A brush with learning

November 8, 1996

In 1996, if you add together the total number of art and design graduates in Europe and America in a single year, the total comes to more than the entire population of Florence in the Renaissance.

But why should artists go to art school? Christopher Frayling explains.

In May 1836, the landscape painter John Constable gave a lecture to science buffs at the Royal Institution. In it, he sought to prove that painters did not spring, Minerva-like, from the muse's skull (as was commonly supposed by romantics) but rather that their practice involved a mixture of natural philosophy, craft technique, knowledge of pigments and an understanding of design. More, in short, to do with perspiration than inspiration. He began: "I am here on behalf of my own profession I I hope to show that ours is a regularly taught profession; that it is scientific as well as poetic I and to show that no great painter was ever self-taught.'' At the same time, a select committee on arts and manufactures was gathering information, on the basis of which the first British government-funded School of Design (the ancestor of today's Royal College of Art) would be established a year later. Throughout the 160-year history of public sector art and design education, people have debated the most effective way of educating young artists.

In the Victorian period, the basic concept was that art and design were a kind of language, and if you spent several years learning the grammar, you might one day be able to use it for yourself. So, all students would start with basic geometric shapes, then progress to copying a range of architectural details from books, then, if they were lucky, they would copy three-dimensional objects - such as plaster casts of famous sculptures. Concepts such as "originality" and "self expression" were completely absent from "the South Kensington system".

When the reaction to this "normative tradition" came in Britain at the turn of the century, it came from a group (including Walter Crane and W. R. Lethaby), who, in line with arts and crafts philosophy, wanted to redirect the system from a training of the head towards a training of the hand. Art and design were not just a matter of applying images to things, they were a matter of producing things and thinking them out in the process: action - reflection - action. So instead of the normative tradition came the critical tradition - in the sense of challenging what was seen as the general shoddiness of the visual environment. Concepts such as "originality" were still largely absent (Lethaby said that "no art that is one person deep can be very good art"): phrases such as "good practice", "doing is designing", and "quality of workmanship" were at the heart of the system, written in the finest quality lettering, of course. Painting was "decorative painting"; sculpture was "sculpture and modelling".

In the hey-day of modernism, the philosopher R. G. Collingwood launched an all-out attack on what he called "the technical theory of art": the arts and crafts emphasis on technique was, he wrote, similar to the annual criticisms by the Tailor's and Cutter's Gazette of the cut of gentlemen's suits depicted in Royal Academy portraits. It took art and design educators about 30 years to catch on to the full implications of this. Herbert Read, meanwhile, was writing of the key distinction between "teaching to art" and "teaching through art". Teaching to art involved preparing young people for Constable's "profession"; teaching through art involved emphasising the conceptual and physical skills that art involved, without necessarily being too concerned about the finished product, the art itself. The system, he concluded, had to be explicit about whether it was teaching to art or through art or both. A good question in the 1930s, and an even better one in the 1990s with the huge expansion of higher education. In 1996, if you add together the total number of art and design graduates in Europe and America in a single year, the total comes to more than the entire population of Florence in the Renaissance.

Today's philosophy of art and design education - the expressive tradition - began with a committee, or rather with a series of them: the Coldstream and Summerson committees of 1960-65. These brought art and design education into line with recent professional developments (teaching to art), and simultaneously stressed that art and design education should be considered not merely as professional training, but as an alternative form of higher education in its own right (teaching through art). The committees had a pretty clear idea of the boundaries they reckoned should be placed around studio work. But in time these boundaries were decisively challenged, to make way for what Brian Eno has called "a leap into the unknown". It is best described as the expressive tradition, because at its centre is the notion - for the first time in the history of public sector art and design education - that students should develop the intellectual courage to discover and use their own voices.

So ever since John Constable claimed in his lecture that "no great painter was ever self-taught'', there has been a succession of hard-won paradigms of art and design education: the normative tradition, the critical tradition, the expressive tradition, each supported by intense critical debate and even more intense studio practice. And yet, it is often said that "art schools don't teach anything" and, further, that "you don't have to go to art school to become an artist". Where the former assertion is concerned, I hope this article has stretched the outlines of a reply. Responding to the second, probably the third most famous British artist (after Constable and Turner) - Francis Bacon - whose early life and education remains shrouded in mystery, sometimes said he thought art schools were a waste of precious time. He agreed to rent a studio at the Royal College of Art in Exhibition Road in 1951-53s, on the strict condition - it is said - that he would not have to speak to any of the students. In the event, he got on famously with them, but the misanthropic image lingered.

Constable said no great artist was self-taught: Bacon said there was no need for great artists to be taught. In the mid-1970s, Clive Ashwin decided to research the issue, by asking about 100 professional artists. Nearly all, 93 out of 97, had been to art school (53 schools in all), their average length of study was five years and, further, it was almost unknown for a professional British artist "to achieve prominence without first undergoing some post-school art education''. The definition of "professional" might need unpacking. But the point was well made. Very few professional artists have not studied at art school; all but a few professional artists have been, at one time or another, in the penumbra of art schools as lecturers/examiners. Art schools are integral to the profession.

Why, then, does the idea persist, even in higher education circles, that artists need not go to college in order to succeed in their professional lives? Maybe the romanticism of Constable's audience is still in the public bloodstream. But an experience I had at my first HEFCE annual conference earlier this year may provide another clue. A vice chancellor came up to me and said, half-jokingly, "the Royal College of Art? Isn't that where they mend fuses?". In a higher education sector almost exclusively devoted to interpretation, the idea of performance or practice is, perhaps, difficult for some educators to grasp. If the punchline of the education process is a painting or a ceramic bowl, or a prototype for mass-production -and the thinking is to a large extent embodied in the artefact - then educators more used to marking essays may have difficulty knowing how to respond to it.

Hence the dismissive remark about mending fuses - and, indeed, a fairly widespread snobbery about "thinkers" being superior to "doers" (as if doing didn't involve thinking). When in doubt, make a smart remark about interpretation being the highest form of human endeavour. Perhaps that explains why public perceptions have not progressed very far, since Constable gave his lecture at the Royal Institution. Maybe, as art educators, we should be as forceful as he was in putting over our convictions and achievements.

Christopher Frayling is rector, Royal College of Art.

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