all the humanities. When art schools began to move into universities and offer degrees, certainly they were more exposed to a post-modern contagion. But there is also something special about the symptoms shown in art faculties. We have seen that they cultivate a now tired rebellious pose. How has this pose been held for so long?

Modern art had always been flirting with outlandish theories, through its many blustering -isms. By the turn of the 20th century the appreciative vision was no longer available to the modern artist; instead he had to shatter and shunt spaces, distort forms impulsively according to his darkest submerged feelings, or aspire to the condition of a machine — all this done to assert his convictions. The move of art into the university, mid-century, was then a consummation: there was no going back to that innocent age of smiling paint on canvas; art was now grown up, and it should be argumentative, political, commanding. To justify this new position of responsibility, the art curriculum has tended to exaggerate its intellectual claims. A brochure declares that the teaching staff’s duty is “to help you understand how [your work] contributes to, and challenges, the critical debates that exist in the study area and beyond”. It is not, then, their duty to teach painting, say, or sculpture, but to convey to you your vital place in a series of academic quibbles, and if possible ones which extend beyond art into grander spheres of subversion. This is important, this desire to escape the land of art, because it betrays a certain anxiety about art’s status, or at least about its lowly artisanal ancestry. When another school proclaims to “support the discourse around painting, sculpture and fine art media”, it really wants to say that it exorcises this anxiety. Supporting that discourse is not the same as supporting painting or sculpture; quite the opposite, since the discourse will be a deconstruction of the very worth of painting or sculpture, a disqualification even, in order to announce the new “fine art media” which have little to do with art, nothing fine about them, and, to the uninitiated, wouldn’t seem to be media at all.

This anxiety has its practical manifestations too. I believe that it is, perhaps even more than the rebellious pose, responsible for the common disdain for painting. I have seen and heard of sinks — used for the washing of brushes and disposal of spirits — being systematically removed from art school studios, to discourage painters or drive them elsewhere. But most extraordinary was a new rule I heard had been recently implemented: no room was allowed to contain more than a certain small number of easels — as if the very sight of this painters’ tool brought painful memories.

And then there are the brochures. One school outlandishly describes the activity it offers as “intensive studio and research laboratory practice”. And this isn’t an anomaly, because another school claims that it “…approaches the study and practice of art in an enquiring, investigative, experimental and research-minded way”. Remember there are no hadron colliders here; probably just enlarged slogans, photographic clippings, toys, and maybe some planks piled against a wall. The appropriation of scientific language reveals more than pretentiousness, or childish fantasy, or arrogance, or desperation to be taken seriously. It is also an inadvertent admission that art is held in no esteem at all, and excuses must be made for it. Giotto, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt — they didn’t need excuses, because their art spoke for them. And in their days, no one could have worried that art was stupid.

Curiously, though they play at intellectualism, the art schools proudly deplore all discipline. This is not just because craft, as we have seen, seems pitifully humble; the schools also subscribe to some romantic clichés which will no doubt be familiar (all of these clichés can be traced back to Marinetti, and in so many other following manifestos; but they must actually have been in currency long before because Reynolds had already thought to satirise them in his Ironical Discourse of 1791, in which he presciently imagined how art might come to be taught were the sillier Romantics to win out). They take it for granted that art is a matter of self-expression, that self-expression relies on instinct, and that instinct is not only the opposite of practice but is actively harmed by it. To them, virtuosity is vacuity. Both teachers and students must guard their ignorance, because it is the root of their special powers of expression. And they are quite sure of their specialness. My class was given an introductory talk, a welcome to the school, which invited us to think of ourselves as hypersensitive critics of society with the ability to flit across its borders. We weren’t to be suckers, like all the rest trudging off to work, because we would be led by our extra artistic feelings to reveal how things really are. It was asserted that dyslexia, or even just normal academic underachievement, were good indicators of this hypersensitivity.

According to this line of thought, which assumes that an artist is born and not made, and that passing the interview for admission to art school is the mark of a born artist, there can be nothing particular to be taught. The schools’ job is rather to guide the students on a course of self-discovery; it is essentially therapeutic. One school admits: “Our aim is to help you develop the necessary self-motivation and confidence in your work…” Another: “The individual nature of student’s [sic] studies is at the heart of the course, with students negotiating with tutors how they wish to develop and manage their own learning.” This might sound fair enough, but what do the students take from it? In all schools, this therapeutic programme is formally carried out in tutorials and “crits”, whereby the students confess, to one teacher or a group of their teachers and peers, their inspirations and goals and the progress of their thoughts. Those I saw who enjoyed attention loved this ritual, and were forthcoming about their dreams, their disappointments, even perversions, many of these no doubt fantasised. All of this emphasis on the personal led inevitably to the stereotypical. Every Indian art student I came across ended up making piles of rice or spices, every Japanese drew huge-eyed cartoons, and every student who had genuinely suffered recently would splatter red paint for blood, or scream.

The irony is that the sort of spontaneous discoveries which art schools advocate in place of disciplined practice actually occur most often during disciplined practice, as Ruskin demonstrates in The Elements of Drawing:

…as you draw trees more and more in their various states of health and hardship, you will be every day more struck by the beauty of the types they present of the truths most essential for mankind to know; and you will see what this vegetation of the earth, which is necessary to our life, first, as purifying the air for us and then as food, and just as necessary to our joy in all places of the earth — what these trees and leaves, I say, are meant to teach us as we contemplate them, and read or hear their lovely language, written or spoken for us… [in] sweet whispers of unintrusive wisdom, and playful morality.

Practice provokes new thoughts by the surprise of the wonderful variety of everything, and these thoughts grow ever subtler. Could the sympathy so evident in Ruskin’s peerless writing on nature have been achieved had he not spent years making meticulous drawings of nature’s smallest features? Do we imagine that an artist whose teachers taught him only to find “the necessary confidence in his work” could find “sweet whispers of unintrusive wisdom” among the foliage?

And all this therapy will make our budding artist vain. Ruskin wrote to a student to recommend his method of art study which, in its early emphasis on naturalism, would have seemed quite irresponsible to most of his artistic contemporaries:

I should at once forbid sentiment for a couple of years and set you to paint, first, — a plain white cambric pocket handkerchief — or linen napkin, thrown at random on the table… taking about a week’s hard work… Then a coloured one, with a simple pattern. Then an apple. Then a child’s cheek… Then a curl or two of golden hair — putting you back to bricks the moment I saw you getting sentimental. If you won’t do this I can’t help you.

After all the flattering attention of the modern tutorial system today’s student couldn’t possibly fathom the humility required for such tasks. Anyone who tries to work diligently in an art school, especially on a picture, will be hounded for it. An often-heard comment on a painting a student has barely begun is “leave it there”. Their only rule for painting, as far as I ever saw, is that the haphazard lay-in is always better than a finished work could ever be. In articulation, they believe, all spirit is lost.

During my term of printing I made an aquatint etching, but I had miscalculated the strength of the acid and my final print was almost black all over. It was a term’s work, so I had to present it, along with the diagrams I had used in making it, all annotated with timings for the acid bath. First the teachers took the usual step of proclaiming my workings-out as the real art, much more interesting than any actual picture I might finish. My print should have shown a light filled room, but my teachers then challenged me to recognise that this black print was in fact the best thing I had ever done. I protested that the work was a failure, and that I would never present an accident as my final work; part of the fascination of art comes from what I think of as a morality of realising intentions. A teacher replied: “How can you even talk about morality when we are at war with Iraq?” Such willingness to accept accident as worthy of contemplation is typical. Human traces, even human stains, are more interesting than thoughts; every work they approve could, in effect, boil down to “I woz  ere”. The contemporary art market tends to treat artists and their products as freakish specimens, but so do the artists themselves. During six years in and out of art schools, I was never once encouraged to visit an art museum, unless it was showing contemporary art, but it was often suggested that I visit anthropological collections. To the modern artist it is no insult to be treated as an anthropological curiosity; it is a compliment, because he takes it as proof of his validity, his specialness. In 1866, in what Gombrich would call the “formative document” of modern art, Emile Zola wrote: “that which I seek above all in a painting is a man, and not a picture…” He went on to declare that “art is… a human secretion”. But he could not have guessed where, eventually, his thoughts would lead.

In his sixth discourse, given to Royal Academy leavers, Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote:

Do this justice, however, to the English Academy; to bear in mind, that in this place you contracted no narrow habits, no false ideas, nothing that could lead you to the imitation of any living master, who may be the fashionable darling of the day. As you have not been taught to flatter us, do not learn to flatter yourselves.

This is, in every clause, precisely the opposite of what our modern art schools promote. We have already seen the flattery and the false ideas; but there is more.

Employment of teachers today has much to do with fashion. Pressure to keep up with the times means, in practical terms, a respect for what is thriving in the market. An art school rarely manages to employ the real “fashionable darling of the day”, though such a personage might come in as a visiting tutor; instead the schools make do with those who may have touched the hem of a darling’s garments. Within a few years of the commercial explosion of the YBA generation, most of whom were taught together at Goldsmiths, many of our top art schools had employed as their heads former members of the Goldsmiths staff to restructure and administer their courses. Hence the remarkable similarity of our art schools.

Fashionable teachers will naturally select fashionable students for their schools. Despite the proclaimed diversity, and despite all the testing of boundaries through laboratory research, the consequence must be the contraction, those “narrow habits” of which Reynolds warned. But this contraction is now intentional. Typical of our times, there is an emphasis on “your chosen career” and what the schools try to avoid calling self-promotion. One school advertises that it will “prepare you for professional life after graduation”. Another, that it will “help you learn vital professional skills as you develop a better understanding for the context of your work”. This may be conveniently vague, but surely it means an education in how to be fashionable. This is what the teachers have to offer; it is after all what they were employed for, for they had witnessed the ways of the market and were now wise.

It is all very confused. It is hard to be both instinctive and scientific, primitive and market-savvy, to aspire at once to the therapeutic and the academic. It is hard to extol the virtues of rebellion and deplore all history when you benefit by occupying a position in a historically established institution. It must be hardest of all to call yourself a teacher of art when your contempt for so much of art is what got you the job. To defend so contradictory a position, you have to be ruthless before the sceptics. This is another reason why the teachers are so keen to admit only younger versions of themselves, and why I had to lie at interview. The result is that art schools, behind their closed doors, resemble social clubs more than places of learning. It is “us against them”: this is the mentality that that introductory welcome meeting and the talk about specialness were contrived to develop. Within these clubs teachers have their pets; all students know that to move up the ranks to a position of favourite, they need only try to make something more similar to what a chosen teacher might deem “really sort of interesting”. “Accomplished”, “precise”, “complex”, “subtle”, “astute”, “apt”, even “beautiful” — all these are denied as qualities of art, the only positive comment left to the teachers is “interesting”; this is pretty well the only word ever heard.

The students generally admire the institutions and their masters; there is comfort in belonging. But at the same time they are aware of the suspect agendas present. Once I overheard a revealing conversation between two students of the oldest and most venerable institution of all. Both were the recipients of an annual award given privately to young figurative painters to allow for their study of the Old Masters in the Museo del Prado at Madrid. One asked the other: “Have you told our teachers that you went to copy old paintings? Would you?” To them, it was a natural assumption that such an admission would not go down well. I suspect they even felt guilty for having betrayed the dominant ethos at their academy. Despite having sat through hours of so-called art history lectures, they knew that it was naughty for them to be looking at art. But this did not really irk them; I am sure they never raised an objection, and their greater concern was to remain part of the club.

The few more educated members of the club, especially on the staff, sometimes show at least a partial understanding of the situation. In the final year we had to write an extended essay on any topic of our choice. I proposed a very broad and historical theme. The art history teacher forbade my discussion of anything from before the 20th century. Shocked, I went to read the official syllabus, and found no mention of this rule. I returned and told him so. His reply was: “We don’t do quantum mechanics either.”

At least they do know that art as they teach it is not what art was. They accept that it is now a different subject, so different in fact that old art is as irrelevant as quantum mechanics (it is worth adding that this same teacher had made the suspiciously self-serving argument that the works of Botticelli and Koons were essentially similar). These people do happen to inhabit old art institutions, but I wonder if they use the word art for any motive other than convenience; would they be happier if there were a new word for what they do and they could drop the associations with art all together?

Of course, art has changed before. Once it was primarily decorative and illustrative, organised by the Guilds, and artists were to follow models to the best of their ability. Later artists felt themselves part of a grander project, their duty being to advance artistic method in competition with each other, rather than refine an old design. Eventually art came above all to pursue the individuality of visions. But through all of these phases a level of concentration, sophistication and good faith was maintained —largely, I suspect, through a love of art from which stemmed a special care in making it.

The startling peculiarity of those who call themselves artists now is that they have no determinable interest in art. Even if we allow that they have their own tradition, beginning with Duchamp, through Warhol through Beuys, we are still left with this problem. For they don’t love Duchamp’s work (well, could you?), they certainly don’t look at it, and I doubt they think about it. If they feel anything for him it is a vague and abstract gratitude; he is their Great Enabler, the one who let them do what they do, and be as they are. And this is all they care about — how they are now. This is why contemporary art has made a virtue out of transient work; having no duty to tradition, nothing is worthy that does not pertain to the artist’s immediate being.

On the teaching of art history to art students Ernst Gombrich wrote:

You may regret the cult of originality, but whether you do or not, you cannot combine it with a rejection of art history. It is only meaningful within history. And so, of course, is that overworked concept of the protest, of the revolution, of the manifesto.

True as this was, I think we have moved beyond that point. The style of protest is still there, but protest isn’t felt. It has gone on so long that a complete detachment from the past has been achieved, and the activity of modern art schools has therewith lost its wider historical context.

We must worry whether through this system, with its primitivism, deconstructivism, its self-indulgence and downright stupidity, the character of art that lasted many centuries can be preserved. We are at a crisis point, at least within our official institutions. Art has survived many things, and it has at times been sustained by fierce self-criticism, which is of course a good sign of concern. What we have to ask now is whether art can also survive its denial, and consequent neglect — this way, all that art was risks being forgotten.

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