The necessity for reform in art education

The necessity for reform in art education

by Charles Harris
article from Monday 28, November, 2016

THIS WEEK I shall feature contemporary art education, where there is a vital need to reform an unchecked bias for modernism. While personally I take no pleasure by waving a finger to question our universities and schools, nor discuss their business without good cause, yet I am saddened by how an education system can be so corrupted by an unnecessary modernist art bias. So I will try to explain and begin with a kind letter I received this week.

"Hallo Mr Charles Harris, I was so satisfied with your article. It was so easy to read. I have always wondered why art was always such a foreign activity to me and I never thought that I was not viewing it in the first place. You have to look at the big picture and you have made that possible for me. Please keep up the good work. Kindest regards, Mrs. …"  

This letter, for which I am very grateful, perfectly highlights the confusion of our situation today, where the public is left in the dark with regards to what are proper public choices for appropriate public art, thus allowing those ugly modern conceptual objects to constantly appear.

Equally, everybody may wonder, again without proper questioning, how the using and teaching of these inappropriate ideas are acceptable activities today? Naturally it raises a question - Do we agree to have our children or grandchildren taught to think and operate in this self-evident cold conceptual modernist fashion, without any need for conventional beauty, tradition, heritage, and our culture?  I think the key to this matter is Consent.  

Therefore to explain, I shall continue with this subject of consent from a political viewpoint of our famous British philosopher and political theorist of the 17th century, John Locke; and highlight one of his illuminating discussions concerning consent – those questions of democracy in the American Civil War, with compulsory conscriptions into the army – and how the rich were allowed to pay somebody else a fee to go in their place, whereas the poor, or those disadvantaged and needing to be paid, had no choice but to go to war.

Naturally, I am only writing here about an unquestioned bias for modernist art in education, a subject certainly not as serious as war, nevertheless it is important to us for our art, culture, and future. And this time I can show how everybody is in the same boat, all experiencing the same situation, without any choice regarding this unchallenged modernism. For it is a shock to consider how many people have been bamboozled by what happens in modern art and probably without realising how this modernism bullied its way brutally into our education system, and the questionable effect this has on pupils and students today – all likely without genuine public understanding, approval, or proper parent consent.

So what happened, where did all this mess begin? For me it began in the Life Room at the Royal Academy, where we new students were all on probation for the first three months, and expected to complete a portfolio showing a large amount of work, with a high standard of quality as well.

There was no time to waste, whilst to everybody’s surprise, we were subjected to the daily distractions of modern visiting tutors; whose appearance at the RA was an honour for their Universities and Colleges. Yet unfortunately to a person, they regularly spoke loudly about the modern art need to abstract, extrapolate, reduce, simplify, or conceptualise, with an excess of modern jargon, or silly statements, e.g. ‘You should be able to complete a drawing in five minutes, or ‘Go and draw in another room from memory.’

Yet what we all needed was helpful observations about our work; pointing out any inaccuracy, and the offer of practical assistance accordingly. So frustrated one day by these constant breaks of my concentration, I turned around with my pencil and said, “Show me.” To everybody’s amazement, ‘this person put on his trainers and flew out of the door.’ This became a regular event, for regrettably these same people when asked to demonstrate left the room, as they clearly could not draw from life, nor were they ever likely to try, but still felt qualified to make comment nevertheless.

When asked about these visitors by our group, my late dear friend, Peter Greenham OBE, Former Keeper of the Royal Academy said, “At the end of the 60’s, widespread university dropouts found themselves faced with no career or prospects, and moved into education and especially our art education.  At that time art was classified as vocational, and required little in the way of academic skills, or formal qualifications to gain admission.”    

Naturally it follows how this generation encouraged others, who quickly followed suit. While understandably at that time, there was already much hair-splitting over past traditional techniques versus modern art ideas, but modernism prevailed. And eventually, with the advent of a new modern educational system, came a new apparent need to write about art, to study art history and in particular to write about abstract modern artists in exams, instead of learning those skills and ability needed to actually make conventional traditional art in practice.

So for an unchallenged period of time, most college or university students, were encouraged to accept those negative ideas of the ‘subjective,’ to then make modern abstract art and eventually, a philosophy of ‘the abstract’ became the only obsessive fashion. Again within art colleges and universities, to accommodate this change in the education of art, methods of tuition were continually altered, often aiming to encourage short spontaneous responses and away from long-term studied activity. At the same time any serious or prolonged attempt at objective realism was strongly discouraged, while traditional art work was not rewarded in relationship to achievement, but unfairly treated.

From my own period of running an art centre, during eight years where according to our former centre manager, we staged over five hundred master classes; we also heard plenty of ugly unpleasant reports of that extreme modern bias. Yet I do not believe everybody was naturally involved, and this subject is just one in a multitude of subjects our Schools and Universities successfully teach. While in my travels I have discovered many intellectuals, academics, and senior educationalists who are unhappy to be associated with this extreme mess in art today.

So I do not wish to pass blame in particular, but to ask for change instead. I have repeatedly said, "At every level this situation can easily be changed." And as I believe some institutions may wish to reconsider and begin reform themselves - I will just limit my comment to three miserable examples, where I was directly involved.

So let's begin with an early student of mine, who was accepted on the strength of her drawing portfolio at a leading Scottish University, and then prevented from working or drawing from life thereafter. Both she and her fellow university friend came to stay with us in tears at weekends, dismayed by the treatment they received each week. They said they were bullied repeatedly and my advice for them was to work where they could, and complete their normal drawing in the evening classes, etc. At the end of her time, those bias tutors said my student had not performed, and refused to allow her to display her work for exam. As I had viewed the amount of work she had completed and the high standard, I was obliged to write to the university and formally complain. Consequently she was allowed to display her work – and the external assessor gave her a first.

In recent times, during an international fund raising project, I staged master classes at several of our top private schools and a large comprehensive. In one I discovered an excellent pupil who, with coaching, produced exceptional perspective drawings. I was invited to see the entire pupil’s work at a final year show, where sadly I discovered after I had left how the art staff had encouraged this particular pupil to just ignore me, and work conceptually on a convex panel. Curving out towards us about six inches, it totally negated that excellent perspective work achieved. As I looked at this in dismay, a senior member of the art staff and it seems, two local modern university tutors, appeared to laugh at this outcome. Yet disgracefully, that school pupil was the innocent loser.

My last student was again accepted at university on the strength of the portfolio. After two weeks the work was photographed as the standard ‘for all future students.’ While after three weeks, came the ban on drawing and working from life, with the threat of being marked down, which happened anyway. My student was told the work had to be justified to conceptual standards. Strange hypocrisy from ‘Anything is okay modernism?’  And once a week, all students had to attend a compulsory lecture from a leading fanatic conceptual artist, who flew up from London. They were not allowed to ask questions! In the final year my student passed with a second, despite having previously produced all that excellent traditional work, but was forced to change needlessly.

The situation described above continues to the present, while two years ago leading figures in business and the CBI complained that in Art, university students were almost unemployable, as they could not draw properly. This obviously occurs when advances in technology, the next generation of 3D design and computers all require good three dimensional drawing skills. So those mistaken ideas of encouraging art students to just conceptualise, or study philosophy instead, where the aim is to discourage any traditional practise must end.

In education, access to the subject of classical art and its lost skills - should now be available to all.

While for those disadvantaged, conventional drawing in art allows people without academic skills, to acquire advanced technical abilities and an equal opportunity to explore and fulfill themselves. The learning experience and self-improvement from discovering ability, with transferable practical drawing skills, does help these students to engage in loftier preoccupations. The same is true for any interested person, perhaps wishing to return to education; to have that chance to visually discover the world around us, and happily those learnt skills will automatically help them to extend themselves into other areas, for the benefit of us all.

Indeed it was always understood that an artist was a person ‘who brought order to chaos,’ not the opposite. And the ability to raise the human spirit from the drudgery of everyday life by supporting the pursuit of excellence, was the living aim that existed for seven hundred years with Art from the Great Tradition, and that aim which crossed all boundaries, is now a new candle burning brightly again across the globe.

So necessary reform can begin today, for we can also withdraw our consent, both for conceptual public art, and for this pro modern art education bias. For despite whatever subjective esoteric modern art excuses are presented against conventional traditional art, and by any farfetched pseudo modernist misinterpretation of existentialism, we do see the sun in the sky, we do feel the rain and we will continue to do both. And for the painter or draftsperson, those basic 3D conventional principles of Line and Chiaroscuro, that Leonardo taught, still remain the same and true, for us all to enjoy.

(Copyright Charles Harris, Trust your Heart - The Validity of Contemporary Painting)

Photos: Charles demonstrating drawing in a Master Class at an Italian university and below, the first Artist in Residence Scheme pioneered by Charles in a Surrey School featured on the BBC Six O’clock News Programme.


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