The views of older men of painting are often dismissed as out-of-touch and old-fashioned, harking back to a mythical golden age. But the critical remarks made by the acclaimed artist Ken Currie, in advance of his first exhibition in over ten years – Meditations on Portraiture, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – warrant consideration. He raises serious questions about the problems with art schools today.
Currie has complained that art schools are failing their students, especially in the instruction of painting. “The younger generation want to learn how to paint, but this is not being delivered at arts schools in Scotland and all over the world,” he said. “Most of the tutors in art schools, with a few notable exceptions, are themselves deeply hostile to painting. They themselves are not painters.”
You can see the evidence every year at any art college exhibition across the country. There is, without doubt, an unwillingness to paint; the medium is seen as too traditional, over and done with. Instead, the end of the course exhibitions are uniformly full of bits of this and that; plastic and wood assembled into something supposedly meaningful, but which appear incomplete. There is little sign of a serious craft.
At a recent conference organised by the University of Arts, a major art-education institution which incorporates the Central Saint Martins and Camberwell schools of art, in London, on the future of art schools, Jeremy Till, the pro-vice chancellor of Central Saint Martins, one of England’s art schools, dismissed the idea of art as the pursuit of beauty. It became clear as the conference progressed that too much is off limits. Indeed, it would be truly radical to paint something beautiful. Instead, art students are encouraged to focus on bringing to life an idea through a physical form, be it in an installation piece or video, and this has limitations.
But it must be pointed out, that, despite the problems with the devaluing of painting, those commentators that see painting as the only way to do art, such as The Stuckists – a campaign group that argues for figurative painting – can fetishise it. For all their excitement about paint, the painting by The Stuckists is poor. The paintbrush and canvas are not the only way.
Art school training should be about the nurturing of inquiring, independent students, who have to master what came before them, but also be able to take it somewhere new. The question is: why does this not happen?
There have been two damaging trends that have altered the purpose of art school and they are disorientated as a result. The first is what Currie describes as the “academicisation of art”. That is, the move towards research and theory as an essential part of training and learning. Currie laments: “You get artists who are called things like ‘professors’, or a paper or video artist goes in and they are called ‘research fellows’.” Which, he says, “Completely academicises it. It professionalises it.”
This is not to sound anti-intellectual; art requires thinking and the artist should reflect on their work. It’s that so much of it is a retreat into circular reasoning, and an arcane discussion between the few, which is ultimately banal. The theory has become more important than the execution of it in physical form. The craft is abandoned for theory. It’s not just, then, that craft and technique is under-appreciated, but that the theorisation is limited and only of interest to those doing the same.
Secondly, art schools have followed the more general consumerist transformation of higher education. Those running institutions feel that have to prove their worth by instrumental outcomes. In particular, they stress the value of art school to jobs and the economy. Their aim is to pass students who will get a position in something like a design company, or become a famous artist who sells to established collectors. Nigel Carrington, vice-chancellor at University of the Arts, London explained at the conference on art schools: “As government talks in a language of ‘outcomes’, academics and artists are forced to do the same.” But, he warned: “Institutions should be wary of the subtle dangers of relying too greatly on the economic value of art.”
Increasingly, students are encouraged to adopt a pragmatic outlook towards their work. They are invited to see the training as vocational, rather than an early exploration of their long-term life work as an artist. The degree is successful if they secure a contract and a pension. Thus, there is a focus on what has already worked, and what is wanted, which is a conservative recipe for stasis. I have no doubt that some individuals benefit and flourish: those that are marketable and market themselves. But I doubt it nurtures great artists.
What does it create? Clearly, a great deal of art that is churned out today is unoriginal, or that which interests only a minority of people: a group of collectors and their flatterers.
The lack of interest from a wider public in contemporary art of the sort that comes out of art school today is in marked contrast to the huge appetite for the big exhibitions of older, more traditional artists. At some point, that lack of public interest in contemporary art, is important. Artists need to create a broader public for their work or face up to the fact that it’s not saying enough, well enough.
It is time to rethink the purpose of art school. It’s not to write impenetrable papers, get the students a job, or fame and fortune, but to help them develop as an artist. And lest this just come across as a complaint only about art school, whilst those in charge are culpable and ripe for criticism, budding artists don’t have to go to art school, or to those ones on offer. If, as Currie says, they want to learn to paint, they could rebel and train themselves, set up their own schools and pursue their own agenda. They should go back to the drawing board and rethink the art school.