Do drawing and art have their place at school?


Since the school reform law , all students follow an “artistic and cultural education course”. But what is the role assigned to it, in a school that is refocusing on the fundamentals? Is it a question of making budding citizens aware of the artistic approach or of relying on the various disciplines to help them strengthen their critical spirit, in the era of the “videosphere” (or civilization of the image according to Régis Debré ), and the rise of AI?

The institution insists on an education in images to avoid being subjected to the solicitations of an omnipresent media environment and in particular encourages audiovisual practice to understand images by producing them, in the context of photo or video workshops in particular.

Recognized since the foundation of the public and free school, drawing, more than the other arts, questions the functioning and the missions of the school. Let us see how it reveals the difficult balance to maintain between instruction and education, between instrumental acquisitions and the discovery of means of expression and debate, essential to democratic practices.

Drawing at the service of industry or art?

The first elementary schools taught “linear” drawing , associated with surveying and geometry. The 1860s introduced “ornamental” and “imitation” design and, from 1890, “geometric” design became compulsory. It is based on a repertoire of simple and well-defined geometric shapes to reproduce an object and is part of the basic elementary skills, in the same way as reading, writing and arithmetic. As Charles Romain Capellaro , then professor at the Normal School of Saint-Cloud, clearly states , it does not concern private practice reserved for an elite and the training of artists  :

“The fear has been expressed that the teaching of drawing-modeling in our schools will give rise to too many pupils artistic aspirations that are not useful for practical life […]. In this we are mistaken: the knowledge of drawing-modeling […] unquestionably allows those who have it to learn more quickly, to carry out their work more reliably and to perfect their art by taking an exact copy of things. ingenious that he can encounter. »

For the philosopher Jocelyne Beguery , this school made the choice of “a technical, even technical education where art is instrumentalized and placed at the service of trades and industry” against “a humanist and civic education where art, is considered in itself. The geometric drawing taught in elementary school is a rational drawing , executed in line, in black and white, possibly shaded, which will be used by the specialized workers needed by industry.

This utilitarianism was replaced in 1909 by the “intuitive method” which consists in observing and interpreting nature to produce a personal impression. Also, more than an exact and correct execution, the master will take into account the sincerity with which this impression will be made. In addition, with the help of certain appropriate exercises (decorative arrangements, illustrations of children’s games, stories, fables and tales), the imaginative faculties of schoolchildren will be encouraged .

Drawing: a changing pedagogical concept

In fact, the educational system then in the making was experimenting with different ways of responding to the social, economic and cultural challenges of the time, relying on a discipline long taught by artists. This displacement gives the drawing the value of an emblem: it materializes the debates that animate the construction of the public school in the service of the nation. Drawing became a matter of State, its slow recognition as a “matter of public education” accompanied the debates associated with pedagogical renovation.

And these debates continue. After May 68 and the democratization of secondary and higher education, children’s drawing, imagination, creativity and contemporary art were gradually taken into account. Technical drawing was devolved to vocational high schools. The “drawing course” became “plastic arts course” or “visual arts course”. Freedom of expression was highlighted and drawing is regularly associated with many other artistic practices (photography, architecture, calligraphy, performance, etc.).

But the identity of the teaching of drawing in public, secular and compulsory schools remains a practice that is based on constitutive antinomies: between manual activity and intellectual exploration, at the same time geometric, perspective, mathematical or uncontrolled scribbling, the drawing represents a personal imagination, but must participate in the social progress of all.

Both “drawing” and “design”, in the spirit of Italian Renaissance disegno , he is the “father of our three arts, architecture, sculpture and painting” , according to Leonardo da Vinci and Vasari in his Treatise on painting . And as Jean-Luc Nancy writes in his book Le Plaisir au dessin , drawing (from the Latin de-signare which means “to mark out of”) is the origin, the beginning. It makes it possible to understand by bringing about “the thought of the thing, its formation, its re-formation or its transformation into truth”.

Elementary school highlights this understanding of the world through observational drawing – a faithful, detailed and understandable representation of the world – and experimental drawing – tests, erasing, corrections, etc. which prolong the rhythm of the body and of thought and give meaning by bringing about a form. In both cases, the stroke allows learning by drawing .

“The lines of a drawing reveal how we visualize what surrounds us, how it appears to us. If we teach drawing in schools, it is therefore not simply so that they (the pupils) are able to draw pretty triangles: it is also because it gives our gaze a greater finesse. . »

The practice of drawing is no longer limited to “imitating”, “adorning”, “composing”, “geometrising” as in the days of linear drawing, but is it for all that a question of teaching art?

Drawing as access to writing and mastery of the language

Devices such as the Lang and Tasca plan (2000) or the artistic and cultural education pathways (PEAC) could lead one to believe this knowing that, for a large number of children, school remains the only space where an encounter with art can take place.

One of the objectives of the visual arts course is to open students up to works and cultures in order to “constitute repertoires of images, of various motifs from which they (the students) draw to learn how to reproduce, assemble , organize, link for creative purposes”. In practice, however, the activities offered in primary school are limited to formal exercises “in the style of…” without a creative situation.

Teachers are, in their defense, very poor at presenting works that go beyond the theme and the techniques used. In addition to the lack of training, since the 2000s there has been “a growing focus on mastering the language in relation to the challenges of academic success” and, since 2008, an emphasis on the fundamentals which tends to link the practice of drawing to writing and verbalization exercises on the effects produced.

The artistic teaching programs in cycles 2 and 3 indicate that “in learning in the visual arts, doing , experiencing and reflecting are always kept together  ; it is the very meaning of the teacher’s approach to allow permanent interactions between these three dimensions of learning  ”. And young children draw spontaneously by training their hand, their wrist, their shoulder, their gaze… It is therefore important not to limit it to the simple execution of voluntary lines to reproduce, assemble, organize, in a word: intellectualize the world .

Unfortunately, the perceptual and syncretic modes initiated in kindergarten are quickly replaced by logical and analytical processes of appropriation and transmission of knowledge. As in the 19th century  , drawing and art at school raise the question of institutional injunctions, the hierarchy of disciplines and their use for selection purposes. Artistic practices are not mobilized for themselves, but for their transversal qualities, as a response to professional and social issues.

Author Bio: Genevieve Guetemme is a Lecturer in Plastic Arts at the University of Orléans