Leading Article: Give elephant dung to our schoolchildren

THERE WAS a time when your standard English carper against modern art decried Picasso for doing doodles that a three-year-old could manage. Well, at least no one could say their infant could manage Chris Ofili's Turner Prize-winning paintings using elephant dung as a medium.

Instead we have an illustrator doing something just as predictable, which is to dump a load of cow dung on the doorstep of the Tate in protest. The poor "outraged from Staffordshire" suffered a heart attack when collecting the material from his neighbour's farm. The wonder, however, is that he knew how to handle the stuff at all.

The trouble with the British anti-modernists, and the school of English landscape they keep looking back to, is that there is no sense of just that: the smell of the farmyard. In the works of Turner and Constable you can feel the sod, and the sweat poured on it. Not, however, with their present-day imitators.

Traditional British art lost its soul when it abandoned its engagement with real life. As in the crinoline-and-cleavage dramatisations we have had to suffer on television recently, prettiness is all. Much of the criticism of modern art misses the point. The British, or rather the English, like their artists to decorate their houses, not disturb, let alone change, their understanding.

The wonder of modern British art, and artists such as Ofili, is that they struggle with modernity in what is the oldest of artistic traditions: representational painting. New York has its abstract expressionism (and no doubt we shall hear all the tedious old cliches about Jackson Pollock's painting when his exhibition opens in London early next year). But Britain has its figurative artists of equal international stature, from Francis Bacon to Lucian Freud. Pollock may fetch millions in the auction rooms of America, but Freud, very much alive and still working, whose Naked Portrait With Reflection fetched a record pounds 2.8m this week, gains as much in Europe. Look at his nudes, and that mass of corporeal flesh. They may not look pretty. You may or may not want one on your drawing-room wall. But they say something.

One of the best aspects of Britain remains its design and invention. One of its worst characteristics is the constant denigration of the imagination that lies behind that. In all the discussion of the Government's new plans for formal education, where is the mention of art, of drama or of play? Schools would benefit as much from an art hour as from a literacy hour. And children would learn from playing with every sort of material, including even elephant dung.