The Fleming Gallery in London, in collaboration with Glasgow School of Art, recently put on a show entitled ‘Learning to Draw / Drawing to Learn’. In the second half of the 20th century art education in Britain moved away from the traditional academic practice that was centred on the life room. It actually took longer in Scotland, due to a different education system, but eventually progress could not be halted and the teaching of the Bauhaus and Basic Education was installed as a primary teaching method. As definitions of visual art expanded to include branches of theatrical performance, film, sound, language, gesture, neon and digital innovations, the activities of the life room – and observational drawing in particular, diminished.
Drawing was originally a way of understanding and representing the world, from architecture to an anatomy, from proportion to problem solving. It was and still is an active means of visual discovery, as opposed to a passive means of recording. But alternative methods of visual and conceptual presentation of ideas now predominate. Today the camera is king, the blind man has knocked the model off his dais and the once eager student has abandoned life drawing as well as his donkey.
The organisers of the Fleming exhibition are aware that it is now problematic to “link dependence on quality in art with an agreed set of skills and attributes” and “it is now no longer possible to measure competence through observational drawing”. The art world has embraced too many alternative positions and the old certainties and traditions are no longer seen as relevant. But observational drawing does still cling on as a discipline…
Ken Currie, a graduate from Glasgow School of Art and one of Scotland’s most significant painters has also entered the debate on art school education. “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.”
Drawing and painting as a subject is seen to be difficult and students who want instant success and gratification “are not prepared to go through with the hard graft.” He heaps particular distain upon the “dreadful academisation of art” with tutors sporting their new professorial titles and post graduates students revelling in their “research fellow status”.
Ken Currie points out that despite the recent international success of Glasgow School of Art graduates, it was voted third bottom for higher education institutions in terms of student satisfaction. “A lot of students go there with high hopes, given the high reputation of the school, and come out feeling just completely disillusioned”.
Although drawing exhibitions are more frequent than might be expected, definitions of drawing have expanded exponentially with the widening definition of art, but not always to its benefit. The Fleming Gallery and Ken Currie have highlighted an area of concern and are trying to bring drawing back into the forefront of appreciation. Sharpen your pencils they seem to say, there are new times ahead – Learn to draw, draw to Learn.
Image Credit: Ken Currie, THe Three Oncologists