in Features | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Back To School

Jake and Dinos Chapman

in Features | 09 SEP 98

When Jake and Dinos Chapman took their first art exam, 15 years or so ago, it was called 'O' level art with the 'O' standing for ordinary. This summer they retook it. It's now called something else, but the standard required is much the same. Ordinary. Proficiency in drawing and some painting skills will ensure an average to good pass, which is what Jake and Dinos both achieved - grade Bs.

The portfolios they each submitted for assessment are quite different. Dinos is the technician. His draughtsmanship is well resolved and his choice of subject matter tends towards the nerdy and banal. He enjoys making detailed, lovingly shaded pencil drawings of a pair of rollerblades. A small oil painting depicts a happy country cottage scene, slightly Alpine and woody, with butterflies and a woodpecker in the foreground and a steam train puffing along in the expansive, detailed background. A hint of anxiety is suggested by a tiny Red Riding Hood being chased by a wolf in a far off, single brushhair-sized drama. And when Dinos makes a self-portrait from an unusual material, his own shaven hair, it has a recognisable likeness.

Jake's self-portrait is made from Cornflakes. It is a very Jean Dubuffet, raw, outsider kind of art, and looks nothing like him. His drawings are more neurotic than Dinos' and more imaginative. They give expression to his troubled inner thoughts. Nuclear holocaust mushroom clouds, acid rain, satanic figures on speeding motor bikes, Charles Manson and other apocalyptic obsessions fill the pages of his sketchbook. Brought together in a single masterwork, they teem, Bosch-like, in a giant thought bubble above the head of a distressed youth. Jake notes at one point in his sketchbook, 'Discovery - A darkness in my inner self'. His portfolio also includes some enervated water-colour studies of pages from the Sensation catalogue, made in response to an assignment about contemporary art awareness.

There is nothing particularly extraordinary about the work in their portfolios, and in a way, Jake and Dinos remembering themselves as adolescents is not so far from how they are today. More surprising is how the range of work as a whole has an effortlessly contemporary feel. From Martin Maloney's messy faux naiveté and Elizabeth Peyton's fandom to Georgina Starr's teenage comic book art, regressive art seems to be in. But it's regression the long way round. All the art skills and training studiously learnt at school are unravelled and deconstructed at art college, resulting in degree shows full of scrappy bits and bobs of uncertainty. After a BA, students may take an MA with some even weightier art theory - then leave college and go back to making 'O' level art.

So what is art education for? The Chapmans don't come up with an answer, yet their project does reveal a concern about the institutional criteria for evaluating art. Inevitably, like their 'mature' work, the current piece combines this serious critique with a sniggering delinquency. When asked in a recent interview why they were taking 'O' level art, Dinos jokingly replied that they couldn't be nominated for the Turner Prize without it. The Tate were subsequently drawn in to making a public response and, reluctantly, drew up a press release stating that an 'O' level in art was not required to win the Turner Prize, and confirming what many of the general public already believed to be true - that so-called 'conceptual' artists can't draw.

Whatever, notions of skill and craftsmanship by themselves have no useful value. Contemporary art is about an engagement with the contemporary world, and if anything that's what teaching art should be based upon. 'Every great or even very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications', wrote Raymond Carver. 'It is his world and no other. This is one of the things which distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There's plenty of that around. But a writer who has a unique and exact way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking.' And that pretty much goes for artists as well.