Reading the Culture sections of our broadsheets brings back fond memories of Yekatirina Furtseva, Khrushchev’s Culture Minister and reportedly mistress.
The Soviets had a fervent affection for proletarians, which didn’t prevent them from murdering millions of them and enslaving the rest. But then we always hurt the ones we love, as the popular song goes.
Still, acting on the underlying emotion, they promoted amateur arts, in the certainty that art should be useful to the whole society, not just the hoity-toity elite. Never mind the skill, feel the ideology. The culture vulture Furtseva was supposed to spearhead that effort.
Once she sat on the jury of an All-USSR Festival of Amateur Arts. At the closing ceremony Furtseva gushed, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that a simple turner can be Hamlet and a common weaver Ophelia! It’s not long before amateur companies will oust professional theatres!’ The great actor Nikolai Mordvinov sitting next to her was overheard muttering, ‘Idiot! When you give birth, are you going to go to a turner too?’
What brought on this nostalgia trip? Oh yes, our Culture sections, which have on me the same effect the word ‘culture’ had on Dr Goebbels.
Nonetheless, the title of Richard Morrison’s article in The Times (Art School: an Oxymoron Past its Time?) caught my eye. Here was a kindred soul, thinking, as I do, that our art establishment has become totally subversive, producing and rewarding nothing but a load of Pollocks, at best.
Tragically ignorant of who or what Mr Morrison is, I dug in. Soon, mild curiosity gave way to enthusiasm: ‘What’s the point of art schools?’ asks the article. ‘Wouldn’t the next generation of [artists] learn just as well by apprenticing themselves to established practitioners?’
Absolutely. What’s the point in attending schools where students are taught self-indulgence and abstruse theorising rather than basic craft? Images flashed through my mind of a future genius, spending years, just like his Renaissance ancestors, at the feet of a master, learning how to mix paints before being allowed to take brush to canvas. I felt like a girl looking for a soulmate, finding one in Mr Morrison and feeling ready to be seduced.
Yet the very next sentence made me feel like a girl first seduced and then cruelly jilted. ‘After all, from Michelangelo to Damien Hirst there’s never been a shortage of artists willing to take on assistants.’
Damien Hirst? The only thing his apprentice could learn would be how to synthesise formaldehyde, but there’s no need – there are plenty of warehouses selling industrial chemicals premixed and ready to be used in the service of high art.
According to Mr Morrison, ‘Young creative talents should be responding directly to the world around them, not slavishly studying past techniques.’ Such a direct response could take, for example, the form of an obscene graffito or perhaps screaming ‘ref is a wanker’ at a stadium. The advantage of such responses is that they can be effectively delivered with no formal training whatsoever. I used to think that responding to the world artistically does take a modicum of such training, but obviously I was wrong.
To Mr Morrison’s credit he is not so hubristic as to depend on his own judgment only. He drafts as support the artist George Shaw, once short-listed for the Turner prize, the one awarded for the greatest damage caused to art in the past year: ‘If artists are going to move art forward and upset the odd apple cart, imagination should come first and skill afterwards.’
Upsetting the apple cart isn’t the purpose of art, Messrs Shaw and Morrison. It’s an incidental bi-product of greatness, which is above all a bi-product of professional skill. When an artist sets out to upset the apple cart, using mainly his imagination, he ends up producing a pictorial equivalent of the kind of stuff one occasionally has to scrape off one’s shoe sole.
Another Turner aspirant Yinka Shonibare, approvingly quoted by Mr Morrison, does think British art schools have something going for them: ‘It’s a broad cultural education – especially since the 1980s, when everything from anthropology and psychology to semiotics and post-colonialism has come in.’
Poor old Giotto and Velazquez didn’t know what they were missing. Had they had a crash course in post-colonialism, they would have learned how to upset apple carts and move art forward.
Tracy Emin, on the other hand, is unhappy about the Royal Art College. This ‘artist’, whose talent is only exceeded by her beauty, much prefers Maidstone College of Art, where she had obtained her first degree. It ‘was guided by a Marxist doctrine, so we were given social and political skills [acting as] a passionate spiritual guidance through creativity.’
As a result of her schooling in such essential disciplines, the absence of which held the likes of Vermeer so far back, Miss Emin has learned how to leave her bed unmade and construct ‘installations’. A photo of one such adorns the article, making one regret that Miss Emin didn’t become a builder, an occupation for which she is Eminently more qualified. In due course she could have become a union activist, taking advantage of her training in Marxism.
‘Well, it’s true that not even its greatest supporters… would describe the RCA as Marxist,’ rues Mr Morrison. ‘But the place has exemplified the philosophy that artists should be useful to society.’
Thank God for small favours. Add to this Marxism and post-colonialism, and our artists could meet the exalted standards of usefulness set by Miss Furtseva, and Messrs Lenin and Stalin before her. The useless ones, skilful professionals, could then be sent to uranium mines to improve our energy supply.
Lest you might think it’s all about social utility, think again. Some formal training is essential as well. ‘Imperfect they may be but art colleges are more essential than ever [for without them artists wouldn’t be able to learn] computer fabrication or additive manufacturing.’
Really, in a sane society this lot would be dangling off one of Emin’s installations. In a humane society, they would be merely locked up in a loony bin. And in our society they pontificate off the pages of formerly respectable broadsheets.