THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Richard Siegesmund
Over the last 100 years, the education of artists has been driven by some questionable assumptions about the nature of art, the function of artists in society, and the assignment of cultural value.
At the beginning of the 20th century, some artists felt that art was a revolutionary social endeavor. The Russian Constructivists were an example. However, other artists, like Picasso and Matisse, possessed little if any revolutionary ambition. They sought to excel in a neo-liberal marketplace that successfully catered to wealthy individuals who not only purchased work through private galleries but also served on the governing boards of non-profit cultural institutions.
Artistic success was defined not only by just selling your work at exorbitant prices but in also securing the promotion of your work through an interrelated cultural network of private collectors, museum curators, critics and academics. In this contested history, revolutionaries lost; economic artistic entrepreneurs won.
Today the neo-liberal cultural marketplace strides triumphantly. Art and design professors are expected to participate in this system, and students are taught to aspire to follow their professors’ lead and join as well. The highest international levels of achievement (elite private galleries, invitation only extravaganzas and fawning reviews) receive the most acclaim as success in this system is uncritically accepted as evidence of excellence. To have one’s work featured in museum exhibitions and accessioned into permanent collections is the goal to which professional art preparation seemingly aspires. No questions asked. Anyone with the temerity to pose questions is silenced through ridicule.
Since its founding, The New Art Examiner has questioned these assumptions. Examiner writers have refused to accept that the system of gallery shows, museum exhibitions, high profile government aid and private foundation funding was a cultural meritocracy. Instead, it was a tawdry carnival. Nevertheless, the model continues to endure.
With so little critical examination of context, the training of artists is fundamentally a skills orientation task requiring mastery of different materials. Curriculum is therefore a demand for sequencing through a variety of skills training. A broad curriculum might include a variety of two and three-dimensional materials that might range from drawing and video to fibers and metal casting.
A more focused curriculum might allow a student to concentrate in a specific area like printmaking and become skillful in intaglio, lithography, silkscreen, and letterpress. This is further reinforced by a romantic notion that artists learn by doing in direct contact to materials. Curriculum is largely organized around extending the students’ time in the studio with materials. Words are superfluous. Hands on; minds off.
The model is now under considerable stress coming from a number of issues. First among these are unconscionable costs that an undergraduate must incur for a degree in art. Base tuition at some private art schools for a four-year undergraduate program is now approaching a quarter-of-a-million dollars. Not surprisingly, students are becoming more cost conscious and demanding that instruction have some kind of connection to learning. The old justification of “this is the way teaching has always been done” doesn’t cut it anymore. Students want to see a clearer connection for the dollars they have to pay.
Furthermore, if one wants to become a potter, there are plenty of free tutorials on YouTube that will explain this to you. Anything you want to know you can learn online. This has resulted in the “flipped classroom” where the skills training is delivered online in non-school hours and class time is devoted to answering questions related to the online experience.
This is complemented by a robust network of community colleges that will happily teach you just what you want to know, and not drag you through a bunch of additional courses (and cost) like art history, because “it’s good for you” (i.e. we need your tuition dollars to support the faculty salaries in our antiquated curriculum). After all, there are no national certifying boards that anyone has to pass to become a painter or an animator.
Along with the reprehensible costs incurred with an art degree comes the brutal acknowledgement that perhaps 5%—the most generous estimate—will actually secure a place in the neo-liberal marketplace. The other 95% are the regrettable, but necessary, collateral damage that occurs in the pursuit of the needle in the haystack.
To foist staggering levels of debt on students who will later be discarded as collateral damage is morally repugnant. In short, the entire edifice of professional artist development is at best a myth. More likely, it’s a scam, and a new generation of students has figured it out, thus the precipitous drop in four-year college enrollments across the United States. The professional academic field of training artists, as it has existed since the mid-20th Century, is in crisis.
How might this problem be resolved?
To begin with, the teaching of artists needs to be more than business training in making cool stuff for the marketplace. Art schools do not have to stop students from making cool stuff; for those students who want this training it is perfectly appropriate. Of course, schools should be upfront with these students and inform them that they have a less than 5% chance of making any kind of viable living after graduation.
Therefore, preparation for participation in the neo-liberal marketplace cannot be the foundational reason for teaching art. To pretend otherwise would be to suggest that tuition dollars guarantee the purchase of a winning lottery ticket. Regrettably, this is how many schools that offer BFAs in art currently market themselves. It’s fraud. We can do better.
Instead of the current reliance on what galleries are showing your work, what collectors purchased your work, how many museum shows you participated in and how many academics wrote about your work, I would substitute an inquiry-based model of art education.
This would begin by asking the artist these questions: What is your research question? Why do you believe this will make a difference in the world? How do you intend to pursue this mode of inquiry? What will be the empirical outcomes? And what criteria do you suggest for judging the success of your work?
Having asked these questions, a community of artists and scholars can make an informed judgment on the success of the student’s efforts and provide insightful interventions on how to improve. These suggestions would undoubtedly include an investigation of other artists or cultures through time who have taken up similar issues to those the student is interested in.
Such an alternative model of artistic education currently exists. I will offer three here. First, art education is a form of thinking that is broadly applicable in life. This is not a new idea. Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, proposed this curricular shift for art schools in the 1960s.
In his view, art education (thought broadly to include all art instruction beginning in primary school and continuing to graduate education) was a system of inquiry distinctively different from systems of inquiry taught in the sciences. Learning different systems of inquiry helped students prepare for the challenges of life. In Kaprow’s view, art education had nothing to do with making or appreciating art. It was about a series of tools to unpack the phenomena of living. Nobody listened to Kaprow then, perhaps it’s time to listen now.
Learning block printing. Photo by Tom Murphy.
The structure for this change exists in higher education. Many programs already allow students to choose between the BA in Art and the BFA degree. However, right now, the BA is often regarded as a default degree for students who don’t have the skills to complete the BFA. Radical rethinking of the BA is necessary to make it an authentically interdisciplinary program with its own research component. It would also require a diminishing of the importance of the BFA degree. The BA would become the backbone of artistic education.
Second, the art education curriculum as currently practiced at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin provides an example of inquiry-based practice. Ireland is a fertile ground for this shift in art education as the arts are culturally accepted as providing essential social critique. It is well understood that the very concept of the Republic of Ireland was a poetic fabrication before it was realized as a political reality. Thus, there is popular support of the arts for provoking the social imagination.
Third, with the change to authentic interdisciplinary programs, new movements, like socially-engaged art, would have more structure and intellectual rigor. In a recent issue of Field: The Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, art historian (and former New Art Examiner contributing editor) Grant Kester bemoaned the lack of skill in structured inquiry by artists who participate in socially engaged practice (as well as the lack of fundamental inquiry skills in the art critics who write about this work).
Kester finds an over-reliance on French continental philosophy highly problematic when exploring the social consequences of artistic interventions. In short, this form of artistic activity requires more rigorous training in the social sciences. The new inquiry-based foundations curriculum at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is a step in the right direction.
Alternatives to the current dominant neo-liberal focus must be developed as the current path for training artists at the college and university level is untenable. It is an edifice that no longer has the financial foundations to support itself; a house of cards ready to collapse.
There are only three choices ahead: continue as is and the programs will face financial extinction as students pursue free and low-cost training for the skill sets they feel they need. Second, allow outside boards of directors or university councils to make ill-informed cuts in an attempt to preserve artistic education. These bodies are likely to make crass decisions: maintaining the marching band as its provides halftime entertainment during the football game. Third, and regrettably least likely, artist educators from within the field need to take responsibility for shaping their own future and crafting curriculums that face the challenges of the 21st century. The clock is ticking and time is running out.
Richard Siegesmund is Professor of Art and Design and Education at Northern Illinois University. He recently completed a Fulbright residency in the Faculty of Sociology at the Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven, Belgium. The second edition of his book, Arts-Based Research in Education: Foundations for Practice has just been released from Routledge.
Students install research projects for exhibition. Photo by Tom Murphy
Students at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, define their research project. Photo by Tom Murphy.