22 theses on art education

1. Students should be accorded respect; teachers should earn it.

2. Rubbishing work brought to us in good faith, making people feel worthless, is not teaching; it is a form of abuse. Any dialogue about work starts from what the student has actually made, assumes it is made with the best of intentions, finds what is good in it and proceeds from there.

3. When we’re presented with a piece of work that seems banal, clichéd, badly executed, overly sentimental, gratuitously unpleasant, that makes our hackles rise, that seems like an affront to everything we value, it’s at that moment we should most entertain the possibility that we might be mistaken. This will be an occasion to identify some common first principles and to work slowly and carefully forwards from them.

4. If you’re wrong or you don’t know, bloody well say so.

5. No-one should propose to others a task that they are themselves not prepared to carry out immediately and publicly. Put less combatively – quiet co-working on a common task (either individual or collaborative) is a form of teaching. The more the lines between student and teacher are blurred, the better.

6. Any criteria based system of assessment of art is necessarily blind to what might make work great.

7. There are no general recipes for making art and there cannot be. Even given an identical departure point the same move will lead to triumph for one and a disaster for another. A practical suggestion can only ever be a prompt to thought.

8. We point to specifics to signal our sense that something is lacking. Often the actual problem will lie somewhere else entirely. This does not render our gesture useless.

9. Teaching art is like shouting from one vessel to another in the middle of a force ten gale.

10. There is no necessary connection between the ability to write or talk fluently about art and the ability to make it. This is not to say that ignorance is ever a virtue.

11. A familiarity with culture beyond the visual, some knowledge of history, geography, languages, some familiarity with the sciences, a keen interest in the world; whilst these are not essential, they’re helpful more often than not.

12. Work made under constraints of time, materials, theme, constitutes the artist’s five finger exercises. An artist is someone who, abandoned in a deep forest or on a desert isle, with only a pebble to mark with and a rock to mark upon will nevertheless make something of interest.

13. We teach and learn in the world we inherit and not the one we might want. We should encourage engagement from the beginning and no quarantine period is required or appropriate. Nonetheless, we should probably start in the shallow end.

14. We should actively consider the possibility that interpretive dance might be a better medium than words for the teaching of art.

15. Analogy, even entirely misplaced, is our friend.

16. A refusal to be easily satisfied, a restlessness, a feeling of only-as-good-as-one’s-latest-work, the capacity to work flat-out; also, the grace to accept gifts, to know when no further work is necessary or when to grit one’s teeth and continue – in short, a mature artistic conscience – cannot be imposed but developed only from within .

17. If art is a form of knowledge it is a very odd one.

18. Self-imposed, and/or market-imposed narrowness or homogeneity of output is, generally, not finding a voice but voluntarily relinquishing one.

19. The one thing you, and only you, can and have to know, or at least be prepared to bet on, is when and whether it’s any good. No-one else can tell you this (or even what ‘this’ means), though there are many siren voices in this matter.

20. Like it or not, parenting is quite a good analogy for teaching. Caring, nurturing, leading, learning when to look away, when not to intervene, handing over, letting go. Of course it’s not exact, but it indicates some responsibilities and trajectories.

21. Sometimes it is better to be sure one is uncertain than to be 99% certain one is right.

22. At its best the process affords us a peek (through a mirror, down the wrong end of a telescope) at a world where autonomous but deeply interdependent beings perform both aimless play and vital work but where, increasingly, as time passes, they can no longer tell which is which.

 * * *

The other day at the institution where I teach studio practice we had an interesting and quite heated discussion about what the responsibilities of teachers are when they analyse, discuss or critique students’ work. It made me reflect on a number of assumptions that I realized I was making both practically and theoretically in my day to day teaching life. I’ve re-drafted this short document more times than just about anything else I’ve ever written, to try and get it to feel exactly right – clarifying those assumptions and scrutinising that practice. I’d be very happy if it could be a starting point for a wide ranging discussion by students, teachers, artists and anyone else with a view on both the practice and the ethics of what it means to teach art.

I welcome comments, replies, disagreement, refinements, amendments…whatever. I’ve deliberately not framed this discussion as “comments” (which are in fact disabled). To join in you simply register as a contributor here and write a post. Posts will appear in reverse of the normal blog order leaving my initial contribution as a reference point – although I have tried to say what I believe to be true I don’t regard it in any sense as a final word and I hope to have my assumptions challenged and expectations upturned in fruitful ways. Please do join in. It would be helpful if people could use real names and indicate some sort of self definition at the end thus:

Michael Szpakowski, artist & senior lecturer in art & design at Writtle School of Design, Essex, UK

http://somedancersandmusicians.com/

Response

2 If art is our business, there’s a hierarchy. Making is primary, talking is secondary. Keep that order in mind.

3 The artwork made your hackles rise? Then that artwork caused you to be more alive. Irritability is a register of life. Thank the artwork for the stimulus.

5 <No-one should propose to others a task that they are themselves not prepared to carry out immediately and publicly.> Not sure I quite agree. I would say: If you propose to others a task you can’t do yourself (and there are many such that you will not be able to perform, for you do not stand in the same location as your interlocutors, who will have their own energies, inclinations and time for work), then outrightly state that you start from a position of personal limitation.

6 The great is the sublime, and the sublime is by definition immeasurable. It exceeds examination. Bertrand Russell as examiner: ‘It is my personal opinion that Mr Wittgenstein’s thesis is a work of genius, but be that as it may, it is certainly well up to the standard required for the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Philosophy.’

7 Yes – no general recipes for making art. Nonetheless, though it may not lead to the making of art (however we define that), to enable students to draw readily is to do them a favour, if they are to work visually. By ‘draw readily’, I mean, to think about things by making marks on a surface, whether that thinking is a matter of discovery or of invention.

10 Whether or not ignorance is a virtue, anyone who signs up for an art course commits themselves to dispensing with it.

11, 12 Yes, yes, yes.

13 What do you mean by ‘engagement’ and ‘shallow end’ in this context?

14 Don’t mind considering the possibility that dance might be the way forward… but I know I can’t dance, and I know that dance is not my business! Whereas drawing is.

16 Beautifully expressed.

17 Even better! I shall treasure those words.

19 Knowing when it’s any good… The best-case scenario in art education is that the course enables the student to develop such a consciousness for themselves: but as you say, it can’t be forced.

20 Parenting: yes, and in that, love, or something very like it. Teaching, at best, is wonderful because it is an offering of love.

22 Beautiful.

23 Teaching is learning. Thank every student for introducing you to another way of looking at the world.


Julian Bell, Painter & Writer

http://www.jbell.co.uk/home/index.php

Some reflections on coming into art education (as a student) after several decades as a hospital doctor (NHS consultant).

 

Firstly, I absolutely believe that making art generates knowledge. Reflecting on what you’ve made, how it has developed and changed from initial ideas to final outcome (I deliberately didn’t say finished, because I’m not sure that anything can ever be called definitively finished), reflecting on how the process has changed you, the maker – all these things generate knowledge. As a viewer or person interacting with an art work, there is potential for you to acquire new knowledge.

I can say with certainty that I know many things now that I had no knowledge of before completing my BA and MA in fine art. I don’t mean technical things like how to make a screen print, or how to use the various materials that were new to me, or even how to create my own website (part of my MA course) – although these things constitute new knowledge in exactly the same way that everything that I learned about anatomy and physiology and pathology as a medical student was accepted as new knowledge. I agree that we might call this stuff ‘facts’ rather than knowledge, but educators in medicine and the natural sciences still talk about imparting knowledge to their students.

However, I am talking about a different knowledge. A lot of new self-knowledge, yes (and that despite having spent over five years in psychoanalysis), and importantly knowledge about the extent of uncertainty and the unknown. The exciting thing about creative practice for me is the thought that every time I make something, or write something, and then expose it to the critique of other creative people, I know that I will learn something.

I have been lucky to have most of my art education in a very supportive and enabling university department. I have never experienced having my work rubbished, but that is not to say that it has not been very thoroughly and constructively critiqued. I have experienced ‘teaching’ by ritual humiliation in medicine, and all I can say is that it degrades the teacher as much as the student.

I do think that there has to be some sort of criterion base for art education and assessment. It need not be too prescriptive but it serves as a boundary. My research is all about investigating boundaries, and I am convinced that they are necessary – but largely as something reliable to rebel against, kick, attempt to break. Great work may break boundaries and should be recognised, not marked down. Good teachers will have the confidence to do this and to justify their decisions to their academic masters.

If some of this debate is harking back to the art college vs art-in-university debate, all I can say is that if art teaching had still been confined to art colleges I would have missed the incredible opportunities that I’ve had in the last eight years, because I would never have dared apply to an art college. Moreover, as someone practising creatively across disciplines, I welcome the increasing cross disciplinary work that is being undertaken in some art faculties today.

I’m sure I can find plenty more to say but will leave it there for now!

 

Diana Brighouse, artist, writer, doctor & psychotherapist.

http://dianabrighouse.com/ 

[edit]s

Where no edits suggested please assume wholehearted agreement 🙂

 1 [edit] Students and teachers should together cultivate mutual respect.

 3 [edit] When we’re presented with a piece of work that seems banal, clichéd, badly executed, overly sentimental, gratuitously unpleasant, that makes our hackles rise, that seems like an affront to everything we value, it’s at that moment we most closely reflect on the knowledge and experiences that inform our response. We entertain the possibility that we might be mistaken. We are open with the student about our reservations or responses – inviting them to describe how they came to make the work they did. This will be an occasion to identify some common first principles and to work slowly and carefully forwards from them.

4 [edit] It’s no big deal if we’re wrong or we don’t know. Acknowledging our wrongness, becoming better informed are both useful parts of learning. We model new ways of acknowledging mistakes and invite students to be inventive about performing and negotiating their own wrongness.

 5 [edit] We mostly propose tasks that we are prepared to carry out alongside students. Quiet co-working on a common task (either individual or collaborative) is one very valuable form of teaching. We often learn better together. The difference between the student and the teacher, in this situation, is that the teacher is responsible for paying attention to the students’ learning, whereas only the more advanced students will pay attention to the teachers’ learning.

 6 [edit] Any criteria based system of assessment of art is necessarily blind to what might make work great. But well designed criteria based systems of learning are valuable in creating the conditions in which great art has a better chance of being made.

 7 [edit] There are no general recipes for making art and there cannot be. Even given an identical departure point the same move will lead to triumph for one and a disaster for another. A practical suggestion can be a prompt to thought or may open a door to otherwise unimagined possibilities.

 9 [edit] Teaching art in Higher Education as the tentacles of Neo-liberalism squelch their way into every aspect of the learning context and experience is like shouting from one vessel to another in the middle of a force ten gale.

 As  teachers we are under pressure to recruit more students, stretch out our attention, develop and deliver more and more formulaic curricula, to students who are habituated to a strategic, rewards-based systems of learning (that might work for animals, or for fine tuning a machine, but not for any kind of advanced human development). Many of the less wealthy students are exhausted and their potential to learn is wrecked by the psychic impact of the fee (and accruing debt), and the paid work that they need to do to live while studying. The social contract is broken – Higher Education (in any subject) guarantees no-one a well-paid job. It might equip you to invent an enriched and enriching life which may include earning a good living. The teacher as service-provider cannot deliver learning to a student-as-customer. The customer may buy gym membership but unless they exercise, their monthly fee will deliver no benefit. The marketisation and mechanisation of learning is the force ten gale. The teachers and students shelter in their vessels. The art studio can provide temporary shared accommodation so that they can have a proper conversation.

 11 [edit] A familiarity – on your own terms – with culture beyond the visual, some knowledge of history, geography, languages, some familiarity with the sciences, a keen interest in the world- are essential.

 13 [edit] We teach and learn in the world we inherit and not the one we might want. We should encourage engagement from the beginning and no quarantine period is required or appropriate. Nonetheless, we should probably start in the shallow end with regular experimental forays to the deep end (life guard present)

 14 [edit] We should actively consider the possibility that interpretive dance might be a better medium than words for the teaching of art, along with mud wrestling, pie-eating contests, taxidermy demonstrations etc

 19 [edit] All conversations about whether an artwork is any good are meaningless except among friends.

 Thanks

 Ruth Catlow Artist, Teacher and Co-founder & Director Furtherfield

http://ruthcatlow.net/

Response

1-4.

Agreed.

5. …quiet co-working on a common task (either individual or collaborative) is a form of teaching. The more the lines between student and teacher are blurred, the better.

I do agree that working collaboratively is a very valuable form of teaching. I don’t agree about blurring the lines entirely. Students, in my experience, want the teacher to have authority and not just to be a chum. Treating the students with utmost respect is crucial, but I don’t see the point in everybody in the classroom just being friends on the same level; the teacher is expected to have greater experience and knowledge, and their ability to be helpful and encouraging should come from that, otherwise it doesn’t mean much.

6&7.

Agreed.

8. We point to specifics to signal our sense that something is lacking. Often the actual problem will lie somewhere else entirely. This does not render our gesture useless.

I agree with your first two statements but the third (about the gesture not being useless) doesn’t make sense to me. I think you need to clarify a bit more.

9. Teaching art is like shouting from one vessel to another in the middle of a force ten gale.

OK, if you say so!

10. There is no necessary connection between the ability to write or talk fluently about art and the ability to make it. This is not to say that ignorance is ever a virtue.

Thank you for saying this! Absolutely true.

11. A familiarity with culture beyond the visual, some knowledge of history, geography, languages, some familiarity with the sciences, a keen interest in the world; whilst these are not essential, they’re helpful more often than not.

Absolutely.

12. Work made under constraints of time, materials, theme, constitutes the artist’s five finger exercises. An artist is someone who, abandoned in a deep forest or on a desert isle, with only a pebble to mark with and a rock to mark upon will nevertheless make something of interest.

I think this is an extremely important point. Learning to create within limitations and constraints is necessary training and will pay off in spades later on.

13. We teach and learn in the world we inherit and not the one we might want. We should encourage engagement from the beginning and no quarantine period is required or appropriate. Nonetheless, we should probably start in the shallow end.

Again, I’m not really sure what you mean here.

14. We should actively consider the possibility that interpretive dance might be a better medium than words for the teaching of art.

If your point is that talking about art is of limited usefulness, yes, for sure — but it’s still the means we have, and so we have to use it. Teachers need to be able to explain what they mean, but also to be ready and able to use visual examples.

16. A refusal to be easily satisfied, a restlessness, a feeling of only-as-good-as-one’s-latest-work, the capacity to work flat-out; also, the grace to accept gifts, to know when no further work is necessary or when to grit one’s teeth and continue – in short, a mature artistic conscience – cannot be imposed but developed only from within .

Yes, this is true, and it seems to me that one goal of art teaching should be to help develop the strength of character necessary for the young artist to continue and persevere in spite of obstacles so that eventually they can develop a mature artistic conscience. It helps to have mentors and to hear about their own process and struggles; it helps to read about the lives of other artists. Somehow, the young artist must learn and face the fact that it is going to be a long and quite lonely road with many reversals and much doubt, rather than sudden and continual “success.” How we prepare them for this is a question more about our own lives than about theirs, I think. The best teachers of mine were scrupulously honest about their own paths and struggles, and they continue to be “companions” for me, even though most have left this life.

We need to impart, through our own lives, that the path and the process are more important than any individual work of art, prize, exhibition, or reward, and that if we base our efforts in that direction, this is a way of life that can be deeply satisfying.

17. If art is a form of knowledge it is a very odd one.

Yes. I don’t see art as a form of knowledge, but as a way of life.

18-22.

No problem at all with these points.

*****

I’m coming to this exercise as a professional visual artist, writer and editor, but also as an amateur musician — and ironically it’s in music where I’ve had the most formal training and “art education.” The creation of modern visual art is considerably more subjective than, say, classical music performance, and teaching it is necessarily quite different, but three things stand out. One is that patience, discipline, and practice are valuable in all artistic fields. Students may not need or want formal academic training but understanding composition, line, volume, color, etc will help them immeasurably no matter what they try to do later on – our problem as teachers is to find ways to make this interesting.

Second, we need, I think, to equip students to be problem solvers for themselves. A writer has to learn how to edit themselves, the artist needs to learn to see and sort out difficulties, the musician needs to be able to take apart a difficult passage or unfamiliar work and see how to tackle it both technically and interpretively.

Third, and many of your points touch on this: if we believe that art can be a lifegiving, lifelong pursuit, and that everyone is creative, our efforts as teachers must focus on encouragement for the long haul. I think it is tragic how many people have told me they were told they “couldn’t sing” or “couldn’t draw” and so they gave up early in life. So, art instruction must strike a balance where it is adapted to each individual with the goal of always encouraging, never crushing – but where genuine teaching is also given. An adult friend joined a writer’s critique group recently, and all the instructor did was praise each person’s work. This was not only unhelpful, but it was completely phony and my friend (a lifelong music educator) knew it and left the group after two sessions. The best teachers manage to draw out the best in their students, and I think they are able to give genuine criticism that is encouraging and deeply respectful at the same time.

 Elizabeth (Beth) Adams, publisher and artist

http://www.cassandrapages.com/

Thoughts

 

1.  All human beings should be accorded respect in the first instance in every sphere of life.  Personalities get in the way and behaviour dictates whether that happens or not.  It is an ideal worth striving for but one that will often fail to materialise wherever you find yourself, even in an art class.

2. Making people feel worthless has nothing to do with teaching or art.  It has everything to do with the insecurity of the person who operates by making others feel worthless – it is about the worthless feelings of that person.  You cannot avoid such people and you will find them everywhere, even in an art class.

3. It is a huge ask to get anyone, teachers included, to remain open to the possibility they may be wrong and takes enormous sense of self and generosity.  There are of course people out there capable of such generosity and wisdom but in my experience they are few and far between.  When I come across such people I am generally in awe of them.  Such people are of course suited to art education but that doesn’t necessarily mean art education is wholly populated by them.  I was yelled and shouted at drama school by a well known actor revelling in a sense of power over young, insecure, impressionable students.  Not sure what that taught me but I remember it still as as a pointless and cruel exercise.  Artistic professions attract unstable egos and it is a truth that such people will inevitably end up teaching.

4. <If you’re wrong bloody well say so…>  I agree, but unfortunately there are few absolutes in life.  If something is very obviously wrong then it is a great lesson for students to see you admit you are wrong.  But what about those moments that are less clear cut? It is also good to see someone arguing for what they believe in calmly but with a level of passion too – another ideal worth aiming for but in the end an ideal.

5. I agree with an earlier poster – sometimes people need and want authority figures, so blurring the lines isn’t always the best way forward, not matter how much that appeals to one’s personal humanist ethos (and mine tends to fall that way).  There are young people in desperate need of clear boundaries as they have never had them and in those cases the blurring of lines might be confusing and difficult.  However, in an ideal world we should, right across education, be teaching children and young people to work collaboratively.  The future of all work is changing and the old models of education suited to turning out factory workers will be useless and unhelpful in most areas.  Working together, creatively and compassionately will likely be most beneficial to individuals and societies. Modelling behaviour, i.e behaving in the way you would wish students to behave, is proven to be the most effective way of teaching this.

6. I have trouble with assessment full stop and am intrigued by some aspects of the Steiner education system where no formal assessment takes place at all.  I am studying at the moment and was very much in two minds about submitting for assessment.  I have been convinced to in the end although I am still ambivalent about it.  The work I am doing is very personal and having it graded is a worry even though I know I am likely to do well.  Doing well will of course be an ego boost but it’s extrinsic and therefore I question its long lasting effect – and it also could feel somewhat patronising.  I have very mixed feelings about this.

7. There are no general recipes for making art.  Learning about how others did it but understanding that you may do it differently seems to be the thing to concentrate on.  Teaching someone to just do it may be more beneficial.

8. People do want feedback.  They generally benefit from honest, non patronising feedback given in a compassionate and balanced way, with positives and negatives pointed out.

9. Teaching might sometimes feel like shouting in a force 10 gale – but there are surely also times when it feels the opposite.  It depends on the teacher, the student, the art, the moment, the time.

10. Having a talent to express ideas verbally or in written work fluently and with some knowledge is a separate talent that some artists may or may not have.  Not having it doesn’t make an artist less of one, but that artist may struggle in an academic situation (and it would be shame under those circumstances if his/her confidence was lessened because of it).  Like everything this skill can be developed but some will naturally be better at it than others.  Getting a good grade for it won’t mean you’re a better artist though, and vice versa.

11. All extended knowledge is good for you, no matter what you’re doing and learning.  People should be encouraged to find out as much as possible.

12. Restrictions always hone the mind; constraints may be frustrating but lead to creative solutions.  Teach people to learn to work within them.  There will always be constraints of one sort or another.

13. Start in the shallow end – yes.  Teach from the shallow end, with compassion and patience.  Again, an ideal but one in the end that will dictated to a greater or lesser by personality and ego.

14. Every student will learn differently.  Some might learn by reading, some by doing, some by watching interpretative dance.  Some by all three or some other means.  It’s part of the conundrum of teaching.

15. Analogy – good!

16. It is only from within that anyone can truly develop (in art or elsewhere) and in the end it is up to the individual to allow that to happen.  You, the teacher, may aim to help but you cannot fix the unfixable.  You are human and some people have barriers that will take years and years to bypass (if ever in many cases).  You are only responsible for your behaviour.  You cannot be responsible for how others receive or don’t receive.

17. I don’t know what art is.  I am still trying to figure that out.

18.  Not everyone will find a voice.  All you can do is try to enable it, kindly and compassionately if possible.  You are in danger of stifling it without those two elements.  Instigating anger and disillusionment is not in my mind an effective means of positively enabling someone.

19.  I don’t know what good art is or bad art is.  I think those adjectives are unhelpful at best.

20. I totally agree that parenting is an excellent analogy.  Unfortunately parenting is as subjective as art.  The various positions held by people on what good parenting might be are disparate and complex, governed by individual experience and perception of the world.  Teaching, just like parenting, is fraught with pitfalls and in the end you have to aim for being ‘good enough’.  Good enough is all we can realistically be and in the end it is the ideal because perfection is brutal and aggressive.

21. It is never good to be 99% certain one is right.

22.  We live in a society that totally dismisses play.  Play, play and play some more.  But do it kindly and with care.

Sarah-Jane Field, ex actor, ex marketing assistant, mother & photographer

https://sjfphoto.wordpress.com/

 

Neutrality

Of course no less than Goya and Gericault have checked in on this, as you probably know already.

I’ve never taught art, yet I want to add something awkward but vital – that art isn’t a positive force in the present. Rather, its power resides in its neutrality. With the pressures that come with doing artwork, that is something easy to lose- it’s a stance tough to balance with socialization, but art doesn’t constitute a contribution to society per se – you can’t  let students go without an awareness that they’re going to have to find a way to redeem their choice of devoting time to artwork.

Alex Stein, artist

http://tenderandendangeredcowhorseofdimness.com/

 

Response


Very interesting and provoking, with a slightly embattled feel, and quite a narrow focus on the relationship between the artist and his/her work. ‘We’re not here to teach you how to be commercially successful as an artist, and we’re not here to tell you whether your work is good or bad – in fact we’re not really here to teach you at all; the process is one of enablement. Only you can decide what kind of art you want to produce, and whether what you produce is actually art or not, and whether it’s actually any good or not. If we were to tell you to do it this way or that way we’d just be limiting you. And what do we know? We’re essentially in the same boat as you are. It’s a journey of exploration for all of us, and it’s not about technical know-how, it’s about… well, we don’t really know what it’s about. You tell us. As for making a living out of your art, we’ll leave that question to one side. Courses which try to teach people how to make money out of their art just end up encouraging them to produce marketable crap.’

When I was at university we were encouraged to read a book by M H Abrams called The Mirror and the Lamp. I don’t think it was actually on the syllabus, but we all read it anyway. He was an American, and I just learnt by looking him up on Wikipedia that he only died in April this year, at the age of 102. Anyway, it’s a great book, and in brief it’s argument is that up until the Romantics all theoretical discussion about art started from the idea that it’s first function is mimesis – to hold up a mirror to the world in which we find ourselves. So art was always discussed in terms of its mimetic qualities, and if you wanted to say that a work of art was good you had to argue along those lines. Some of the arguments got pretty far-fetched – it’s actually very difficult to argue that Homer’s value lies in his accurate representation of the objective world, for example; and it’s even more problematic to talk about the mimetic qualities of music – but nevertheless that was the accepted norm of artistic theory.

Then along came the Romantics, and proposed a different idea entirely: that art represented the world as illuminated by the lamp-like genius or imagination of the artist. What lay behind this, of course, was a
breakdown of faith in the external world as the embodiment of a fixed reality, which would be perceived the same by everyone who wasn’t mad. The Romantics were fascinated by madness, drug-taking, heightened awareness, visionary disorders of the senses and so forth, because all of these things were closely linked to artistic inspiration and the power of the imagination to transform the mundane into the transcendent. They saw the external world not as a fixed reality that was agreed upon by all civilised and reasonable people, but as something more disputed: in fact they tended to regard the ‘conventional’ view of external reality as a monstrous illusion which hid the truth from view, but which could be punctured by artists and other visionaries by virtue of their imaginative powers.

Abrams draws a diagram with the work of art at the centre, and the Universe, the Audience and the Artist arranged round it in a triangle. He argues that different artistic theories place the emphasis on different corners of this triangle, and point up the relationship between art and one of the ‘outer’ elements at the expense of the other two. Mimetic Theories are interested in the relationship between the Work and the Universe; Pragmatic Theories are interested in the relationship between the Work and the Audience; and Expressive Theories are interested in the relationship between the Work and the Artist. He actually adds a fourth category, Objective Theories, which are just interested in close reading of the Work. To me, the triangle looks short of at least one ‘outer’ element – the Medium – which would help us to account for Modernism and Structuralism; but it’s a useful piece of analysis all the same, because it gives us a chance to get some perspective on different artistic theories, what they’re emphasising and what they might be missing.

Now, to apply all this to your 22 Theses, it seems to me that their emphasis is very much on the relationship between the artist and the work of art, with a kind of back-door acknowledgement that the external world might be important, via the statement that ‘a keen interest in the world’ is ‘helpful more often than not’; but a firm slamming of the door on the relationship between artist and audience, in the shape of Thesis 18 –

‘Self-imposed, and/or market-imposed narrowness or homogeneity of output is, generally, not finding a voice but voluntarily relinquishing one.’

(I’m not sure I agree with Thesis 18, by the way. For one thing it seems to contradict Thesis 12 –

‘Work made under constraints of time, materials, theme, constitutes the artist’s five finger exercises.’

Surely working within the constraints of a particular genre, or with a particular audience in mind – let’s say the under-5s – might be a productive constraint too? I can also think of examples that contradict the thesis – lots of examples in the shape of children’s picture-books, stop-frame animations, Shakespeare’s Macbeth (which was written because James I had just come to the throne, and he was interested in witches and his own genealogy), sitcoms, Charlie Chaplin movies, or, let’s say, Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoon-strip.)

In some way the most interesting Thesis in the collection is No 3 –

‘When we’re presented with a piece of work that seems banal, clichéd, badly executed, overly sentimental, gratuitously unpleasant, that makes our hackles rise, that seems like an affront to everything we value,it’s at that moment we should most entertain the possibility that we might be mistaken. This will be an occasion to identify some common first principles and to work slowly and carefully forwards from them.’ 

which could be paraphrased as ‘Don’t go round criticising other people’s work, because the chances are your criticism says more about your own narrowness of outlook than it does about the piece under discussion’.

Well, maybe. For one thing, what would your reaction be if you were presented with a piece of work that was openly anti-Semitic, or that represented wife-beating or female genital mutilation in a favourable
light? Would your first reaction be to ‘entertain the possibility that you might be mistaken’? I can think of various works of art that have obnoxious attitudes or values in them, but which nevertheless remain valuable as works of art – Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, which is regarded by some critics as racist; Eliot’s Gerontion, which has a couple of anti-Semitic lines; or Nabokov’s Lolita, which can be regarded as paedophile. The relationship between a work of art and the moral, social or political values it embodies is often a complex one, and there are no simple answers, but as a teacher, if one of your students presents you with an extremely well-executed and artistically powerful poster or video which incites the audience to murder all unbelievers, I’m not sure that your first duty would be to entertain the possibility that you might be mistaken in your moral repugnance.

But for another thing, I don’t think that negative criticism is necessarily a bad thing. It’s a commonplace, when discussing this point, to make a distinction between ‘constructive criticism’ and mere
‘trashing’ or ‘rubbishing’. Constructive criticism is okay – ‘I like this bit but I think you could have used a more emphatic shade of green over here’ – whereas just slagging off someone else’s work is unacceptable – ‘This is so awful that it makes me want to vomit just thinking about it’. I do agree with this in principle, but from my own personal experience, as someone whose work has been roundly slagged off in various forums over the years, I have to say that a good slagging-off can be quite bracing now and again. It makes you think to yourself ‘Am I really just producing a load of rubbish, or is there some value in what I’m doing?’ – and if you come through that process convinced that what you’re doing is genuinely worthwhile, you actually feel better than you did before. In some ways the most unhelpful feedback is the really positive stuff – ‘This is brilliant! I love it!’ – because it confuses your own internal critic, your awareness that there are actually flaws in the piece that other people are lavishing with praise; and it also makes you feel reluctant to produce something radically different, in case the people who liked your earlier work feel disappointed.

Thirdly, criticism of other people’s work is an important aspect of your development as an artist. You often define your direction of travel as an artist by identifying flaws in the work of other artists and deciding that you want to avoid them in your own. The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, for example, came out as a mock-documentary partly because John Lennon and Richard Lester were determined not to reproduce the boy-meets-girl and let’s-do-the-show-right-here cliches of the Elvis and Cliff Richard films. Imagist poetry was partly defined by its reaction against the vagueness of imagery in Symbolism. Wordworth’s desire to use ‘the language of common men’ in his poetry was explicitly contrasted with the artificial diction employed by Augustans such as Pope and Dryden. Et cetera and so forth.

Which isn’t to say that art classes ought to be a free-for-all, with everybody having a go at everybody else’s work. But going back to my University days, one of the most interesting exercises we did as
students was to bring what we regarded as bad poems to a class and try to explain what we thought was bad about them. We spent most of our time talking about ‘great’ literature and what was supposed to be great about it – doing the opposite was unexpectedly challenging, and unexpectedly good for us.

Anyway, very interesting theses; but those, for what they’re worth, are my thoughts.

Edward Picot, writer, artist, argumentator and swot

http://www.edwardpicot.com/

22 thoughts

Michael,

Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on your 22 theses. I felt very at home reading most of them and have therefore only commented where I felt our approach differed in some, perhaps interesting, way.

If I was to describe the points overall it would be to call them person-centred. Initially a counselling term, its use has widened into many areas which involve some personal interaction. For me its core components are:-

Empathy – the ability to put oneself in the other persons shoes (but, I was taught, also keeping ones own socks on).

Non-judgemental. So being open and accepting of the views of others and their lifestyle choices which may conflict with mine unless they are impacting negatively on those same aspects of someone else’s life.

Genuineness. That if our relationship is to be adult and helpful then you have a right to expect me to be open and honest with you in a productive, non- destructive way.

I think that it’s somewhere within this last one – genuineness -that my interest is piqued, so let me explore what it means to me and how I work and see where that takes us.

If I am counselling, coaching or teaching and someone says something, or presents some work, which I feel shows they are missing something important, or perhaps in some way is less that they are capable of, then if I am to be genuine as in the position I am in they have a right to expect that I will be, I have to decide when and how I am going to reflect that feeling back. I do that having put myself in their shoes and in an open non judgmental way. Possibly in the form of a question or an invitation to reflect on some aspect? Depending on the circumstances I may not do it there and then but for me I am letting the student/ client down if it doesn’t become something talked about at some stage, and if necessary pursued over time. Often they know it themselves and the by showing honesty and genuineness the relationship is made more solid.

Extrapolated to teaching art. Yes, begin by finding the positive but if your inner voice is struggling with some aspect then I think that it should be shared in a person centred way and for the benefit of the student not the tutor (so its not to prove I know more or have better artistic taste, its about me valuing and respecting you enough to share with you some thoughts or misgivings I may have, that may in turn, help you see things in a different way. The decision to adopt or decline the new perspective is always for the student to make whilst recognising (as they do) that at the end of the day the teacher marks, and in some way judges them in comparison to their peers or to some agreed external criteria which must always, to some degree, taint the pure person centred relationship.

Taking this perspective into your 22 theses, (I have left out those with which I entirely agree) I share the following:-

  1. Students should be accorded respect; teachers should earn it.

Both students and teachers should be accorded respect as a given in the relationship and teachers should always strive to be worthy of it.

  1. Any dialogue about work starts from what the student has actually made, assumes it is made with the best of intentions, finds what is good in it and proceeds from there.

Certainly always begin with what is good and proceed from there. There will be a positive intention from the student in presenting the work but teachers know that in some students the positive intention is to avoid some aspects of the work or perhaps to avoid a struggle to move on. I believe then that the role then is to encourage and also appropriately challenge. Other students usually know, for instance, that a student is trying to pass off a poor piece of work (because they have shared that with their peers) and a teacher risks losing respect if they don’t show in some way that they recognise this too.

  1. When we’re presented with a piece of work that seems banal, clichéd, badly executed, overly sentimental, gratuitously unpleasant, that makes our hackles rise, that seems like an affront to everything we value, it’s at that moment we should most entertain the possibility that we might be mistaken. This will be an occasion to identify some common first principles and to work slowly and carefully forwards from them.

Agreed. Looking again the counselling model, it’s a time to avoid being judgmental or defensive and try identify what is happening for you. Being open at this point can bring with it new learning or understanding for the teacher too. If necessary process your reaction after with a trusted colleague.

  1. The more the lines between student and teacher are blurred, the better.

I am far from sure about this. Its helpful, that as the teacher, you can bring a different perspective (and your wider knowledge) to open up the world for the student. But also, students are always alert to the fact that at the end of the day the teacher sets the task and standards and give the marks on which their futures depend. There is a power dynamic here which may not be helpful, but its there and to some degree reflects the world of work into which the student is to move.

  1. Any criteria based system of assessment of art is necessarily blind to what might make work great.

Yes, and yet that’s the world on which both teacher and student operate, and whilst the teacher is aware of this I’m less sure that the student is which must impact of some of the 22 principles.

  1. Teaching art is like shouting from one vessel to another in the middle of a force ten gale.

I don’t teach art and so I don’t recognise this, but applying my model and way of working, I feel have to ask why it feels like this and want to help to explore what might be done to change it.

  1. A refusal to be easily satisfied, a restlessness, a feeling of only-as-good-as-one’s-latest-work, the capacity to work flat-out; also, the grace to accept gifts, to know when no further work is necessary or when to grit one’s teeth and continue – in short, a mature artistic conscience – cannot be imposed but developed only from within.

Yes, but the evidence of that mature artistic conscience and its value, is modelled by the teacher and encouraged in the student by the teacher.

  1. The one thing you, and only you, can and have to know, or at least be prepared to bet on, is when and whether it’s any good. No-one else can tell you this (or even what ‘this’ means), though there are many siren voices in this matter.

…..and so a key role of art education is to encourage the development of that awareness through supportive, and appropriately honest feedback.

Keron Beattie  Former teacher, manager, counsellor, consultant and now (finally) art student

http://k-b.gallery/

 

Some notes

“change happens very slowly” – Ansel Krut

 “every day do three things”  – the Chapman brothers

 “…taking into account the context of your practice when looking at an individual work…” – Dawn Mellor

*

From the book “The Gift of Therapy”, by the existentialist psychiatrist Irwin Yalom. I have often adapted many of his beliefs about the psycho-therapeutic process to the process of teaching art:

  • Remove the obstacles to growth
  • Avoid labelling
  • Teacher and student can be “fellow travellers” (avoid hierarchy)
  • Be supportive
  • Empathy- looking out from the student’s window
  • Let the student matter to you
  • Acknowledge your errors
  • Create a new teaching strategy for each student
  • Provide feedback effectively and gently
  • You can be taught by your student

*

One can take students further than one has gone, in terms of an artistic journey.

Think of Nietzsche’s aphorism, “Some cannot loosen their own chains yet can nonetheless redeem their friends.”

Talk about yourself as an artist/individual only in so far as it is helpful to the student. Honest self-disclosure is important for a genuine teacher-student relationship. Opacity is not helpful.

*

Thoughts that have stayed with me from my years as a student:

“Art is process.”  – (This implies change) Suhail Malik

“Art is imagination.” – David Medalla

“Art is a journey, an adventure made visible.” – Yves Michaud

“You will never please everyone; concentrate on communicating with the people who understand you and your work better.” – Ger Van Elk

“If an artist says he has to eat, then he is up to no good.” Ad Reinhart

 “Art happens in spite of the art market.” (Gerhard Richter)

 “I am here to comfort you in the midst of your chaos” Jean-Michel Alberola

 “I have great faith in bad studio days” Pierre Buraglio.

*

Teaching should be considered an extension of one’s practice- a crucial component, in which ideas (both the teacher’s and the students’) can be shared, discussed, improved, or constructively questioned/refuted.

*

 Books that have been particularly helpful to me whilst a student or a young artist:

 “Wet- On Painting, Feminism and Art Culture” (1997) by Mira Schorr

 “The Dynamics of Creation” by Anthony Storr (1993)

 “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaki Way of Knowledge” by Carlos Castaneda (1990)

*

 A few months ago I attended a classical music concert, at I time when I was feeling anxious about my ability to make good artwork, or to deliver acceptable work in time for a deadline. I looked at the people in the orchestra, who looked calm, concentrated and at peace with themselves. I thought about how the many hours of disciplined, daily practice that musicians engage in, help them to confront the “moment of truth” vis à vis an audience. Their practice, like that of all artists, is about the humble here and now, about giving the best of one self, every day, and having faith in that daily commitment.

 Alicia Paz, artist & teacher

http://www.aliciapaz.co.uk/

22 Theses – Another Response

Thank you to Michael and all respondents for making this fascinating context for thinking critically about values, intentions and behaviour in art education. Michael, your 22 Theses are a timely and very useful provocation that has made me scrutinise my own attitudes and practice as a higher education lecturer in Fine Art. It should go without the need to say it that I, along with various other early respondents, agree whole heartedly with the gist and much of the detail of your initiative. I especially like Thesis 16 – ‘a mature artistic conscience’, what a great way to phrase the thought. And the responses – as with teaching, it can be invidious to pick out individuals for agreement/approval but on the other hand it can be irresistible …. so, some highlights for me are:

Julian’s succinct remarks on the essential meaning and value of drawing in response to Thesis 7; Diana’s comment on the value of knowledge of uncertainty and the unknown; lots of Ruth’s insightful tweaks to Michael’s originals made me laugh audibly in recognition!; Elizabeth’s beautifully clear rejoinder to Thesis 5; Sarah-Jane’s amplifications of the terms of the Theses, especially #11, #12 & #14; Alex’s recognition of the need to ‘redeem …. [the] .… choice of devoting time to art work’; Edward’s reminder of the difference between ‘constructive criticism and mere …. rubbishing’; Keron’s helpfully clear framing of the person-centred character of the Theses …. [can you see what I did there?]

As for me, I count myself as an artist but I take my role in art education seriously, as a second vocation as well as a job. I draw back from calling myself a ‘teacher’ and always have done. Most of my experience as an educator has been with adults and in higher education or with galleries, museums and studios. My contribution to this discussion, long promised but slow in arrival, has been delayed by a number of factors: the distraction of the ever pressing demands of bureaucracy in higher education Fine Art; a real grappling with what it is that I want to say; the continual reshaping of the discourse through the contributions of others; a growing sense of unease about the potential for being pompous (….or boring ….or b******* obvious ….); and, perhaps most tellingly, the fact that I have somehow ‘mislaid’ my notes for a response 3 times before this iteration – surely a sign of a real ambivalence about being able to find the words to shape my thoughts with accuracy and vitality. I really understand why Michael admits of the original Theses that he ‘…. redrafted this short document more times than just about anything else I’ve ever written’.

One earlier version of this statement went somewhat overboard in attempting to redress what I feel may be something of an imbalance in the original Theses (although various responses have already spoken to this point e.g. what Edward has to say about the importance of honest criticism and Keron’s comments on Thesis #2). This is the aspect of Fine Art study that requires a tutor to be willing to call a spade a spade and to demand honesty, commitment, endeavour, courage and determination from students. Failing in this priority of demand and ambition, particularly in favour of an entirely positive encouragement of whatever a student may offer, however insufficient in effort, rigour, thought, research, skill …. risks ultimately failing the student. Discussing this directly with Michael, however, has revealed, reassuringly and perhaps predictably, that his thinking on this point seems hardly different from my own. Of course negative, heartless, careless, lazy or arrogant approaches to the task of educating people about art and how to do it are, to put it simply, likely to be unproductive (and let’s not open the discussion about ‘bad faith’). But the original Theses, without some of those revisions suggested by comments already submitted, feels to me somehow too protective of the position of the student and too critical of the position of the educator. As others have already convincingly argued: any situation or relationship should call for mutual respect; working on a gradient is usually a good idea; finding the positive upon which to build is useful, as is offering encouragement, stimulus and challenge; exercising ego for its own benefit is tantamount to bullying and destructive behaviour is usually destructive; honesty, humility and recognition of limits are necessities for a truly educational experience. In a system that leads to qualification, requiring assessment, the student and the educator are not on an equal footing and the blurring of this fact can be unhelpful. The realm of art study reflects the world and is therefore varied and sometimes unpredictable but I take it as a given that, by its nature, it can attract over-heated egos, the odd and people with challenges in unusual proportion – but that this is part of what makes it a fascinating area in which to work (continually furnishing the educator with opportunities to learn and to question their own preconceptions and limitations).

There are so many other major and finer points that I feel motivated to reflect and comment upon by the ongoing discussion stimulated by the Theses that, paradoxically, I feel compelled to draw a line on the process. However, having had the opportunity to talk to Michael in person before getting around to completing this response I have identified what for me is an interesting distance between the positions from which we respectively consider these ethics.

In particular there seems a difference in the underlying assumption about the context to which the ethics apply, namely whether in assessment we are in essence marking the student’s performance as a student or their work as art. It may appear that this difference is a nice distinction but it feels to me, at least potentially, profound. This distance exists despite some evident agreement that whilst the educational experience we are aiming for offers the best opportunity for learning about how to be an effective artist, not all Fine Art higher education is necessarily persuaded, by constructive arguments about employability, into believing it is turning out a full complement of professionally practising artists each year. Some significant questions flow out of this observation and perhaps these could usefully be considered/discussed further …. (?)

And then, on a more pragmatic note, it seems to me worth recycling the already ‘found’ wisdom of Fischli and Weiss’s notes on How to work better from 1991 (below). This pithy little manifesto, stating the (b*******) obvious seems to me to provide a usefully clear (if not infallible) and entertaining (if not over complicated) crib sheet of helpful thoughts for people not only trying to do art but also those trying to study or teach it too!

  • Do one thing at a time
  • Know the problem
  • Learn to listen
  • Learn to ask questions
  • Distinguish sense from nonsense
  • Accept change as inevitable
  • Admit mistakes
  • Say it simple
  • Be calm
  • Smile

Christopher McHugh   Painter, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Chichester, founder member of Red Herring Studios artists’ cooperative in Brighton & Hove, Sussex, UK

http://www.cmchugh.com/

On art and art education

By way of introduction, my first degree is in fine art (St. Martins Fine Art Sculpture 1968) and two subsequent degrees are from the University of London, Institute of Education (Dip. Sec. Ed and M.A) and are both in art and design in education. After a short spell as a studio assistant I spent 15 years as an art teacher/head of department in secondary schools, two years as a county art advisory teacher and then five as a county general inspector with responsibility for art and design and then a remaining 12 as a freelance educational inspector and consultant. I am also a practicing artist and exhibit internationally.

I am not clear as to which sector you  refer to; I am assuming it’s B.A Fine Art courses. Foundation and Design courses are usually well structured and, for the most part, highly effective.  Fine art post graduate range from very theoretical to anarchic. The main difficulty with BA Fine Art is that they have been very bad at convincing non fine artists of their value. To the lay person they produce essentially unemployable people, so what is the point in spending money on them? They attract large numbers of applicants particularly from overseas largely because students want to find out how to become ‘art stars’. Of course, this is not quite what most self-respecting course leaders have in mind. Most seek to promote worthwhile outcomes like, creativity, imagination etc. Course descriptions contain lots of such laudable aims but are very thin on career pathways for their graduates. A very worthwhile piece of research would be ‘What do Fine Art students do when they graduate?’ Not much, probably.

Most fine art degree courses do not set out their course outlines in sufficient depth to enable them to be translated into a meaningful pedagogy. Set alongside those for other subjects they are vague and lead to muddled courses where neither students nor teachers are clear about what they are trying to do. As a result students emerge with few skills and are not subsequently employed in the creative sector. This is a tragic waste of human potential and a complete betrayal of what has gone before from school through foundation or other preliminary courses. Many Fine Art graduates never create art again and worse, lose their way and become some of life’s casualties.

Art college teachers are chosen on their track record as exhibitors not on their skills as teachers. The outcome is predictable. Students learn very little, often doing little more than copying current art trends. A few, and it is only a handful, ‘make it’ into the art world where they repeat, what has been done before by many other ‘artists’. And surprise, surprise, as they cannot sustain themselves through sales and teach on fine art courses.

So what is to be done? Make fine art departments clarify what they are trying to do. Currently aims and objectives are too vague. Fine art course aims should be the same as other subjects; to teach the skills, knowledge and understanding that underpin the subject. These shouldn’t be too difficult to identify: the subject (Fine Art) consists of sub disciplines, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, performance, installation, etc., each of which has key skills, knowledge and understanding which need to be taught. Each area brings with it a history, again which students should become aware of. Understanding is best obtained through practical engagement. What is not acceptable is telling the student to ‘investigate’ i.e. make it up, which is largely what happens now. Those engaged in more craft-based practices such as printmaking or welding would not dream of allowing students to play with the equipment in this way that so called painters or sculptors do. Thanks to health and safety regulations..

As an inspector/consultant I was obliged to gauge the effectiveness of teaching by assessing what students know, understand and can do. In most subjects the effectiveness of the pedagogy can be assessed by comparing the outcomes to the aims and objectives. For example, If the objective was ‘to be able to understand quadratic equations’ and the students can’t do quadratic equations, then there must be something wrong with the teaching. Fine art teachers resent the constraint they feel this approach imposes. They say the best responses exceed the objectives, which is true. However, it is the extent to which their planning and teaching enables such responses that is in question. Of course, the best teaching is inspirational. Such teachers are not simply charismatic leaders, they choreograph their teaching to fire up their students. Sadly, most Fine Art teaching is far too informal to facilitate such outcomes. In fact not much real teaching actually goes on, its usually casual advice or individual counselling! Course leaders should ask themselves ‘what do students know at the end of the course that that they didn’t at the outset’. ‘Not much’, would be the view of most graduates.

School art in the maintained sector is suffering at the hands of the politicians, again because the subject leaders have been unable to articulate a strong enough case for their subject. This is probably because they have a B.A in Fine Art and simply repeat the muddled rhetoric they picked up on the way. The political priority is to educate children to an acceptable level in the basic subjects: English, mathematics, science, modern foreign languages, history and geography, not art and design. Unsurprisingly schools focus their limited resources on these subjects. Art is now a very small, and in some schools, non-existent, subject. This is very sad and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. Some people are simply not wired-up to sit at a desk and do academic work. This doesn’t make them uneducated. You wouldn’t expect a plumber to be familiar with the Wars of the Roses but we do need people who can make things, organise, build, care for etc. To eliminate these things from the curriculum deletes our route to develop such key people. Independent schools do not do such things. They are very keen to provide as broad a curriculum as possible, they see this as being what is needed to produce educated young people. To fail to cater for the young artist, athlete, musician or anything else for that matter by making any group of subjects more important is very shortsighted and potentially dangerous. Many young people are already feeling inadequate because they are not good at the things their school says are most important. Good schools do not do such things, they usually say, we all are good at something, our job is to find the thing(s) you are good at, and help you succeed/excel in them.

The art curriculum in schools has been savaged by an examination system that emphasizes experimentation and investigation over teaching basic skills. It is rare to find teachers simply teaching a key art skill, such as drawing. Many artists/designers would say that the ability to draw from direct observation, and from memory and imagination are key skills which are not only relevant to those wishing to pursue the subject to a higher level, but to all children. What better way of improving observational skills? It is not unusual to see students working from images they have culled from the internet yet have little or no understanding of what they are looking at. This approach does not engage all students. Those who prefer short, focused activities lose interest. Teaching degenerates into ‘plate spinning’ where teachers go from student to student offering advice. Of course they repeat the same points again and again and some students rarely get seen. In such situations many students simply drift.

In Years 3-6 in maintained primary schools art is usually taught by the class teacher who has little expertise in the subject. With an increasing emphasis on basic skills art has been relegated to the status of a rare treat. This is unacceptable, particularly since art in the early years assumes a much more central role as a basic part of communication skills. Independent preparatory schools often provide specialist subject teaching from Year 3 with the result that the pupils get taught by people who know what they are doing. Extra-curricular activities often feature artistic topics.

A brief whiz through art education in the UK with lots of gaps I’m sure, but there is much to do. I have done my bit over 43 years but there is still much to be done to convince the art education community and the government that there are very important reasons why art and design should be taught and taught properly. The causes of many of the difficulties now faced by art educators are attributable to art educators themselves who seem unable to convince the powers that be that the subject is worthwhile and needs investment.

John King, self employed artist, teacher, adviser, inspector and educational consultant.

johnkingsart.com/

I more or less always took photographs…

I more or less always took photographs. At the beginning, 12 or something, I remember doing lots of posed portraits of a friend and of my sisters. Then at about 16 or 17 I went to the city centre with a friend and shot a whole film of things I saw. I came back home very excited because it felt great and different and I thought the result would be too. I wanted to take the film out immediately, only I destroyed it by mistake. I never saw those photographs. I cried for hours, my father told me off too and didn’t console me. He’s very tough sometimes. Then he gave me one of his Nikon Fs (he was a photographer at the beginning of his career) and I continued taking photographs. I never thought about it.
Thinking wasn’t my thing. Just before separating from my first husband and daughter, I took some self portraits for the first time. I felt I was going mad at the time.

[I’m interested to know what else you did then – how did you earn a living, how did photography fit into that? At what point did you say – ‘I am a photographer’ – if you did?]

I was a waitress while studying in London and when I finished my 2 years of business and journalism at the LCP (by which time I was already living with my first husband) I found a job as an admin in a Brazilian company (Globo) who had just set up an international office in London to sell their telenovelas. Lush offices, family atmosphere. I left after 2 years to work for a computer company, again as a sales admin with languages. At that point, in my twenties, I was not taking that many photographs. On holiday, yes, and when Agatha was born (I was 28 then). I remember that when I separated from my husband at 30 I picked up my camera to do different things for the first time. But it’s very vague in my mind, and it stopped as soon as I had left him and was with someone else. Photography seems to be something I need to face and express myself, and solitude.

It’s only been about a couple of years since I dared say “I am a photographer” when people ask me what I do. I never felt I was good enough to say this before and even now I feel sometimes that to say this I should be making some money too. It’s difficult to explain. I am a photographer inside, that I feel sure of now. Other people’s view of the matter is the other side of that feeling.

Then, while with my second husband, I continued taking photographs, again in a fairly pedestrian way. But I was good with my children I think, photographing them, I mean, even my daughter with whom I had a difficult relationship. After separating from my second husband, I cried for about a year. Then one day I decided to do a photography competition I had seen in a free magazine, and so I called this acquaintance who was a photographer. And that’s where it really started.

[ How did you do in the photography competition?]

I didn’t win anything and wasn’t mentioned at all. The same happened when I did another competition a few months later with Photo magazine. The theme was music and I’d done various self portraits. I was disappointed both times. My ego too.

After a few months I bought a digital camera, and then I started taking photographs more and more regularly. I did a lot of self portraits at the beginning. It’s rare now. I also started photographing weddings and christenings. I was going to the studio every day and learned a lot.

[What did you learn? –how? –what did you need to know? How did you know what you needed to know?]

I learned technique, I learned Photoshop, I learned also about myself. I didn’t know what I needed, I had started all this from instinct, and I trusted the photographer who had encouraged me in the first place.

Then that stopped suddenly and I had to start working alone from home. I found the loneliness very hard. That’s when a friend introduced me to Flickr. Slowly I started uploading photographs, and looking at other photographers. I didn’t realise it at the time but that really broadened my horizon and motivated me. It gave me that push I needed to work on my stuff which I had done very rarely before except in a professional way.

[Could you say a bit more about how Flickr developed you as a photographer – what do you get from it -is it technique, idea, or just not feeling alone?]

I can’t say I get anything technically out of Flickr. Technique is not my thing per se anyway. No, I’d say that what I get is a wide variety of good and sometimes exceptional work. I’m sure it also gave me ideas, not directly because I have a thing about doing the same thing as other people (I want to feel special I suppose) but definitely indirectly. It made me see more and it made me improve I think. And then the other very important aspect of it is recognition. Even though we alone can really push ourselves, the fact that other people see something in what you do is great, and in a very few cases a source of strength and inspiration.

I’m amazed at how I changed in those two years and I am really grateful for it. I feel I am finally free to do what I want, that it’s ok, that I don’t necessarily need everyone’s approval.

[ I know you’re a reader & I know you have a knowledge of art – how does your work, your absorption in photography relate to other cultural things? Does the fact that you are fluent in three languages affect the way you think about things? Does your status as someone coming from another culture affect the way you look at Greece for example?]

I think all forms of art (including writing) are related. How can I call it. I feel I am alert to, and sometimes find the occasional truth, something that seems to express exactly what life is. I think knowledge of languages just makes you receptive to more, as if I could tune in to more things, and see how it’s all just one thing maybe – nature and human beings.
I always feel a little bit on the outside, even when I’m in Belgium.

So the way I see it, photography saved me. It is about being alive and working alone and it is intimately connected with what is inside me. I never know what is going to happen when I take my camera, whether there is going to be a connection . And I can’t even say I understand what I’m doing most of the time. I don’t try to. But it enables me to exorcise what I can’t put into words I think. The beauty and sadness to be found everywhere. The flashes of truth, what it is like to be alive. Because when I look at my life, it feels as if I’ve grown older along with my photography. And when I say anger fuels it, it’s because I always think that when anger takes hold of me, something I don’t understand and can’t control is happening to me, something old, and that is interesting and challenging. And the only way to change is to be aware of it. I think I have a lot of anger in me. I realise I don’t separate photography from myself. I think it’s an extension of myself, my words.

[How do you define yourself –artist? Photographer? Or does this not matter? How do you define/think about the people whose work interests you? What makes you push yourself photographically –concretely, what lies for example behind the fact there’s a distinct change of style in the current postcard – https://www.flickr.com/photos/96480390@N07/albums/72157655929042888 – series. Is it the equipment? The location?]

A photographer I’d say. It matters. I’m not sure I’m an artist. I love art, but that is different. I think of every person whose work interests me as a person first of all, bizarrely enough maybe.

The postcards series was an idea that came to me from the fact that I couldn’t really download photographs from my camera at my parents. It was difficult because of the size first of all (I like to see my work big on the screen before I decide what to do with it), and also quality, technique which are less controllable on my phone. That’s how I decided to use the editing stuff on the phone as well. It was interesting and fun. I was not aware of pushing myself, just of doing something different. And I think it all came from the need I have to work all the time on the photographs I take, and not to stop completely communicating with Flickr.

Karin Rudolph

https://www.flickr.com/photos/96480390@N07

Thoughts on 22 Theses

1. Students should be accorded respect; teachers should earn it.
I think everyone deserves respect, at least until they prove otherwise.

4. If you’re wrong or you don’t know, bloody well say so.

Yes, completely agree.

5. No-one should propose to others a task that they are themselves not prepared to carry out immediately and publicly. Put less combatively – quiet co-working on a common task (either individual or collaborative) is a form of teaching. The more the lines between student and teacher are blurred, the better.

Maybe, but others may be prepared to stretch their boundaries more than some, as long as it is always clear that the task is about stimulation and not intended to intimidate.

9. Teaching art is like shouting from one vessel to another in the middle of a force ten gale.

Interesting – I’ll need to bear this in mind!

11. A familiarity with culture beyond the visual, some knowledge of history, geography, languages, some familiarity with the sciences, a keen interest in the world; whilst these are not essential, they’re helpful more often than not.

To add to that I would say that I think any personal experience can only contribute beautifully to the making of art – it could never be detrimental.

12. Work made under constraints of time, materials, theme, constitutes the artist’s five finger exercises. An artist is someone who, abandoned in a deep forest or on a desert isle, with only a pebble to mark with and a rock to mark upon will nevertheless make something of interest.

…and I think being given the opportunity to rise to such a challenge allows artistic development to flourish. (Not that I suggest students be abandoned in a deep forest or desert isle)

20. Like it or not, parenting is quite a good analogy for teaching. Caring, nurturing, leading, learning when to look away, when not to intervene, handing over, letting go. Of course it’s not exact, but it indicates some responsibilities and trajectories.

I agree wholeheartedly – not forgetting patience also.

Sam Humphreys, Multi Media Artist & Tutor

http://samhumphreys.com/

It’s better this way

ItsBetterThisWay copy.jpg

Sometimes I get worried about teaching art.  Particularly in reference to showing artworks to students.  The conventional way is by showing slides of famous works.  Often in an institution students see the same slide of the same artwork for decades without any variation of perspective or context.  This is more than a pedagogical issue of how to make artworks truely exist for students, for me it is an emotional obligation to be faithful to larger things of which I have become part.

When I look at certain artworks they make me actually miss the makers (and often I have never met them and never will).  I miss them like dear friends I knew, I loved, and have since passed away.  These artworks are friends who have passed on, and I feel a strong loyalty mixed with tenderness towards showing them as an instructor.  I feel as if I were accountable to them, as if I could make them proud or disappointed of me and my actions.

Its better this way, along with the entire body of my artwork presented here, is a response to that space of loss and non-representability.  In these works I am asking how to proceed with authenticity towards some of the things I love the most, want to share the most, but often cannot represent for others.

Slides are/ were the jeweled skins of the things and places they image, not pixels and not prints.  They are the fragile positives of light bouncing off the original artworks themselves (in the best case, otherwise they were duplicates of images in books).

My photocopied slides are emphatic about their status as a stand in for the real.  They are a copy, of a duplicate, of the living artworks in the world.  Artworks labored upon and loved by others.

The photocopies I present are fair.  Fair in the matte black opacity they offer in lieu of the seductive transparencies that slides put forth.  What is lost, obscured, or even forbidden by slides is the experience of seeing an artwork:

Walking up marble steps rubbed away by generations.  Noticing well dressed, sophisticated patrons, feeling insecurity, and then maybe stumbling upon González-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA), and eating some.  Sneaking a gentle touch of the surface of one of Van Gogh’s paintings of his bedroom.  Becoming infatuated by Callahan’s humble 8×10 photographs of his wife.  Missing Andy Warhol, and knowing he was sweet and severe as you look upon his Silver Car Crash.  The surreality of being eye level with Tasset’s Cherry Tree, and the matter of fact cheat of gazing upon any Ruscha book under glass, but not being able to touch it’s pages.

I can go on and on.  The only time slides are fair for to me is with iconic performative works from likes of Beuys, Bas Jan Ader, and Ambramovic.  Slides of these performances are appropriately dual failures and potencies.  Slides of these artworks are anamolies in that they can potently distill an entire work into a single rectangle.  Each slide becomes a willing and conscious participant in representing something that is now only a representation.  I like these slides but I feel as if they should be called by another name to mark them as separate from the flat, charlatan reproductions of artworks like Étant donnés.

So when I teach and show slides I feel it always as a deep slight to the artist and the viewer.

The only response I could muster to this problem of looking at art was to pick 20 slides, (not my top 20 but what I had at the time), and photocopy the image away leaving the identifying text.  A fair-ish version of looking at artworks properly.  As you look at the sheet of 20 slides they read as a block of small cells darkened while their occupants rest.  Eventually, as you linger over each copied slide you see a dense black that has a palpable depth and texture like a room you wake in at night.

Benjamin Martinkus , artist & educator

www.benjaminmartinkus.com

An email from Bruce Conkle

Sketchbook-Giza

Teaching is wonderful but has many pitfalls, and the administrations here also often seem to be working towards some other end than education. It is frustrating and the trend only seems to be picking up speed, although that might only be my perspective. Top heavy institutions with so many administrators that the body cannot stand up straight or move in an efficient manner. Sort of like a bobble-head. I am teaching 5 classes this term/semester at 2 colleges now, and the workload is more than I am good at dealing with.      

Lately I have not been in my studio that much, although I have been getting very good at keeping a sketchbook with me and drawing more. And these sketchbook drawings have been teaching me that I can draw whatever interests me, not just what I think I should be making art about or what others think my art should be about. Of course some of the drawings are me working ideas about future drawings/paintings/sculptures, but I make also lots of drawings of something I find interesting to look at, or random thoughts. And also it has taught me once again that art is not always precious. That not all work is created to be framed or put on a pedestal and exhibited, and I have really been enjoying a freedom that comes with this.

I traveled a bit over the winter holiday and kept a sketchbook with me at all times pretty much, and have been toting one around since.(Now that I say all this, I have had this image reproduced and I am glad to show it as well… ) I watched The Mummy with Boris Karloff on my last day in Cairo, and did these drawings after my return. Notice he has 3 ears. The first one I drew seemed to be in the wrong place when I got back to that side of the drawing, so I added another and like the way it looked so kept them all…The colorful bits on the ticket stubs were my interpretation of hologram imprints.

OK, I need to run…

Bruce Conkle, artist & teacher

http://www.bruceconkle.com/

Thoughts on what it means to learn to do something in the field of art

As a prize at primary school I was given Adrian Hill’s What Shall We Draw? It was published in 1957. It showed you how to draw such things as horse drawn milk floats, steam driven road rollers, farm animals and trees in full leaf. Trees and animals I was familiar with. The urban stuff was obviously dated and not part of my experience. But copying other’s drawings was a strategy I adopted early on. As well as pencil drawings I made paintings using poster paints (gouache). The paint came in little individual pots from a toy shop in the town. I liked the names of the colours and collected the pots, favouring the blues.

Later I gained grade 1 CSE Art at secondary school, along with English and Music. (Secondary school was not a good time for me.) My clearest memory from art lessons from this time was learning to paint a colour wheel. I had already found out by then that I had inherited red green colour blindness from my maternal grandfather, though I didn’t understand how it might influence my use of paint.

After I left school I did not draw again until into my thirties. I used ‘Teach Yourself’ type instruction books, particularly in watercolour, to learn how to use materials. Copying continued as a basis to learn. I liked to acquire different techniques – laying a wash, scumbling paint – and constructed pictures in order to use and practice these newly learnt traditional skills – they seemed impressive. I briefly tried evening classes in art. Eventually I met a teacher who introduced me to life drawing and I worked with him, in small groups which he led, for several years. We used a wide range of materials, including oil paint which was new to me. Working with a teacher contrasted with working from books.  We were led through a range of five finger exercises which stretched my visual vocabulary and opened up new possibilities to me. I was inspired and enthused. I developed a habit of keeping a sketch book with me. I also worked through two painting courses with the Open College of the Arts, which mostly involved working alone at projects from books. I developed a fairly good understanding of oil paint, both from reading about techniques and through practice. Something new that started to seep into what I was doing was an understanding that I might eventually communicate my own ideas through drawing and painting. I also began to feel frustrated by the limitations placed on me by my colour blindness, having been encouraged to look at the work of painters such as Matisse and Bonnard.

When I was forty-five I left full-time work (work incidentally was and is nursing – nothing to do with image making or art) to do a Foundation course at Norwich Art School. After that year I continued at the art school, leaving with a BA in fine art three years later. I spent most of my time there painting. Tutorials and group tutorials were sometimes useful. I often found though that in tutorials I could be put off what I was doing and be persuaded to go off in another direction, which was not necessarily right for me. I think this was because I was often unsure what I was trying to achieve and discussing it did not necessarily make it any clearer, often having the opposite effect. I seldom felt I could adequately or accurately verbalise what I was doing. I found though that by using the material of paint, even if I felt unsure of what I was doing to start with, ideas would eventually formulate. Perhaps the problem was within me. A manual on how to do this or that is more or less simple to follow, and with practice one develops a dexterity and skill in the use of whatever medium. Tutorials on the other hand were not like this. They went beyond simple techniques. They generally raised questions and did not necessarily provide answers or solutions. Another difficulty I experienced was in linking theory we studied to my own work. In the third year, with encouragement, I started to read artists’ writings and found some common ground with past practitioners, in terms of painting techniques and approaches to painting as well as ideas about composition and constructing a painting. I liked the idea of communicating with dead painters in this way, taking ideas and reinterpreting them for my own ends – another form of learning by copying. By this time I had also developed a way to work effectively within the limitations of the mild type of colour blindness I experience.

My painting bears a relationship to photographs, either found or my own. Sometimes I combine photographs and painting, but most of the time I have used photographs as a starting point for a painting. Recently I made a conscious decision to stop painting altogether and now make only photographs. I use a camera rather like a sketchbook and what I photograph tends to reflect what I am doing day to day. I like to keep it simple and make photos fairly quickly, setting the camera up to use semi-automatically, varying the settings occasionally for different effects.

Stephen Hyatt-Cross

https://www.flickr.com/photos/sh-c/

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on children and art

As a parent creativity has re-entered my life formally (homework!) and informally (Dad, draw me a picture of a dinosaur), and it has been interesting to combine this with my own semi-artistic output: I have no formal training but studied photography at night school when I was 16 and ran the University Photography Society. Both my learning and teaching experiences were around the craft and mechanics of film photography.

My creative collaborations with my daughters have been very rewarding and the rules I have are:

  • Children should have the permission and ability to use tools – their cameras or mine – as they see fit. I have a responsibility to teach them how to use them effectively.
  • They have a veto on anything displayed publicly that includes them. They understand the various public/friends/family/private settings in Flickr and what they mean. (I have a photo I’d love to enter for a competition but C has said ‘no’ as it shows her weeping while her sister looks on smugly.)
  • I hope to move beyond photos of children looking cute / at parties / having fun / showing off. It can take a while but it’s always worth it. It’s fascinating to think about the conventions of child photography: studio pictures, mum/dad pictures (especially on phone lock/wallpaper screens!), pictures for grandparents. All have their place; all should be interrogated.
  • I try to record life as it is lived. Beauty can be found in individual moments but more often it’s the accumulation of moments that counts (again, so interesting on a formal level).

Huw Hitchin
https://www.flickr.com/photos/aleppo/