Liz Sterry: Artist, dog walker, roller skater.
“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
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
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
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.