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. 


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.


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




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.



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.


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.


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



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



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



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