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Art Education Is Radically Undertheorized

An interview with James Elkins by Cornelia Sollfrank

James Elkins, Cornelia Sollfrank / 2008

17 May, 2008, Dundee, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Visual -Research Centre

Based on Prof. Elkins’ book Why Art Cannot Be Taught -Cornelia Sollfrank speaks with the author about the different models of art education throughout history, the situation of contemporary art education and his own experiences as art student and art teacher.

CS: Prof. Elkins, in 2001 you have published a book with the provocative title Why Art Cannot Be Taught. I would like to discuss with you some of the ideas you have expressed in the book as a contribution to the current discussion about art education in Germany. As you probably know, the implementation of the Bologna Process has caused a new wave of discussion about that issue in which all the different models of art education – which are based on different understandings of art – are used to either appreciate or resist a reform of art education. One observation I have made in the course of the recent discussions was, that people tend to get very emotional about the subject – even if they are not (no longer) directly involved in art education.
JE: Art education is a huge subject and I should say that I am involved in this on all different levels. I am looking at the PhD in studio art, but I am also involved in how first year, undergraduate, beginning classes are taught in different countries, and that is the root of the problem. You can divide the problem into three parts: the first part is what happens in the first year; the second problem is what happens in upper level college undergraduate MA and MFA; and the third one concerns the PhD.
The first year used to be the first step in a number of determined steps in the French academy and the other Baroque academies: there were set curricula. So that you would know that you would start out with drawing from drawings, and then you would do drawing from casts, then drawing from the live model; and you would have satellite subjects like drapery studies, physiognomics, and things like that. That means the first year programs used to be the beginning of a clearly defined hierarchy. I think hierarchy is among the deepest requirements that universities make of anything that can be considered an academic field: an enterprise will not appear to be academic unless it has a hierarchy of stages.
With the debates now about the first year program, two things are in doubt: what the nature of that year is; and whether that first year prepares you in any way for what might follow in the next several years. And both of these questions usually are inadequately answered. In relation to what happens in the first year program, I divide the possibilities into four different possibilities of schools of thought (although I am not sure if the problem is altogether soluble):
– The first model used in first year instruction follows the French academy, and in conservative academies, that means you learn live drawing and naturalistic rendering. “Skill,” in that context, means ability to render in proper proportions, with some degree of representation of chiaroscuro, optical effects, and related subjects.
– The second model is the Romantic model, which means German Romantic art academies. Therefore it means the institution of one-on-one teaching; the idea that the artist has a voice; the idea that the inner life of the artist is what matters rather than the depiction of the exterior world.
– The third model I identify with the Bauhaus, which means in this scheme that you intend to go back to a tabula rasa. The modernist enterprise depends on erasing the heritage of irrelevant skills and starting again from basic forms and shapes and a fundamental understanding of the world as composed of abstraction. That includes all kind of familiar exercises like picking textures, finding colors, using motion, and all the rest
– The forth model does not have a name, but it would be something like the post-war Art Schools, which means to me, art as social critique, art as investigation of identity, and as expression and investigation of gender, which are fundamentally non-aesthetic forms of art. Ultimately they are bound to politics, not aesthetics.

But you would never find any Art School or academy which would assign exclusively to one of these models …
That is exactly the problem. Almost every large art academy does all four of these things, all at once. And especially the second model is still the principal model for higher levels of art education, including the MFA. There you are supposed to have a tutor, a supervisor, a master. In regard to the third model, the Bauhaus, that is still very much present in the first couple of months of art instruction all around the world. Students are asked to do things like take clippings from newspaper, arrange them from black to white, and work with color as Joseph Albers did, training your sensitivity to contrast, tint, hue, and value.
I think these four models are in many ways fundamentally incompatible. And the only – even partial – solution that I can think of is to teach historical awareness along with the methods, so that for example first year students could do an exercise in matching colors of newspaper clippings, as in Albers’s book, and then be told that the exercise was part of the pedagogy in the ’20’s, ’30’s, and ’40’s, when the notion was to sweep students’ memories clean of the ruins of past academic practices. If historiography were taught along with the exercises of the first year program, students could gradually become aware of the fact that they were -getting a disharmonious education. And that would at least make them historically reflective.
But of course, this does not solve the problem. The only institutions that have solved the problem are those who just opt for one of the models. Usually those are the very conservative art academies that opt for the French academy model.

What is the teaching concept of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where you are -teaching?
We almost have opted for the fourth model, the Post-war Academy. We have people who believe in aesthetics in different ways, but we have a large number of people for whom the very idea of making an aesthetic object is misguided, and who think that the purpose of educating an artist is principally to make a good citizen, or an ethically responsible inhabitant of the earth. (Environmentalism and sustainable art practices are in some ways continuations of the non-aesthetic goals of earlier politically and socially motivated art.)

To me it would make sense to have each Art Schools adopt a specific model, so that the students can just pick the model which is right for them – if they know what they want!
If they know what they want, exactly. That might be a problem at an early stage.
For example, the exhibition I saw here last night, the opening of the undergraduate show, had a very large proportion of painters – who are often the largest proportion of artists at any given institution – doing a kind of photorealist oil painting, which was described to me as “Dundee School” –

I was not aware of that, interesting –
That’s the kind of thing, I completely agree with you, that should be promoted. When such an emphasis or “school” exists, it should be nourished, but that almost never happens, because the school would then be forced to see itself as anachronistic or conservative. So it will never be an official policy here, it will never be in the promotional material, it will never be written up in advertisements: “Come here and study ‘Dundee Realism.’”

On the other hand this is indirectly done through the selection of the art instructors. In Germany it is still practice that names which are big in the art market are offered professorships so that the name of the artist then would stand for the School. An outstanding example for this is the HGB in Leipzig which has changed its profile since Neo Rauch, who is also allocated to “Leipziger Schule”, is teaching there. All of a sudden much more students wanted to study painting than e. g. media art which used to be another expertise of the school.
This is actually perceived as a strength from the outside, while institutionally it is perceived as a problem.
(And, by the way – this is parenthetical to what you are interested here – I feel the same way about art history departments: all around the world, they often have a strength, e. g. Modernists who specialize in Eastern Europe, but they virtually never will play to that strength, hiring more modernists. Instead they will almost always try to cover the world. And if they are big enough, and if they are in Western Europe, they will be interested in hiring a Chinese specialist, a southeast Asianist, and so on. Playing to your strength would be a way to solve the problem at an institutional level, but not on a global level, because you would always have the majority of the students would still want to be in the avant-garde, which would normally be the anti-aesthetic, the fourth model.)
In Chicago, where I teach, students can graduate without taking any life drawing class. They can go straight into digital video editing, and the underlying assumption there, which allows it to happen, is that no one medium or method has precedence. Drawing is not the foundation stone as it was in French academy.

I would even like to go one step back from first years, and ask what you think what the criteria should be, on the one hand to select students for studying art, and on the other hand, to select art instructors …
I think of those as totally different …

Yes, of course, but in the end these are the people who form the Art School, and I find it worth having a look how they get there …
This is really a big subject; but let me step back yet again and say it is different depending on the level, because at the first year program level, the large Art Schools will not be so analytically judgmental in selecting art students, but at the level of the MFA, Art Schools will be conscious that their students will represent them to the world, and so you have committees who reject students who have too much naturalistic skill, because it is felt that they are unteachable – they cannot unlearn what they have learned, so the admission commission will look for students with very wild, uncontrolled practices.
The bigger issue here is that the entire enterprise of art education is radically undertheorized at all levels, so conversations in admissions committees, in my experience, rely remarkably little on language. You get a lot of “aha,” “nn,” or “mm-hmm,” and when it comes to the verdict – shall we admit this student or not? – you hear a lot of “yeah, okay,” “no way,” or “fine.” And the same thing happens with professional juries. A moment of silence, and then “mm-hmm” or “nnn-hnn.” The relative lack of articulate, extended conversation – and of course I’m exaggerating here, but not too much! – is a sign of a radical lack of theorization.

But does this lack of theorization you are addressing not go back exactly to the way artists are – or are not – educated?
Yes, absolutely. But it also has to do with a lack of effective conferences, monographs, and meetings about the conceptual foundations of different stages of the artistic education process. I suspect that the MFA has never been adequately justified –  anywhere in the world. I know about the situation in the States, and I know in that case that the original MFA was rushed through because it was part of the GI Bill, which was to enable ex-soldiers to get into colleges, and the actual document which sets out the purposes of the MFA is one page long and never has been augmented. I think one can say that no one in North America knows what an MFA is. Of course, things only get worse when you try to put a PhD on top of a degree which in itself is not understood.

But this is exactly what all the discussion we are having in Germany is about, it is about the possibility or impossibility to analyze, understand, define what degrees in art education are, and to define certain criteria which would enable a constructive discussion.
You wouldn’t want to be too rigid, but I think it would help the MFA degree if there were some imaginary form for it, philosophically speaking, and some effective conversation could be had around the component of Romanticism that suffuses the MFA. It is absolutely crucial for the MFA that the artist should be given kind of a voice, that they should start to consolidate their practice, and that they should have an individual manner or cohesive group of manners, that they should be comprehensible to viewers as people who are engaged in a coherent ongoing project. Those are all ideas from German Romanticism.
I might guess that there would be people who would like to resist the idea that such a genealogy should be brought out in the course of the MFA, but I would also guess that they would not know how to resist it, because the very idea of having one supervisor means that you have rejected the kinds of systematic rules of learning that are compatible with various non-Romantic systems of education including the French Academy and also the Bauhaus. Even the idea of working one on one with a supervisor is founded in Romanticism: it depends on the assumption is that your individuality as a student is fostered by the teachers’ individuality. This is not conventional teaching in the older sense, because what’s really being taught is individuality by example. You do not become the same person as your teacher is –

– sometimes you do.
Sometimes you do! [laughs] But the idea is that as a student, you have seen what individuality is, and you see how it could happen to you.

On what level could a discourse about art education be introduced within Art Schools? I don’t think that a lack of theory is problem. It seems that the formats within the institutions, which would include this discourse into the education process, do not exist. Reflecting about teaching and learning art should be part of teaching and learning art.
If I could answer that, I would be EU Commissioner for art education! I am trying, tough, and I am doing my part. We have a conference next year (2009), called “What do Artists Know?” and I want this conference to produce a book which will set out these problems, then it will at least be there, to be looked at. (The conference is listed at www.stonesummertheoryinstitute.org.) For example, first year education is debated in a number of different places: there are the ARCO conferences, which have extensive debates about this; there is College Art Association in the US, there is the British AAH; there is the International Art Historians Association (CIHA) – they all have had sessions on this topic. Almost always, the speakers end up being anecdotal; you end up with a speaker saying “In my college in (naming some tiny town), we have found an interesting exercise for first-year students …” and they’ll tell some story. I think what needs to be done is to set out, as clearly as possible, the best models.
The four models I mentioned earlier are different from models that have been proposed by the Belgian art historian Thierry de Duve, and perhaps a good starting place would be a comparison of his classification and mine. That is the kind of thing I plan to do in the book. So next time an administrator comes to look and ask him- or herself what can be done for art students, at least they will have a resource to argue with.

I think the question is how Art Schools can be forced to engage in the discussion, because as long as they are not forced, there will just be business as usual. Reflecting is just extra work.
Ah, you’re so right! I have been giving talks on the first year problematic, and I started getting asked by people how our model in Chicago works, and I had to admit that I had no idea, because I had nothing to do with our own first year program. Since then I have tried to start a dialogue with the people in our first year program; they are interested, but – as you say – they have no time, so it is very unlikely that we will produce a really conceptually strong revision of our first year program. What we have right now in Chicago – which is typical of most Art Schools – is an ad hoc mixture of three out of the four models, with no immediate hope of change.

Now comes what actually was meant to be my first question: You have studied Fine Arts yourself. Why did you decide not to become a practising artist, but a theorist? Does this have to do with your own art education?
Yes and no. I have the MFA, so I have the terminal degree, and technically speaking, I could be a studio art instructor, but I switched to art history. Part of the reason was the kind of education I had, but only a small part. It was more having to do with what I thought the truly difficult challenges were, and what I became interested in … and to do with the fact that I began to realize that my own art practice was appallingly bad.

Oh, really? [laughing]
Yes, very much anachronistic, and pretty much hopeless [laughing]. But this is another story, which is not a secret by the way …. The salient fact has really not to do with what we have been talking about so far, it has to do with the way critiques were held in the institution where I was, which was Midway Studios at the University of Chicago. In that MFA program, they had a kind of critique which we used to call a “psychodrama.” They were in a 45 minute format and sometimes would be -intensely, even violently emotional, and the student would sometimes end up crying in front of the 30 people in the room, faculty members and other students. Teachers were vicious, not all of them, but some.
And I should add here that all the faculty now has changed, none of them are the same, it is a different place now – but back then, the violence of the critiques made me wonder about how education could be carried on when it depends on the institution called “the critique.” And my book Why Art Cannot be Taught does have an argument about whether you can teach art or not, but the heart of that book is about critiques. It actually should have been called A Handbook of Critiques. That is what it really is.

Why do you give the critiques so much attention?
I still think that art critiques are the most irrational form of educational evaluation that exists in any field. I think of them as 99% irrational.

What do you mean by irrational?
Well, I am interested in critiques, and I say at the very end of the book that I don’t want to change them, but simply because you should not change anything you know nothing about.

Why do you say that? The whole book shows that you know so much about art education …
I am only talking about critiques now. I don’t think anybody knows much about them, by which I mean no one could know much about them, because they are so far from clear, logical, ordered, purposeful, controlled speaking.

You often hear from students that they are very well able to distinguish between a teacher who is able to do good critiques, constructive ones, and other teachers are not. I think there is a certain ability involved which is objectifiable. In my opinion it is a certain technique. Mainly of -asking -questions, which certain teachers have -developed – maybe unconsciously, and others have not.
I am very pessimistic about that subject.

Are you, really?
Yes. And maybe we should switch the conversation a little bit. Maybe instead of talking about critiques per se, we should talk about what it means to teach art. In that book I have a couple of theories that I gathered from talking to people when I asked them how they teach art. One of them, which sounds like the one you were just talking about, one of the theories is, that you can’t actually teach art itself, but you can teach up to it, right to the limit. In other words, you cannot make a great artist, but you can push people in the direction of art. Ask the right questions, in the right direction.

How about providing the right atmosphere, the skills, the knowledge …
That is a second theory: it is what I call the “incubator theory,” that Art School is like agar-agar – it helps art to grow; it has an atmosphere, a richness of discourse, it’s inspiring to be around and to learn …

In your book you use the term “infection” for that way of teaching.
Exactly. Ok, here is the pessimists’ answer to those two theories. First about the theory you raised a minute ago. I doubt that anybody knows how to ask the right questions. I doubt that anybody knows what direction a student should take. How should we know what that proper direction is? For example, somebody who has been doing performance art: how do you know that person might make better art when you push him/her in the direction of photography? Everyone has hunches, and these are based on many complicated experiences, but in fact there is no way to know for sure whether or not you are hurting a student, or hampering a student, or just slowing her up.
The pessimist’s answer to the other theory, the one about incubation is that, yes, Art Schools provide a wonderful atmosphere when they are good, they immerse you in the discourse of art, and they do definitely help you to talk to gallerists. You can definitely learn “art speak”; you can definitely learn new ways of articulating your practice. In that sense Art Schools help students learn a new language.
The problem is that, to my mind, that learning is an automatic, almost biological consequence of a rich environment; in the same way that a mother who is pregnant does the right things, eats the right food, sees her doctor regularly, but does not direct the formation of the child. Because the child is in the environment of the womb, it grows. You cannot prevent learning about art if you have the right “atmosphere.” There is a lack of control there, so no one can take direct credit for the outcome, and therefore art is not directed in the way that teaching physics and chemistry, biology, or economics are.

This may be true, and I think your book is very rich and inspiring to read: you provide a historical overview over art education through the centuries, you try to develop a theory and systematization of contemporary models to teach art, but I have to say, what I do not like about your book, is the end. After providing all the information which I think is a first step to demystify what is going on in Art School, at the end you say that it does not make any sense to try to understand how art is taught, and teaching art simply means to live a contradiction. That is too simple, and in a way it destroys all the efforts you have made before … Why are you going back to this mystification at the end? What purpose does it serve?
Critics have said that before – that the problem with the book is the way it ends. I would rather not say “mystification” but rather acknowledgement of our lack of knowledge, lack of our control of the situation. That was what I had in mind when I wrote the end. In order to change critiques, you would have to change things fundamentally. In the book that presents two possibilities: one is to go ahead and consider the different suggestions that I make throughout the book, and try to clarify and control critiques. The other is the route that I took, which is to say: Here are the different things you could say to clarify and control critiques, but most of them can’t be controlled.
I am torn about these two alternatives. But the reason that I chose the one that’s more pessimistic is because it’s more realistic. I think if I were Dean of an Art School, I could institute a procedure for critiques, which would follow some of the suggestions I make – and that others have made – to increase the number of clear and distinct ideas in critiques. But in doing that I would be instituting a practice which would be fundamentally different from any other Art School’s critique. I would be replacing critiques and creating some other practice.
I am not trying to defend the form of the book, it’s very problematic. I wrote it again I would probably be more optimistic and say: Okay, let’s just do what we can.

So something also changed for you since you wrote the book in 2001.
Yes, and that is also the reason why I would like to revisit that book. What I want to do is to split it in two – but that’s not a plan for the foreseeable future. The publisher would not want to do that; but it is really two books – one concerns the historical and critical issues around the development of Art Schools, which I think it is useful for students to know; and the other concerns critiques.

One more remark about the critiques just entered my mind: It actually is very similar to psychotherapy, where you also have the problem how to find the right therapist, who will be able to respond in a constructive way to your problems, who also will not know what the right way is, but still, through asking question helps you to find this way yourself. In order to make that work, there first needs to be established a sort of trustful relationship, but that is not enough, the therapist also must be equipped with a set of tools or techniques which prevent the whole undertaking to become personal and irrational. Maybe it is this set of tools or technique I am aiming for in the art education …
Art critiques are very often therapy. Occasionally the -student is seriously disturbed or there is some medical issue, and those critiques are literally therapy. I could tell you some stories about those; horrifying things can happen. The conversation about art stops, and some other conversation starts. On the other hand, there are almost no critiques that have no psychotherapy in them. Most critiques end to go back and forth because of the nature of art. And this is another source of confusion: it leads me back again to my pessimistic conclusion. Critiques are always already partly psychotherapy, but they are performed, usually, by people who have no knowledge of therapy and don’t even think of themselves as performing therapy. How much more illogical can you get?

And it brings me back to the very beginning where I have mentioned that people tend to respond very emotionally to the question of art education. I think we talked about some possible reasons for that, and one of them certainly is the traumatic experiences many artists made during their own education …
I love this subject: it makes me feel entirely helpless.

Dieser Text erschien zuerst bei The THING Hamburg, 25. Mai 2008 unter http://thing-hamburg.de/index.php?id=796.

[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 2 auf S. 89.]

[Es sind keine weiteren Materialien zu diesem Beitrag hinterlegt.]

James Elkins

(*1955), Dr. phil., Studium der Freien Kunst und Kunstgeschichte an der Cornell University und University of Chicago (PhD). E.C. Chadbourne Chair für Kunstgeschichte, Kunsttheorie und Kritik an der School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Arbeitsschwerpunkte: Bildwissenschaft, Bildgeschichte in Wissenschaft und Natur, Modernismus- und Postmodernismustheorien in der bildenden Kunst. http://www.jameselkins.com.


Cornelia Sollfrank

(*1960), Dr. phil., Studium der Freien Kunst an der Kunstakademie München und der Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg, practice-based PhD am Duncan of Jordanstone College for Art and Design, Dundee, Schottland. Seit 2012 Lecturer für Art and Media an der University of Dundee, Schottland. Arbeitsschwerpunkte: Urheberrecht, Cyberfeminismus, Kunsttheorie, Neue Medien, Netzkultur. http://artwarez.org.


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Albers, Josef  ·  Duve, Thierry de  ·  Elkins, James  ·  Rauch, Neo  ·  Sollfrank, Cornelia