I thought the following passage (from Looking Back at Francis Bacon by David Sylvester) was interesting. I would be happy to hear what others think!
"FB: I know that teaching is one of the methods by which many artists survive, but how can you teach? In a period when there is no tradition, there is nothing to teach. You can teach your own attitude. The only thing that I can understand for art schools would be for them to have a few extremely intelligent people whom the people who are striving to be artists of some kind can come and discuss their problems with. Otherwise there is nothing to teach at all.
DS: The artist who was playing that role of being a person who discussed the students' problems, would that be for him a help or a hindrance in his own development as an artist?
FB: Well I think it would be very much better to spend his time, probably, trying to do his own work than discussing other people's problems. But very many people teach because they can't make money out of their work. In my own case, even when I could earn no money myself, I never taught. Except that once a friend of mine asked me to cover his job at the Royal College of Art for 3 months, which I did. It's true to say I did it very badly. I didn't often go there; there was nothing I could teach them whatsoever. The only thing is that they used to come and talk to me, and perhaps... I don't know if I was the slightest help at all.
DS: And what effect did that have upon your own work? Did you feel it was just using energy which you needed for your own work or...?
FB: Not especially, because I was only there for 3 months. Otherwise I would never have done it. I'd rather go out and do a job working. After all, I can cook, I can clean floors, I can earn my money that way. It would use physical energy, which would be so much more interesting than mental energy. Because I've got plenty of mental energy, because I never stop thinking, myself. After all, I think about painting. Not that I think thinking finally helps, and yet it does."
Thanks for responding Lea!
Yes, maybe the "conversation" is as educational as anything more structured. Certainly I think no matter how well a curriculum is put together, it is still possible to kill it if it is delivered by a teacher who is not passionate about their subject and who does not engage with and inspire their students, in whatever subject. AND the students have to be fired up about learning too. I know how hard it is to teach a bunch of reluctant students from my husband who teaches maths - at a wide variety of levels and in many different styles (classroom, one-to-one etc). When he gets a student who really wants to learn it makes such a difference to the pleasure of teaching!
Art is a tricky subject to "teach" I am sure, especially (as Bacon says) now, when there is no "tradition" and accepted norms of skill level to be achieved and so on. Teaching people to create anything and use their imagination is surely one of the most challenging things to attempt.
But wouldn't it have been great to be in a class taken by Francis Bacon?? I bet it was a hoot and I bet he really had a ball, he loved an audience ha ha ha!
You bring up some interesting points Lea. Yes - the "cloning" effect LOL - there are many teachers who just want to see students copying them, and many students who are content to copy. But the root of the word educate is about "drawing out" what is in the pupil, unlocking potential, freeing the creativity that is already there. So the best teacher succeeds in doing this, helping the student by demonstrating techniques and sharing knowledge gained by previous generations etc but also inspiring them to express themselves freely. I am sure the best teachers are the ones who continually learn from their students too.
Whether or not someone who wants to be an artist should expend energy on helping others with their art problems... guess it is all a question of balance. Everyone needs to pay their bills and it is only the very lucky ones who can live off making art alone. But I do think a group like this one is helpful to everyone, those who want to teach AND those who want to learn and I love the communal spirit of a group like this!
Sorry to disagree with the great FB but clearly he doesn't get what teaching is about, everyone can learn something off everyone they meet (and I really mean everyone) - and if they choose to learn nothing they are depriving themselves and are probably indulging in hubris, what a waste! However I think maybe he just wasn't expressing himself very well - you definitely can't 'teach' how to be a good artist.
I spent five years doing art at tertiary level. I think the only thing teachers can teach about art is technique, theory and history - the rest is up to the student. In my cohort we all did the same courses (with minor variations) and at the end of it you could pick who just didn't have the extra 'spark' of imagination, originality and risk taking that makes a good artist; that's the bit that can't be taught. You can be technically and theoretically perfect and still be a poor artist. You're dead right Lea, you can't teach inspiration but you can teach the tools that allow inspiration to happen.
Teaching techniques is the important part. At an institution or with a teacher who lets you use their equipment you can try stuff that you would never be able to in another environment eg.at uni' I realised i didn't want to do glass blowing after all - there's no way I could have set up my own glass blowing studio to find that out and I'd always wanted to blow glass! Equally, before I went to uni' I had been kiln firing glass at home for three years on my own with the help of books - in my first three weeks at university I learnt more about kiln fired glass than I had struggling along at home for the previous three years (it really was that dramatic).
I'm a teacher (one of those ones that really wants to teach and loves it) and teach secondary but i prefer not to teach art - it interferes with my thinking about my own work, although I enjoy running short term workshops which are always fun. As a teacher the most important thing i get out of teaching others at workshops or in class is what I learn from the students - hopefully i give them something in return but I ALWAYS learn heaps from my students. When I begin teaching a new class I always kick off by telling them that I can't make them learn anything but that I can certainly help them find ways to help them understand stuff and express themselves better.
Despite all that I absolutely loved my time at university, it was a time when I was free to experiment, ask 'what if' and it gave me opportunities to be stimulated by like-minded people around me - not all my teachers were good, but even the bad ones gave me food for thought (even if it was only to disagree with them). But I think Mary is right, I probably learnt more about being an artist from my fellow travellers BUT the technical know-how came from my teachers.
Thanks Lea. There's always going to be good and bad teachers, I suppose and one person's good teacher might be another's traumatic experience.When I teach I always have plans A,B and C sometimes D too for when things obviously aren't working and the weird thing is that you can have a brilliant lesson with one class or even with multiple classes and then exactly the same content and lesson plan falls flat on its face for another group- so teachers should be ready for anything. However a lot are too busy, too lazy or too scared to go out on a limb and change what they do for an individual or even a whole class.
Mostly I allow a lot of freedom in my lessons, students have 'open ended tasks' which means they can show they've mastered the point of the lesson but pretty much choose how they get there and how they demonstrate that they've 'got it'- I'm just there to facillitate the whole process (yeah I know that sounds all fluffy hippy). For some people that means a lot of built in structure and clear guides- for others it means 'turn em loose' and let them find out for themselves - I do whatever it takes. I'm quite sure that I am some kids' worst nightmare because I refuse to leave anyone behind and some students have learnt along the way that acting 'dumb' is an excellent cover up for laziness or a way to avoid failing (if you don't try it you can't fail...) - I also know that if something is interesting enough there's no effort needed to learn it.
I teach art/design much the same way but at senior levels there's a lot less freedom as the external guidelines are much more constraining about what constitutes an end product. For example, you have to produce a folio, map out the design process and have a finished product within certain time constraints and that really doesn't work for everyone (I don't actually work that way myself and that way of working doesn't leave a lot of room for 'inspiration' or the work of the subconscious because the students have to document everything - where the idea came from etc. and as most of us know- we often don't know...). But I suppose there has to be some structure so that evryone is on the same page as to what it means to 'achieve' year 12.
I find I invest a huge amount of energy when I'm teaching and teaching art leaves me feeling like I don't have any energy left for my own work - I've used it all up trying to help others to be creative. I can't tell them what they can/should / might do, all I can do is ask them questions so they can define their own ideas, which leaves me feeling like I don't know where my own ideas begin and end or might go either.
I should say that my teaching is not considered to be 'normal' by many other teachers and that the best school I ever taught in was in a tiny school with a maximum of 25 kids where the students didn't have to come to lessons unless they felt like it. In that set up you quickly ended up being bored doing nothing unless your students thought your lessons were worth doing!!
Sorry, enough of the soapbox - you can probably tell I'm a vocational teacher!!
It's difficult to discuss this question because things are so different from Bacon's day. Art was rapidly changing, modern art may have been difficult to "teach," especially in terms of techniques, and I think that was what Bacon was talking about. He didn't give a hoot about teaching and came up with a challenging/controversial answer. I'm guessing that in the 1960s, art teachers either strongly believed in basics, like drawing, composition, and color, or they didn't. As for art school, that is a completely different question. Why does one go to art school? To be an artist? Even that is a difficult question, don't you think?
I COMPLETELY agree with Francis Bacon's statement. I studied art/graphic design in a 4-year-university program. The biggest thing they taught me was to BE AFRAID. The teacher would come in, stretch up our work on a clothesline, and proceed to rip up, stomp on, and burn our work while proclaiming "this is sh*t."
The only thing I liked about studying art in school was the chance to try a variety of techniques that I would have NEVER had access to otherewise- printmaking in a huge variety of formats, such as silkscreen, linocut, carving plexiglass plates, etching, etc. , plus traditional black-and-white photography complete with developing and darkroom techniques, mounting techniques, etc. I was on the graphic design track so I wasn't able to take "fine art" classes even though I wanted to. And I had no time for pottery even though I wanted to. I would have liked to have tried painting and pottery.
To make a long story short, I wish there was an art school that didn't have any degrees or grades so much as just be a playland for experimentation coupled with working artists that you could go to for advice, like Bacon describes.
I'm so sorry you had such a bad experience Tina. There was a fad (and it didn't last long, thank god!) for people to trample all over their own and other people's work - this was supposed to show that the important part of art was in your head and that it wasn't all about the money you make from your art as an indicator of success. This mostly stemmed from a poor imitation and understanding of people like Jackson Pollock and later Basquiat - people on the cutting edge who were moving rapidly from one experiment to the next and probably genuinely didn't care much about the work once it was done - except to sell it to get more money for materials. Anyone who would do that to your work was downright disrespectful and I'd say, probably feeling very insecure about themselves and their own abilities - and definitely on some kind of powere trip. By the time I had gone back to uni' in the mid 90's this phase had passed - I don't know when you were at uni' but you had some very bad and/or old fashioned lecturers and tutors by the sound of it. You definitely had lousy teachers! I'm really glad you stuck at it and are still doing art - so see, they were WRONG!
WOW, so sorry you had such a rotten teacher; they can be bummers. I had one who told me once that my color selection was "white trash colors" but I called him on it, right after class and let him know that was soooo inappropriate and to please keep comments like that to himself. He did manage to apologize the next day to me in front of the class, but was in my mind forever.....an ass. Someone I avoided and had nothing to do with after that.
Wow, this is such an interesting discussion! Jules, I wish I could have you as a teacher for my son (who is struggling with school and learns by doing, not theory).
I know that I would love to be taught the techniques of painting... the aspects of contrast and tone, the different uses of paint and mediums; how the different brushes are used etc. However, I also love the way Gary will show you something then just encourage you to 'give it a go'. He has given me permission to play.
Tina, I can't believe that your teacher was allowed to continue to teach! That is a lesson in how NOT to teach. Fear will always squash creativity.
I think it's true what Jules said, that you can give someone the tools and teach them the techniques, but it is up to the person themselve to take that information and own it. To add their own spark of creativity and interpretation.
You're too kind Bronwyn - most of who you get as a teacher is just luck, I'm sure your son will blossom in practical subjects, so long as 'education' hasn't killed his instinct to learn in the meantime. At least you understand where he's coming from, imagine how hard it must be for the poor kid whose parents don't 'get' what you know...
Yes this is an interesting discussion! People's experiences of teachers are so different and there is no doubt a good teacher can have an enormous positive impact while a bad one can really do such damage.
What Tina says about an art school without grades which is a place for experimentation I think is a fairly neat description of this website actually. And Bronwyn's comment about being given permission to play is also telling.
Francis Bacon did also talk about tough critique. This is one of my top favourite passages from Interviews with Francis Bacon (forgive the length!):
Francis Bacon: I think it would be more exciting to one of a number of artists working together, and to be able to exchange... I think it would be terribly nice to have someone to talk to... I think that artists can in fact help one another. They can clarify the situation to one another. I've always thought of friendship as where two people really tear one another apart and perhaps in that way learn something from one another.
David Sylvester: Have you ever got anything from what's called destructive criticism made by critics?
FB: I think that desrtructive criticism, especially by other artists, is certainly the most helpful criticism. Even if, when you analyse it, you may feel that it's wrong, at least you analyse it and think about it. When people praise you, well, it's very pleasant to be praised, but it doesn't actually help you.
DS: Do you find you can bring yourself to make destructive criticism of your friends' work?
FB: Unfortunately with most of them I can't if I want to keep them as friends... I think it would be marvellous to have somebody who would say to you "Do this, do that, don't do this, don't do that!" and give you the reasons. I think that would be very helpful.
DS: You really feel you could use that kind of help?
FB: I could. Very much. Yes. I long for people to tell me what to do, to tell me where I go wrong.
Interesting. FB's comments strike a few cords for me in a couple of ways. One: I worked as an art therapist for many years and did help other creatives (and those who would not define themselves that way) to be more expressive and whole in their lives. It was hard for me to do my own work but my faith in the power of self expression has never flagged. Two: I support myself with teaching. I have learned so much about myself and life through this effort. I teach Humanities courses and it is such a pleasure to share the visual history of the world with students. I teach drawing and it renews my excitement about the ways artist's see and how that way of seeing can change lives. I do not agree with FB about there being nothing to be taught. I think it is important, as an artist, to know where our views of the world come from, in a world cultural history sense, as well as learning the special ways that artists see. Knowing how to use materials, about art elements and principles--the importance of this, to me as a teacher and artist is huge!