Drawing and an Argument for its Autonomy

| October 30, 2011

Should the ability to draw be seen as a literacy? Is it sensible to characterize the act of drawing as the reduction of  multi- dimensional events to readable two-dimensional imagery?

Last Thursday I was lucky to attend a lecture and conversation by Professors Stephen Farthing and Simon Betts on “The Bigger Picture of Drawing: A New Curriculum a New Pedagogy” at the Macy Gallery at Teachers College. From the gallery website:

Visiting professors Farthing and Betts will speak about the bigger picture of drawing, and their new UK high school drawing qualifications and Masters course. They will discuss together the implications these courses have on pedagogy and student learning.

The generally spoke of the value of drawing, and offered a vast definition of drawing –  taking stock of drawing in diverse places and cultures to make their case, such as the example of the Maori tattoos.


What stood out to me is how their argument in favor of drawing literacy at least partly seems to be driven by the belief that drawing should be understood as not only a “literacy,” but as a distinct practice (understood as theorists Michael Walzer and Alasdair MacIntyre would have us understand “social practices” as distinct contexts of meaning and truth) within the broader domain of the visual arts.

Should drawing be seen this way? It would follow that drawing would have more autonomous value – a different value from other art practices and other cultural activity. This line of reasoning seems appealing, especially in light of a pervasive condition described by an audience member – the familiar observation that “all children begin by loving drawing, and most learn to believe they are not ‘good at it’ by the time they are in middle school.” (TC professor Judy Burton traced this experience back to drawing being “taught as a technical skill.”) Let’s take a closer look.

It seems to me that Farthing and Betts are proposing shoring up such autonomy with a weak and strong definition of drawing – locating it both within other domains (examples offered ranged from the obvious (architecture) to the more obscure (financial planning and social greeting)), and as the center of its own domain (and hence a full-featured practice). Unfortunately, if we look at the kinds of cultural institutions that other Practices rely on to maintain autonomy, it seems like a difficult road ahead: the autonomy of legal practice, for example, is supported by vast professional organizations, educational norms, social networks, and physical infrastructure. A larger question that emerges (for me, at least): Can school and the academy really be the epicenter of a cultural practice? With the worry that students lose interest in drawing because they “can’t do it” in mind, it seems overly hopeful that the problem can be corrected by, in, and primarily through an educational context. Are Farthing and Betts really proposing something more? Would they be comfortable with a primetime television show “American Drawer” or celebrity draw-offs? Or ultimately is a different direction such as shoring up the autonomy of “the visual arts” or “visual culture” preferable?

I’m not sure. As a serious (if former) student of drawing, I would first like to believe that there need be no serious and sustained theoretical argument to secure a space for drawing within public education. But as they say, times are tough. Granting that we need such an argument, it then pains me that it must be so far-reaching as to rest on shifting claims (between a weak and strong definition) about its foundation and, therefore, value. As much as it pains me to admit, I think we might be better off hitching drawing’s presence in education to existing arguments about the visual arts (as a broader category of artistic practice) – arguments that could benefit from diverse examples of the important impact of drawing on culture and, at an importantly small scale, human well-being. I suspect Farthing and Betts are sympathetic to this approach, but their presentation needs some retooling to better position the distinctive nature, impact, and promise of drawing.

On the other hand, what about a t-shirt service? Submit a drawing and get it put on a shirt! Maybe there could also be a cross-funding opportunity to an important humanitarian cause (think no further than what the color pink currently represents) combined with something about the identity of the drawer that reinforces a cross-domain basis of expertise and utility . . .


As for the issue of students’ “losing faith” in their own ability to draw, I wonder: Is formal instruction the dominant cause of people losing interest (and/or confidence) in drawing? What else might be a part of this attitude shift?

On the distinction between craft and art, Dean Betts claimed “[craft] doesn’t have within it the key to make sense of it?” This seems far-reaching and, for me at least, demonstrated the weakness of a simple dichotomy between art and craft. It’s an interested thought experiment: Does art really always carry its own “key?”