I was once watching a programme about the survivors of Hiroshima, old people who were asked to draw pictures of their memories to commemorate the dropping of the second atomic bomb. They all drew remarkably well, or it seemed so to my eyes.
‘Jane, why can’t British people draw?’ asked a Japanese friend watching it with me.
I knew what she meant and asked myself the same question. After fifty years of child centred education, where children learn through play and ‘creativity’ until they are at least seven very few people show artistic ability, or to put it more bluntly, they can’t draw.
This wasn’t always the case. My grandmother once showed me a common-place book fellow student teachers had given her when they graduated. They had all written and drawn in it, some making quite elaborate sketches, portraits and watercolours. As children they’d been taught art much in the same way they’d been taught geometry; it was treated as a technical skill and they were required to understand 2D perspective. They learned how to draw from looking at fruit, bottles and cones and other geometrical shapes, sitting at their desks using an HB pencil. It was simple but it worked. That was long ago before children were encouraged to find themselves through cutting up pieces of paper and computer graphics. Since then accurate drawing like good handwriting and playing the piano, has been consigned by most teachers to the bin marked, ‘defunct, redundant, unnecessary and elitist skills from the past.’
I understood the full and continuing depth of that education philosophy today, 28/09/15 listening to a programme on R4 called, ‘The Art of Walking Into Doors.’ It purported to be about links between dyslexia and creativity. Apparently Leonardo, Picasso and Andy Warhol were dyslexic. A bit like claiming that Van Gogh was ‘bi-polar.’ The people in question are not here to offer any evidence about it. As far as I know Leonardo was left handed and wrote copiously, forwards and backwards. His ‘mirror writing’ may have given modern educationalists the sexy idea that he had what would now be called a disability.
Many modern educationalists reject the idea that anyone can be exceptionally talented. They agree with the first installation artist, Joseph Beuys, that ‘every human being is an artist.’ With this in mind they can hardly approve of the romantic concept of ‘genius,’ which sets one gifted person apart. Yet they love the old notion that some artists are poor academically, smitten with quirky minds which can’t hold onto conventional thinking. The concept of the ‘idiot savant,’ the name now transformed into the more politically correct, ‘autistic savant’ is still cherished although it jars with the current belief that we are all equally gifted..
In fact this programme didn’t prove a link between creativity and dyslexia. instead it became strangely sidetracked onto a much more interesting issue. As a voice over from BBC reporter Chris Ledgard, put it with inelegant turn of phrase: ‘Students at the Royal College of Art wish they could draw better.’
Instead of being about young people who were artistic but couldn’t read and write, the programme was about students at a top post-graduate art college, alma mater of Tracey Emin no less, who can’t draw a straight line correctly, let alone a curve.
‘A hand’s a most hardest thing to draw,’ a student called Adam told us, followed by someone called Looli adding predictably, ‘But there is no right or wrong.’
No doubt she’s been told that right through her schooling. To be hoped she is not encouraged to design bridges or tower blocks.
Numerous tests are now being run to find the ‘reason’ for the students strange and intolerable brain to hand malfunction. At the same time tutors at the college were keen to point out, like Looli, that accurate drawings are not really that good. It’s just a problem when the students leave college and try to get work in design, and find that they cannot draw their ideas clearly or convincingly in front of a client.
‘I try to draw a circle but I can’t do it and the sense of failure is immediate,’ said the whining voice of one hapless young jewellery designer, who has problems illustrating her rings.
‘I think it started early in life,’ she said as an explanation. In the old days skill at drawing improved as a person got older, but now failure to be able to do it is put down to a mental condition cruelly unrecognised in childhood.
Professor John Stein of the Dyslexia Research Trust in Oxford, opined that ‘the dyslexia brain is holistic.’ i.e superior so don’t knock it. He sounded as if he cherishes the condition as representing authentic creativity rather than anything learned. He said that the whole thing was to do with, ‘the problem of linear schooling.’
According to him dyslexics were usually highly gifted with talents denied to other people. He did not try to explain why people who can’t draw for toffee were at the Royal College in the first place, or answer an even more puzzling question – why don’t art teachers in British schools get out the fruit, bottles and cones out and teach art anymore?