The Visual Arts: Where Has Our Identity Gone?

Paper presented to AIAE Conference, Cairns 1997.

Karen Knight-Mudie

Expressive Arts, Faculty of Education, USQ

Toowoomba. Q.


The Visual Arts: Where Has Our Identity Gone?

Three years ago in our national capital Canberra, at the launch of the Australian Centre for Arts Education, Parliament House, Archer (1994) cautioned us that “in educating kids in the arts, don’t focus only on training for a job ... be liberal and expansive”. She stressed that learning was a consequence of wanting to know more about life, and that the outcome might result in being an artist, scientist or engineer. For Archer, and many of her colleagues, “art is life”, and this was the message she wanted to get across to more Australians so that they too could be aware of the satisfaction and fulfillment of being “useful and responsible citizens”. Her argument went on to emphasise that the arts would then “flourish naturally because arts and artists become beloved of the people”. This in turn would lead to strength as a nation, strength of spirit and ideas, and economic strength “because artists will be naturally supplying the people’s natural demand”.

From Archer’s perspective it seems that a lot of faith is placed in nature if artistic learning is to “flourish”.

On the other hand Throsby (1995, p.31) draws attention to an increase in output from the cultural sector over the past five years, but a decline in artists’ incomes over the same period. He supposes that reasons for this apparent paradox lie, firstly, in an increase in the number of practising artists, and secondly, that artists “as a whole tend to be squeezed”, being the most economically vulnerable group of the cultural workforce.

From Throsby’s perspective it seems that awareness of economic rights must be cultivated if artists are to survive economically.

The problem is one of allowing the arts to “flourish naturally” because they are “beloved”, and establishing economic viability because artists must live.

Looking back to the days of Fred McCubbin who wrote in 1894 that:

as the painter must live by his work, and although he be ever so anxious that prosperity may get the advantage of his labors, he has, at any rate for the present, to bring his work before a public little inclined to help him - a public so absorbed in industrial and mercantile pursuits, that it has little time to give to the appreciation of artistic efforts; (1995, p.14)

we can see that this concern is not new and nothing has really changed. Earlier, in talking of the “glorious advance” made by France in the late 1900’s in promoting local Art, McCubbin mentioned the encouragement given to artists “to develop the best that is in them, not to pander to the bourgeois tastes of the masses of the people”. (p.13)

If we return to Archer’s argument that learning is a consequence of wanting to know more about life, and combine this with Throsby’s observation that artists are the most economically vulnerable group of the cultural workforce, we can sympathise with McCubbin’s concern that the artist must not only “develop the best” personally, but must also live by the work. This is where reality challenges idealism - the cold hard facts are those of supply and demand. The arts may “flourish naturally”, to such an extent in fact that they may have to mutate and reproduce to “pander to the bourgeois tastes of the masses” because they no longer have a special identity, but have become another popular commodity on the production line.

I suggest that the notion of art as a spiritual current running within a community generating a desire to enhance and inform behaviour has been unplugged. The new `power point’ can be found clearly stated in the Creative Nation Commonwealth Cultural Policy in one simple sentence: “Culture creates wealth” (1994, p.7). This is now what artists must plug into.

The Culture Club:

Membership of the Culture Club has to do with money. Wolff (1981, p.11) tells us that production and consumption must be seen as complementary, and that an artist is simply an ordinary worker, and thus there is no reason to treat artists differently from anyone else. The notion of artists working in isolation, as divinely inspired people of innate genius, is dismissed as nonsense, and the 'myth' attributed to the rise of "individualism concomitant with the development of industrial capitalism", and the "separation of the artist from any clear social group or class".

It seems to me that "individualism" and "separation" are not sufficiently strong arguments to explain away the myth of 'artist'. Rather, I think the 'myth' exists because various people who specialise in any particular field tend to use their cognitive processes in a more efficient and flexible way, are fully engaged in their work and enjoy the challenge of risk taking. These people according to Gardner (1993) do seem to lead their lives in a way different from most others. I think we could safely say that many artists fall into this category, and the problem may be seen as accommodating "difference" into our postmodern society where the culture industry mediates and interprets the experience of the people according to its marketability. From this economic perspective artworks change from being representations of the soul to representations of the purse, and it appears that this shift has done little to advance the income of artists. Some reactions to the Creative Nation Policy (December 1994) by 'artsworkers' (to borrow a term from Wolff) highlight the concern with marketability.

Cash First for Australia:

Looking at artists’ and critics’ comments (Art Monthly, December, 1994, pp.11-14) regarding our first Australian cultural policy, we can note the emphasis on economics, not nature. This appears in line with Wolff's (1981) contention that art is always manufacture. Thus, in the article “Creative Nation: but for whom?” we can see that Finlayson commended the government's good business sense “for putting the Arts industry directly up front” by allocating a conditional $25 million grant to encourage “commercial export potential”. Laidlaw also applauded the additional funds for the Arts because “it (would) make a lot of other business sectors in the country stand up and take note of the contribution that the cultural creative sector can make to business opportunities”. In contrast Millicer’s disappointment stemmed from a perceived lack of governmental recognition that most arts activities in Australia were already commercial, and she expressed surprise that the document was structured around major government-based arts companies and grant programs, and O’Donnell saw the Creative Nation Policy as “a very safe approach to cultural policy inasmuch as it is concerned with saleable objects and real estate”.

If the above opinions are any indication of the concerns at hand for 'artsworkers', we do have an identity problem. The increase of both State and private administrative and bureaucratic control over everyone's private and public lives through efficient, economic, and industrial use of technology suppresses self-realisation and any sense of autonomy. Given the extent to which the commercial context of the 'Culture Club' determines the function and meaning of art, which once mediated, then loses its 'art' aspect, how can we re-define this aspect? The shift from traditional art practices that were the corner stones of artistic endeavour until modernism, to the eclecticism of post-modern practice, impinges on boundaries of established artistic paradigms, and claims territory previously scorned or unknown.

Functions of the Culture Club:

While this shift has done little to advance the income of artists it has done much to promote “cultural output”. Or it might be more truthful to refer to this as “[A]rt as a social instrument for education and entertainment as well as enlightenment” to quote Woodrow (1995) who takes a look at several recent major exhibitions in Australia and questions the current trend towards social relevance. While admitting that he is not calling for a return to the formalist adoration of the art object, Woodrow finds it hard to find “any discernible or meaningful pattern” emerging from the exhibitions. Even when pinpointing exemplary works by artists such as Damien Hirst, Susan Norrie, Robert Macpherson and others, he concludes “there is no predetermined pattern, no collective spirit, no all-pervasive pragmatic agenda, or no direction in contemporary art, except at the most superficial stylistic level”.

Woodrow’s (1995) search is in vain to find something beyond the “philosophy of the warm and fuzzy” seemingly expounded by Gablik in her latest student-friendly book, The Re-enchantment of Art, or Eagle’s “indulgent attempt to establish another defining metaphor for art” that colours her critique of the showcase of contemporary art, Virtual Reality (1994) at the National Gallery, Canberra. An example from the former that Woodrow takes delight in highlighting is the work of Wyoming artist, Lynne Hull, who makes `art for animals’ such as small etched holes in rocks for desert lizards to drink from. In the case of Eagle’s search for another metaphor appropriate for the function of art (mirror, lamp, map) Woodrow is lost for words and resorts to a Habermas phrase - `nonsense experiments’ to describe Eagle’s attempts.

Woodrow concludes that the effort to make art of the people, by the people and for the people results in “futuristic games arcades” lined with television screens, interactive computers and video clips, or the “Swiss army knife” approach that may be used where objects et al are neatly compartmentalised for everybody as he found at Perspecta 1995.

Further concern for the state of contemporary art is expressed by Timms (1995) when he argues that the interactives of new technologies are not so `interactive’ after all. The manual engagement in pushing and pulling knobs of new electronic interactives appears to be all that is required and has made redundant the cognitive engagement of looking with eyes and inquiring with the mind that is required by traditional media such as painting. Another claim made by advocates of new technologies that Timms finds more politically power oriented than rational, is the relevance, accessibility and democracy of interactives. As he says, anyone can pick up a pencil or paints and engage in mark making which is relevant, accessible and democratic, so the vying for supremacy of media appears rather a waste of time when it is the artwork that is important.

But is the artwork all that important?

In commenting on the commercial focus of current exhibitions, Denholm (1995, p.9) berates the curatorial staff of the National Gallery for falling prey to crowd pleasing, uncritical blockbusters and prostituting itself to sell consumer goods. Even worse, he notes the advice from the curator that “people as they enact their lives already practice efficiently as artists”, so his comment that making art may as well be replaced by simply watching people begs the question, what is art?

A similar concern comes from Knezic (1994, p.20), a young artist from Victoria who attended the 4th Australian Contemporary Art Fair, and found that it was more “an exposition of commercial galleries and their respective stables of artists” geared to making sales. She noted that the overall calibre of work lacked interest or innovation and suggested that the title should be changed to “Commercial Galleries Trade Fair”. This is another observation that begs the question of artistic identity.

Identity is the subject of a letter written by Hollingsworth (1994 p.17) in which he draws attention to the implications of Danto’s suggestion that theory can render the object (art) as superfluous. Hollingsworth has no major argument with the “contextualising prism” of art language or theory that can make the work “more palpably seen”, but he insists that “visual art is visual art” and must not sacrifice its potential to “engage directly with the audience”. Hollingsworth is talking about the sensory and experiential level of direct engagement with works of art through which the viewer uses the senses and imagination. This excludes everything else - the maker of the work, the critic, and the aesthetic or commercial worth of the work.

Engagement with Artworks:

Engagement with works of art has been the subject of debate amongst art educators for many years. The focus of debate has centred on the type of appropriate artworks to include in the repertoire of those presented as `worthy’ for ingestion into one’s store of nourishment for appreciation and thus “enlightenment”, or those whose subject matter or technique is useful for simulation or appropriation in producing an end product. This debate has also presented two opposing aesthetic viewpoints. On the one hand a case for allegiance to the fine arts, those works of elite pedigree, has been propounded by various aestheticians. On the other hand some art educators, whose sympathies lie with the move to embrace popular culture, advocate engagement with popular works.

From an overall viewpoint Lanier’s (1987) notion of “negotiation” with a work of art follows a similar train of thought to that of Hollingsworth regarding the potential of a work to engage directly with an audience. However Lanier’s discussion includes the way in which the encounter with the work allows the viewer to experience a kind of “living eloquence” that entails more than mere recognition of the surface quality and appearance of the object.

Previously, (1993), I expanded on Lanier’s notion of “negotiation” and have argued that in deciphering marks and signs there is always a struggle with a certain innocence of objects, which in themselves are, but which take on a meaning imposed by language. Since language itself is a system of connoted messages, a meaning can never be analysed in isolated fashion. It requires a synthesis and cross-fertilisation of perceived data to arrive at intuition that allows instant recognition, or what we might call an empathic awareness of the work.

By this I mean that in becoming aware of the object we also become enmeshed in a network of background, current and projected data linked together by association that connotes a sort of rhetorical identity of the object. In other words we attempt to read the object, to organise assemblages of certain things to form an identity image of the object, and in coming to a fuller appreciation of the object it is essential that the network of background data be considered. Culler (1981, p.26) includes this sort of data in his “system of relations” when he stresses the role of “symbolic systems” that assume prominence over the actual autonomy of the object when we search for meaning. In this search we struggle with two basic facts, a certain innocence and inertia of the object, and the complicated system of language.

What we see is actually more than what we look at. Sless (1981) points out that the eye is part of the brain, and thus we perceive the configuration of lines, texture, colour, shape and other sensory data which is processed by the mind and interpreted according to the ‘baggage’ of values and associations we already have stored in our head. This means that each individual responds in a different and unique way to processing the data perceived by the eye. However, configurations that are familiar, and that do not require too much effort to “read”, appear to offer greater enjoyment to the majority of viewers. This appears to be confirmed by the number of people who flock to `blockbuster’ shows thus giving rise to concerns expressed by Woodrow (1995) and Timms (1994) about "entertainment" and "crowd pleasing" as major criteria in planning exhibitions. It appears that pressure on state galleries to make exhibitions pay is dictating the type of programs offered, and those with low entertainment value are considered too risky and are not pursued.

Promoting Artworks:

Timms (1994) discusses his attempts to bring a Rauschenberg retrospective to Australia in 1980. Failure of the project, according to Timms, could only be attributed to the fact that no gallery was prepared to risk involvement because it was “unlikely to make money”. One can only draw the conclusion that if an artwork is to “engage directly with the audience” as Hollingsworth (1994) advocates, the work does need to be palpable, and also palatable.

Any promoter worth his/her salt knows this. One has only to look at the world of advertising to note the way in which commodity products are `dressed-up’ to lure purchasers to experience greater comfort and enjoyment when reality fails. Connotation has become an integral part of the communication industry and subliminal messages using images are a potent force in relaying these messages. This is particularly true in the field of television. We can no longer consider visual images as separate from day to day living, beliefs and the very life survival skills of young people in our changing world. The job then is to dress popular visuals as `culture’, and this is where the art critic, art historian, politician and educator come in.

The Politics of Art Discourse:

O’Toole (1994, p.33), in discussing his book, The Language of Displayed Art, with Timms states that “Art History is ultimately geared to the market”. His advice to those daunted by the prospect of trying to decipher the discourses of art, or attempting to enter the aesthetic debate, is to “free up our eyes and try to rescue our tongues from the other competing discourses of art”.

But this is not always that easy. The public generally relies on some sort of authority to guide their search for enlightenment and understanding. Texts are the main source, and the struggle by experts, critics, academics and art historians for inclusion of their findings in tomes and archives is ongoing and fiercely fought.

Nelson (1995) looks at how power structures work when critics and writers quote from fashionable foreign theorists. His discussion concerns the way in which authority is sought in all discourses, and how efforts to establish an independent authority ignore the fact that the roots of our culture were “cultivated by superior powers” elsewhere. His examination of a text by Pollock in Agenda, Volume39 November 1994, concludes that Pollock’s effort to demonstrate achievements of feminist criticism as a “major shift” from traditional art theory left it as a “virgin” unable to have intercourse “with those structures of semantic authority in which it is destined to make a claim”. Nelson concludes that Pollock’s article has not disrupted the exclusiveness of archives or the system of ordering knowledge, but appears instead to expose “trouble in the articles”.

The problem appears to be the way in which some Australian writers either reference `others’ in the hopes of mixing prestige with home fare, or avoid international reference and serve up parochial opinion as authority. According to Nelson (1995), these “suitors”, international or parochial, are collectively our culture in its “greater inclusiveness of exchange”, and thus we can suggest that appropriate reference enriches our argument and satisfies our curiosity about what is happening beyond our horizons. I think we do need to ransack the writings in our search for some sense of self, even if we discard a lot of troublesome articles, because as Nelson sums up, “[N]othing is circulated if it does not have some use-value” albeit it “daggy”, and the “function regional, provincial, parochial”.

Heavyweights and Fans:

While Nelson (1995) admits that use of foreign philosophers as a prerequisite for local discourse is often “gratuitous”, the jargon of experts does hold a certain appeal for the masses. A perfect example of audience transfixed by the jargon of art is Hoffie’s (1994) report of Baudrillard’s return to Australia for his lecture presentation to a worshipping audience at Griffith University, Brisbane. Hoffie (1994, p.13) refers to the French theorist as one “who has amassed a greater word-count in citations, quotations and foot-notes than almost any other contemporary philosopher”. It seems that his presence was simply enough. Apparently most members of the audience beyond the fifth row could hear little (owing to lack of microphones), but could still absorb the aura, witness the delivery performance, and participate through “embarrassed, apologetic giggles”. Thus we might conclude that what 'heavyweights' in the field say about culture helps determine our position within the culture, and our attitudes to the function and meaning of art. As fans we construct some sense of identification with the object of our interest.

What Hoffie recounts brings to mind my own memories of living in Vanuatu, and images of the village of Bunlap on the island of Pentecost where 'heavyweights' of a different kind cast an equally powerful 'spell' over their audience. In the 1970s, before the advance of the culture industry, it was there, only when the time was 'right', that a land dive would be performed. No advertisement was ever put in the newspaper, but we all knew that a 'dive' was going to take place. Months ahead, the atmosphere amongst the people changed, and as 'the' time drew near the whole village soaked itself in kava, and inhabitants mesmerised themselves with the shadow of greatness that would fall upon them through the prowess of the young males who would succeed in the death-defying land dives. At the time of the 'dive' the atmosphere was electric, and everyone switched on through the current of spectacle, performance, power and the extra-ordinariness of a few.

In contrast, those at Griffith University were in the presence of only one, but the persuasion of performance, and inducement of viewer/audience abandonment through anticipation of some sort of greatness touching members, albeit vicariously through the deeds or words of others, is a phenomenon peculiar to those involved in extra-ordinary performances.

The point of these references is to highlight the fact that cultural growth and transmission relies on interest ignited in and by people. This interest may begin as simple curiosity about the latest trends and fashions, whether they are good, bad or indifferent. The questions of transcending such fashions, and of why people do what they do may only be answered from the attitudinal stance of those involved, and this is most likely affected and modified through and during the participation.

The Educational Role in Transmitting Culture:

Educators play a crucial role in the cultural growth and transmission process. As mentors and custodians of knowledge they select and present various facets of information that modify the belief system of students. The political and economic machine in power drives the selection process used by educators concerning what they consider beneficial or important facets of information for students at a specific time. In Australia the current machine dictates that “Culture creates wealth”, and, as a consequence all systems are geared to that end as noted in Archer’s address when she stressed the prospect of “supplying people’s natural demand” through a flourishing arts output (industry) that would lead to strength as a nation, strength of spirit and ideas, and economic strength. This sentiment dovetails neatly with the thrust of the Creative Nation Policy, but is not reflected in concerns expressed by many artists themselves.

The preceding references to sentiments expressed by artsworkers reinforce the notion that culture is an industry. For example, art as a social instrument for education, entertainment and enlightenment is questioned by Woodrow (1995); the interactiveness of new art media is debunked by Timms (1995); the commercialism of packaging and presentation is criticised as prostitution and crowd pleasing; the devaluing of direct engagement with visual works through the “contextualising prism” of language is debated by Hollingsworth (1994), and further discussion by O’Toole (1994), Nelson (1995) and Hoffie (1994) regarding the search for authority in art discourses supports the argument that visual art is losing identity as it interacts in the cultural, industrial system of political machinations.

Central to this system is education in which we cannot follow Archer’s (1994) advice to be “liberal and expansive”. In fact Throsby’s (1995) concern regarding the economic vulnerability of artists and the questions posed by Nelson (1995) seem more apt for us to consider.

Nelson (1995, p.12) questions - “And so what is new? Who is so Apollonian as to strum a universal lyre outside a tradition?” This question targets those who attempt the officious guardianship of cultural protectionism. But culture is a composite of trends and fashions, and on-going efforts to establish some form of authority and power that would, if it could, convert or coerce all to adherence of only one view must be challenged. As with any regime in the past, our concerns regarding authorities are just as anxious though changed in nature owing to our times. But the greatest difficulty remains in challenging those authorities.

It seems that Boughton’s (1995, p.38) concern that “Teaching is reduced to a simple level of behaviour and operations conducted in order to achieve externally defined ends” confronts the same officious guardianship of cultural products that Nelson (1995) laments. When Nelson uses the term “parthenodox” (as defining belief in virginity) in referring to those who “scorn the necessary sympathies in the interchanges of discourse”, we can see a similar attitude when Boughton (1995, p.35) refers to the persistence of any view of education as industry in which surveillance, control, efficiency and effectiveness confirm that “The discourse is that of economics, and has nothing to do with human relationships and values”.

Challenging “officious guardianship”:

From the viewpoint of some artists, Nelson (1995) advocates cultural dissemination (warts and all), while deploring those who attempt to “scorn the necessary sympathies in the interchanges of discourse”. From the viewpoint of some art educators, Boughton (1995) advocates attention to the uncommonness of student artworks that sets them beyond the typical, while deploring those who reduce learning to a level of “mechanistic end points” that deny the idiosyncratic nature of student performance. Both challenge “officious guardianship”.

The question that remains concerns the reasons why this “officious guardianship” has come about. I suggest that the answer may lie somewhere along the line of defusing polarities, of obliterating distinctions and oppositions between terms that Baudrillard (1980) calls, "implosion". In efforts to redeem art from the exclusive control of the privileged few, cultural workers have emphasised the mutual interdependence of structure and agency, and discarded notions of uniqueness. However, a paradox remains.

From a philosophical viewpoint the notions of uniqueness, discreteness, ownership and autonomy are constantly debated as we hover between a sense of self, and a sense of non-self. We are beset by questions regarding the degree of connectedness between our environment and ourselves. But if, as Gardner (1993) claims, some people are highly endowed with core abilities and skills of a particular intelligence, it seems appropriate that those capacities are fostered. This means that we can make deliberate choices regarding how we use those capacities, and in this I suggest we exercise our choice to be 'uncommon', or autonomous to some degree.

What is often overlooked in making deliberate choices is the responsibility and self-discipline integral to achieving autonomy. If a sense of responsibility for one’s actions is not ingrained into the performance, the conferring of autonomy is simply tokenism. From my own experience of teaching in schools and a university, I know that the "anything goes" approach of the 70s and 80s, discussed by Burn (1981), is still strongly advocated by many teachers and artists. It seems to me that this is what lies at the heart of the problem regarding artistic identity, and underpins the reason why there is now a call for some sort of universal standard regarding student outcomes throughout Australia. Too many identities were flooding the market.

Managerial Mandarins:

According to Coutts-Smith (1982), the very attribute that sets a particular artist outside the establishment, the private sensual experience, is mistaken for a generalised principle and seized “on behalf of a social collective”. The irony of this sort of appropriation lies in the fact that aspirations towards greater social participation in the arts are rooted in the notion of the function and role of art as `extra social’ in character. With regard to this Coutts-Smith (1982, p.115) suggests that “[M]utations in the self-view of artistic producers are clearly accompanied by mutations in the production-distribution-consumption cycle of culture”. This results in a network of autonomous distribution institutions emerging, and demand for greater representation by “cultural workers” on boards, juries and committees of the institutional edifice.

Over the past two decades in Australia we have seen this trend emerging with the concomitant widening gulf between the producers and administrators of culture. On the American front Coutts-Smith (1982, p.118) refers to this political evolution as “consolidation of cultural, critical and curatorial power in the hands of a small circle of mandarins who are dedicated to securing market-oriented or academic imperatives”. These “mandarins” belong to the “museo-critical complex” that acts as the condensing force between the humanist creative visionary insight and a corporate view of the creative process. Thus:

     The culturally sophisticated humanist and “professional” elite who provided the identifying and reinforcing nexus for liberal-entrepreneurial capitalism has wilted in the face of the ascending managerial elite of corporate capitalism. (p.119)


This role change appears to have been achieved in North America and Europe where the postmodern artist has traded a confrontational, peripheral vocation for a career within institutionalised acceptance of professional affiliation and security. As to be expected, a consequence of this shift in artistic patronage from private to corporate sectors has been the increased role of state agencies to assume greater responsibility for cultural distribution. Integral to this role has been more control over funding the `appropriate’ infrastructure and more control over the whole support system until the edifice is strong enough to only then require maintenance funding. It appears that this situation was reached in Canada over a decade ago (Coutts-Smith, 1982).

It seems to me that Australia is well on track in following the Canadian model and we are reaching the finalisation stage of displacing cultural humanism with its allegiance to the old intelligentsia and extraordinary individuals, by “corporate servitors” and distribution networks.

It seems logical then that art practice should become “warm and fuzzy”, “interactive”, “indulgent”, “contextualised”, “accessible” and therefore draw crowds with open purses and open minds - the former to be emptied, the latter to be stuffed according to recipes of the corporate “museo-critical complex”. As a consequence everyone will be similar and thus identification of individuals very difficult. From the educational point of view the same argument exists as the system becomes a mechanism for national identity that effects sameness through common guides for teaching, common methods of assessing performance, and common means of informing the community about the quality of student performance. As a consequence everyone will be much the same; artworks standardised rather than special, and identities dissolved.

However if we can instill in students a passion for doing what they do that is underpinned by a rationale grounded in research, supported by justifiable data and executed with commitment we do not have to worry about standards because we can set them. This means that art educators have to be informed beyond the boundaries of making art, and they must challenge students to think how they can justify their work and let their `voice’ be heard in a world of many voices. This does not mean any sacrifice, but rather a broadening of vocabulary and perspectives so that they may be heard above and beyond the cacophony of current dictums.

Two Guidelines:

One way of doing this is to provide both students and teachers with some good guidelines. I can think of only two things that are necessary - critical thinking and mastery of skills. Both can be taught. The problem however is that both require a great deal of practice and this entails hard work and much soul searching resulting in the exhilaration of passionate performance, not just gushing and wallowing.

My suggestion challenges Archer’s (1994) notion that the arts will “flourish naturally”. It appears that very little flourishes naturally if we listen to the voices of artists who may have been allowed to “flourish” at school and later at art colleges, but now find themselves “squeezed” in the work force. While I agree with Archer’s ideal of being “liberal and expansive”, and I strongly advocate this approach to learning, the forgotten factor seems to be the necessary accountability factor. The thought of having to defend a position or change it in the light of new evidence, of justifying an action, or of challenging a system seems alien to many artists. With this sort of attitude as a model I feel art students are short-changed.

Somehow the notion of artists being an add-on to society, whose existence is a fringe benefit, denies the most potent attribute of worth. By ‘worth’ I mean an internal feeling of having achieved something, produced something and created something that fulfils both external and internal criteria. This `worth’ is not an add-on, but is a feeling of accomplishment, a feeling of being in control of one's actions, a knowing that the action can be defended, and a demonstration of abilities refined beyond the 'norm'.

When and if students can arrive at this state of being, the question of standards is somewhat a game. People set standards (albeit as part of a system), and people are able to surpass those standards.

Our challenge is to ensure that it is our standard we set for our students to achieve or surpass. This means that teacher’s competence is crucial to the level of standards set for students. Whether we like it or not, we teach what we are, and if we are deficient, then too our students may be deficient.


In conclusion this brings me back to the question of identity that was raised at the beginning of this paper. Artists in the field are, in the main, products of art schools (now universities) and if many are voicing concern about their identity it is imperative that the directions and knowledge given by these institutions is scrutinised. In particular, universities play a very important role because they are the crossroad bazaar, a sort of melting pot in which graduating secondary students bathe in what might be, and graduating artists in the field shed what cannot be.

If we believe that our discipline is visual art, and if it is a language using configurations of visual elements that produce various messages, then our job is to inculcate students in the most expressive, explicit and unique way of using this language. No standards and no economic pressure can really deflect us from this if we believe that visual perception and the language of images is the core to our identity. In this we offer enrichment to all walks of life and an ability to orchestrate holistic programs of learning that may be integrated and cross-fertilized.

This does not mean we have to align ourselves with any other discipline or mutate ourselves out of existence into the arcades of buttons and knobs. Our core is visual perception and the ability to differentiate between the nuances of elements and principles of design. Whether this is done in computer graphics or landscaping is beside the point. The pivotal point is the ability to see, and I believe we do this not only with the eye but also with the mind.


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