How to Teach Art

Michael Corris has taken me to task in the letters page of Art Monthly about my article on the difference between teaching art and teaching the arts. Here’s my article, given the title “Teaching the Unteachable” when it was published.

Paul Kristeller, in his pioneering study of the historical formation of the ‘modern system of the arts’, says the modern belief that ‘Art cannot be learned, and thus often becomes involved in the curious endeavor to teach the unteachable’ was unknown to the ancients who equated art with skill understood as ‘something that can be taught and learned’. The difficulties and controversies associated with teaching art arise as a result of the transition from the various arts to the singular concept of art in general.
The various arts had always been ordered – the distinction between the Liberal and Vulgar arts is ancient – but the specifically modern ordering of the arts, which groups several arts into the Fine Arts, took place in the middle of the eighteenth century. ‘The grouping together of the visual arts with poetry and music into the system of the fine arts’, Kristeller says, ‘did not exist in classical antiquity, in the Middle Ages or in the Renaissance’, adding: ‘The various arts are certainly as old as human civilization, but the manner in which we are accustomed to group them … is comparatively recent’. There was no immediate change in the methods of teaching the skills required for the Fine Arts from the methods of training artisans in the arts, although when academies replaced guilds the teaching became more scholarly. More severe pedagogical difficulties arise when the Fine Arts as a collection of individual disciplines were reconfigured according to the concept of art as such.
‘We have been saying “art” in the singular and without any other specification’, Jean-Luc Nancy observes, ‘only since the romantic period’. Nancy turns his back on modern usage, preferring the technical specificity of the multiple arts of painting, sculpture and so on rather than the abstract concept of art, but in doing so he suppresses the material embodiment of the general concept of art in the specific institutions of the art museum, the art magazine, the art history journal, university departments of art and art history, higher education courses on art theory and curating, the place of art in the curriculum of primary and secondary education, and, finally, the art school. Within the real circumstances of a culture ordered by the concept of art in general, the insistence on the specificity of the various arts is, ironically, the act of a nostalgic attachment to an abstract principle.
Art differentiated itself from the arts by incorporating them into its broader and more abstract category. The pioneers of the bourgeois conception of art in the eighteenth century had little or no interest in drawing a precise line between art and the arts, but, on the contrary, blurred the line in the interest of accomplishing the hegemony of art over the arts. The first history of art, rather than a history of painters and sculptors or a history of antiquities, written by Johann Winckelmann 1764, applied the new concept of art in general to Ancient Greek statues and paintings. So, when the Encyclopédie entry for Fine Arts was placed under the entry for Art in 1781, art in the singular preserved the arts in the plural within it. When the Louvre was established in 1793-99, therefore, it naturalised the new concept of art within an historical display of the continuity of art throughout history divided into the arts of various schools. This is why Adorno was right to observe that ‘the arts do not vanish completely in art’.
Tensions between the new concept of art and the old pedagogical institutions of the arts persisted throughout the nineteenth century. By 1861 Gustave Courbet proclaimed, ‘I who believe that every artist should be his own master, can not think of making myself into a professor’. To say, as Courbet did, ‘I deny that art can be taught’, was to express precisely the chasm between art and the arts, the latter understood since antiquity as a skill that can be taught. The Academy of Arts (note the plural) did not teach its students to be artists except insofar as it trained them in the arts (of drawing, painting, carving, casting and so on). On one hand, throughout the nineteenth century art was taught through instruction in the arts, but on the other hand, art was not taught at all since there was no pedagogical technique for teaching art in general.
By the twentieth century art education not only had to contend with the difference between teaching art and teaching the arts, it was also set apart from the methods of teaching design. In the 1920s Piet Zwart announced, ‘the fine art painting programme will have to be shut down completely’ in order to make way for the study of new techniques from advertising, typography, architecture, photography and film. Responding to a related perception of art’s unhappy relationship to modernity in 1957 Asger Jorn asked: ‘What kind of “education” do artists need in order to take their place within the machine age?’
Towards the end of 2013 the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam announced its radical curriculum reform in which ‘Zwart’s vision has finally been realised’, not in the mere closure of the painting programme, but in the complete dissolution of art except as an experimental adjunct to design. Around the same time, Ken Currie complained that the ‘younger generation want to learn how to paint, but this is not being delivered at art schools’. Tiffany Jenkins, a sociologist and columnist, took the opportunity of Currie’s remarks to observe that there is ‘an unwillingness to paint’ in the art school and ‘little sign of a serious craft’ in degree shows.
Until the 1980s, despite the change of approach and the change of name, the art school or the school of art and design, continued to be divided into departments based on skills that could be acquired in painting, sculpture, printmaking and, later on, in media and other disciplines. So long as it could be taken for granted that art consisted of painting, sculpture, print and so on, then a significant portion of teaching art boiled down to teaching any one (or a combination) of the visual arts. In principle, however, even before the advent of ‘generic art’ with Duchamp and Conceptualism, there was always a shortfall, as Courbet understood, between teaching the arts and teaching art. As Michael Craig Martin puts the same point, ‘what’s basic for one artist is not basic for another artist. And so you can’t have basics; you can’t build it in the normal curriculum way’. Such favourable descriptions of the art school underwrite the ‘pedagogical turn’ in curating, which rebuilds the ostensive freedom of the art school within the art museum. The Free Art Schools movement, similarly, has a high opinion of the non-standard methods of teaching art which are under threat in the university sector.
There is a perception that, if ‘industrialism triggered the end of craft and divided makers from thinkers’, as Ernesto Pujol puts it, that the marriage of art and craft is linked, however tenuously, to the resistance to capitalism. This wrongly assigns the transition from the arts to art in general to forces entirely external to the emancipation from the guild and the academy and the development of aesthetics and art’s own institutions.
The crisis of art education is not only a crisis in the legitimation of art (art education is targeted by neoliberal policy makers partly because art is seen as a luxury or a leisure pursuit) but a crisis in the pedagogical methods of teaching art, leading naturally but erroneously to the demand to teach art using the methods for teaching the arts. Against this, Allan Kaprow argued in 1971 that we need to ‘un-art ourselves’.
Disputes hang around for a reason. Plainly, the fear that a generation or two has been robbed of the ability to paint by bad art education is an unequivocally contemporary anxiety: despite its evident nostalgia, such a desire can be formed only after the relatively recent relegation of painting in the art school. The Stuckists and the defenders of painting and craft against art’s postconceptual institutions, therefore, are not stuck in the past so much as stuck with the rest of us. If time is out of joint for the Stuckists and other revivalists, then they have this at least – if nothing else – in common with the Renaissance, neo-classicism, the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Arts and Crafts movement, primitivism, the neo-avantgarde and postmodernism. Each revival must be understood – and contested if necessary – in terms of its own contemporary situation, not in terms of the artistic world that it chooses as its precedent. Nostalgia, like science fiction, is always about the present.
The campaign to reintroduce into the art school certain craft skills with a high cultural pedigree such as life drawing or painting is as revealing of our epoch as the borrowing of classical garb was during the reign of Louis Bonaparte. The ‘awakening of the dead’ Marx said can convert tragedy into farce, but also the past can confront us with an ‘unattainable model’. ‘The difficulty’, he said of Greek works of art, ‘is that they still afford us artistic pleasure’. Our difficulty is that drawings, paintings and other crafted works ‘still afford us artistic pleasure’ and continue, therefore, to exert pressure on the institutions of art to include such work prominently in the space they devote to art and, in the case of the art school, to reproduce the skills that their manufacture requires.
Art museums continue to display drawings and paintings and crafted objects; books continue to be published on art that exhibits high levels of skill; the art market continues to peddle handmade unique skilfully produced objects; aesthetic philosophers continue to focus the bulk of their attention on painting and other skilled pursuits such as orchestral music; art historians continue to pay close attention to crafted works of art, albeit no longer exclusively so; even art magazines tend to give priority to drawing and painting: considered within the wider field of art’s institutions, the contemporary art school in which ‘craft is abandoned for theory’, as Tiffany Jenkins puts it, appears out on a limb.
Historically, the art academy and the art school have lagged behind developments in artistic practice and artistic discourse since Romanticism, but today the art school portrayed by the advocates of craft – and perhaps in reality too – appears to be at fault for turning its back on the past, not for turning its back on the future. Current concerns about the academicisation of artists through the proliferation of PhD programmes, the appointment of artists to Readerships and Professorships and the REF, therefore, is of a different order from the neoclassical academy that confronted the early modernists. Nowadays it is the critics of academia who are the neoclassicists.
What Marx failed to observe in relation to Greek art was that the concept of art as something that is not stuck in its own time, which connects modern culture to the Ancient Greeks, also gives modern artists a sense that they might produce works that appeal to a future society, or be part of a movement that calls up a new society. There is, then, a double difficulty. The falsifying notion that art is timeless and eternal is not only rooted in the material fact of the survival of ancient monuments and other works, but also to the persistence of their aesthetic value. Ironically, therefore, it is only on the basis of this apparently conservative idea of the supreme value of the art of the past that any avant-garde work can possibly be aimed at the future. So, with these difficulties in mind, what should the art school teach?
Regardless of whether one takes pleasure from art fashioned out of craft skills, what makes such products art is no longer the presence of such skills. Even after Duchamp and Conceptualism artists continue to be skilled, of course, even if in some cases their main skill appears to be in marketing. Art in the singular cannot be taught through the acquisition of skill since, firstly, as Terry Atkinson made clear in the early 1980s, there can be no ‘skill as a neutral, non-ideological technical resource’, and secondly, the skills exhibited by modern and contemporary artists are, by and large, not those acquired during formal art education and tend not to be specifically ‘artistic skills’. John Roberts says ‘there is much intellectual confusion about what constitutes skill in art after the readymade’. Art after Duchamp and Conceptualism is produced under circumstances in which the skills of making are not specifically artistic skills but those skills that are general and social insofar as they can be picked up informally by all and sundry. The pedagogical consequences are deep-seated and far-reaching.
Teaching the arts means transmitting skills but art in the modern sense appears unteachable because it is not picked up through the acquisition of skill. Pedagogically, the difficulty is to teach art without reducing art to the arts and, at the same time, without reifying the tension between art and the arts into a myopic rejection of painting and sculpture as art.
The campaign to reintroduce craft skills into the art department of the University has a foot in the past because, like the neoclassicists, it is animated by the perceived value of a lost cultural precedent, but it belongs to the present because it attaches painting, drawing and craft to art in the singular. It is also contemporary insofar as it is premised on the perception of the complete abandonment of craft and skill in art education rather than the perception, common since the nineteenth century, that the problem with art education is that it reproduces obsolete theories and formats of art through the seemingly neutral pedagogical practice of the transmission of skills.
Should art schools only teach art in the singular or is there still a role for the arts in art education? Since from the outset the concept of art included historical examples from the arts that have been relocated in the art museum, there is a necessary bond between art and the arts, especially the visual arts but also music, dance, literature and theatre, not to mention film, typography, web design, and so on – indeed, ‘an expansion to infinity of the possible material forms of art’, as Peter Osborne puts it. Teaching the arts cannot be excluded from the art school but teaching the arts is neither necessary nor sufficient for teaching art.
Joseph Kosuth’s assertion that ‘if one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art’ should not be taken to mean that the production of paintings is not the production of art. Kosuth reminds us, rather, that teaching the skills of painting is not necessarily adequate for teaching art. The point is not merely to include other skills such as those required to make woodcuts, welded steel structures and paper cutouts or to add new skills such as designing apps. The point is that there is a difference between painting as an art and painting as art. Learning to make paintings that count is not the same as learning to paint competently.
Art students need to acquire a wide range of skills in order to progress through a degree course, but many of these, such as how to present work for assessment, may be redundant once the student graduates. Other skills, such as basic woodworking, might be useful to an artist in a secondary way, in setting up exhibitions, building plinths or stretchers, putting up shelves in the studio and so forth. Two other kinds of skill, however, are essential to the artist. An artist must be skilled at looking at or otherwise attending to art, including the ability to analyse, contextualise and reflect, putting into practice a theoretical understanding of art and a working history of the subject that is demonstrated in the decisions taken within the production of works. An artist must also acquire skills in the manufacture, construction or appropriation of works or events that constitute their practice. Pedagogically, the curriculum for the acquisition of the first type of essential skill is easier to deliver than the latter because even if every artist acquires skills for the production of art, these skills differ from artist to artist and therefore there is no specific set of skills that can be taught to all artists.
Technique in the contemporary art school can be common technique (some students make work through walking, writing, speaking, photographing, etc) or can be specialist technique (some students use ceramics, bronze casting, stone carving, etc) but they experiment individually rather than get instructed on standard or proper technique. Art education today has a strong focus on technique, because technique is the embodiment of values, principles and commitments. To teach art rather than the arts, therefore, technique must scrutinized, theorized, contextualized and historicized, not simply transmitted from generation to generation. If the solution to the crisis in art education is skill, skill, skill, then somewhere along the line the problem of how to teach art has been abandoned in the paranoid clamour at least to teach something.

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6 thoughts on “How to Teach Art

  1. As an artists who has been through art school (2011 London), I can say that there are many different kinds of art students who’s aims are different, who’s skills are different. This does, from an external point of view make things seem impossible for the teachers, where do you begin?

    There is a thread, however, running through. The mind, the creativity that embodies the artist: the urge to create. I had art lectures, I had seminars, what did I take away from those years? What was I left with when it was all over? In some ways I am still trying to come to terms with this. In other ways I know, as an artists I have learnt how to develop my ideas into things. I use the word things because it could be anything. Anything to which I have the aspirations to learn, or skills already, to use. I have learnt that art isn’t one thing but can be everything if you let it. This is my own impression, other’s will have learnt wood work, learnt how to collaborate or developed an insight into their own way of drawing and been able to add something to it from understand the context of drawing for example.

    In segregating this from that, form diving, from creating friction from this form to that form a destructive streak is introduced; counterproductive to the making of art. Art can be destructive but in a creative way. There are specific skills and creativity alone is one. Creativity unattached to any specific skill, that is the course I attended. And that course is essential, what is also essential is a course that enables a crafts person to develop their specific skill in a creative environment.

    An understanding of the creative spirit, being given a context of art and introduced to ideas and different ways of thinking and seeing things. That’s how I see an art teacher at university level.

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment. As someone who has taught in art schools for many years I would say that the problem of ‘where to start’ when art students are all individuals is not actually a problem at all. It is, in effect, what art school is all about. There is no predetermined way of becoming an artist and so the teacher must start with the student, not with some already established set of skills and ideas. Not knowing where to start with a new class of students is one of the joys of teaching art. At Chelsea, where I teach, we begin the new academic year with a student exhibition, and we build our teaching on this. We start, therefore, where the students happen to be. It is not about abstracting from individuals – with some notion of creativity or whatever – but focusing on actual works and the individuals who made them.

  2. “…If the solution to the crisis in art education is skill, skill, skill, then somewhere along the line the problem of how to teach art has been abandoned in the paranoid clamour at least to teach something…”

    That’s a post-critical conclusion, no? That informed agency – “at least teach something” – is better than just crtitiquing the problem alone.

    It’s easily overlooked that most art graduates don’t end up in any of the art worlds at all. So where do they end up then? The study of art (as opposed to learning art or being taught art) is thus perhaps more relevant. Art is only as special as dentistry or estate management, after all. And those subjects are not that special! Those disciplines have their own methodologies, requiring their own skills. So does art, but not only in craft, artisanal and technical ways. For instance, reflection and evaluation are skills asked of many graduates, but art students appear to have more of them by graduation. Is that a myth?

    I’m interested in the British secret services recruiters now positively discriminating for dyslexics! Perhaps the prized talents that have so often made some artists outsiders are going to bring artists inside the tent. And there are organisations that seek out only BA Fine Art graduates for certain jobs or roles. Burberry’s, for instance (however local that might be).

    My schtick is that such instrumentalization of art in ways rarely considered at art school may well prove to be art’s future in a speeded-up world, not art’s grave. Ways of seeing, indeed…

    1. It’s not ‘post-critical’ in the sense originally given to that term by Polanyi, no. In fact, we might say that the excerpt you have chosen is doubly critical in the sense that I am critical of both positions, both solutions. The solution to the crisis in art education is not and should not be either the provision of skills training or the desperate aim to teach anything at all. The arts were taught through skills but if we do not understand fully the implications that art cannot be taught that way then we can end up making the error of teaching art students how to write CV’s, use powerpoint, network with gallerists and so on. Teaching art – as opposed to the arts – must be more critical than this.

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