Magazine article The Spectator

Unnatural Selection

Magazine article The Spectator

Unnatural Selection

Article excerpt

It should come as no surprise to learn that the World of Art, with all its attendant satellites and moons, is inhabited by its fair share of movers, shakers, chancers and charlatans. (Along with all the geniuses, of course.) For the most part, this population spent its formative years in art college. These strange institutions have been the temporary home (and sometimes refuge) to all of the most media-friendly names in contemporary art. You know, the ones who don't read their press clippings, they weigh them. The Sunday supplement's next-big-thing or outrage du jour had to start somewhere and, indeed, you may ask yourself - how did they get here?

Every year, thousands of art students apply for places on degree- and post-graduate-level courses. The artists who teach on such courses spend a great deal of time considering these applications: in darkened rooms, thousands of slides are viewed; multimedia discs scrutinised; portfolios interrogated. Short lists are compiled and interviews arranged.

The art college interview departs somewhat from the commonly held conventions of an interview which leads to gainful employment. No doubt the parents of creative offspring (who are clad in the latest indie-kid outfit or paint-smudged jeans) might wonder whether a smart skirt or a suit and tie would be more suitable attire for an interview. But they would be wrong. Indeed, any aspiring artist who turns up in their Sunday Best arouses bemusement. The art college interview panel has far more pressing concerns to be addressed . . . it's just incredibly difficult to define exactly what they are.

There is a common misconception regarding the role of drawing and the capabilities of the contemporary artist. There was a time when the ability to draw was a prerequisite for any art student. Today, it is a miracle if an artist has any interest whatsoever in drawing. Commercial galleries promote certain contemporary artists on their ability to resuscitate this dying skill, but drawing today is more likely to have affinities with Manga cartoon strips or graffiti-style, scratchy monoprints than with the academic skills of a Renaissance master. It's not to say that such technical skills are undesirable, but from the spit-and-smudge genre of life drawing often witnessed by the panel on undergraduate courses, it would appear that the artists of tomorrow have their sights set elsewhere. Most artists spend some of their art school days drawing the nude model, but the majority of these abandon the life-room as quickly as possible. Advocates of drawing will no doubt be saddened by this home truth, and the more fundamentalist of these may conjure a conspiracy theory whereby the ambition of the charcoal-wielding draughtsman is deliberately thwarted. In practice, this is not the case, but drawing alone can no longer be relied upon to measure a candidate's potential. So what else might?

Contemporary art has rekindled its love affair with the conceptual in recent years. The audience of the annual Turner Prize, the jewel in the tarnished crown of the parochially renamed Tate Britain, has become accustomed to making the socalled 'idea' behind an artwork more important than its formal or visual qualities. (Never mind that there is sometimes very little actually to look at. …

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