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