Li Fan: Why Am I Concerned with Art Education?


Li Fan: Hello everyone! My name is Li Fan, a tenured Associate Professor from the Department of Printmaking of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. I am a Pisces born in the year of the horse with the blood type B. The topic of my speech today is “Why Am I Concerned with Art Education”. I have been engaged in this topic for many years. From year 2000 till now, I have been conducting some studies and practices on art education. The reasons why I care for art education are fairly simple. Since the establishment of Central Academy of Fine Arts, our predecessors have established a sound foundation for us, as well as a good teaching model. But with the development and changes of society, and with the diversification and expansion of the art phenomena, you can see the problems in the Central Academy of Fine Arts or the eight major art colleges in China, including some basic problems in teaching. As for how these problems relate to the current social and artistic phenomena, I'll give you a brief introduction today.


As can be seen from these three pictures, from the art education established by Mr. Xu Beihong when he constructed the academy till now, either the college entrance examination or the basic teaching cannot do without several modes, namely, literary sketch, color, creation and quick sketch. So the education we received is basically prior to Modernism, the whole development process from classicism to impressionism. Mr. Xu Beihong has spent his whole life constructing the Chinese art education model and the art education system, which has persisted till today. It has been deeply rooted in China whether under the influence of France or the former Soviet Union.

Taking the literary sketch as an example, because it is a very basic technique in China. Our predecessors would say that literary sketch solves the problem of your level rather than your style. The persistence of rigorous literary sketch training is of fundamental significance for art education. What’s most interesting is that in January 2010, a headline called “Bad Sketches Lead to Bad Art” published in the 315th issue of the New Weekly. When I see these phenomena, I will reflect on one issue: how did Anna Mary Robertson come into being? And how did today’s contemporary art as well as the contemporary masters impact on the world’s art come into being? Are they still sticking to such basic skills as the so-called literary sketch, color and quick sketch? That's what I've been thinking about.

Our foundation is basically about hand-drawing, which has always been the phenomenon in China’s eight art colleges from the past to now. Is there any other foundations? When people have more opportunities to go abroad, we will have the chance to see more and more art phenomena. Then we will find out why some people can't draw sketches or paint colors at all. But why are they still able to do a good job in art and their works when their ideologies and concepts do make a crucial contribution to the development of the world’s culture and art? We used to have such voices that we thought they were garbage, which has not been verified. I think this irresponsible statement may represent a certain period or a certain stage. Maybe nobody thinks so today, but for us, for a person who loves art and painting, literary sketch is a necessary threshold. And is the so-called foundation of a threshold for us to step into the palace of art?


So I think the New Weekly provided an interesting headline that “Bad Sketches Lead to Bad Art”. It attracts me to explore whether there is such a basis besides the sketch that can make good art. We can see that art has become pretty much diversified. When we face such a phenomenon, when we see such works and think about such issues, we ask ourselves how to respond to such a phenomenon with art as the basic education in colleges and the base of today’s art schools? So sometimes I feel very painful. Why do we think other people are garbage? But at the same time we believe that all the social results will end up going after their own direction. Then we initiate the discussion on what belongs to China and what belongs to the world, which I think will become a false proposition. If our foundation is really as good as many of our predecessors said, how should we respond to such things when we face them today?

So with this, I am also thinking about whether there is any other basis. These are the posters of some exhibitions and lectures in the school that I have collected in the past few years. It can been seen that in the past our predecessors were discussing what science & technology and art were, while today we are talking about the relationship between applied science & technology and art, so the phenomenon of art is not simply from life or goes beyond your life, but closely related to your life, and even closely related to contemporary science & technology as well as future ideology. With such a phenomenon and ideology, I have another question, where is our foundation?


This is a report from yesterday. It was about the CAFA Visual Innovation Institute including the effectiveness of our reform, the top notches invited from all over the world and the World Presidents Forum. I attended two sessions. We invited all the relevant prestigious headmasters from all over the world, but it suddenly came to me that some of what they had said can be downloaded from brochures online. Then I was rethinking that did we have any reserves? We invited someone, a headmaster, when they were lecturing, did we have a reserve? Did we miss anything? What did our disciplines miss? What did we miss with the development of our school? Which school’s experience is helpful for our future development? Which discipline can help us in the future? I don’t think we have a good reserve for those problems.


Let’s consider where our foundation is. It might be the foundation of our current college entrance examination.

When the college entrance examinees have become like machines duplicating repeatedly and then taking exams like machines, our teachers are selecting like machines as well, as if they are sorting products or goods in a distribution or logistics center. When we see this as a threshold to art colleges, my heart is chilled. I wonder why our foundation is like this, why we review the college entrance examination in this way and why we mark it in this way. I think this is of real Chinese characteristics, and really bizarre for the rest of the world.

So let's think about it. In this case, I don't blame the mushrooming pre-exam classes at all. Since there is hardly any reform in the foundation of art education in China as a whole in the eight universities, it will lead to the boom of pre-exam classes and painting resources shopping, which can be applied mechanically. You don’t need to mix the colors or do anything at all. You just paint it or do it as it is. If we recruit students in this way, let’s think among all those who want to learn painting and art, how many of them really love painting or art deep from their heart? We can calculate a proportion. We are also thinking about how to cope with this kind of scheme of the students from the mushrooming pre-exam class. This is why we invented the alleged model of changing creation exam questions.

I specially selected the exam questions from the eight art colleges in 2016. One of them is about transgenosis. I asked the person who set the question, what criteria do you use to determine whether this student is selected or not? And does it mean that a different question can change a student's way of thinking? How can his view of the past be changed? Does this kind of change really mean we are making up for what we lack? This is also a question that I am thinking about, which is an art newsletter I excerpted from the school's official website entitled "On how college entrance examinees build their own happiness model---An on-site interview on the public noticeboard and marking of the college entrance examination in the Central Academy of Fine Arts". One of the question was how to evaluate the reform of exam questions two years ago, which was obviously enhancing the test of students’ social responsibility, cultural sensitivity and critical thinking capability. Let's see where these students came from and how did they respond to this question.


This is Hengshui NO.1 High School. Every time before taking an examination, the students have to take an oath like fighting a war. Then they will be motivated and start to progress like being pumped up. Based on my understanding of Hengshui No.1 High School, it is said that half of them can be enrolled by Tsinghua University while the other half by Peking University. As far as I am concerned, I am not optimistic about China’s art education if those reserved talents get admission to such universities, because I cannot see the existence of human beings among them. All I have seen are waves of products duplicated by machines. So under the circumstance of both physical and mental exhaustion, they are suddenly faced with an exam question asking them to pay attention to society, to life, to science and to the future development, where should they start? How can an exam question like this require the students who have been cultivated in this background to analyze our subjective idea that more attention should be paid to life and technology? Here comes another question, is this the solution to problems?

As for the purpose of this picture, let me go back to the most original concept, namely what was the schematism used for at the earliest stage? Someone may ask what education is for. Actually education started from the early maternal body, which was full of love and then the so-called education was formed gradually. As was the schematism. It may be full of joy, records, memories and a happiness after hunting and repletion at the very beginning. But why it is turned into something like this now? Let's look at this picture. Since the first day when the so-called concept of academy which is related to today came into being in the 16th century, the development law of art education and education in the West has been circulating and developing on the basis of practice, theory, re-practice and re-theory. On the one hand, it is about the reflection on education on the basis of social changes; on the other hand, it is about the circulation of training of what kind of people society can promote towards further social development and then how education can develop even further.


Throughout this process, when I discovered this rule, I realized that there was a problem on our side, that is why the single mode can live up to today? I would like to add that I have no objection against the previous single basic training, even at the time when plenty of artists and excellent talents were trained. Even today and in the future, if someone says China is going to cancel the modern basic courses, I will be the first to speak out against it. Why? Because on the basis that we do not have the original works, there is no sight of original works, our predecessors constructed a very good and systematic teaching mode from classicism to modernism. However, this teaching mode is absolutely not the only mode in Chinese art colleges. It is definitely wrong to cancel it, but it is also wrong to consider it as the only one. Then what’s the second and third one? This is why I have been thinking and why I have been practicing through teaching all this time.


As for the relationship between practice and theory in the West, there is a very important system---science. Since science came into being, when judging or analyzing something, they do not decide on a policy just by a flash of inspiration or invent some subjects and disciplines based on art phenomena. Instead, the researchers are told in a systematic, scientific and research-based manner of what can be put down, what can be pushed forward, what is related to society, what is related to the system, and then what kind of theoretical system can be used to support my point of view. So what's on the other basis? Later, by studying the history of Western art education and psychology, etc., I finally realize that they have very effective ways to train their ways of thinking.

We often hear people say or see in articles that art cannot be taught or creation cannot be taught if artists are not trained from colleges. These are just sensationalism. Why? I think the existence of education might not be simply invented by someone; instead, education has existed since the first day when college came into being. So as for the futurism, which believes that the so-called universities may be non-existent and concepts from non-walled university to non-existent university. Until we begin to focus on realistic problems, we cannot come to realize how to revise and fine-tune our teaching philosophy and concepts under such circumstances in China. Westerners categorize our ways of thinking into multiple types. As you can see from this form, among all these thinking systems, let’s think about how many of them can be taken advantage of in our practice or in our so-called professional system?


While we are talking about teaching when it comes to education, I am sorry it’s a technique, which is your experience. But if we really want to respect someone or to understand someone, we should know how to guide their thinking. Guiding is an important word. So it is not that creation is not able to be taught or the so-called topic that art cannot be taught. It should be how professional art colleges open up students’ thinking system, which is neither a simple creation nor a simple invention. Then what is it? It is about how to put yourself in the art, how to understand yourself and how to support yourself in your own way through some systematical modes or methods; then you can understand how your personality is formed and know what you like and dislike. The training of the thinking system is about a process of how to turn a divergent thought process or explosive thinking, which is a dispersed, invisible and intangible thinking no matter what it is named, into (an ability in terms of actively making selections and judgement)  for a certain subject or some discipline. This process needs to go through many stages.

Let’s take this stage as an example. Starting from the big circle above, when we begin to be divergent, everyone can have a lot of ideas and experiences. Your childhood, family, habits, including your accomplishments, and everything you experience in this world are all in the process of divergence; but in this stage we always turn them into works and results. And it is during this stage that the parents and teachers begin to intervene. So the purpose of this picture is to tell parents and teachers to stand by, letting the students and the individual lives give their imagination and individual advantages to full play, and set their sorrow and joy, happiness and sadness free. In this way they can put all their previous experience in one basket. Then we will give them guidance, telling them what is related to themselves or their subjects, what can be done or implemented, which then leads to the second stage. During such self-selection, teachers and parents should shut up and step out of the way, allowing the students to have initiative and be more judicious.

In this stage we will still hold the teachers’ or mothers’ hands asking them to tell us how to think and what to do. There will also be occasions in this stage where we don’t realize what to do next without any experience when it comes to the relationships with ourselves, with our subjects and our thinking. At this point our parents and teachers show up to give us suggestions instead of guidance. What’s the suggestion? There must be respect for an individual life, asking him why he is thinking or doing something in this way. Life experience and expertise will be helpful for students and kids at this point. Then they should be encouraged to think further, getting a periodic result.

As I said just now, it is not a simple invention or creation. It is a guidance, accompanied by how to teach, how to instruct, and how to induce the possibility of individuals to its fullest. But just as the thinking system, only very few of our possibilities have been used. So what we often talk about is divergent thinking, reverse thinking and critical thinking. And that’s it. There is no other thinking. As for what is exemplary thinking or data-based thinking, no one has ever talked about it.

Why there is a book abroad named “Applied Imagination”? When I first started to study this problem, some people told me I was doing design teaching. They believed when there is some kind of this creation, it is about design teaching. What is applied imagination? It involves all subjects. So we are not surprised at the campus atmosphere and student wellbeing in Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Oxford University. Why? Because the system did not start from universities, but from the infant period. That means the earliest education originated from antenatal training. This reminds me of a joke I read yesterday. A man is asked, “What’s you educational background? Undergraduate or postgraduate?” “Antenatal training”, he answers. So from the period of antenatal training, it’s about how to view a live individual as an individual life. Then from kindergarten education, to elementary education and to junior education, students are continuously guided to release their true personalities, which is not a barbarous or uncivilized behavior; instead, it is a confidence which allows you to choose what you really need in this vast world.

I began to study teaching in 2000. During my stay in France for half a year, I saw this phenomenon, which I thought was another foundation. In 2000, I carried out an experiment with the non-degree students who were seeking advanced training. Four years later, it turned out to be good for the Department of Printmaking. Then it was adopted as one of the basic courses for the Department of Printmaking. From that day on, the basic course of the Department of Printmaking became the visual thinking transformation of sketch color, which lasted for 14 years. Therefore, the reason why I made such statements in the previous paragraph is that I have a profound understanding of the significance of the course and the role it had played.

Then you will feel that the so-called students who are good at drawing have no advantage in this class, while those who cannot draw well have more advantages. That is to say, for the students who study in a highly disciplined and stereotyped way, this course is very difficult. So it’s impossible to give them a high score just based on what we have seen or the right attitude. In this whole teaching system, I will score each assignment individually, and then divide eight subjects by a total score to evaluate a student's performance on the course. Here you might ask a question: where is their initiative? On which a student can develop some relationship with his family and why so many students cry in this course, it is because their pain is evidenced in their growth and so they are touched. But I think for undergraduates, the adult personality comes from childhood. And the misery and sufferings from childhood can be magnified. If you want to move forward with ease, you have to touch upon the pain points and then enter a professional system to express through media.    

Some people say that the self is too insignificant and others say that it is very boring by using my personal experience to produce works. I am sorry, they are not works; it’s training. When our student has an idea, a good idea, and he also does a good job in mastering his skills, the teacher suddenly shows up and says how great some master is and how could he compare with that master. We need to figure out how to discover the progress of students and their growth point, right? What’s the meaning of the proverb “Teach Students in Accordance with Their Aptitude”? In the past, the students were taught without distinguishing their own aptitude. But today we need to understand every individual, which makes it laborious to give lessons. A class with 40 students can last from 8:30 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m.. Why is that? Because you are so eager to understand each of them and to let each individual find out his own history. I think whether it’s good or bad, happy or sad, the stories can be replaced into works and into some subjects. This is just the beginning.

So I think either the great artists or the so-called experienced teachers should not compare the students with the master when they see the children's works. You have to take into account who are your target audience or what your students are thinking about. So the purpose of this course is neither simply to train some creative ideas nor for the sake of the students’ inventions.


I am very lucky that some students can follow me for so many years from 2004 when they were still sophomores, till they became juniors getting access to offices, seniors working on graduation pieces and postgraduates for three more years, so that I can apply this training mode to teaching systematically. This picture shows a piece of work from a second-grade student. He can work on different subjects, choose other media and select different majors. I did not tell him about all these. He made the choice based on his ideas, his content, his favorite media and accuracy. So a course like this will have a major influence on the students’ future development. Our education model is that no matter what you have been trained at the beginning to do, it must serve the result of a graduation piece. It seems all the efforts in the first few years are just building up foundations. Sorry, this is called a creation foundation. If the the word Creation is tenable, I would recognize that undergraduate education is all about the education on the creation foundation.  

It is of course not that simple. Undergraduate training is general and methodological education. It is the education of lifelong learning. If the education from elementary school to senior high school serves the purpose of passing the college entrance examination, then university education is to build up reserves for your lifelong self-learning. That is why in China, people always attach great importance to undergraduate education. It is only in recent years that postgraduate and doctoral education begin to witness some progress. There used to be a saying that PhDs dwarf postgraduates while postgraduates dwarf undergraduates. The reason for this phenomenon is closely related to our cultural foundation, the history of our cultural and educational development as well as the relationship of today, which is unnecessary to reiterate.


When students graduate from the Academy, their final piece is inextricably tied up with their training in the second grade. The graduation piece is not just about graduation, but about the whole education process. I put a high value on the so-called today’s contemporary working style, such as planning, writing and taking down the thinking track, which is not just simply a visual image. Everything related to the thinking track which has to be taken down, which is not new in foreign countries. We often talk about a question of consequence so why do we use western models. The reason is that you cannot construct your own Chinese model and you don't know how they manage to construct the western models which is so appealing for Chinese people. It’s all about foundation and today’s working style.


If it is absolutely correct that the so-called foundation of sketch which we mentioned just now is a method between classicism and modernism, then what’s the working method of art and education after modernism till nowadays and what’s the learning method of our students? It's not a simple picture or a easy quick sketch, is it? So a course like this will integrate all this relevant information. For the works of the postgraduates, I’m glad to have some clues which shows the growth of my students, allowing me to see their confidence and calmness when facing life and to figure out if they feel anxious or not. Of course they will feel anxious. There is no one who is free from anxiety. But they have a clear idea where their direction is and what they should do. So among all my students, some of them are kindergarten teachers, some primary school teachers and some working in publishing houses. No matter what they do, it looks like they don't have much fickleness.

In the whole education system, there is another topic, psychology. I have always focused on psychology, especially the psychology problems of college students. It is in the third grade that the juniors begin to be keenly aware of their psychological problems. They didn’t realize this problem until the second grade. Why? It is because they used to be under the huge pressure of the college entrance examination. In the first year of college life, the pressure was distracted by the novelty of a brand-new environment. The psychological problems are found when students are familiar with this environment and begin to inspect themselves in the second grade. Then in the third grade, they break down. So it is not from college that the students start to have psychological problems. The problems have been lurking since senior high school or even junior high school if they are excessively severe.       

In fact, this kind of teaching mode touches upon the psychological world of our students today, including the relationship between his psychology and schematism. Some people say that he is very miserable, his family is very miserable, and his life is very miserable. I am sorry, when misery is reproduced in his works, it is a form of release. So I often say that it does not make a show of happiness when carrying such pessimism and misery; neither should you pretend to be mature at a young age while pretend to be naive at an old age, which are all against the laws of nature, in other words, unnatural.


The reason why I have done these studies and made such statements is that I have been reading books like “The History of Western Art Education”, which I have read 4 times or 5 times, and “Understanding Courses”, which is known as the bible of American education and boasts the relationship of sisterhood and mentorship within western art education. If the timeline of “The History of Western Art Education” ranges from ancient Greece to the 1970s, then the “Understanding Course” is from 1970s to today. When you look at their educational ideas, what they are talking is all about the courses.

Look at the books on the left, “General Education in a Free Society Report of the Harvard Committee”. There are 3 pages in this book describing that there are 400 elective courses in Harvard. There is a group of mentors who spent one and a half years studying what kind of courses should Harvard offer, what are compulsory courses and elective courses. In this process you can find out that in non-English culture, lost religions and things remain unknown to us. It is not until this point that you come to realize it cannot make up for our plan. When it comes to religion, we would talk about Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism; when it comes to the female, we would talk about feminism. It seems these are the only things we know about. Why can an autobiography win the Oscar or the Nobel Prize? When taking a close look at the winners of the Turner prize, Kassel Documenta or La Biennale di Venezia, you can check on what kind of topics they are about.

For so many years during my living and teaching in the Central Academy of Fine Arts, I found that many of our policies are just stopgap measures like the physicians treat only where the pain is. Very few of them have any farsightedness. Some others are just copying from somewhere else blindly. So I always dare to say that China’s contemporary art is like the story of “The Blind Man and the Elephant”, taking a part for the whole. It is the same with China’s art education, which is all learned from others. The course is established based on someone’s experience of what he has learnt from his teacher abroad. Where is our own course and our own foundation? This is a question that I have always been asking.

For example, when you finish reading the book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”, you will feel deeply that the examination-oriented education system and school-nearby houses also exist in America. They are also fabricating. So in the whole education system, you know how to introduce commerce and the so-called policies to schools. The author mentioned all these in the book. The last topic he mentions is that we should think about education by returning to education itself. All these are loaned foreign phenomena.  

As a teacher, I was asked by many people as to why I am concerned with teaching. I have been wondering why they ask this question. Why a teacher should not be concerned with teaching? Some people even ask me why to care for primary and secondary education. The answer to this question is that I have seen that the students pool of the eight art colleges comes from the education mode of copy and replication. I think we have copied the  production mode of McDonald’s which sends so many students to the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Whatever the purpose is, whether it’s the purpose of parents or society, the reality is very obvious: with so many students and so many kids who have no true love for arts, where should college education head for? This is just making stopgap measures. Why? We cannot make any change to the phenomenon mention above, which has already been rooted in schools. As teachers, are you ready for that? Are you still trying to use your personal experience?

Many of the teachers tell students how to draw, how to comprehend the art history and how to understand society based on their personal experience. However, that’s just your own experience. You didn’t encourage the students to establish and understand their own knowledge systems, to develop their own attitudes and views, and to construct their own critical systems.

图17-李帆的儿子和女儿.jpgConversely, some people say it is because you love teaching that you are so devoted to education. But it is actually not the case for me. I am just thinking about how to address the problems mentioned above. I can only rely on myself to figure out the solution little by little based on my own practice. Thank god that I became a father in my 40s and again in my 50s, who were like guinea pigs for me in my art education. During the experiment, I have been protecting their interest in drawing all the time without teaching any techniques. One of my kids is eight years old and the other is four and a half, neither of them have lost their interest in drawing. Are they really meant to be engaged in art? Absolutely not. It’s not up to me. I am just giving them some recognition and the confidence in making choices, and then gradually develop their initiatives, which is imbued in their minds little by little through art. They did not make the choice, as a hobby, for the purpose of improving their aesthetics or as to be admitted into some art school in the future. But if they have a real affection for art, by no means will I have any objection. For example, if they like cooking, I will definitely send them to the best chef training school instead of the school that trains how to operate heavy cranes.

From then on, throughout my son’s kindergarten period, I have been attending his class twice a week for a half a year, playing and drawing with the kids. The teacher of senior grade said when she took over this class that this was the first class she had ever met that none of the students said they cannot or do not want to draw. So when the Education Committee of Chaoyang District came to inspect that kindergarten, it was show time for the kids from this class. They were using materials and media in an audacious manner. It is the same with the National Training Program for Teachers in my school. I was invited to give lectures every year, from which I got the chance to meet teachers from many places, including primary and secondary teachers. This is how I begin to reach out to the art phenomenon in primary and secondary schools, as well as my high school where I teach art. I want to know the relationship between art and people through my own practice. What I really want to see is that some day students can choose to learn art because of their true love for it instead of a profit-driven purpose.

Where do the students pool of universities come from? Maybe it has something to do with the previous background. So when in college, you would find the problems were from senior high school; when in senior high, you will find the problem is with the family education and junior high education; and when in junior high, the problems lie in primary school. So when we make overseas investigations, I am very interested in their education major. Why? Because education covers national policies and a whole process from teachers’ training, to teachers’ output and to students’ cultivation. This is a topic that I have always been concerned about and devoted to studying.

Maybe later sometime in July, my kids and wife will hold an exhibition in 798. The exhibition is about how a person who cannot paint starts to like painting, and about a kid that never wanted to be a painter is willing to hold this exhibition with the motivation of painting. It is also about my painstaking and conscientious study in the past nine or ten years. It’s just like what I am going to conclude with: I wish I could spare my utmost to do something for the means, purposes and directions of talent cultivation and output. Thank you all for listening!