Some considerations for those who teach art

It is so important for would-be teachers to pause and consider what effect their words and actions may have, and to ask themselves what they are hoping to achieve. In my years of studying art, and trying to make it, I’ve been lucky enough to be taught by some inspirational teachers and come across only a very few bad ones. There have, however, also been quite a number of instances where the words of well-meaning teachers have created confusion and crippling self-doubt. I still remember when I was first setting out, being told by a teacher that the painting I had produced was boring. They were probably right, but it was 16 years before I dared to put paint to canvas again. More recently I’ve experienced a regime where the teaching seemed intent on closing down possibilities, rather than opening them up as I believe good teaching should do.

• So perhaps the first dictum is ‘do no harm’!

• It has been said that art can’t be taught, if this is so it is possibly unreasonable for students to expect too much of their tutors, after all another axiom of art education is that students learn far more from their peers than they do from their tutors. This is how it should be and the learning environment ought to be set up to encourage this.

• Would-be teachers should remember that they are the old guard. The next generation will look to do things differently. That is the nature of art. Whilst it can be inspiring to meet a charismatic tutor with strong beliefs and ideas, tutors should resist the temptation to proselytize. They are not there to create followers, but to develop independent free-thinking artists.

• There are no rights and wrongs in art. Instead there are many different niches and viewpoints. To preach that there is only one correct path is arrogant. A teacher needs to be able to encourage a student to explore an area that they personally have no interest in, if they think it’s right for the student.

• On every course I’ve been on there have been students that have thrived and those that have slipped away. Why is that? At the centre of creativity is belief. Artists need to believe in themselves. They need to believe in their work, and that work must in turn engender belief in it by the viewer. For this confidence to be fostered students need to know their tutors have faith in them.

• It follows on from this that a tutor must always leave the student with something positive to build on.

• This necessity to engender self-belief presents a challenge as art also requires self-doubt, questioning and criticality. How can these opposing forces be fostered alongside each other?

• Perhaps the priority for tutors (and I suspect for many it already is) is to create a safe environment in which students can experiment and play. And where students can make mistakes and fail. The discovery that, far from being a disaster, failure is an important part of moving forward is vital as it is through failure that artists learn.

I owe a great debt to the many marvellous teachers that have enriched my life. Thank you. The others are best forgotten – though sometimes that is not so easy as even their silent rebukes seep into my self-doubt. So those of you who are courageous enough to teach, pause, take a deep breath before you enter the class room and ask yourselves; what are you hoping to achieve?

Gordon Flemons, Artist