Visual arts Christopher Allen finds the art in the fugitive
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