Thursday, 7 July 2011

Drawing out the Core

I've gotten into a bit of a disagreement with a colleague over the prominence given to Drawing in a joint text we are preparing for a future course brochure. What started as a slight difference in perspective has polarised into a full blown professional (though fortunately not personal) disagreement.

My colleague teaches in a different (more traditional) department of the art school and in his opinion drawing is a "core" procedure which is "crucial to visualise critical thinking." For my part, I'm not at all convinced that any particular set of physical skills is a prerequisite for making art and I've certainly never encountered any evidence that drawing is an indispensable mode of demonstrating critical thinking. On the contrary, I've seen plenty of evidence that it's quite possible to possess prodigious skills in draughtsmanship but little attendant critical capacity.

Within the historical tradition of art production it is invariably the case that drawing has played a central role in enabling a remarkable diversity of visual exploration and expression. Likewise, in the contemporary setting, there is little doubt that drawing continues to function as a fantastically useful and powerful set of capacities that inform and underpin the manifold practices of a great many artists.

Prior to the invention of photography this centrality of draughtsmanship may have been largely unquestioned but even here we find numerous examples of extraordinarily skilful and insightful artworks made by artists who barely used drawing at all, let alone as a core aspect of their practice. I'm thinking principally of sculptors here and although sculpture shares many common skills with drawing it would be crazy to suggest that a good sculptor must, of necessity, be good at drawing.

“Drawing ability is regarded as a prerequisite skill for observation, recording, analysis, speculation, development, visualisation, evaluation and communication.” -QAA Benchmarking Statement, Section 3.4, 2008

We can thank the art academies of Renaissance Europe for the idea that drawing is a core skill. A similar emphasis, though in radically different form, reverberated through the pristine walls of the 1920's Bauhaus, which sought to foster a more technically oriented ethos more fitting to an industrial age. James Elkins discusses this historical lineage in his book, "Why Art Cannot be Taught", where he also notes that many current art schools continue to model themselves after the Bauhaus example.

Admirable and influential as the Bauhaus has proven to be, the world of art and design production has undergone a transformation in the intervening years and many of the skills of artists and designers have evolved, changed, died out and formed anew during this period. Coupled with these transformations has come an explosion of new courses with ever more bewildering titles, each seeking to accommodate its own particular media niche. But does it make sense to attempt to incorporate each and every new subdivision of emerging media by devising ever more finely divided specialist courses?

If skills are not the immutable things we once thought they were, then perhaps we need to look a little deeper - towards what lies at the heart of an artist’s “being”. What then emerges is a set of what we might call “dispositional tendencies”; such things as curiosity, inquisitiveness, determination, perseverance, criticality, exactitude, resilience, confidence, perspicacity and thoughtfulness.

This is not to suggest that technical skills are somehow obsolete or unnecessary but rather that these are themselves underpinned by a whole raft of sensibilities/dispositions/inclinations/aptitudes, call them what you will, that an education in the arts - whether explicitly or implicitly - seeks to cultivate. After all, we don’t just teach technique do we?


Anonymous said...

These look like the same qualities as a scientist needs.

J. Hamlyn said...

I think you’re absolutely right. The question then arises whether there are other qualities that are more specific to artists: inventiveness, idiosyncrasy or self absorption for example, or whether it’s a question of the mix or is it simply the forms, tools and domains of knowledge through which these qualities are channelled? I think it’s likely to be the latter case, art is a medium after all so perhaps this similarity in basic dispositions and drives should come as no surprise.

Tamsin said...

What you're saying makes a lot of sense to me. I find it hard to believe that drawing isn't a pretty useful, perhaps even transformational, activity if what you are interested in is the visual, and in making images. It seems to me that you learn a lot through drawing; that you get ideas about shape and line and form that expand whatever sense of these things you can come up with on your own, without drawing.

Having said that, though, many people (perhaps mainly those outside the mainstream 'art' world?)seem to think that skill in drawing IS art, or, is the point of artistic activity. Technical skills wow people, feeding into cultural ideas about art-producers as possessors of special gifts, god-given talents. For me, a very skilled technical drawing can be utterly lifeless, pointless (in terms of being a vital, interesting image...)

Unknown Inc. said...

JIm, and Tamsin,
I couldn't agree with you more - you hit the nail on the head leaving me with nothing more to add.

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