Tag Archives: Education

The Turps Diaries: September 2017

NOTE: This is the final review period so this journal entry was the last.

Where I have been

I’ve be doing the usual reading and looking; Ellen Pearlman’s Nothing and Everything is very much where I sit in my own world view and has led to helpful reflection.

I had some pieces in an art exhibition, Elemental, in the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station with Ashford Visual Artists. EDF, the owner, was really helpful in setting us up in a novel environment for an art show. I showed three pieces, two were abstract landscapes, and the other was an interpretation of quantum energy states (an interesting tension between modern science, and some very old thinking about the nature of the real world). I got to meet the mayors of the Cinque Ports, which has great historical resonance in this part of the country. Dungeness itself is a desert and I find it hugely stimulating.

Concluding comments

  1. I need to let paintings have space to breathe on the surface and not try to fill the available space. Review 4 explored this but not particularly successfully as my objective to develop free floating images did not address exploration of colour choices sufficiently as the critique noted. I have, though, revisited the pieces done in Review 4 and ‘refined’ the colour treatment. No piece is included here.
  2. I am reassured that glazing, working wet and mixing on the surface are effective approaches. I have done a lot of paintings where this layering of paint is the primary approach to colour formation, to elicit various emotional and visual reactions. I sent a response to your 4th critique on my use of glazing to produce layered colour fields. Untitled mediaeval geometric in this review illustrates this with a motif (appropriated?) from illuminated manuscripts.
  3. I am slowly becoming more comfortable bridging my work in Sumi-e to (monochromatic) abstraction, and transitioning from Japanese papers to other surfaces. I’ve started exploring this approach by looking at some of my photographs (I used to do a lot of abstract photography with leaky cameras and broken lenses), which yield an ambiguous visual treatment. See Untitled Abstracted Landscape for this review.
  4. My experience in France seeing the work of Anne-Eva Bergman is still working through in my mind as she abstracted from the landscape. I have continuing challenges deciding whether to work introspectively (noumenon?), or use landscape (more widely, the visual fields we see), in a way that is cognitively challenging and interesting. This is also a feature of Untitled Abstracted Landscape.
  5. The piece I chose from the 1st Review is Fire and Ice. This was the first piece I worked the paint with plastering tools and was a watershed is some respects. This led to me working more often on wood panels and produced the pieces  such as Emergent, which got confused with Richter… and again the comment on colour choices; that review also included the free-floating (Field) pieces. It sits in contrast to the work submitted for this final review.

Parting Shot: why keep painting?

I have found the commentary and thought processes helped me locate myself within the act of painting, so it is natural now to take stock and reflect.

I had some difficulty with the suggestion arising from the 2nd Review about dimensionality, which led to an experimental piece for the 3rd Review (Shades of Blue). While you liked this, I am unconvinced this is a direction that unpacks my own reasons why I paint.

I’m asking here “what is a painting”, (perhaps more in the spirit of the critics, “is painting dead”). I would distinguish such claims of demise from the behaviour of the art market (which is defined by curated taste), and perhaps what comes out of art schools (in the main, failing institutions as I’ve written about).

Clement Greenberg (why is he so vilified?) described some art as polyphonic (a music term) and monotonous. His easel crisis of 70 years ago is/was likely real; today, would much art be called “polyphonic randomness” (or algorithmic polyphony, or “noise”). But I think this is to conflate “art making” with “mark making” and associated tools and techniques – a bit like confusing a writer’s manuscript with their handwriting style. This would reduce artists to “technique-istas”. If this is what is meant by “zombie formalism” [ZF] then Michael Findlay’s The Value of Art is the travel guide that unpacks the art market as an invisible spasming hand (rather than Adam Smith’s invisible hand). How do I avoid going down the ZF rabbit hole, though?

Alva Noë proposes that art is an experimental and organising approach to constructing meaning and which positions art within human cognition; this jives with views in Thinking Through Painting, which takes abstract art as quasi-persons. I think these views say that art cannot be meaningful if it is solipsistic (by definition) and self-indulgent, a helpful distinction to remind artists to have something to say. For me, painting is a cognitive act of creation rather than a performative act. But the zombie stuff has me worried.

The Turps Diaries: June 2017

NOTE: This review involved my main mentor and two of the other course mentors commenting on the submitted work.

The reflection has focused on the challenge of developing not so much a ‘style’, but a visual vocabulary. Does that make sense?

I quite liked the work of Pae White who speaks of exploring spaces between things. Juan Usle was a real treat to discover; I learnt he paints to the rhythm of his heart, much as the late composer John Tavener used his heart murmur as a natural metronome. The reference to Taschist work was new, but the link to Cobra helped (there’s a Bruxelles restaurant full of the work of the Cobra artist Alechinsky).

While I don’t do tapestry now, I have been influenced by how light is mixed on the woven surface since blending light leads to white not black. I think you understood the objective of the Emergent works, which were about how patterns emerge from complex even chaotic systems and the result is in the mind; as I wasn’t channelling Richter, I think of these now as exploratory rather than end pieces.

Where I think I’m going

The critiquing has helped me reflect on the purposefulness of what I’m doing, rather than just pushing paint around. This led me to look anew at the way I went about thinking through what I paint. A number of ‘trajectories’ emerged from this reflection of which two are for review submission.

The first trajectory for want of a rubric, I’ll call Fields: What I did was replace geometric shapes with more gestural ones, gave the shapes more room to breath, and did not cover the surface with a colour overlay. The results capture space more materially than in previous work where everything was under layers of glaze. These are giving me a way of bridging to Sumi-e (and more Zen), through ambiguity and simplification. What had been a block to overcome was the boundaries of the worked surface. Colour is now more challenging, as I’ve usually mixed on the surface so need to see how this works procedurally so colours lack subtlety at this stage. I suspect I’m rediscovering something already in the aether, but is usefully challenging the starting points I had when I entered this programme, so I am not where I started, which is good.

The second trajectory is about Framing: I took Missing Shade of Blue from the last round and reworked it. The piece is more documenting this than a final piece as I need to think on this further. I have done a lot of paintings where they are layered using tape to cover areas that get painted over, then removing the tape. The tape in this case sharpened the framing and the shades of blue, which are randomly covered with thin paper. This is more structured and perhaps a polar opposite to Fields. I think this might help me explore the unstretched/unprimed canvas creating painted tapestry, and introduce fabric considerations more.

Where I have been

Artistic journeys this period included visiting Domaine de Kerguehennec in Brittany for an exhibition of Anne-Eva Bergman, “l’Atelier d’Antibes 1973-1987”. Her focus was on abstract landscapes, drawing on her Norwegian upbringing. This proved insightful as I grew up with big skies and land all the way to the horizon with nary a building in sight. I liked “Vague baroque” for its surface treatment and restrained colour.


Bergman, “Vague baroque”, 1973

I read “Thinking Through Painting: reflexivity and agency beyond the canvas” (written a few years ago but I just came across it) which explores, inter alia, the view that painting is dead. Parts of the book are written in ‘that’ style that often leaves referents free-floating, but the authors did seem to understand that this obscurity was a problem, though that didn’t stop them from using jargon. That aside, though, two thoughts arise. Is Painting Dead made me think of Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history is dead, in light of the end of the cold war and the apparent success of liberal democracy. Given the events of today, it is hard to image what evidence would support that claim today. The same for painting as it feels to me like a dilettante-esque assertion said more for effect than the evidence base it can draw upon.. Isabelle Graw in her essay does offer a definition of painting as: “a form of production of signs that is experienced as highly personalised”. My view is that Merleau-Ponty’s work is more relevant here than the authors’ attachment to critical theory and all its baggage. This definition does at least put art into the cognitive experience of the maker and of the viewer. The notion of painting as quasi-persons may not withstand scrutiny: objects such as paintings seem autonomous because of agency and indeed meaning attributed to them either by the artist or the (informed?) viewer; they become autonomous from a social process where they become iconic and thus stand on their own. But not all “art” is Art.

The other thought had to do with the commentary, in an eschatological context of Tuymans’ Gaskamer. The point, in the context of this painting was of the impossibility of representing some things. Can this be true, I wondered? If something can be thought, it can be expressed (verbal, musical, visual). That one may not know how to do it is irrelevant. And that one may feel an impulse that representation is strictly not possible seems more about arbitrary limits (censorship, political correctness) than human cognition. At the time I was thinking about this, I saw the film Denial, the court case between David Irving, the author of books on the holocaust, and Penguin Books (Deborah Lipstadt the author). There is a scene in Auschwitz when the lead barrister for the defendant is walking around one of the collapsed gas chambers and is seen by the Lipstadt character as not suitably reverential. He makes the point that this is a crime scene; for the defendant it is something else. As art then, such representation depends on context which supplies the basis for meaning; despite what some may wish, all that is solid does not melt into air. In the end the precision of the legal case which demonstrated that Irving lied, is balanced against the defendant’s belief that the proper representation is through survivors’ stories which in the end says that depiction is possible and can arbitrary expression.

The Turps Diaries: March 2017

With respect to the two works on paper; while ‘colourful’ they are in retrospect unsatisfactory when compared to others with a better relationship of elements, and I fear they are too murky and ‘mute’. In respect of your comments on the painting “Investigation of an idea…”, I’m reworking it to tighten the composition.

I went back to my tapestries and art photos, and considered your suggestion to be more dimensional. I spent some time experimenting. I made some colour cards and considered how this might work, based on David Hume’s ‘missing shade of blue’ problem on how we perceive a gap in a continuum of colours (a bit like the link you provided, but I’ve tried to ‘abstractify’ it). Broadly, not pleased with the results but have included the process in the Journal notes for this period. I’d welcome further thoughts on dimensionality.

I also wonder about scale; I have a great big roll of canvas and I’m keen to paint on the unstretched canvas and hang the paintings more like tapestries (a la Frankenthaler and unprimed canvas). I find it odd to conceal the canvas texture; with paper and wood panels I integrate the surface texture into the painting. Any thoughts on this?


The mentor made suggestions about dimensionality and working paper differently. I tested this out in an experimental sequence, beginning with simple layering of torn paper, to cut cards, applied as suggested as ‘paint marks’. These are fun to do but were not satisfyingly expressive.

Need to think about whether this is a direction I want to mine further.

Exp 1: Torn and layered Xuan paper. Japanese black ink and acrylic red ink. ~40 cm x~50 cm x~1 cm Exp 2: Exploring colour layering. Japanese watercolour on Xuan paper. ~20 cm x~20 cm x~4 cm Exp 3: Torn Xuan paper, Japanese watercolour; glued down, raised ridge down the middle. 30 cm x 40 cm
Exp 4: painted cut paper to interpret ‘missing shade of blue’, 30 cm x 30 cm Exp 5, with additional layer, 30 cm x 30 cm Exp 6. Final experiment, paper, oiled paper overlays, acrylic. 30 cm x 30 cm


I found the suggestion to alter the shape of the paper interesting. I have tended to use full sheets of paper and have done work that is differently shaped such as vertical ‘landscapes’. I did a series of paintings on paper that were folded vertically and designed to fit into the corners of rooms – corner art – but framers had a fit.

The comments also made me think of the film “Off the map”, which features a 40 foot long watercolour (Stan Berning in New Mexico did the painting). The film intrigued me to think of a painting emerging as a whole over time; I did a painting a month for a year in a bound book of handmade paper, telling a ‘story’ over the course of that year, with fabricated lettering (bit like the Voynich manuscript).

One of my early explorations was with torn paper, and I have thought how to blend paper and tapestry technique. I did a series based on Fibonacci ratios, and used that to build up layers of images. This was an early exploration of tapestry-type approaches to the painted surface. Here are some examples.

Fibonacci Fibonacci Fibonacci (sold)

With tapestry, I have done free form shapes (Breastplate), and object-as-loom (Adz). I find it interesting that paintings are done on a woven cloth surface that the artist often goes to great lengths to make invisible, so I took one of Kelly’s paintings and embedded it in a fabric/tapestry structure. (The Idea). Tapestry was enjoyable but tough on the back and even with two looms on the go it was very slow…..

Breast plate, wool, silk, ~30 cm x ~30 cm Adz, wool, cotton, watercolour, wood, metal, ~15 cm x ~15 cm The Idea (embedded interpretation of Kelly, “Red, Yellow, Blue”), wool, cotton, ~60 cm x~100 cm


The Turps Diaries: January 2017

Following the 1st review, I’ve started a Turps Journal where I’ve addressed issues in more detail, with illustrations, your comment about origins of work. I am mindful, as you noted, to avoid narcissistic starting or end points; it seems the way out of that rabbit hole is actually the notion of sunyata (emptiness).

In November, I viewed an exhibition of Avant-Garde, and had a short time to view an exhibition of Japanese expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s at Bozar in Brussels. I have also just seen an intimate exhibition of the Guggenheim abstract expressionists (ING Art Centre), which took me much closer to artists such as Frankenthaler, Mitchell and Francis (what a way of seeing!)

Two paintings so far from the first two shows: “Investigation of an idea under suspicion” was done very much in the moment, built up in layers (4 colours were used) and is more spontaneous. “Emergent” is testing the boundary between finished and unfinished, through the notion of emergence. Looking again at Investigation, following the ING show, I think I need to leave more white space for the images to breath and be less bounded by the surface itself.

Investigation of an idea under suspicion Emergent

Your comment on measuring success struck home. Abstracts are in some respect always failures or at least approximations of the ideation; getting it ‘right’ in some sense is impossible, at least empirically. But perhaps no one notices apart from ourselves, as each piece is itself an abstraction in the way to the next. This makes me more comfortable with the pieces that I think don’t work, but makes me wonder how to better integrate the process from one to the next: I tend to do one piece at a time, and if the idea holds, then a couple more emerge; should I think more in a series?

I have thought further on abstractions that use science as a starting point, as apart from, say introspection. The bonding of the subjective and empirical will never be a happy one, if all an artist is doing is visualising scientific phenomena, rather than what they mean. For instance, what is the visualisation of the physicist’s view that reality is made up of “fields”? This is to draw a parallel with Cubism and Relativity Theory. Conceptually, the two pieces I put up on Private View (sfmuto technique) is each a 3D painting (surface and layers) and the image is more how fields produce the phenomena we associate with the real world and which scientists study.

I read Kantrowitz [http://www.andreakantrowitz.com ] “The man behind the curtain, what cognitive science reveals about drawing” (J Aesth Ed, 45(1)2012: 1-14). This has helped influence my perceptions and no doubt will influence practice.

On origins

Few of my works arise in a linear process from sketches. Instead, a sui generis approach achieves a degree of disintermediation of the creative process, using the first marks as the starting point (in the sense of De Bono, it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you start).

I often find photography a helpful prompt; photographers such as Edward Burtynsky and Andreas Gursky have photographed scenes from high and distant perspectives.


Gursky: Montparnasse

Gursky: Rhine II

Burtynsky: Salt Pans in India

Montparnasse conveys urban isolation. It is anticipated that the bulk of humanity will live in cities in the future. This is not something necessarily to be celebrated, though. I did a sketch looking at the wall of Toronto building lights from my hotel room; I used to live in Toronto, so the city is familiar.


Skyline sketch

In the City 1

In the City 2

In the City 3

While the gridded type structure did not end up on the paintings, I took a perspective looking down, to capture the immensity and isolation. I put in little red marks for figures, but in hindsight, think they would be better left out. One of the paintings was chosen for the cover of a local magazine, which I thought odd, given my area is quite rural.

In Rhine II, Gursky shows the strong lines in the landscape. I painted a series “Six view of Dungeness” with that imagery in mind, but no sketching.

3 of the “6 Views of Dungeness”

Ellsworth Kelly did plant paintings throughout his life, and which were broadly ignored; however, they are seen as a significant creative source. For Kelly, they offered him a “bridge” as he called it to his abstraction. After the fact, it is much easier to explain, but how does it explain the here-and-now for him? I suspect they were to him a type of ‘found moment’, without antecedent which is important to understanding how he then approached the plant itself. By pruning the plant to the immediacy of his cognitive experience of it, I think he found a way that allowed him to empty his mind of ‘ego’ and self-aware cognitive processes, to get to the unmediated experience of the plant. The progression from that to a particular abstraction may not be direct, but it is the same mind at work.

I explored this process in the sequence below, to the level of something broadly representative but have not progressed to using this to do anything that would be an abstraction in a meaningful sense to me..


1st extraction

2nd extraction


Plant sketch en plein air

Watercolour sketch, paper

Acrylic on 50×100 cm canvas

I explore many ideas using Sumi-e technique as it helps me explore the here and now, and freer expressiveness. They are not really something on the way to something else but stand for themselves from which I get ideas for other pieces. These examples are all about 30 cm on a side, but I have sheets of Japanese paper up to 2m in length to explore when I’m feeling more courageous!


Japanese ink on rice paper

Japanese ink on rice paper

Japanese ink on 300 gsm paper

Japanese ink on rice paper

Japanese ink on rice paper

On exhibitions

The visit to Bozar in Brussels was useful in two respects. The Japanese expressionists presented works that were more gestalt in nature (all over abstraction). Mixing the paint on the wood with paint scrapers, I used more curves than I’m used to, producing “Investigation of an idea under suspicion”.

The Avant-Garde show had me asking what makes a work Avant-Garde and not something else; indeed, the demarcation seems unclear and I wondered what made the AG, apart from self-description; perhaps that is the historical point. Eliasson’s Ventilator was shown; he says it is a work viewers need to complete (co-produce); doing this is also an objective in my work. However, I found the work a bit empty in the co-production sense. If the point of AG is to make a break (rupture appears to be the preferred word) with what is taken as received wisdom, I wasn’t clear how this worked. The show positioned AG in military art, and a fascination with technology, invention, machines, as well as war, weapons, positioning them as the hinge points or watersheds; this is a particularly aggressive interpretation of the work, and may indeed exclude wider logic. I left still wondering how AG is to be played out today, despite a suggestion of apocalypse and prophecy. Is that an interesting, intelligible and even accurate proposition? I worry about claims like this lapsing into empty commentary (much of the exhibition catalogue is unintelligible). Can one really be an Avant-Garde artist any more?

The Turps Diaries: October 2016

I try to position my work in the ‘here and now’; our brains see things before ‘we’ are aware of them, so I’m trying to get at that point in my work. The locus of attention is on the immediate. This is, as you note, risking a theosophist or mystical position, but I am trying to get inside the cognitive rather than euphoric experience. I read Klee, but had not read Kandinsky. I had found Malevich’s ‘The Non-objective World’ thought-provoking.

You ask how I build a painting. I don’t sketch much, at least specific paintings are not sketched in advance and then produced like taking dictation from the sketch. I start with a mark, “I start here”, and then evolve the image. I mix on the surface as a rule. At a certain point, completeness beckons, so I stop. I think I do this partly because of time constraints with other activities. I want to get my hands dirty quickly, to engage with the materials and the ideas more directly, with as little intermediation as possible. Upon reflection, I think to sketch would remove me from the here and now. I do have some sketches of ‘ideas’, and I use my photography portfolio as well for ideas. I suppose I don’t understand the purpose of sketching. In Marion Milner’s book, ‘On Not Being Able to Paint’, she sketches in her psychoanalytical journey, but I think to no end. I used to go the Albright-Knox in Buffalo to see their collection of abstract expressionists, particularly Clyfford Still; I suppose there is a lesson in how he integrated his sketching into his primary works. [added comment 12 Nov. I had a handmade paper sketchbook of watercolours; a visitor to my studio asked if I would sell it to them which I did….]

I’ve also tried to make sense of the art/science connection. Your commentary on the illustrations was interesting. I have gone to shows at the e.g. Wellcome Trust and come away a bit underwhelmed. In Arthur Miller’s “Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc”, he observes that Cubism was Picasso’s way of visualising relativity theory. I don’t see in the art/science collaborations visual power of that order. I guess I’m hoping that artists will get beneath the ‘surface’, perhaps try less hard to work from the obvious scientific imagery, and grasp the underlying and perhaps more relevant dynamics. The physical world actually does not exist but is made of fields; we just think the table is solid.

While I like the early art, right back to the cave paintings, I am moved by the abstract expressionists, and see relevance as a mode of thinking rather than a ‘style’ or an ‘era’. It is just the historical bit in between that I understand less.

You observe that I use a variety of approaches. I worry that this shows less commitment to a particular form of expression. How do artists balance the authenticity of their own endeavours to explore, with work that expresses their personality if methods keep changing, or is that just me worrying it is a weakness?

You wrote: “It may be particularly important in view of the fact that you are engaged in an ‘abstract’ (for want of a better word) idiom. Since abstraction does not directly reflect (or maybe it is better described as directly copying) the ‘nameable’ world around us, there is an imperative for a cogent thought process to drive the visually creative side: To work objectively from the concrete world around us puts certain demands on how we make work, how we measure its success or otherwise. With abstraction though the demands are not external and that means we have to establish our own set of exigencies.”

That made me think about the comprehensibility of my paintings and whether they were ‘successful’. Kant has a term, ‘ding an sich’; I want my paintings to be the thing itself, but while not about a nameable reality, they are about one with referents and meaning that can be known. I would not want my pieces to be mute (or indeed have that “Narcissistic echo of self-reference”). I accept that the painting itself is an object distinct from what it depicts.

Taking all that together, I’d propose that in the TURPS course, the challenge is to identify my set of exigencies, understand the visual lexicon I’m using and how it might evolve, and produce art from that learning.

The Turps Diaries: introduction

Between 2016 and 2017, I participated in a distance-learning mentored programme to improve my painting. The course is offered by Turps Art School in London. I had to submit a portfolio to be accepted, along with about 40 other painters from around the world. I was thrilled to be involved and kept a diary which I’ve now posted to my blog.

There are 5 review periods, and I’m only sharing my own comments until I secure permission to post the comments of the mentors.

Turps Art School 2016-2017



Departing from my usual commentary on arts subjects, I would like to let folks know that I have been accepted into the 2016-17 Turps Art School Correspondence Course.  This will be a challenging opportunity and I look forward to working with my mentor/tutor. At this time, I don’t know who the other artists are in the course but I am sure we are all interested in each others’ artistic journeys and sharing of perceptions, perhaps through joint activities.

As a painter of abstractions, I focus on the materiality of visual perception, by giving physical presence to ideas. This has been the drive of human creativity since the first marks on stones or we made the cave paintings, and has inspired artists to consider alternative realities. Cubism for instance is the materiality of Einstein’s relativity theory. Malevich understood this as did the Futurists. Exuberant exploration is found in the Abstract Expressionists and thoughtful work since then, not just in painting but in sculpture (despite some distractions along the way when artists lost their way and their voices).

No doubt I will post further as the course proceeds.

The Vampire Art Schools

“The Vampire Art Schools”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 75, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

Someone said once (probably Adam Smith) that teachers should be paid after the lecture. Based on the recent National Student Survey, “academic artists” employed at some arts schools would be hard pressed to pay their rent.

Of the 154 institutions in Britain ranked on student assessment of lecturer performance (the quality of their teaching), the bottom three are arts schools:

  • 152: Glasgow School of Art

  • 153: University for the Creative Arts

  • 154: University of the Arts London.

These universities are like publicly funded vampires, sucking the taxpayers’ blood, at great expense yet failing to deliver in ways that students value.

The Glasgow School of Arts styles itself as “internationally recognised as one of Europe’s foremost university-level institutions for creative education and research” and a “creative hothouse” on its website. GSA received taxpayers funding of £7.5 million for teaching and £1.5 million for “research excellence”. Their website says: “the GSA was ranked as the second largest art and design research community in the UK, with 25% of our research considered to be world leading and a further 25% internationally recognised”. 1900 students are enrolled, and there are 400 staff.

The University for the Creative Arts is spread across the South East. This institution’s 2010/11 “recurrent grant” (a.k.a. taxpayers’ money) of about £24 million, with £1.5 million for “teaching enhancement and student success”. This institution is the merger of smaller institutions and enrols 6500 students. Their website cites teaching performance studies from 2005 as evidence of the quality of their education and lists alumni such as Emin.

The University for the Arts London’s website says: “The combination of a varied student group, cutting-edge research and highly-experienced staff creates a unique, multifaceted learning experience for students at the University.” This institution’s funding is almost £52 million, with £6.5 million for research. It got £3.5 million for “teaching enhancement”. The university enrols 20,000 students, and has 1228 teaching staff.

Blissfully, these three institutions didn’t get all that much research funding, sparing us more tiresome academic art. To be fair, though, useful art research does exist, but generally it is middling on the research rankings. And yes some of the academic staff may be very good at what they do in terms of being creative, having insight into art history, and generally conducting studies that inform our appreciation of visual culture.

An informal internet survey produced observations such as whether some of the academic staff would be likely to earn a living selling their art if they didn’t have these publicly funded jobs or that students and lecturers can have strong differences of opinion over the quality of their own art-making and may downgrade academics on that basis. This is a no-win situation with only victims on both sides.

Since the 1980s, Higher Education has reduced the choices on offer for learners, creating a large and dysfunctional university system, mixing excellent universities and some little better than a 2-year college. Learners get drawn into this big lie, thinking being a university is an imprimatur of excellence, but some of the best US institutions don’t even have university in their name: MIT and Rensselaer Polytechnic. The arts world has fallen for this lie. What these three art schools exemplify is how weak institutions free-ride on the university ethos; the effect is to attract second-tier academic talent and third-tier students. The problem is we don’t really know which is which although this survey is a clue.

We need to distinguish between art scholarship such as art history, from simply art-making and you don’t need to go to university to learn to do the latter; the whole arts curriculum is confused.

I would relegate the majority of art schools to college status, and strip them of degree granting power. Their mission would be to offer to the many learners (including the late blooming artists of which there are many) opportunities that the universities have abysmally failed to create. Students wanting art scholarship programmes would focus on that, and if they want studios, well, find space at home. As for graduate ‘art shows’, well, don’t get me started.

As Groucho Marx might have said, I wouldn’t want to attend an art school that would admit me. Perhaps we should think again how we want to nurture and develop creativity in our society. As far as I can see, the current system is broken.

On Learning to Steal

“On Learning to Steal”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 77, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

I was watching some students in a gallery the other day, planted in front of a variety of different paintings, with sketch books. They appeared to be copying the paintings.

What exactly is the point of this, I wondered?

I went back to my cork-lined room, and sat in front of my plagiartron, typed in some search terms and found a couple of articles on plagiarism, did a cut and paste and produced, yes, this article. Not really.

But in the real world, some students and some well-known authors do a kind of cut-and-paste on their writing all the time. But what about artists? Is arts a plagiarism-free zone? Can artists just copy willy-nilly? Is anything original any more?

Who said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”? Did I? Does it matter that I might say I did, even if I didn’t? If I said I had am I lying or just being economical with the truth. If you don’t catch me out, shame on you.

Of course the point is many artists don’t get caught.

Now back to the students beavering away in the gallery. What are they doing and how is it contributing to their artistic development? When we learn creative writing for instance, we aren’t given passages of Hemingway to copy, or handed a Shakespearean manuscript to copy out the text to mimic the handwriting, as though that had something to do with the words used. Art teachers say copying has something to do with learning about design, the way the paint is applied, mark-making, colour choices, etc. But if this is true, why are the students sketching with a pencil, and with the absence of any passion — a type of forensic duplication, devoid of any creative insight. So, again, what are the students learning to do?

I suggest they are learning to steal.

Some will never progress beyond mere derivative work, while others will become truly proficient. The painters whose work I want to see are the ones who are not in the gallery with their sketch books, but elsewhere using their brains. Copying is essentially a pointless activity (like rote repetition of multiplication tables) and I wonder why the students put up with it — perhaps they don’t think either.

In our cynical sort-of-post-modern world, it does draw attention to what the students are doing, with other gallery goers looking over their shoulder; they become almost as interesting as the paintings, a type of performance art, perhaps an unintended commentary on the failings of art education.

But copying has been handed down over the centuries from atelier to salon to studio to today.

Some well-known artists have been accused of appropriating the inspiration of others to produce works they have claimed as their own. Critics have said this type of artist looks outward rather than inward, forgetting to acknowledge their sources. Artists accused of plagiarism may describe copying as an act of tribute, rather than overt theft, but that seems self-serving.

I think we look to artists to be the authors of their own work, to actually make the pieces they sign. The notion of atelier with employed painters completing pieces to be signed by the ‘master’, turns artists into the worst type of signaturist. I think real artists know this is a con. Why would an atelier artist recently show new work proclaiming that he had done them with his own hand?

In the end, it is the authenticity of the work through the intimate link between idea and result that defines genuine authorship and creativity, not merely the act of fabrication.

We certainly expect people to acknowledge their sources, and where there is suspicion of plagiarism, to have an explanation. Consider the similarities between Henri Matisse’s “L’Escargot” (1953) and Alma Thomas’ “Watusi (Hard Edge)” (1963) of Obama White House fame, where there is an explanation.

Contrast this with the allegations of plagiarism involving Sam Leach’s “Proposal for Landscaped Cosmos” which won the Australian Wynne Prize and which is seen as having what are referred to as “heavy references” to Adam Pynacker’s “Boatman Moored on the Shore of an Italian Lake”, produced some 350 years ago. The artist admits having failed to “reference” the Dutch work when he submitted to the competition. Academics said that had Leach submitted his work for academic assessment, he would have been accused of plagiarism. (source: Michaela Boland, “Spot the Difference: artists Sam Leach denies plagiarising Dutch master”, The Australian, 14 April 2010. http://www.news.com.au/national/spot-the-difference-artist-sam-leach-denies-plagiarising-dutch-master/story-e6frfkvr-1225853423386; accessed 5 October 2010)

Perhaps works of art should have footnotes.

As for the students, I still don’t know why they are being taught to steal.

Artistic Plagiarism: a commentary

Learning to steal?

Learning to steal?

I wrote an opinion piece in the Art of England (issue 77,  January 2011) on the issue of artistic plagiarism called “On Learning to Steal”. I start by musing on the usefulness of students learning art by copying works in art galleries. You know the story, littered around the floor are art students busily copying, sketching some work or other. As I note in the article, they seem more like a piece of performance art to a failing art education system, than serious learning. I make the point that this only encourages further theft: “bad artists copy, good artists steal”. They are learning how to steal.

But more worrying, of course, is artistic plagiarism, and I draw attention to a recent high-profile example in Australia. I come down hard and negatively toward artists who maintain an atelier where their job is signing finished works of art (I call them signaturists). I observe that these artists themselves sense this is a con, otherwise, why would one well-known artist preface recent work by saying the work was done personally.

Plagiarism in all its forms is not to be trifled with. In the visual arts, copying is rife, not helped by the ease of cut-and-paste off the internet.

Nevertheless, we must be vigilant of artists who fail, as one artist put it, to adequately reference their sources.

Should art have footnotes?

Want to know more?

An overview of artistic plagiarism by Denis Dutton

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