June 11, 2011

Critical Fragments: Pedagogy

“Pedagogical models are in imminent change within the contemporary art world. Where once the role of arts education was to prepare the young Apprentice through an immersion in the ways of the Master, today’s art school negotiates precarious vacillations between theoretical engagement, technical hybridity and curatorial placement.

Art schools’ relationships with the commercial art world remains ethical for the most part with the occasional lapse in judgment and focus. To maintain their autonomous position within the art world, institutions of arts instruction practice a kind of ambivalence that can only be characterized as idealistic.”

I wrote the above two paragraphs last June 2010 after completing a semester teaching undergraduate fine art seniors. The practical aspects of my teaching had been inspired by theoretical readings on pedagogy, specifically Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited by Steven Henry Madoff. Among the many excellent essayist in the book, Ernesto Pujol proposes that art institutions would prove “successful” if they could help define the relationships between a student’s practice and the art world, to insert art students “into the right ancestral inheritance line through which to locate, understand and articulate their work both to the art world that receives them and in the greater social context.”(1)

Having now finished another full year of art teaching, this time as undergraduate senior coordinator leading my two-person faculty team, and mentoring fine art students through their final year and the production of their BFA projects and theses, I have a few more observations about visual arts education and its relationship to these embryonic young art students and their developing positions in the Art World.

Before launching down that path, however, let me elaborate on the frustrations of teaching art. As James Elkins has noted, “Art cannot be taught.”(2) I know Jim and I have to agree that there are essences of how art is taught that do remain a mystery to us visual arts pedagogues. Still, we struggle on year after year to find that “sweet spot” between what is “knowable” about art and what can be taught, i.e., its history, theory, philosophy.

The stubborn student, the lazy student or the indifferent student further complicates and frustrates those who teach art. How many art teachers have sat in one-on-one critiques with students who seem to resent the articulation required of them to “talk about the work?” Or read with impatience such vague art student sentiments as “Societal boundaries and personal relationships motivate me to create work. I have created boundaries around myself to cope with other people.” To which, I might have replied, but did not: “What societal boundaries? You’re a white girl in an art school. Are your boundaries economic? You can’t afford a decent car? And how does that motivate you beyond ‘getting a degree?’ How is that reflected in your creation of work?”(3)

I cannot help but doubt the relevance of four years of art school if it only produces inhibited or introverted students. How do art school studio critiques become so counter-productive as to cause students to resort to vagaries over specifics, unattributed generalities over research, and superfluity over substance?

What I want to insist is that young adult art students must learn to write substantively about their work and be able to talk about it intelligently while in the academic art school setting – this is a basic premise of art education. Art school is the appropriate time to learn that behavior; time for communication of intent, for connection with interested, educated peers and professor. It is precisely during the four years of an academic setting that these opportunities will arise. Assuredly, these exact same demands for a practicing artist to talk, write and lecture about their work will certainly continue in the "Real World" after art school so it must be practiced in academia.

Addressing the idealistic autonomy of art school, as the museum projects its image as the “disinterested progenitor” of culture, the art school considers its educational program distinct and immune from the crass socio-economics of the commercial art world. Obviously, admissions and recruitment departments market and promote their institution’s educational programs, particularly the MFA programs, as stepping-stones to jobs, yet this is more or less ignored within the academic departments' curricula. Except for the handful of portfolio and “career development” courses, most art programs represent hermetically sealed ivory-towers, removed from the quotidian concern of how graduates pay the rent post-academia. It is truly art (taught) for art’s sake alone.

Hans Haacke ascribes to the position that art exists within the realm of consciousness and that art “products are not entirely physical in nature.” What is more, “although transmitted in one material form or another, they are developed in and by consciousness and have meaning only for another consciousness.”(4) Furthermore, he argues that museums have become the “managers of consciousness,” all the while exuding the squeaky-clean ambiance of autonomy.

If museums are the managers of consciousness then the art school is certainly the factory. It is here we attempt a magic act of invisibility within the Art World, while maintaining straight-faced allegiance to the theories and dictates of contemporary-isms. As professors of culture, we present our agendas of the idealistic necessity of “making” within the vacuum of aesthetically pure “conception.” The only challenge of substance is how to refer to the futures of our young students as hopeful when our day-to-day connection to that Art World continues to be restrained by ideology and autonomy.


1. Pujol, Ernesto. “On the Ground: Practical Observations for Regenerating Art Education” in Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), (Steven Henry Madoff, ed.), Cambridge, 2009, 12.

2. Elkins, James. Why Art Cannot Be Taught, Chicago, 2001.

3. From a senior student's thesis statement. I recall a one-on-one critique with this student when she “didn’t want to talk about the work.” When students put up such walls between themselves and the world, the school and their teachers it makes it impossible for art teachers to "teach."

4. Haacke, Hans. “Museums, Managers of Consciousness,” in Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business, (Brian Wallis, ed.), New York, 1986, 60-73.

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