Vis­ual arts Christo­pher Allen finds the art in the fugi­tive

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

Fugi­tive im­ages Univer­sity of Syd­ney Art Gallery to Au­gust 30

THERE are people who think in a me­thod­i­cal way, and oth­ers in a rapid and in­tu­itive man­ner; Blaise Pas­cal, a math­e­mat­i­cal prodigy but also a supreme ex­am­ple of in­tu­itive in­sight, called the first the es­prit de ge­ome­trie and the sec­ond the es­prit de fi­nesse. And then there are people, like bu­reau­crats or ed­u­ca­tion­al­ists, who do not so much think in terms of me­chan­i­cally as­sem­bled words that may once have been liv­ing ideas but are now lit­tle more than in­ert sig­ni­fiers. The most char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­pres­sion of the ed­u­ca­tion­al­ist’s mind is found in tab­u­la­tions of aims, ob­jec­tives, stan­dards and other such no­tions in im­pres­sively sym­met­ri­cal rows and col­umns, as though in­her­ently woolly think­ing could be carded into lu­cid­ity by dis­po­si­tion in a grid.

In more ex­tended documents, like the cur­rent draft na­tional cur­ricu­lum for vis­ual art, we en­counter the same kind of thing on a larger scale: in­tel­lec­tu­ally flabby and ad­min­is­tra­tively pre­scrip­tive, with vac­u­ous for­mu­las re­peated from page to page by the cut-and-paste method, this turgid doc­u­ment seems to have been drafted by a com­mit­tee with no un­der­stand­ing of the prac­tice, his­tory or the­ory of art.

The con­trast with the Bri­tish na­tional cur­ricu­lum for art, which is con­cise and well con­ceived, is more than strik­ing — it is frankly shock­ing. It shows up not only the lam­en­ta­ble in­tel­lec­tual qual­ity of our doc­u­ment but the man­i­festly flawed the­o­ret­i­cal and method­olog­i­cal as­sump­tions that lie be­hind the way it was com­mis­sioned, planned and drafted.

Among other things, our draft cur­ricu­lum con­tains no co­her­ent dis­cus­sion of art his­tory, and this of course re­flects the fact that most art teach­ers trained in re­cent years have no knowl­edge of the sub­ject. Even more dis­turb­ing is that the cur­ricu­lum gives vir­tu­ally no guid­ance on the ac­qui­si­tion of any tech­niques or skills by which ex­pe­ri­ence might be pic­tured, mean­ing made, ideas and feel­ings ex­pressed. Draw­ing is barely touched on, while there are nu­mer­ous vague ref­er­ences to ma­nip­u­lat­ing im­ages. There seems to be lit­tle re­al­i­sa­tion that just as you can’t get far in mu­sic with­out tak­ing the trou­ble to learn an in­stru­ment, you can’t ex­press much in art with­out learn­ing very spe­cific and de­mand­ing tech­niques in draw­ing, paint­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, print­mak­ing or ceram­ics.

Of all these tech­niques, draw­ing has rightly been con­sid­ered the first, both as a propaedeu­tic to the oth­ers and as an en­dur­ing foun­da­tion. Draw­ing can take many forms, from imag­i­na­tive im­pro­vi­sa­tion to strict ren­der­ing of com­plex ob­jec­tive mo­tifs, and for the ma­ture artist it is a ve­hi­cle through which ideas can be de­vel­oped, planned and put into ex­e­cu­tion.

Lit­tle chil­dren draw spon­ta­neously and


Un­ti­tled of­ten with de­light­ful in­ven­tive­ness, but even at this stage their imag­i­na­tion can be stim­u­lated by look­ing at ap­pro­pri­ate mod­els and by be­ing asked to ren­der par­tic­u­lar sub­jects. As they reach later child­hood and ado­les­cence, their nat­u­ral in­spi­ra­tion tends to be overwhelmed by the kitsch for­mu­las they en­counter in books, mag­a­zines and ad­ver­tis­ing, and copy from other chil­dren. The age of in­no­cence is over and all they will pro­duce there­after, with­out guid­ance, is in­creas­ingly ugly doo­dles.

This is when they need to be taught to draw sys­tem­at­i­cally, which ul­ti­mately means to look out­side them­selves, to be­come con­scious of a re­al­ity that ex­ists in­de­pen­dently of the mind. The ul­ti­mate ped­a­gogic value of draw­ing lies not only in the ac­qui­si­tion of man­ual and in­tel­lec­tual skills, but in an open­ing of aware­ness be­yond ster­ile nar­cis­sis­tic in­tro­ver­sion and the dis­cov­ery of a world be­yond the ego.

Those who are scep­ti­cal about the value of draw­ing tend to think of it as a straight­for­ward copy of ob­jec­tive ap­pear­ances. But in fact there is no such thing: any­one who has se­ri­ously at­tempted draw­ing will know that there is noth­ing more mys­te­ri­ous and in­ef­fa­ble than the world of vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence. The artist is con­stantly faced with choices, with de­ci­sions about pri­or­ity and sig­nif­i­cance, se­lec­tion and com­po­si­tion, so that no two draw­ings will be iden­ti­cal.

Per­haps most pro­foundly, draw­ing a mo­tif of any com­plex­ity is a kind of voy­age of ex­plo­ration. There are things you can’t see un­til you be­gin to think about trans­lat­ing what is be­fore you into graphic form, and there are other things that only be­come ap­par­ent as it were in the mir­ror of the draw­ing you have made: a com­po­si­tional weak­ness in the sketch, for ex­am­ple, re­veals forms over­looked in the sub­ject.

There can be an ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ti­macy in a draw­ing, telling us as much about the sensi-

(his­tor­i­cal scene), 18th century, artist un­known, top; (flag­el­la­tion of Christ), 17th century, artist un­known

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