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Debate: can you teach art?

Published 21 February 2019

Eliza Bonham Carter, Curator and Head of the RA Schools, and RA Schools student Ewan Macfarlane share their thoughts. Cast your vote below.

  • Yes...

    By offering a range of perspectives that allows students to realise their intentions, Eliza Bonham Carter, Curator and Head of the RA Schools says you can teach art.

    Art is as varied as the artists who make it; the job of the art school is to provide an environment that enables infinite variety. This is achieved through a method unlike other subjects, but one that I would nonetheless describe as teaching.

    The practice of exposing the art student to many voices has informed British art school teaching since the first days of the RA Schools in January 1769. From the start, a monthly rotation of Royal Academicians taught the students – a system radically at odds with the established European system, where a student would study in the studio of one particular artist-professor. The British method exposes the art student to a panoply of attitudes, positions and approaches to art-making; it is the student who weighs up all that they have heard and seen, making sense of it through making work in the studio. The role of the art school is to provide students with insight into their work by setting up the infrastructure for them to be artists – space, workshops and critical discussion. But unlike most artists, the art student proceeds to make their work in shared spaces. In this way they learn from each other, exchanging their rich diversity of history, process and reference.

  • At best the attitude of the tutor is not that of a master, more that of a midwife, enabling the student to recognise and produce something closer to their intention.

    Eliza Bonham Carter, Curator and Head of the RA Schools

  • In art school there are myriad conversations, largely with artists – in tutorials, group critiques and artist talks and lectures, ideally delivered by a broad range of specialists. Each form plays a different role. A tutorial is likely to start from the particulars of the student’s work and evolve into a far-reaching discussion. At best the attitude of the tutor is not that of a master, more that of a midwife, enabling the student to recognise and produce something closer to their intention. A student may emerge from a tutorial with greater insight into their work, a book to read, a new skill to develop, an artist to look at, the confidence to carry on, or all of the above.

    Peer learning is also vital, often serendipitous, but also structured into teaching through the group critique, where tutors and a group of students discuss the presentation of work by an individual, exposing the diversity of opinion and response to an artwork.

    The study of art is different from other forms of learning. A student of history must bend themselves to the subject of history; the material they work with is pre-existing and the student is required to give evidence of their understanding of it. In art, the student generates new material, making work independently, thinking through making. In the art school the subject of teaching is the art student’s intentions. It is an environment that enables the student to clarify their thinking, to rid themselves of ideas about what art should be and to make instead that which they intend.

  • No...

    RA Schools student Ewan Macfarlane argues that artists can spend years unlearning their tuition, in order to discover their best instincts.

    When Eliza, Curator and Head of Royal Academy Schools, asked me to write the No piece for this article, I thought tackling such an elusive question with only 450 words would be some task. If the question is looked at too closely, if the figurative thread pulled too hard, what I am likely to unravel is a convoluted, cliché-packed journey on which all roads lead to “What is Art?” – a question I am neither roused, nor equipped, to answer. What’s more, I’ve gained much by, and am grateful for, my time studying on the postgraduate course at the RA Schools.

    I don’t subscribe to the idea of genius. Hard work (well directed) is as important as instinct, and those who are provided with incentives to be more thoughtful, to look, listen, read and talk more, get smarter faster. Yet, regardless of my hesitation in arguing that art cannot be taught, it is also true that instinct is as important as hard work. It is this, paired with my personal experience, that provides the basis for my position.

  • Hard work (well directed) is as important as instinct, and those who are provided with incentives to be more thoughtful, to look, listen, read and talk more, get smarter faster.

    Ewan Macfarlane, RA Schools student

  • In the years after gaining a BA (Fine Art) at one of London’s more competitive and revered art institutions, I spent a lot of time trying to identify, and liberate myself from, various unhelpful prejudices that I had picked up while studying there. I learned about art, certainly, but I also accrued as many handicaps – assumptions that obscured the essence of ideas – as I did tools. Even inside the glistening gates and closely guarded walls of a highly regarded BA course, one must be wary not to have the art taught out of oneself – as Picasso suggested, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

    It is advisable, therefore, to pick one’s masters wisely. But if wisdom is a prerequisite for education, is the pupil’s fate not condemned to chance? And what of those brilliant teachers I have encountered? I would be surprised to hear any of them deny that I could find them 10 individuals who would be immune to their pedagogical powers for each person they could shepherd to see.

    Having been careful to sail a neat path around the chicken-and-egg cliché, it is with a nod to the horse and water that I shall conclude. I concede that a good teacher can show their student where all the notes are, how best they fit together, and how to hold their instrument with real intent. What can’t be taught is how one takes those lessons and makes something extraordinary of them.

  • Who wins the argument? Cast your vote

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