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February 06, 2003

Art Class

Friedrich --

Have you taken any art-making classes recently? I was away from them for a couple years and missed them, so I'm treating myself to one this term, an intro to oil painting. I've never done any oil painting. If not in a classroom, where would I do it? The Wife and I share about 3 square feet of apartment space, and I'm not eager to inflict the fumes on her.

I went to the first class last night, and was reminded of what a ripoff most art classes are. The woman teaching it seems nice and for all I know is a good artist, so I have nothing against this class specifically -- it seems like an OK version of the standard thing. It's the standard thing that's a ripoff (and that, in a sane art world, would be a scandal).

Last night's class, like about 3/4 of the art classes I've taken, followed this model: the teacher has set up a subject, whether a model or a still life. You bring a bunch of art materials with you. You draw and paint. The teacher wanders around, giving each person a little time and a few hints. You pack up and go home.

Like I say: what a ripoff. It's amazing the schools charge for this, and just as amazing that eager students put up with it. Would it be too much ask an art teacher to do a little actual art instruction? To have a little something prepared? To structure a series of classes so that the bit you learn this week joins together with the bit you learned last week, and you leave the term having acquired some genuinely new skills, and able to do things you hadn't previously been able to do?

You wouldn't think it would be such a challenge to put together such a course. OK, class, this week we're going to study negative space. I've prepared six exercises. Next week we're going to focus on the way warm colors pull and cold colors push. And I've prepared six exercises to ram that home. What could be so hard about preparing and delivering such a course?

I tolerate this nonsense because there seem to be so few alternatives and I like drawing and painting, lousy as I am at both. I have been lucky enough to stumble into a few classes where the teachers, bless 'em, did approach art instruction as a matter of conveying finite, definable skills, and I've learned probably 95% of the little I've managed to learn about art-making from them.

Has this kind of thing plagued your art-class-taking life too? I guess I assume that what it represents is a coming-together of four things: asinine progressive-education ideas (let the student discover art for himself!), laziness and convenience, the continuing-ed business, and annoying modernist (ie., anti-technique, anti-skill, pro-self-expression) ideas about art. Do you think I'm off here? Or that I'm missing some other element?

I'll probably stick the class out because, what the hell, I like drawing and painting. But, despite the number of times I've run into this, my breath is still taken away by it. Imagine, say, a cooking school or a cooking class. Now, imagine showing up, being confronted by a roomful of tools and ingrediants. And a teacher who says, "OK, class, cook! Every now and then I'll come around and give you a little criticism and help!" I know I'd be pissed. How about knife skills? Poaching? Grilling?

I want techniques -- the "art" and the "self-expression" I'll take care of myself, thank you very much. Or I won't. But I certainly don't want some teacher I don't know trying to take charge of that end of things. But techniques? I'm eager to learn, and I'll pick 'em up where I can get 'em. Yet the art-instruction establishment doesn't want to give them to me, or even, apparently, sell them to me.

Bizarre, no?



posted by Michael at February 6, 2003


Hi Michael,
I've noticed the same thing, and I liken it to what happened in Liberal Arts education after the 60's. All of a sudden the "great books" were out, and "alternative studies" were in. That meant the basics never had to be taught, and in fact led to the view that knowledge of the basics was an impediment to the true understanding of the world.
So you have a teacher that is teaching art with out teaching fundamentals because self-expression and self satisfaction is more important than competance. I've noticed that in most classes (I'm thinking of adult ed and evening classes, not regular art school) the teacher also refrains from any negative criticism and finds something positive to say about everybody. After all, he/she needs to have the students come back to the class or no paycheck.

Posted by: Michael L on February 6, 2003 12:36 PM

I also totally agree. I find the best technical info on oil painting to be located in books. Bah, I want to say. How could this be??? I just shake my head in confusion.

Hey, indulge me with this quick story: on the final day of a drawing class I just attended, one student wiped off his... yes it's true... his harmonica, and started playing it while the rest of us continued to draw. His playing was loud, repetitive and well, bizarre. The teacher was a cautious oriental lady who only appeared confused. Geez. I wanted to say something, a joke for example, to get him to stop. Nothing I could think of seemed appropriate. It was clear that nobody cared for the music. But hey, we were all Southerners and sworn to politeness. On and on he went, I felt a headache in the making. Finally I thought of a quick solution. I quietly told the teacher that either he stops or I leave. He stopped right after she spoke with him. I wondered all the while, is this sort of serenade typical?

Hmm...I just had to tell that story.

Posted by: laurel on February 6, 2003 1:33 PM

Hey Michael, hey Laurel -- Fascinating reports, thanks. How have you guys reacted to these classes? I can handle it with a deep breath or two, but I basically feel cheated and furious. Why not give me a bunch of technicques in exchange for my time, interest, and money? What do they have against passing knowledge along? (I know the answers to these questions, but I have these feelings anyway.) I think it's unfortunate not just for me and my measily adult-ed art aspirations, but also for the fine-arts fields. I often find myself thinking that craft-centric, professional fields like movies, TV and cooking are in much better shape than the traditional fine arts partly because they have to be more professional and to-the-point. They have to attend to the craft and technique end of things. But that's another posting. How much in the way of actual learning have you guys found you've been able to do at fine-arts classes?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 6, 2003 5:42 PM

Well, "actual learning at a fine-arts class..." the oil painting class I took in college was about 15 years ago. The thing I learned is... drum roll please... it is important to have a group of artistic people critique your work when you are finished. They give many perspectives and show you areas that need improvement. Ta Dah!

Now that you know, skip the classes and find groups of people who don't care a hoot if you cry or not when they offer comments about your work. (Ha!)

By the way, our lovely small town Wal-mart had an artist working in the store's front isle a couple of days ago. I don't think he'd had an honest critique of his work done lately. But they sure was purty.

Posted by: laurel on February 6, 2003 9:27 PM

The last class I took was at a school that was founded and largely staffed by illustrators. The place had a very specific drawing methodology, which was supported with specific lessons, lectures by the instructor, and quite a bit of handout material. While very encouraging and friendly, my instructor had no interest (in the classroom, anyway) in what might be called creativity; he was there to teach you to draw in the "school style." The whole place was refreshingly no-bullshit; you weren't there to learn to be a great artist, you were just there to learn technique. You might try such an institution next time.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 7, 2003 12:44 AM

I suspect part of the reason few people try to teach art, is they do not believe in objective truth in asthetic spheres. In other words, they deny that some pieces of art are better than others. They think all art is just different, and only better from this or that perspective.

And given the way schools are highly highly leftie-influenced, and lefties tend to be much more into relativism, the effect would be magnified.

Posted by: Elliot Temple on February 7, 2003 6:31 PM

I agree with laurel that a crucial benefit of art instruction in a group setting is an honest and informed critique by one's peers.

I do think, however, Michael, that you place way too much blame on 'asinine' progressive education, liberal relativism and modernist theory. Technique and skill are still valued and taught, even by liberals.

Perhaps, particularly as this is an adult education issue, you could have communicated with the instructor prior to enrollment; many classes are taught for students at different levels, and teachers are often more than happy to tailor instruction to the expressed requests of their students. A beginner's course should always include the technical basics you mentioned, regardless of where the muse takes you thereafter.

Posted by: Gia on February 9, 2003 9:31 PM

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