National College of Art and Design – learning how to paint and draw is optional

7 October, 2011

My recent scribblings on Dublin Contemporary 2011 and on Richard Serra’s “challenging” works prompted me to think further about the root causes of the questionable integrity and vacuousness of much contemporary art, and its general lack of any discernible skill.

There was a heavy clue in The Sunday Times Culture section of 24th July (Irish edition).   Cristín Leach had a fascinating article entitled “New graduate shows raise the question of whether art should be led by ideas or skills”.  It is mainly about Dublin’s National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and how it now emphasises teaching students how to conceptualise rather than how to draw or paint properly.

While NCAD was the subject matter of the article, I suspect that a similar analysis could be written about almost any school of art in the western world.  Below I am quoting some extracts from the article.  The actual article is behind a pay wall, so I’m trying to balance my wish to give readers a good sense of what it is saying with the retention of a degree of respect for copyright issues.  I should also admit that I have seriously cherry-picked the extracts to suit my own perspective, and that Cristín Leach was more balanced in her article (although I have a suspicion where her sympathies lie).

…..“Every year, people say to me there’s hardly any painting,” says Robert Armstrong, the head of painting at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), of visitors to each summer’s graduate art shows…… He mentions …..Bob Glynn, who graduated with a pseudo-architectural installation made from found scraps of wood and carpet, John Ryan, who made sculptures from the trays in which he had mixed his paint, and Tom Boland, who filled a room with cardboard boxes into which words and phrases had been cut with a scalpel……

It’s hardly news that, in 2011, painting graduates are not necessarily painting. It’s a predictable result of the way in which art is taught at third level: concept first, medium second. …. He points out that students who want to learn to paint or attend life drawing classes still can, although many don’t “It’s an option and it’s available regularly. A very small percentage take it up because a lot of people don’t see the value in it any more.”

They’re wrong, says the painter Mick O’Dea, who attended NCAD in the late 1970s and taught there from 1981 to 1999. “Painting is the kind of art that you learn as you are doing it,” he says. “The concept is never divorced from the activity. It’s through the activity that the concept becomes clear. If you go to an art college that emphasises concept, it can be to the detriment of the activity. You need to be encouraged to get your hands dirty.”   O’Dea is the principal of the recently re-established Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) School, which, he says, has emerged out of necessity. “The people involved feel this drawing-and-painting issue needs to be addressed,” he says.…..

…. among the current crop of graduates are some with ideas and no understanding of how to execute them, or lacking the skill to do so. This isn’t necessarily the college’s fault. If the students haven’t gained the skills it’s maybe because they haven’t sought them out. In the current system, the onus is on the student to take what they want from their time in college.  Teaching is more discursive now,” says Napier, the head of fine art at NCAD. His idea of a successful student is one who has learnt to self-educate, to make connections, to ask the right questions. “I think it’s a more flexible, empowered way to come out of art college into today’s art world.

“A person standing up telling you something is no substitute for someone keeping their mouth shut and doing it,” says O’Dea. So at the RHA, teaching is by demonstration.

… a successful NCAD graduate has been well taught under Napier’s definition if, 10 years after graduation, they turn up at the RHA and say, ‘I need to learn to draw now.’ That’s concept-before-medium in action.

Having read the article, the question I was left with is: how much does NCAD get in taxpayers’ money to perpetuate this empty, derivative and self-indulgent approach to art and design?

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