The importance of drawing the line

On the face of it, The Big Draw - a month-long festival of events designed to encourage people to take up pencil and paper - is irreproachably contemporary in its spirit. It is democratic in its reach (it targets "everyone") and assertively modern in its attitudes. It's about "accessibility" and "releasing creativity" and "having fun". And, just in case it sounds as if I'm warming up to spoil the party, I should say that I haven't turned up with a laboriously manufactured reproach - or, at least, I don't think I have. But it was intriguing to find that such a modishly inclusive and non-élitist event should turn out to have a current of profoundly and, to some, heretically unmodish thought at its core.

The Big Draw is organised, in part, by Drawing Power, a campaign that was inaugurated in 2000 by the Guild of St George, a small charity that aims to promulgate the ideas and principles of the great Victorian art critic, John Ruskin. Among those principles was the morally elevating force of drawing - a skill that Ruskin believed refined the drawer's vision. He's a kind of patron saint for The Big Draw, and the event website quotes one of his more famous pronouncements from the preface to The Elements of Drawing, a published form of the lectures on drawing that Ruskin gave at the Working Men's College. "I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing," Ruskin writes, "and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw."

For Ruskin, drawing was a means to an end - and the end was not self-expression but a higher form of attentiveness. The discipline of drawing - and he doesn't mince his words about the laboriousness of the programme he sets out - tunes the sensitivity of the drawer to a higher pitch.

There are some echoes of these ideas in the Big Draw publicity material, but they are quiet ones. Far louder is a characteristically modern strain of empowerment and assertion: "The campaign hopes to encourage people of all ages to get over the 'I can't do it' barrier", is how one breezy formulation puts it. And the assumption here, surely, is that the 'I can't do it' barrier is an illusion; that we are all artists under the skin; that the unselfconscious and untutored drawing of children stands as a moral example to adult timidity.

The point here is self-expression - and a quote from David Hockney is typical of the basic argument. With drawing, he says, "you can express all kinds of ideas that might otherwise be lost - delights, frustrations, whatever torments you or pleases you". Indeed, this notion of drawing has been taken up clinically - children's pictures and adult doodles are sometimes interpreted as symptoms of anxieties that can't be spoken about directly. Drawing, in short, helps stuff come out better.

For Ruskin, though, the whole point of the activity is that it would help stuff go in better. Where the modern instinct is to make transmitters of all of us, even if we only have an audience of one, Ruskin wanted to make people into better receivers. The Elements of Drawing is, in some respects, a very radical work - which insists that the student must free him or herself from any inherited notion of what a picture should look like. Monet is reported to have said that, "90 per cent of the theory of Impressionist painting" was in the book; Seurat studied it carefully.

But Ruskin had no doubts, either, that the only route to such independence was by a submission to your betters. He tells his student to get hold of Rembrandt and Dürer engravings and attempt to match their precision of line. You won't succeed, he adds, but that shouldn't matter: "You cannot possibly try to draw the leafy crown of the Melencolia too often..."

That is not an instruction you're likely to get from The Big Draw - which (for perfectly good reasons) is a bit more concerned with fun than with what Ruskin concedes can be "disagreeable labour". They also don't quote the sentence that follows on directly from his remark about sight being more important than drawing. "It is surely also a more important thing", Ruskin continues, "for young people and unprofessional students to know how to appreciate the art of others, than to gain much power in art themselves." It's slightly shocking that, isn't it? Particularly if you've grown up with an unquestioned piety about the supreme value of personal expression.

But the truth is that, for Ruskin at least, one reason for drawing was to work out exactly where the "I can't do it" barrier stands - and to lean against it with an increased respect for what lies on the other side. "The entire object of true education", he once said in a lecture, "is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things." It isn't quite done to say that aloud any more - I doubt that anyone involved with The Big Draw would be so bold - but it's still true. The Big Draw deserves to be a huge success - it can do no harm and could do a lot of good - but it will only be truly Ruskinian in spirit if it leaves most of its participants humbled by their lack of talent.