Mik Godley, the artist with whom I worked on Winter Fires, is threatened with redundancy from his part-time teaching post at Chesterfield College. It’s the third time in three years and he’s feeling particularly vulnerable because he doesn’t have a formal teaching qualification—though he’s been teaching life drawing and painting to foundation students at Chesterfield for nearly 25 years.
Of course, in those distant times when colleges thought about education rather than commerce and Whitehall targets, art colleges hired artists for the quality of their work. Art has been taught by practicing artists to apprentices for thousands of years—and quite successfully to judge by the history of European art. None of those artists had a teaching qualification. Indeed the concept of ‘academic art’ has been resisted by most of the best artists since Courbet. As Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother:
‘All academic figures are put together in the same way and, let’s say, on ne peut mieux. irreproachable, faultless. You will guess what I am driving at, they do not reveal anything new. I think that, however correctly academic a figure may be, it will be superfluous, though it were by Ingres himself, when it lacks the essential modern note, the intimate character, the real action.’
What Mik brings to his teaching, in common with the other practicing artists still clinging on in British art schools, is decades of technique, ideas, experience and knowledge. He connects young students with a professional life that involves exhibiting internationally, participating in festivals, building studio groups and using new technology to reinvent practice. A teacher who paints cannot offer that enrichment: an artist who teaches can hardly help but offer it.
And an artist who teaches just two days a week, to earn the small living that sustains five days of creative practice, has a good chance of remaining fresh in knowledge and spirit. As Mik says:
‘I love my teaching job, teaching the introductory basic skills in drawing, life drawing and painting that students need for all the visual professions, from architects, curators and designers to film makers and artists – as well as the beginnings of more conceptual critical thinking about art & design, kick-starting students in their careers. I’m good at it, and I’ve taught successfully at the same college for over 23 years.’
Everyone knows that Further Education Colleges, like the whole British public sector, have to cut their expenditure. The rights and wrongs of that policy are not at issue here. The question is on what basis do they choose to do it—what criteria do they use and what priorities do they adopt? Can they see beyond a literalism that places more value in certificates of limited intellectual challenge than in a rich and living artistic practice deeply embedded in a regional, national and international creative ecology?
One can only wonder why a College unable to make that distinction would bother teaching art at all, except perhaps that it might be profitable.
There’s a petition to support the threatened staff. It’s worth a try.