Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Drawing and Representing

The other day a colleague sent me the following quote from Emma Dexter’s Introduction to “Vitamin D New Perspectives in Drawing”:

“Drawing is everywhere. We are surrounded by it,  it is sewn into the warp and weft of our lives: we practice it as one of our earliest experiences as schoolchildren, and as parents we treasure the drawings made by our offspring like nothing else. People draw everywhere in the world; drawing can even be used as a global visual language when verbal communication fails. As adults we use it pragmatically to sketch our own maps and plans, but we also use it to dream  in doodles and scribbles. We use drawing to denote ourselves, our existence within a scene; in the urban context, for example, graffiti acts as a form of drawing within an expanded field. Indeed, drawing is part of our interrelation to our physical environment, recording in and on it, the presence of the human. It is the means by which we can understand and map, decipher, and come to terms with our surroundings as we leave marks, tracks, or shadows to mark our passing. Footprints, in the snow, breath on the window, vapor trails of a plane across the sky, lines traced by a finger in the sand  we literally draw in and on the material world. Drawing is part of what it means to be human…”

My colleague is considering using this quote as part of a drawing project and asked my opinion of it. I responded by saying (perhaps a little cantankerously) that:
“the quote rests on an unspoken but questionable division between drawing on one hand and representing on the other. I'd suggest that it is actually representing that Dexter is speaking of, not just drawing. And by that I mean the full range of media from static 2D media through  film, to audio, performance and poetry etc. Drawing is a medium. It just so happens that it is also common to a number of - but by no means all - processes that are used by artists. Representing, on the other hand is used, not just by artists, but by everyone.”
In the arts we have inherited divisions between media that have dominated the teaching and conceptualisation of art for centuries and, sadly, in the process we have also inherited much of the hierarchical thinking that accompanies them. The fact that drawing has been seen to have a subsidiary role to other disciplines like sculpture, painting and printmaking is because drawing was long considered to be a fundamental skill or core activity and was consequently not recognised as the medium that it very definitely is.

“Drawing is the primal means of symbolic communication, which predates and embraces writing and functions as a tool of conceptualization parallel with language.” Deanna Petherbridge, “The Primacy of Drawing”

No doubt the expediency of drawing has also led to its relegation amongst its more ‘noble’ peers, since the disciplines of Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking are often far more labour intensive in their manufacture, and skilled labour – especially resolute skilled labour - is often highly valued.

The reason it is so vital to recognise drawing as a medium equivalent to sculpture or printmaking etc. is because in this way we can better appreciate what happens when it is taught as a core activity. By doing so - by taking a medium and teaching it as if it were a fundamental skill - we actually reinforce the doctrine of drawing as a subsidiary process whilst also obscuring its position as one of any number of tools that comprise the wider set of practices that we might call Representation. If we teach drawing in this way then it makes little sense to exclude other equally important skills like modelling, photography, moving-image making or even gesture, song, music, dance, writing etc.

Let me be clear though. I am not advocating the dilution of art education to a smorgasbord of very different and often incompatible processes (try making sculpture out of song) but rather I'm trying to show that drawing is no more a core skill than photography is. Core to what? Core to representing? Not even nearly.

Representing (verb) unlike drawing, painting and sculpture (noun?) etc. is not a medium. Representing is what we do with media. Representing encapsulates all forms of communication and it is representing , not drawing, that is the primal means of  communication, which predates and embraces writing, language, drawing, painting, photography etc. and functions as a set of tools and processes of conceptualization without parallel.

There are two reasons why we might want to give increased attention to drawing in the teaching of art. Firstly, drawing is comparatively difficult to master and secondly (and, I would argue, much more importantly) it slows down the process of observation and can lead to greater sensitisation to its own processes, to the subject at hand and by extension to the work of other artists. I’m all for that. But let’s not forget what drawing is. Drawing is a medium, and like any other medium it can be used to compliment, underpin, resolve and contradict other media and like all other media it is just one tool amongst many that allow us to create representations. Representing is not just part of what it means to be human, it is perhaps the very essence of what it means to be human.


John Clark said...

I agree with so much of this and was positively cheered by the point you make about slowing down the process of observation but was left feeling uncomfortable by the feeling that the article wants to achieve two contradictory things: to demote and promote drawing at one at the same time.

Jim Hamlyn said...

I can see what you mean John but there is no demotion (certainly not an intentional one anyway), just a recognition that drawing is one amongst a variety of ways and means to make those profound and extraordinary things we call representations.

Post a Comment