Life beyond the drawing board

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The Independent Online
David Hockney, who has a show of his drawings opening this week at the Royal Academy in London, has been giving interviews to this newspaper and others attacking art schools for no longer requiring all of our students to learn the traditional crafts of drawing and painting. Superficially this is a plausible view; after all, as Hockney says, "if you are taught to draw, you are taught to see". And art is, in the widest sense, about image-making.

But a little reflection reveals how parochial and doctrinaire David Hockney's view really is. It depends on accepting that the kind of art he himself makes, which I would characterise as decorative and figurative, is the only appropriate art for our times. His type of art does demand an understanding of craft and of traditional life drawing, but that these skills should be mandatory for all art students is a very particular view that depends on Hockney's perception of himself. It is not what all artists need.

What many artists see is not necessarily straightforwardly visible. Hockney is concerned with the surface qualities of things, but a lot of contemporary art is concerned with other kinds of investigation. To see more deeply into the structure of things requires other kinds of resources, not simply of the eye but of the mind, as well.

Image-making still underpins the experience of going to an art school, but it draws on a much wider view of technique and means. If you look, for example, at the Turner prize winners, you can see the diversity of means being used by contemporary artists - from abstract painting and video to photography and various sorts of installation. Contemporary art is not medium-specific. It no longer evokes the life room with the naked model and the traditional materials associated with that; it evokes alternative mediums, such as drawing with computers and drawing in space with a variety of sculptural materials.

All of this does not deny the continuing importance of certain strands of figurative arts, but it is up to students to decide if that is the direction in which they wish to go. In Hockney's day, art schools told students what they needed to learn; but today's students who have the desire and the dedication to be professional artists are asked to be responsible for themselves. Such schools as Goldsmiths' can provide instruction in the traditional crafts and skills for those who feel that is what they need; but for many students putting life drawing into a wider category of image-making has proved to be much more fruitful.

After all, several generations of artists have said that what was of least relevance and value to them in their student days was enforced life drawing. Now they are teachers themselves, they want to base their methods on their own experience.

The writer is head of visual arts at Goldsmiths' College, London.