I taught fine arts at Canadian universities for thirty-seven years in studio, history, theory, and as an administrator. I have written criticism for forty-seven years, forty-two of those in this magazine. I have travelled all over the world looking at fine arts training and I have come to the conclusion that art students are not getting the education they deserve. Why? That’s the interesting part.
About ninety percent of art making is hard work; the remaining ten percent is divided between inspiration and talent. While the word originality is thrown around a lot, very little art is truly original. Most art is a variation on a theme. But regardless, it all requires effort. That’s not say that some art is very good and a small part great. And this is where art education, particularly in North America, fails. We don’t give art students the skills they need to make their work effortlessly. Art schools and art departments do provide their students with the language, the theory, of art but not the tools to make it.
In part this is because art school teachers and programmes over the last fifty years or so have treated their students as fellow artists rather than students. The idea that a first or second year art students are artists or that their work is art is ridiculous. I have countless hours sitting in ‘crits’ in undergraduate classes talking in circles and avoiding the obvious, namely that the stuff on the walls had serious technical problems. It’s nice that students are concerned with the problems of society, but if they can’t draw their way out of a paper bag, then their ‘work’ suffers.
Skill as second nature
Of course, teaching artspeak is a lot easier than teaching technique and methods. Studio time devoted to learning to draw or paint the model is just plain work. A million years ago when I went to art school we had nine hours of life drawing per week for four years. Yes, I did walk up hill to and from school, but I did learn to draw. A real skill is something that becomes second nature, something that you can call on at need. Most modern masters had these skills. They might ignore them at times, but they did so knowingly. You can only break a rule when you know it.
Another problem with art education today is that many students are free to pick their programme like items from a steam table buffet at the very time when they really need the set menu. To nourish a sound professional training there should be soup, salad, a main course, dessert and coffee in that order. McLuhan famously said that art was outdated technology. He was right. We can’t go back to a 19th century Beaux Arts model as the material of art has changed and will continue to change. Painting was displaced by photography; photography by movies; movies by television and so on. But basic skills remain fundamental to the making of art. Every one can take a half decent pictures with a smart phone, but that’s not photography, nor does it make them a photographer. That requires skill.
Drawing is a little different. Most people who own a pencil don’t think of themselves as draughtsmen, but I’ve had many first year drawing students tell me that they could draw like Michelangelo if they wanted to. Failing that they would tell me that skill wasn’t important. It was their idea that mattered. What was the proper response to this nonsense? Full disclosure forces me to admit that I would often walk away, knowing I wouldn’t change their opinions. After about thirty years of banging your head on the wall, it’s tempting just to go with the flow.
It there an easy fix? I don’t think so. At this stage there are two or three generations of teachers who have come up in a system where technique is less valued than ideas and theory. I would be the last to deny that many of these teachers are dedicated teachers who love their work and their students. But they can’t teach classical technique if they wanted to because they lack the skills themselves. Of course, there are some exceptions. Figurative art is making a comeback and there are a few schools and programmes attempting to teach classical basics, but they are very much outside the contemporary mainstream of art education.
Art speaks for itself
Am I a cranky old man who would like to return to the past? Of course, I am; but that’s not going to happen. Life and art both go on. Art making is a tricky process. Having a degree doesn’t make you an artist, but having a good art education certainly helps. Such an education should provide the tools to give students the basics for a life in the arts. These tools need to be flexible to change and, of course, include things outside the studio like history, literature, science and the taste for lifelong learning.
In the end art speaks for itself. It is the product of human imagination. We in art education owe our students our best efforts to guide them forward in the difficult world of art making. Frankly, we have not done such a great job, but there is always hope. There will always be art and artists because of, and in spite of, art education.