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May Issue 2003

A Few Words From Down Under
Where Do All the Art Students Go?

by Judith McGrath

Our State Gallery hosts an annual exhibition of work by high school graduates who have studied visual arts with the same vigour their contemporaries pursued in science or maths. These aspiring artists have learned various creative methods for translating a set theme or personal idea into well crafted objects with a high level of proficiency. The Year 12 Perspective Exhibition is always well received by the public and much appreciated by the informed art viewer.

Although most of these graduates seek higher education in more practical areas, many go on to study visual art in college or university. And that is where they undergo a strange metamorphous. When the student emerges from art school, with either a Diploma in Art and Design or a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, his or her ability to make art has regressed to the level of a pre-school tot. The only difference is they no longer need someone else to write a translation of their efforts at the top of the page. They do that themselves, with lots of big words in their artist statement.

It all became clear after viewing the fantastic Year 12 Perspective Exhbition then attending the opening of a sculpture exhibition by final year students from three art schools, two of them degree granting universities and one a diploma awarding college. This annual sculpture survey consists of site-specific works the participating students had eight weeks to devise and install in situ throughout the grounds. Of the thirty-five exhibits only three can be judged well planned and constructed works of art. The other thirty-two presentations include such wonders as; leaves picked from one tree and hung on a wire stretched between two other trees, a boy's bike leaning against a low wall, and a collection of snap-lock sandwich bags filled with small stones placed on the lawn. When I came upon the cluster of unfired clumps of clay entitled Untitled I gave up and went home.

Why is it when artistically inclined students enter post-secondary art school, they come out not knowing how to draw so much as a conclusion? Where do their ideas go and why are they prevented from perfecting their skills? Why do art schools accept only students with a certain level of talent and artistic potential then, instead of helping them identify that talent or understand their potential, give lessons in identifying old art theories and understanding new art vocabulary?

The answer to the above questions can only be that college and university art courses are not so much about making art as making Artists. For example, the syllabus of one particular university's Fine Art course offers core units in Art Theory, 20th Century Art History, Critical Dialogue, with electives in Gallery Management, Curatorial Practices and a workshop in Writing Grant Applications. During the semester, one day a week is allotted for 'studio time' where the student practices their artform under the watchful eyes of different practicing artists. Most students find this interaction beneficial as they get to network real artists. However they are often expected to emulate each professional's style, not pursue their own, and marked accordingly. Meanwhile a prestigious college of Art and Design's syllabus is more practical but that's slowly changing. Library records show how twenty years ago art students had to attend fourteen hours of drawing instruction a week, today that's been reduced to six. The extra hours are now spent in new core units; Visual Communication, Art Studio & Business Practices and the elective Exhibition Procedures.

When bright young high school art students, like Leah who loved to paint and produced some thought provoking images, enter post secondary art school they are institutionally dulled down. In her first semester at a university art school Leah was told if she wanted to paint pictures she could go elsewhere, here she would learn to be an artist! A couple of years ago, as a final year student, Leah (a painter) exhibited in the above mentioned sculpture show. Her work involved a video camera on a tripod pointed at a wooden box packed with frilly dresses, parts of which peeked out from under the nailed-on lid. It referenced 1970's feminist theory, I think, and we could view the video alongside the original. The funny thing is, as a savvy seventeen-year-old high school student Leah could have made a potent comment on the topic with a well-executed painting instead of a silly installation few people stopped to consider. The sad thing is today at twenty-five Leah, like many of her fellow art school graduates, no longer makes art. She has a real job. Her experience at university convinced Leah that her paintings were mute and since she couldn't make a creative connection with the video camera and didn't like installations, she assumed she wasn't really an artist.

I've seen so many energetic and creative young people run into the wet sponge held up by art school lecturers that it raises different questions. Why do they do it? Do lecturers resent the energy or fear the talent owned by the student? Is it because installations composed of found objects make little demands on the lecturer's time and the school budget? Is an old bike left unattended a work of Art in a post Dada world? Could government awards of electronic equipment to schools be the reason for a glut of bad computer art? Is it Art to program a computer to change colour or pattern on a screen when the space bar on a keyboard is pressed? Is Leah just a good painter but not an artist? Is an artist someone who knows what 'synchronistic neo-avant gardism' really means? Or is an artist someone who can manipulate a medium with skill and creativity to communicate an idea to, or evoke a response from, the viewer?

I don't have the answers but still hold to the belief that art schools can and should inspire students to think outside the square and take lateral steps in creativity, all the while holding onto their personal artistic anchor. It is a valid learning experience. And I so want to believe that one day Leah will paint again.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her website at (www.artseeninwa.com).

A collection of her articles which have appeared in Carolina Arts can be found at (www.CarolinaArts.com).

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