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.