THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

Comment: One of the things I asked myself while writing this talk was would any art school want to hire me after I give this lecture?

I sent a copy of the transcript of this talk to the Director of the School of Art and Art History at UIC, and then less than a year later I am now working directly with her with the goal to create the most impactful, relevant School of Art & Art History of the 21st Century.

Comment: This question has taken on a new significance for me as my new role as the associate director of a school of art and art history and working for the first time in the administration of an entire school.

Comment: The answer is obviously yes, but now I feel like it is more important to switch our attention to how art education can help impact larger social change not just for those identified as artists and designers. I think this is where museum education departments in their work with multiple publics have real power and potential.

Comment: It is now 2017 and I am still asking myself this question.

Comment: What would be the measures of assessment for this? I am currently in the process of doing program assessments for a university and am thinking about how different things would look if this was one of the outcomes we were expected to measure.

Comment: What would be the measures of assessment for this? I am currently in the process of doing program assessments for a university and am thinking about how different things would look if this was one of the outcomes we were expected to measure.

Comment: What would be the measures of assessment for this? I am currently in the process of doing program assessments for a university and am thinking about how different things would look if this was one of the outcomes we were expected to measure.

Comment: Since writing this talk I spent a semester doing a fellowship at Carnegie Mellon and teaching a class on Art in Everyday Life at their School of Art.

Comment: CORRECTION: Professor Michelle Illuminato informed me after I gave a talk at Alfred earlier this year that this has been a component of their freshman curriculum for years.

Comment: I am now currently the Associate Director of the School of Art and Art History at UIC, the state’s land grant university. The school remains committed to serving the needs of the people of Illinois and asking what that means in terms of access to arts education. I have never before been part of a school or administration that so actively pursues a mission of social justice and art.

Our school in the landscape of Chicago art schools is an underdog. For many in my ART 101 class this fall it was their first college class ever. For some they are also the first person in their family to go to college. It was humbling to be in the words of my friend Jovenico de la Paz, “the first face of college” for this group. I am looking forward to the responsibility of teaching this foundations class and exposing this group to so many ideas that I hope will help shape them into thoughtful artists, and more importantly present and conscious human beings—the true goal of education.

Comment: While inspired by approaches to education ranging from the Highlander Folk School to the Pedagogy of the Oppressed the program at Portland State has made no explicit statements on the philosophy motivating the program.

Comment: I struggle with this daily, and even while teaching at an “affordable” public research land grant university I still believe the cost of education is prohibitive.

Re-Thinking Art Education
(Revisited), Again

A lot of things require revisiting. Art education is one of them. In 2014 I was invited to give a talk on the theme of Education as part of a national series of breakfast lectures for creative communities called Creative Mornings. My talk was titled “This is About Options: Education, Art School, and Other Ways.”

The following year I was invited by Pamela Fraser and Roger Rothman to contribute to the book they were editing for Bloomsbury, Beyond Critique: Contemporary Art in Theory, Practice, and Instruction1. What I did for my contribution was to revisit the lecture I wrote in 2014 for Creative Mornings and include my track changes comments on my updated thinking on art education.

These sidebars trace my coming back around to the promise of public institutions, and once again falling in love with the idea and potential of a radical school of art and art history for the 21st century. What follows is a truncated excerpt from my chapter from Beyond Critique, updated with additional new sidebar notations reflecting my current thinking on art education in 2017.

 

This is About Options: Education, Art School,
and Other Ways

 I know that for myself a large part of my education came from participating in the local Winnipeg music scene of the mid-90’s—infused with the energy of Riot grrrl and DIY. How I work today is rooted in what I learned during these formative years as a show organizer, listener, creator of zines, and band member. I place a high value on what many might dismiss as incidental education.

I have had many other teachers in my life, some of which have come in the form of challenging experiences, or people. These are usually the lessons we never ask for but, if we are open to learning from them, can be immensely powerful for personal growth.

For this talk today I am going to tackle the following questions:

How does teaching change when it is done with compassion?

What should an arts education look like today?

Can education change the role of artists and designers in society?

How does one navigate and resist the often emotionally toxic world of academia?

With the rising cost of post-secondary education in this country what can we do differently?

I think it is worth starting at the beginning.

What is the impetus behind education? Where did it come from? What is education for?

The standardized education system that we know today comes from a historical, societal base of industrialization and militarization. Since its formalization, society also turns to the school system to provide its citizens with critical lessons in socialization. As education critic Edgar Friedenberg wrote,

 

What is taught isn’t as important as learning how you have to act in society, how other people will treat you, how they will respond to you, what the limits of respect that will be accorded really are.2

 

Radical approaches to education fundamentally believe that learning can teach us so much more. These schools of thought believe education can liberate, empower, and assist in the creation of a more just world. I personally believe that formal education must serve in the creation of thoughtful, caring, and compassionate members of society.

Is art school a state of temporary delusion? In Dan Clowes’ 1991 Art School Confidential, he illustrates the rarity of the art school instructor who is willing to “level with students about their bleak prospects,” stating that, “only one student out of one hundred will find work in her/his chosen field. The rest of you are essentially wasting your time learning a useless hobby.” The sad reality is, as Clowes puts forward, that many students who are in the system believe they will be the exception. That art school really will work for them. The New York based collective of artists, designers, makers, technologists, curators, architects, educators, and analysts BFAMFAPhD’s research findings show of all of the people in the United States who identify as making their living working as an artist, only 15.8% of them are fine arts degree holders.

 

Another fundamental problem is outdated curriculum. I often got flack from the art school professors I would challenge during my BFA about assignments and approaches I thought were irrelevant. I did not want to draw nudes and still-lifes. I didn’t want to make a color wheel. When I pushed back for more applicable work I could be doing in my art education I was once aggressively yelled at by a male professor, “If you don’t want to do what I tell you why are you even in art school?” Never thinking to ask himself—why was he teaching this way in an art school?

My belief is best summarized by Canadian Artist Ken Lum:

 

What students need to be taught is that art is about making everything in the world relevant.3

 

My next issue is the lack of critical care. When I say lack of critical care I am talking about two separate, but equally problematic deficits. First is a social deficit. The lack of a real emphasis on community building, as well as what I feel is an epidemic of teachers who lack a real investment and care in their students and the creation of a learning community. Second is a widespread lack of care in whether or not the curriculum has real value and application outside of an art school or art world context.

Currently most of the art programs that focus on socially engaged art are Masters of Fine Arts programs. I believe that an artist’s relationship to and placement in society should not be an area of specialization, or afterthought, but instead a core component of the education of all artists.4 But can education actually change the role of artists and designers in society? Yes, but that means changing how and what we teach. I believe that this change needs to happen first at the foundations level. This Fall, Carnegie Mellon University will be the first art school to make this kind of approach to art making a foundations level requirement. Another new and incredibly promising and relevant undergraduate program is the newly formed Art and Social Justice Cluster at the University Illinois Chicago.

You don’t need the creation of an entire program to foster these ideas in how you teach art and design. How I teach is social. It is from a de-centered position of power. It is about respecting and valuing all of the contributions of the group equally. It is about finding ways to make the work we are doing as learners and makers socially relevant. And it is about having the contributions of students seen as valuable to multiple contexts.

A friend and fellow artist and educator Nils Norman introduced me to the book Streetwork: The Exploding School by Colin Ward and Anthony Fyson. It had a major influence on how he teaches and it did the same for me. I am going to share how that was put into practice for me from 2008-2013 when I was co-directing an MFA program in art and social practice. I believe in learning in the world, and that environment has an impact and that student interests can drive the direction of the class. I know that being a listener is one of the most important contributions to the world. There needs to be a focus on teaching active listening. Understanding that we are bodies, and not just brains, is also important. Yoga, basketball, and walks were staples in the program. But maybe most important, and even less emphasized is love.

 

To quote American educator and founder of the Highlander Folk School, Myles Horton:

 

I think if I had to put a finger on what I consider a good education, a good radical education, it wouldn’t be anything about methods or techniques. It would be about loving people first.5

 

The last problem I will address about art schools is one of the biggest: the cost. Seven of the top ten most expensive schools in this country are art schools.6

How much would it cost if each of us in this room (100 people) received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute Chicago (a more expensive art school) and an MFA from Portland State University (a lower cost state school)? Even before adding interest on loans, or cost of living expenses, both together would cost us $9,128,000.00. What other options could that money have if we approached education differently?

I want to propose some other ways that artists could approach their education. Ways in which we take control, work together, and shape knowledge collectively. In the words of Myles Horton, “You have to bootleg education. It’s illegal, really, because it’s not proper, but you do it anyway.”  I think that many people would be surprised to know that Oxford was started by rebel students from Paris, Cambridge by rebels from Oxford, and Harvard by rebels from Cambridge.7 If these schools which were born out of revolution could become amongst the most revered sites of learning in the world, who is to say that other radical propositions could not be valued equally?

I am going to come to a close this morning by sharing an anecdote with you about a conference I attended last month in Cleveland. Members from BFAMFAPhD were also presenting at the conference and shared a lot of their research. During the Q&A portion someone from the audience asked an inflamed question about “who their target is?” The person was concerned that the end goal of the group was the closure of art schools. BFAMFAPhD ensured that was not their goal, and they were in no way interested in mass layoffs and tenured faculty losing their jobs. That night over dinner someone at my table knew the woman in the audience who had made that comment and said that she thought it was so important that she spoke up, especially since the group was presenting in the context of an art school. I am going to paraphrase what I said in response:

 

This is not about targets and takedowns. This is about options. What we really need is to change our structures of value so that we can respect and acknowledge other approaches to education, whether that be free school, self-taught, community based education, or other. We need to get to a place where culturally we truly value education and knowledge over purchasing power.

 

1.  Fraser, Pamela, Rothman, Roger, eds. Beyond Critique: Contemporary Art In Theory, Practice, and Instruction. Bloomsbury Academic, NY.

2.  Edgar Friedenberg, “What the schools do,” 1969.

3.  Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century) edited by Steven Henry Madoff.

4.  Jen Delos Reyes, Ten Lessons Graphic Designers Learn That Every Artist Should Understand, 2013.

5.  Paulo Friere and Myles Horton, We Make the Road By Walking.

6.  http://bfamfaphd.com.

7.  Talking Schools by Colin Ward.

 

Jen Delos Reyes is an artist whose research interests include the history of socially engaged art, artist-run culture and artists’ social roles. She is founder and director of Open Engagement, an international conference on socially engaged art. She is the Associate Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

 

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