I recently dipped my toes into the art education industry. After several waves of exhilaration and despair, I’m happy to find myself back on the relative terra firma of this blog. But I’m struggling to bring any coherence to my impressions. With only two weeks spent at the San Francisco Art Institute, I’m not qualified to offer much on the topic of arts education. But something is nagging at me. Something seems wrong.
In a recent article in Art in America entitled ‘Art schools: A Group Crit,’ my unease is validated by a couple of educators with a lot more experience than me:
Cocteau said that poetry is a machine for the manufacture of love and that all of its other properties were lost on him. The acknowledgment of art’s powers of intimacy is too dicey for the business of college.
Art occurs in a state of grace. This can be patiently explained and somehow understood–there are enough artists to verify it–but then you are asked to teach. This can be exhausting. So it is more convenient to have an educational methodology. However, the result of this compromise is a lowering of expectations.
Dave Hickey made the boldest comments. I don’t agree with everything he says, but his comments are worth quoting in full:
1. In the present moment, artists are better off training themselves at home and acquiring the benefit of a good liberal arts or art historical education. This, because the model for graduate art education, established in the early ’70s by John Baldessari and others (myself included), is 40 years old and virtually obsolete.
2. Art schools are unhappy, ugly places. They tend to inculcate philistine, institutional habits of mind and to teach young artists more about teaching than about art. Since teaching art has been destructive to the practice of every artist I know who teaches, I try never to forget that the few good, serious teachers of art pay a price that’s way too high for the privilege of doing it.
3. Teaching art, in my experience, is a genuine privilege that comes with its own oath to “do no harm.” It also breaks your heart.
4. Art is a cosmopolitan practice best taught in cities near the water. Teaching art in a provincial cultural environment that does not celebrate and embrace change is totally self-defeating. It transforms art into a compensatory discourse that can help a stranded student maintain his or her sanity for few years in the boonies. It cannot, however, help people who teach under these conditions maintain their sanity. These people are doomed….
5. Teachers of art practice have one overriding obligation to their students: to be intimately familiar with the contemporary standards of art practice, discourse, trade and exhibition against which their students’ work will be measured–so their students will know the unspoken rules they are choosing to break or not to break. The art market itself should be dealt with evenhandedly and explained in detail. It is a fact and an option from which students should not be cloistered. Demonizing the art marketplace does more damage to students than exposing them to collectors and dealers who are irrevocably a part of the art world.
6. Art school must be free or cheap. It is virtually impossible for a young artist to establish a mature, courageous practice with a six-figure educational debt.
7. Art students should not be placed under the authority of older practicing artists whose work they are mandated to render obsolete. This guarantees bad advice and destructive criticism.
8. Any teacher of art who conceives his or her job to be “teaching young artists to think critically” should be fired immediately for intellectual dishonesty.
9. All group crits with faculty and students in attendance should be abolished immediately. These crucibles privilege the verbal over the visual and allow faculty members to poison and manipulate peer relations among their students.
10. Nurturing attention paid to an art student should never be confused with attention paid to nurturing art.
11. Unfinished work should be presumed not to exist.
12. Art in the context of an art school always looks bad, especially when it’s very good.
13. Regular supervision and oversight of young artists’ practice should be suppressed. My rule: “If you’re not sick, don’t call the doctor.”
14. If art students want to study Continental theory, they should learn German and French and study it in a philosophy department. Because (1) art schools are incapable of distinguishing properly between theory and practice; (2) art school classes in these subjects are little more than uncritical “slow pitch” indoctrinations taught by advocates rather than scholarly adepts; (3) all of the American translations of this work are poisoned by the moment of their making; (4) this entire discourse is now “historical”–a dated, conservative, academic field of study and no longer live talk.
15. Only saints can nurture real talent. I am a writer, not even an artist, and even I can’t avoid feeling a twinge of resentment when a pimple-faced twerp with a skateboard under his arm shows me a mature and persuasive work of art. I can see, much more clearly than the twerp, the road opening before him, the obstacles falling away, and it’s all I can do not to stick out my foot and trip him. If I were an artist, with a stake in the game, I would probably trip him, and tell myself that it’s for his own good. It wouldn’t be. Better to buy the damned art and take your profit on the back end.
The longest ‘Art Schools Group Crit’ was made by Robert Storr. But Storr’s solution for creating a good program seems quite simple: “You can’t go wrong hiring John Baldessari.”
Baldessari’s secret to teaching also seems pretty simple. In the current issue of Modern Painters, he says to Michael Craig-Martin, “You can’t teach art; that’s my premise.”
Craig-Martin, formerly of Goldsmith’s College in London, agrees:
I sometimes said to students, “I could tell you everything I know, everything I could think of saying to you in a day or two. But it wouldn’t make any difference, because you’d understand all the words, you’d write it all down, it would all make sense, and it would be absolutely useless to you. The thing you have to do is you have to act it out.
Bill Jay said something similar while reflecting on his twenty-five years of teaching (pdf):
In my own experience, the only learning which has been meaningful has been self-motivated, self-taught, self-appropriated, self-discovered. As the old saying goes, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”
How can the needs of the student be better served? I wish I knew. All I do know is that the biggest single factor inhibiting education is the educational system. The problem is that as soon as alternatives are suggested, these alternatives become ossified into a different, but equally rigid, system – and I am well aware that criticism alone is not very constructive. Ideally, I would eliminate all examinations, the credit system, grades, and the declaration of majors. I would even dispense with degrees.
My recent teaching experience had wonderful moments. Some encounters with students were so good that I was ready to quit my day job. But this exhilaration was more than matched by some serious angst. It is dangerous, and for me devastating, to share my greatest passion in an atmosphere of wasteful apathy. Like a small drop of fixer spilled into the developer bath, this apathy threatens to spoil the whole creative process.
At the end of the two weeks I found myself asking the same questions that Robert Adams asked in his essay on teaching: Can Photography Be taught? Ought it to be taught? If so, am I the one to teach it?:
Can Photography Be taught? If this means the history and techniques of the medium, I think it can. The latter, particularly, are straightforward. If, however, teaching photography means bringing students to find their own individual photographic visions, I think it is impossible. We would be pretending to offer the students, in William Stafford’s phrase, “a wilderness with a map.” We can give beginners directions about how to use a compass, we can tell them stories about our exploration of different but possibly analogous geographies, and we can bless them with our caring, but we cannot know the unknown and thus make sure a path to real discovery.
Ought photography to be taught? If at the beginning of my own photography I had taken a course in the mechanics, it would have saved time. Learning the history of the medium might also have been done more systematically in a class, but it was fun and easy to do on my own. As for the studio courses in “seeing” – which usually place student work up for evaluation by both classmates and teachers – I was never tempted to take one, and so am not attracted to teaching one. Arrogantly I believed right from the start that I could see. That was the compulsion, to make a record of what I saw. And so listening to most other people speak didn’t seem helpful. Even now I don’t like to discuss work that isn’t finished, because until it is revised over the span of a year or several years there are crucial parts that are present only in my mind’s eye, pieces intended but not yet realized. If I were forced to pay attention, as one would be in a class, to a dozen different understandings and assessments of what I was putting together it would amount to an intolerable distraction, however well mean. Architect Luis Barragan was right, I think: “Art is made by the alone for the alone.”
Am I one to teach photography? When I consider the possibility I can’t help remembering a question put to me by an affectionate and funny uncle when I told him I might become a minister – “Do you have to?” Experience later as an English teacher brought up the same issue. Teachers must, I discovered, have a gift to teach and the compulsion to use it. And faith. Anything less won’t carry you through.
When I ask art students what they want to do after graduation, 9 out of 10 respond with some variation of “teach, I guess.” Forgetting that there will never be enough teaching positions to support all of these graduates, I’m skeptical. Along with teaching creative thinking, art schools should encourage creative ways of making a living. If students are interested in art education, they should approach it creatively and critically. It is certainly worthwhile to ask a variation of Adams’ three questions:
Can art be taught? Should art be taught? Who should teach it?