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December 20, 2007

Art School Confidential

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A few weeks ago, Friedrich called my attention to James Elkins' book Why Art Cannot be Taught.

I read it and found it a little hard to follow. Maybe that's because I've had a cold and couldn't focus. Or, more likely, my feeble mind can't deal with even semi-scholarly material any more.

Nevertheless, I found the book interesting because it presents an inside view of art schools (in this case, the school at the Chicago Art Institute, circa 2000). My own art school experience was quite different from Elkins' description. Aside from the 40-year time difference, I went to a large state university and wound up majoring in Commercial Art, not the same breed of cat as Fine Arts.

Elkins deals mostly with the critique, which apparently is how BFA and MFA students are evaluated and directed in their progress. This kind of critique involves up to half a dozen faculty members from various fields (not all from the student's field) "tasked" with evaluating the work and/or the student herself. (Note the "herself." Elkins annoyingly uses a female generic gender rather than the traditional male generic. Doubtless this is a noble gesture on his part, but it brought me to a halt every time I encountered it.) The critiques I experienced in studio classes took place after the class had partly or entirely completed a project -- painting a portrait, say. The instructor would walk from easel to easel and make a few comments. No faculty herd, which I suppose must have been reserved for Masters level students.

One thing that struck me was how many fields are now considered worthy of instruction in art schools and college art programs. Since my students days, photography, textiles, video, performance, computer, neon, holography, kinetic sculpture, installation and other "arts" have been added to the curriculum. I'm ashamed that I've never thought to get on the internet and look up what various leading schools are offering: it should be interesting.

Elkins acknowledges that the general public does not look at artists in as kindly a light as artist students themselves do. He also stresses that art students reflect their own times (and influences) to such a degree that, after a period of years, one student's work seems indistinguishable from all the others. And this is likely to be true for all the presumed inventiveness of today's art school; in 50 years the probability is that the stuff will look pretty similar. Moreover, almost no student currently enrolled is likely to ever be self-supporting by art sales, and even fewer will be "known" even locally. Nevertheless, cohorts of students continue to pass through the educational system and faculty members congregate time and again to conduct critiques that, in the long run, are likely to be meaningless in the history of art.

Elkins makes the following claims about what students cannot learn in today's art schools and colleges (pages 72-82):

  1. Art that involves traditional techniques.
  2. Art that takes time.
  3. Work in a single style.
  4. Works in too many styles
  5. Styles that require naïveté.
  6. Art that needs extensive contact with non-art information.
  7. Art that comes from years of mechanical preparation.
  8. Whatever is classified as "industrial art" is not taught.
  9. Art that isn't serious.

Elkins spends some time on the theory and practice of teaching in general and of art in particular. He concludes the book with the following four claims (pages 107-9, 189-90):

  1. The idea of teaching art is irreparably irrational. We do not teach because we do not know when or how we teach.
  2. The project of teaching art is confused because we behave as if we are doing something more than teaching technique.
  3. It does not make sense to propose programmatic changes in the ways art is taught.
  4. It does not make sense to try to understand how art is taught.

He tries to illustrate this in a long chapter dealing with critiques that contains snippets of actual recorded and transcribed critiques from the Art Institute school. The impression I got was one of confusion, thinking on-the-fly, professional ax-grinding, lack of focus, awkward attempts at diplomacy and incomprehension on the part of faculty, student, or both.

One thing that struck me was the attempt -- not present in all cases -- to intellectualize the student's "art." This seemed to be in the form of questions regarding what the student felt his "meaning" was when he painted this or constructed that.

What do I think? One thing I sorely missed in my art training was technique. By this I mean information on materials (characteristics of various kinds of paints, say), color theory and, perhaps most importantly, how important artists had used the various media. Perhaps small-scale imitative exercises might have been included. Instruction on historical forms of composition would have been useful. Then I would have benefited by seeing a lot of first-class paintings, ideally in person (admittedly something hard to do outside of a major city). Then, with the availability of models, still-life setups and plein-air opportunities, it would be a matter of work, work, work. Eventual success (however defined) would be the result of a sink-or-swim process. In my day, they went straight to the sink-or-swim via work, work and without all that creativity-crippling other nonsense.

So yes, beyond the basics, I agree that art cannot be taught; the student must learn largely from comparing his own efforts to art he admires, then letting his own personality and world-view take over.

Okay Friedrich, that's my take (though, as noted, I might not have properly grasped what Elkins way saying). What was your impression?: Over to you and other commenters.



posted by Donald at December 20, 2007


I guess I'm a bit confused---is Elkins saying (3) it does not make sense to make programmatic changes in the way art is taught and (4) it does not make sense to try to understand the way art is taught because "art is different, it should be different and don't worry your pretty little heads" or because "it is taught so poorly that even if there was a way to teach which could be comprehensible, nobody is doing that, so if you value your sanity, don't even try to understand." I guess I mean---is he saying there could be a way to teach art which we could understand, or is he saying there simply isn't any way to do it, and so don't even try to change art schools??

I know my brother who spent some time in art school and has talked about this before felt like practice, practice, practice was the way to more than just Canegie Hall. That if you want to learn to paint portraits in oil---paint lots and lots of portraits in oil, etc. That seems pretty comprehensible to me.

Posted by: annette on December 20, 2007 4:13 PM

"The impression I got was one of confusion, thinking on-the-fly, professional ax-grinding, lack of focus, awkward attempts at diplomacy and incomprehension on the part of faculty, student, or both."

That could be law school, too, on a bad day.

Posted by: Lexington Green on December 20, 2007 5:36 PM

As someone who has spent his life as a non-artist in the art world, although I haven't read the book, I suspect that I would agree with its basic thesis. My criticism, especially of BFA level art schooling, is that it seems entirely too bent on "teaching creativity" or personal expression (which is what I presume the author means by 'teaching art') while ignoring or downplaying those aspects of art that actually CAN be taught. Intellectual property rights law, health and safety issues for various art materials, the proper use of various tools, the list goes on and on. The best way to become an artist is, as annette noted, make a lot of art. If one wants to learn a particular technique one can find a teacher or mentor, possibly even at an art school, to teach them that technique.

Posted by: Chris White on December 20, 2007 5:38 PM

I really dont understand the point of art schools anymore because according to most art professors and critics, art is solely about creativity. you cant learn creativity. professors are therefore completely useless and actually a hinderence because if they give input in the design process then they take away your creativity and make it theirs. and so as a result they throw their students an assignment, the students work on their own and then the professor comes back in a week or two and "critiques" the student's work. they always have with them a few of their art/arch/design world friends in tow. this allows the professors to show off their contacts, builds loyalty between the professor and their guests and also allows the professor to show off and try to act real intellectual in front of their friends so that they invite them to their critiques. i know this because i study architecture at an art school.

one thing you learn but again on your own is how to bullshit and talk in intellectual sounding ways when describing your work

if you want to learn art avoid art college and find a weekend classical art course.

Posted by: JW on December 21, 2007 12:32 AM

Thanks for the book suggestion. I haven't read it, but plan on it when it comes into the library.

I actually think you CAN learn creativity, but that art schools today have a very narrow view of what it is. The emphasis seems to be on producing non-objective, conceptual art regardless of the technique, at the expense of traditional, realistic art. I don't think one is more valid than the other, and I think the art schools do a disservice to students when they only emphasize one way of thinking.

As for teaching creativity, I believe it is a practice, like anything else; coming up with an idea and taking it further, beyond the predictable. A musician who only learns to play covers of songs may improve their technical skills, but will do little to expand their creative skills. Likewise, if musicians only focus on the conceptual they limit their ability to be creative by not having the technical skills to put their ideas into practice.

Posted by: Peggi on December 21, 2007 8:36 AM

It's all interesting, isn't it? I know the creative-writing-class scene a lot better than the visual-arts-teaching scene, and the situation is parallel. I'd actually advise anyone interested in writing fiction to stay away from the usual creative-writing class (ie., the literary-academic ones). Not because I think that it's impossible to teach people in a helpful way how to write fiction -- I think that it's in fact very teachable, in the same way that teaching basic drawing is possible. Which of course doesn't guarantee that everyone will be Tolstoy.

I'd tell people who want to learn how to write fiction to avoid conventional creative writing classes because the way "creative writing" is usually taught will probably defeat then, will bind them up instead of help them onto their feet -- because it won't be a help. (And it won't be fun either.) They'll learn something, but it probably won't be what they really want to learn. And they'll write fiction, but it almost certainly won't be the kind of fiction they enjoy reading, or that many people enjoy reading.

Instead, they'll learn how to write stories that can stand up in creative-writing classes. They'll develop a set of techniques and habits (assuming they stick with it, which most people won't) that'll enable them to write stories that don't get mocked or put down too viciously in creative-writing seminar settings. They'll get tough, they'll get savvy, they'll learn how to play the creative-writing game ... But who cares? Civilian audiences certainly don't.

It tends to become like psychotherapy, not necessarily in the sense that your emotions get played with but in the sense that it goes on and on forever, and you never ever really arrive. You struggle, you struggle, you collapse, you struggle again ... Over time you dementedly try to persuade yourself that there's some point to this ... Maybe eventually you publish a taut little piece of bulletproof "creative writing" in a tiny magazine ... You become unpleasant. Your friends hate you. No one wants to read you ... If you're successful, you publish a book or two and wind up running yet more creative-writing seminars.

It's a completely ingrown incestuous world with its own set of bizarro values that only seem to get more bizarro over time. And it produces unhappy people and fiction-produts that only fellow seminar attendees care about. It's a complete dead end, and in so many ways ...

But there are techniques and practices that will in fact enable people to put characters, situations, and stories on their feet -- which, by the way, is what I suspect 90% of people who timidly sign up for "creative writing" are hoping to do. You just won't run into these techniques and pratices in literary-style creative-writing classes. My tips: Take a couple of semesters of screenwriting. (Will teach you what a "fiction idea" is, will teach you about arcs and acts -- ie., how to develop a fiction idea in story terms.) Take a few years of improv acting and scene-study acting -- it'll teach you how to move into characters and situations and inhabit 'em from the inside out, in other words how to bring your material to life. Gather your courage together and present some of your material in live venues -- ie., slams, readings, etc, and the more public the better. It's a fun way to meet other working writers, and there's nothing quite like learning how a live audience takes what you've created.

Official-style "creative writing" tends to drag on forever, to depress, to result in work no one cares about. You're always struggling and never arriving, and you hate yourself and your work. The great thing about my particular set of tips is that it'll teach you a bunch of skills that'll get you on your feet fast and equip you with what you need to be able to do to interest and delight a civilian audience. You'll be up and creating in a matter of a year or two, you'll be having a good time doing so, and you'll find yourself wondering why the conventional "creative writing" crowd is forcing themselves to endure such an awful lot of pointless misery.

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on December 21, 2007 11:41 AM

There are too many riches to take in from a single reading or even a single analysis of Mr. Elkins' book. I would warn the first time reader, however, that structured, consistent argumentation is not one of the benefits he offers. Making a sustained, coherent argument about art would involve, you know, starting from premises outside of art and then working out the type of art that fulfills or corresponds to those premises. It would resemble, in rigor, the very purposeful program of the French Academy of the late 17th and early 18th century which set out to promote the French Absolutist State in the aesthetic terms of the day, a regime that Mr. Eakins describes with a sort of bemused horror.)

Mr. Elkins' doesn't feel the need, or isn't capable of, that kind of sustained logical thought about the purpose of art in his own day.
He simply rejects the whole program. That's not how we do things today, even though as a consequence I can't really say why we do what we do.

What is quite astonishing about him is that he candidly admits how rigid and simultaneously unexamined the prejudices of 20th century art really are, but without trying to actually relate them to some larger social project. (And he has no feeling of shame about his oddly lacksadasical approach.) Maybe I should put it differently: the prejudices of Academic Modernism are so rigid because they are so insistently not examined from a social point of view.

A silly guy like me spends time chasing down the tropes and whims of Academic Modernism, finding the roots of one prejudice in Romanticism and the roots of another in utopian socialism, and so on and so forth. Mr. Elkins, on the other hand, just doesn't care. When you're the boss inside the academic womb, you don't have to make sense of things, you just get to assert them. You also get to use those principles to "educate" young artists, by which I and Mr. Elkins mean a process of inducting a new generation into the appropriate mindset to do contemporary art.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 21, 2007 10:28 PM

Sorry, my previous comment was done in a hurry and I forgot the main point: Thanks, Donald, for your excellent summary of "Why Art Cannot Be Taught". I've been meaning to write about this and several other very interesting art books for nearly two years now; maybe I should just send the lot off to you and have you rescue them from oblivion.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 22, 2007 10:24 AM

I spent about two years studying painting at a pretty conventional school down in Georgia, and found it a rather frustrating time. The school was a little too happy to be training any kind of painter who wished to come, and as a result, rarely trained anyone at all. Some individual professors were excellent, but with no clear overall goal to the institution, there's only so much that can be done. In my life painting class, say, half the students could barely draw a convincing figure--but then, half of them had no real /interest/ in drawing a convincing figure.

Anyway, I ended up transferring to a small classical academy in Florence, which has been almost precisely the opposite--this place is literally a school of art, by which I mean it has an established style and approach it's trying to convey. This is pretty much what I've wanted to learn, and the difference has been remarkable--I feel like I've come about as far in three months here as I did in two previous years.

That said, though, the head of this school said on the first day something like, "this is not an art school, it's a skills course--we'll give you the tools needed to produce art." I remember, in contrast, many a terrible piece at Former Art School that was forgiven on grounds of (say) making a statement about gender roles.

Posted by: Kendric on December 22, 2007 12:42 PM

compare and contrast how art training was conducted in say, 16th century Italy (pick your city state) and now.

there is one way to make money from art school -- become a teacher.

Posted by: cjm on January 1, 2008 1:21 PM

On these points....

1. Art that involves traditional techniques.

Is there some techniques that have changed? brush to canvas, paint to paper. Even my conceptually minded friends still used traditional painting "techniques" to create work.

2. Art that takes time.

I guess i agree. It depends on what were comparing it to. Large Rembrandts? The Last Supper?

3. Work in a single style.

Like Art Deco, abstraction what? I don't get it. This is the 21st century, not the 18th. We should definitely hold students to such standards as DaVinci, Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse never altered their thinking or technique. Oh wait....they did.

7. Art that comes from years of mechanical preparation.

Que? Sorry i may sound super ignorant, but what is mechanical art? I guess i need context, but does he mean etching, relief, intaglio, screen.

If this is what he means i'd disagree, but just as it would be in the old days a formal mentorship or education is just the beginning. So his declaration to me would be justfied by "duh".

9. Art that isn't serious.

Does he mean we need more bowl of oranges paintings? I'm am all for new age bowls of fruit paintings, because fruits have really changed and we need updated portraitures of them.

I'm honestly not a tenured, book a day BFA graduate(though i have a BFA) like the author may be, but i think he may need to do a revised version of this book to include an alternate view. A good old inky fist fight of words would be a great read versus a lop-sided, convoluted argument passing itself of as critical observation.

I do agree that excellent technique has been lost and is a relic of sorts, but its not as though they sit around and tell you to be "conceptual" and to eschew technique and skill.

I will also further agree in a loose way that conceptual art, the skill of positioning your work often verbally is a runaway train at times. Conceptual is all about who does it first.

I can't make large scale typographic installations with Futura Black Italic now thanks to Barbara Kruger. Yet somehow i got around that.

Perhaps we are intellectualizing too many pieces of art, but art is about free expression and we're given free will to accept that what engages us. My mom loves farm scenes, but i don't. Oh no whats wrong with me!

What would be amazing is if someone painted a 10ft tall perfectly rendered bowl of fruit next year with impeccable technique and accordingly our heads will blow up trying to figure out if its an homage to traditional technique or some dastardly conceptual piece.

Posted by: Josh on January 2, 2008 6:22 PM

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