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.