4 JANUARY 1992, Page 29



The happiest years

Giles Auty on the disillusionment awaiting young art students

Amonth ago I attended a reception hosted by the Secretary of State for Educa- tion, the Right Hon. Kenneth Clarke MP. The occasion marked the completion of the labours of the working groups for Art, Music and Physical Education in the National Curriculum. I was a member of the first body, which began its task in September 1990 and completed it some ten months later with the publication of our final report. Our deliberations required a good deal of time and some particularly ferocious concentration on the part of those who do not work in the field of edu- cation, merely to familiarise themselves with the frameworks and technical lan- guage in current use. I found the work, company and discussions stimulating and formed friendships I value.

The Art Working Group travelled exten- sively over England and Wales, visited schools of all types and learned also a good deal about the breakdown of British sys- tems of communication in cold weather. My most treasured memory is of Lady Vaizey, who is blessed neither with excep- tional eyesight nor confidence about driv- ing in the dark, hitting purely by chance on the only road which was passable during a blizzard which closed all other routes. She got home hours before any of us.

Although the cut and thrust of our delib- erations remains confidential, hard discus- sion resulted in what I believe is a well-considered final document. When we began work we were responsible for recom- mending a complete programme for 5-16-year-olds but 'lost' the last two years when art ceased to be compulsory after the age of 14. Regular readers of this column may imagine what emphases I fought for, because the proper training of future artists has always seemed vitally important to me. I write of what I believe was the quality of our work not in any element of self-con- gratulation — I was, after all, merely one of 12 working members supported by an expert secretariat — but to point out some- thing I see as an extraordinary anomaly.

About two months ago I was invited, in my capacity as a former member of the Art

Working Group, to address a gathering of art teachers from the Girls Public Day School Trust. What was their almost uni- versal comment? They were in broad agreement with the Art Working Group's report and worked already largely along the lines recommended not simply to the age of 14 but on to GCSE and A levels.

Clearly, great thought and care went into training their pupils in skills, techniques and the handling of materials. Some teach- ers felt they had been lucky enough to see and identify pupils with exceptional gifts. Eyes lit up as such memories were recount- ed. Predictably, these talented students and others had gained places on honours degree courses in fine art. What had more or less all of these teenagers been told at the commencement of their degree cours- es? Forget all that old stuff you have learned till now. This expression encapsu- lates the new arrogance prevalent in the 'teaching' of modern art on what are osten- sibly, at least, respectable degree courses. Are newly arrived undergraduates enjoined to forget all previous learning on courses in French, biology or English? Clearly they could not begin to fulfil their commitments if they were.

No less to the point is that this kind of arrogant, bullying approach negates, at a stroke, all the efforts and thought which my colleagues and I put into our recommenda- tions of how art should be taught to lower age groups. If we look at art education as a thing of fragments, no wonder armies of art students end up disillusioned and confused. Over the years I have heard scores of simi- lar tales from art students: that they could learn little or nothing of value during their three-year degree courses, that they were consistently bullied and brainwashed 'broken down' is the official expression that they ended up hating the whole busi- ness of art, or of what art had apparently become.

My most recent informant was a charm- ing and articulate girl who had previously read English at university. She feels she learned nothing whatsoever of use during her subsequent years at art school but accepts that students who 'play the system' i.e. appear to take part enthusiastically in the latest modish practices, may appear to prosper. Those with a couple of brain cells to rub together usually recognise most of these practices for what they are: fashion- able nonsense. Indeed, the more sensitive and articulate art students may be the more likely they are to be victimised by trendy purveyors of art's latest thing. A former art student from Oxford recounted that when she kept insisting that she wished to draw from life in the time-honoured manner she was threatened with referral to a psychia- trist. Do you wonder sometimes why what so many young artists write and say appears meaningless verbiage? One answer is that they have been instructed not to trust their natural instincts and told instead that truly 'modern' art is not about sense, beauty or mastery of expression. Those students who want to get on pick up the mumbo-jumbo of their politicised tutors: modern art's

'Last year we went to them, so this year they're coming to us.' about class and gender warfare, Aids and the really important issues of our time, know what I mean?

At the end of last year, I pointed out some of the reasons why I think the condi- tion of art in our time has become increas- ingly degraded and unintelligent. I even proposed a number of practical solutions. The next task we have to tackle is to prise the lid off what styles itself as further edu- cation in art. A longish stick would be a sensible precaution because a whole nest of vipers waits to be exposed underneath.