Art was one of my favourite subjects at school because I had a great aptitude for drawing. It was the one skill in which I always outshone my peers from Primary school right up to my final years at Secondary. As I grew older however, my mother discouraged from me pursuing too avid an interest in it, so I tended to direct my efforts towards more scientific subjects. The good thing about the Scottish curriculum at the time however was that at the Higher level, which is broadly equivalent to the English A-level, you were encouraged to study five subjects, and so in my fifth year I was able to take Maths, Chemistry, Physics, but also English and French. And since my results were good enough for me to enter the course I wanted at University the following year and it didn’t really matter what I took, I decided that in my sixth year of Secondary School that I would study Art at the Higher level. So that in fact it ended up that I studied Art during most of my time at school. Of course, pretty much any art course you take at secondary school will consist of at least a creative component and an Art History component.
Now fast forward about 15 years later to the present day and I have the opportunity of going to Florence and seeing the glories of Renaissance architecture, sculpture and painting. Walking around the Uffizi or making a circuit around the duomo, I began to realise how profound the depth of my ignorance really was with respect to this period in European cultural history. The fact that I knew the names of Donatello and Raphael had more to do with the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles than anything else. I didn’t know for example who Brunelleschi was and had scarcely heard of the Medici. I was taught next to nothing about the Renaissance at school, not least in my art history classes.
I also got the chance to visit the Vatican Museum in Rome a few weeks ago with my Italian companion whose knowledge of Art History was also based largely on what she had learned at school, at around the same period as me. And yet I was stunned with the extent of her knowledge about these things; with how much she had been taught at school, and that had been absolutely drilled into her, so that she was now explaining small details of the Sistine Chapel to me better than my Audio tourguide.
A lot of the fault for my almost total ignorance of art history lies in the Scottish art history curriculum of the time, which was very narrow and focused on a few specific topics; indeed art history seemed almost like an afterthought in the overall art curriculum. (You can’t blame the Scots though, we’ve produced very little in the way of truly great art over the centuries.) On the other hand I also took History in my sixth year (I thought I’d study the things that really interested me before I went to University where I faced four solid years of Computer Science lectures), and even though we only studied a very narrow range of topics, I retained a lot of what I’d learned, especially when it came to the Second World War, the one historical period which British schools do very, very well. No, some of the fault must lie at the feet of my Art teacher, Jim Harkins.
Mr Harkins was easygoing enough and everyone liked him, but he had a real aversion to actually teaching us anything (maybe that’s why everyone liked him). Instead he would get us to copy passages from books, mostly about the Bauhaus. He used to justify this with some theory that we would remember more about the topic that way, and that teaching us about it would only get in the way of this brave, well thought out experiment in learning. It also meant he didn’t need to bother “teaching” us about anything else.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, it turned out he totally screwed us over on the actual Higher exam. Having assured us over the course of the year that we only needed to read up about the Bauhaus, since there was always a question each year about the Bauhaus, I for one did just, limiting my revision to the Bauhaus only — and even then I was so convinced I had soaked up most of what I needed to know by copying out passages and articles that I took it very easy. So I turned up on the day on the day of the exam and straight away started looking for the obligatory Bauhaus question…which to Harkins’ credit was indeed present in the paper. The only problem was that the question was asking for a comparison between the Bauhaus and the Arts and Crafts movement, which Harkins had never mentioned once and which hadn’t been in any of the articles we’d been given to copy out. I never got a chance to have it out with him since he wasn’t present at the exam and there was no school afterwards, everything was breaking up for summer. I don’t think I’ve forgiven him for that. The bastard ruined the Bauhaus for me.