As a child, I wanted to be An Artist but I was very shy about showing people my art. I’d grudgingly come to accept what I was told, that ‘talent’ was obvious from birth and that if I found anything difficult to render, it meant I didn’t have any.
If there was learning to be done, I was told that it could only result in something useful, like design, or pleasing, like decoration. If I had the courage to envision a life of isolation and struggle, these were the goals I was to set for myself. Failing that, I was to consider art as my leisure activity.
Everything in my environment confirmed these fine art lessons. After all, after WWII people were expected to be practical, art had to have a commercial application, and many of those who might have wanted to become such things as painters or sculptors in the Fine Art sense had learned to put their own aspirations aside For the Greater Good. It became normal for them not to question the ‘starving artist’ narrative and to expect their children to do the same.
To me, however, there seemed to be a conspiracy to lead me to abandon my aspirations, despite the books I read about all the art in the world, and regardless of all the art I saw in galleries and museums that seemed to suggest other possibilities. Another conclusion I had been led to was that THOSE artists were dead geniuses who’d come into the word both rich and skilled. Luckily for my mother, I guess, but not for me, I had not been born with a chisel or paint brush in my hand.
Like my elementary school teachers, my parents were very clear about what I should learn to represent and why. Art, according to them, especially if made by a girl, was meant to be beautiful and uplifting. “Beauty, usefulness, therapy!” was the litany on the one hand and “Starvation, decadence, self-indulgence!” was the sermon on the other.
Starvation? I wasn’t a big eater, and decadence and self-indulgence sounded pretty good to me. Anyway, why would anyone worry about what I made and why before I could even make it? Maybe, I thought, if I worked really hard… logically, if I could learn to make beautiful things, maybe they wouldn’t HAVE to be useful like cushions or vases, maybe they could be beautiful like a Bernini or a Dali.
I worked hard. When I did have the temerity to show any adult my images with the hope of getting an enlightening reaction, they zeroed in on what they considered errant marks. These they were quick to correct as ‘mistakes’ by drawing or painting over them or by telling me exactly how to redo them, even as I wondered, “How do they know it’s a mistake?” The way they corrected it made it their image, not mine. How would they understand what I was trying to express if I couldn’t learn how to render it? My frustration levels rose.
Deep down, I knew there was something terribly wrong. I just knew it. But how was a child to defend herself against such an onslaught? I had no access to practicing artists to give me hope and support, art in school was so… elementary as to teach nothing at all, and I had no money of my own to run away to Italy and find a sculpture academy that would take a twelve-year old. When I finally begged for lessons my father, a designer, enrolled me in a mail-order school with colouring book-type exercises. I was deeply discouraged.
There was nothing to it but to put away the dream of being An Artist. I locked my imagination into the fantasy cage; it was difficult to hold it back. By applying myself to ‘practical, useful’ things when anyone was looking, but by privately consuming every bit of information about Art that I could absorb, I managed to keep it at bay. However, I withdrew more and more in the process and a great, alienating sadness settled over me.
In high school, I built up the courage and signed up for Art. Rumour had it that it was ‘great’. My parents would never know. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance in grade ten, and I hid it among the science, math, language and other ‘useful’ subjects I had to take. By then all I could think about were the innumerable skills I lacked that I couldn’t teach myself, especially about sculpture. I was desperate.
Turns out that to most of the other kids, ‘great’ meant ‘easy’ and besides, the grade ten, high school art teacher had other ideas. She called it, “The Curriculum!” like it was some divine order, and I became convinced she was a secret agent for the government meant to brainwash us into being “Responsible’. Art that did not serve Society, well, we would fail, of course.
“You will make posters – not paintings, posters - to address human injustice / war or peace / global warming / endangered species / recycling / … “ the teacher commanded. “There’s one brush per student. Don’t waste paint. Don’t make a mess! You will be marked on your compositions.” Time in class was regimented, and motivation was always delivered with a “this might be on your final exam!” What to do with the colour wheel of grey scale once we’d made them? Figure it out. If the teacher had information to clarify our thinking, techniques to refine our skills, or methods by which to improve our use of the tools she didn’t share them.
Afraid of what I would find in CEGEP art classes at the time, I didn’t apply. Anyway, the advisor told me my portfolio wasn’t good enough, it was full of figure drawings, portraits and surrealistic scenarios I’d created on my own. I didn’t even cry.
I took literature, drama and dance classes instead of art, and followed that up with a university degree in theatre. Oh joy! On the set and prop design/construction team for the major productions, I finally learned all about materials, their properties, and the methods and tools with which to create images. This literally saved my life. While I sacrificed membership in the ‘art millieu’, I learned more of the art techniques and gained more of the skills I was craving as a Theatre student than I’d imagined possible.
Still, I needed to be ‘an artist’. I went back to university for another degree. I needed to transform my art craft skills into fine art skills, especially to refine my painting. Sure. How was I to know universities taught art as if they ran a carousel? You had to get on while the program spun at full speed and wait for the exact class to join when there was room or you’d spend the three years of the degree fighting not to be thrown off your motivation. When I jumped on, the pencil was an endangered species, the human form was persona non grata and abstraction and abstract expressionism were gods.
Anyway, the workload! We tackled assignments like we were Greyhounds chasing Alice’s rabbit in Wonderland. In fact, the focus wasn’t on making art, it was on defending it conceptually. Words flowed where media splattered, and discourse built structures around what should have been self-supporting. What I mostly learned was to understand, explain or defend something that had meaning for other people but in which I didn’t really see any meaning for myself.
Typical design class instruction:
“Figure-ground. Figure: the subject. Ground: its environment. Good composition: a perfect balance between them. Your assignment: 100, 12”x12” black and white figure-ground images in collage for next week. Get to it.” Design by formula, available in any how-to design text.
Typical drawing class:
“Draw the model: poses of 30 seconds, one minute, three, five, ten, fifteen. Stop! Enough representation. Now, loosen up! Express! Accuracy is constricting! Technique is dictatorial, push that medium around, let it reveal the image! ! Don’t think, interpret! FEEEL!” Drawing by instinct, better done privately with music to individual taste.
Typical painting class instruction:
A professor says, “Paint,” at nine a.m. and soon leaves. He is gone for most of the six hours of the class while the students proceed to do as they are told, some with abandon, others hesitantly, some at a complete loss. A number help each other. At four p.m., the professor returns. He walks about the room inspecting the paintings. He is a real artist; his contempt for hesitant technique is palpable. “Wrong blue,” he snaps, or “Weak brush stroke,” or “Garbage! What were you thinking?” or, rarely, “That’s painting! Look, learn. Evaluations in three weeks.” Class over, he leaves. The students slink off to their next class. Painting by guesswork or ‘experimentation’ or even bullying, resulting in mostly incidental or subjective critiques.
In the sculpture class:
“It will never work!” the professor says of the proposed project. Sculpture by negation, on the defensive before the work is even attempted.
Thank you theatre degree! After all, when you make things for the stage you have to make them well. They have to: convey the play’s meaning; help create emotion; integrate with the costumes, the lighting, the sound effects, the style of acting; carry an actor’s physical weight or open and close noisily or noiselessly on cue; be moveable and endure over many nights of use or abuse. You can get away with a lot of bad (but expressive) technique as a visual artist that would get you in very big trouble in the theatre!
Better yet, having worked with theatre directors, I knew how to defend my work. I could take responsibility for the risks I was willing to take, to at least TRY something challenging and ambitious, even if it might fail. The secret was not to work for approval, and not to care about low marks or bad critiques, but be very focused on my vision: in that the years of creating secretly paid off. By that time, all I needed from the educational system was access to materials, equipment and locales I could not afford to provide for myself.
Getting professors who actually taught anything was an unexpected bonus.
That was a long time ago, in a place not so far away. Here, in fact. I have met artists who had a vastly different experience of their art education, but they studied in Europe, or in the United States, way before me or in other provinces. Still, I have met too many others whose educational experience as aspiring artists has been as harrowing, and not just those of my age. Regardless, all have to deal with audiences who are largely ignorant about or indifferent to art because of THEIR education.
Has the kind of 20th century art education I had changed for the 21st? Many will say that it has. After all, computers and Internet have made images even more prevalent in our interactions, and people imagine hefty salaries as animators or game designers. As well, technology and our concept of popular art in multi-purpose spaces make everyone an artist. Yet cuts to the arts in education and in its dissemination are epidemic in our society, supposedly because they are ‘expensive’. These cuts have only been as devastating in dictatorships where it’s desirable for people to think sports and leisure are ‘culture’ enough without being aware of what they are losing.
As people read this, perhaps they see nothing at all wrong with the styles of teaching I described. They might say, ‘Well, you’re an artist now!” accepting that real artists won’t be deterred (what more do they want, they’re gifted!). Perhaps they’re art teachers who teach in these ways themselves, hogtied by huge classes, re-directed curricula, loss of facilities and equipment, and their own compromised artistic education and practice.
Or perhaps they too experienced these educational approaches in the visual arts as students and learned to ignore them, doing the work just to get the degree and get out of there. How many thrived, how many just survived as artists, and how many gave up their art and their ‘useless’ degrees to get ‘a real job’?
Other artists I know who did survive the system say they ‘like’ this situation: they think it means that there is less competition. They also get to earn extra money by teaching art techniques out of the educational system, and since they can sell by Internet now, they’re happy to be free of the galleries, now closed, in which they lost huge chunks of income to commissions.
Maybe they’re right but I just don’t see that they are. Why should I care if people continue to be subjected to what I call Teaching Art By Omission and its sub-genres, Teaching Art with a Hidden Agenda and Teaching Art By Assumption? I care because I think that the kinds of approaches to ‘art education’ I described above cheat those who want to be artists.