The Chronicle Review

Remember Talent? Does It Still Matter in Art Education?

Mágoz for The Chronicle

July 08, 2013

The cost of an education at an art school or in a college art department has gotten too expensive for merely learning how to express oneself in the likes of painting, sculpture, and printmaking. Who wants to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt just to become another starving artist? Today's art students now look to the commercial specialties—graphic design, fashion, comic strips and graphic novels, industrial design, textiles, video, filmmaking—to provide them with postgraduate employment and, in the bargain, status as hip young determiners of society's style.

This is why the Savannah College of Art and Design awards degrees in more than 40 majors. The school—founded by the hard-driving Paula Wallace in 1979 with just a handful of students—offers courses as varied as figure drawing and marine-vehicle design, with several 3D printers available for student use. The college has about 11,000 students, in Savannah (where it owns more than 60 buildings, including a first-rate contemporary-art museum in a beautifully renovated train station) and at new branches in Atlanta and Hong Kong. Wallace, as president and CEO, reportedly earns about $2-million a year.

While Savannah's numerical robustness may be exceptional, the number of students getting degrees in the visual and performing arts in the United States seems to be increasing. According to Americans for the Arts, between 2000 and 2009, the number of bachelor's degrees rose from 59,000 to about 93,000, and the number of master's degrees from 11,000 to about 15,000.

The proliferation of so many art specialties raises the question of whether there any common elements of an educational "foundation." If there are, how can they be most effectively crammed into a four-year curriculum that's supposed to produce employment-ready video-game creators, carbon-fiber-kayak designers, and textile artists? Examining this issue is an organization called FATE (Foundations in Art: Theory and Education), 600 of whose members—art teachers in the undergraduate trenches, largely in regional state universities and private colleges and art schools in the "flyover states"—gathered in Savannah in April for its biannual meeting, with the Savannah college as host.

In the old old days, the early 19th century, the neoclassical painter J.A.D. Ingres indicated the French Academy's idea of a foundation by telling his students, "We will begin by drawing, we will go on drawing, and then we will continue to draw." Ingres's dictum was uttered, however, at a time when realistic painting was still queen of the arts and no one had ever heard of an Xbox.

In the 1920s, at the then-revolutionary (and, because of the Nazis, short-lived) German art school the Bauhaus, art's foundation was contained in Johannes Itten's famous "basic course." In simple, abstract exercises, it covered black-and-white composition, color, texture and the nature of materials, visual rhythm, and expressive forms. The course supposedly functioned as the pedagogical hub of a wheel of art whose spokes led outward to such specific and supposedly equidistant practices as architecture, sculpture, industrial design, and painting.

The Bauhaus model pretty much held sway in art schools until the 1970s, when the avant-garde art world veered into postmodern installation and performance art. "What do little colored squares have to do with that?" art students started asking. (FATE cleverly titled its 2013 conference "postHaus.")

Then, starting in the 1980s, came the digital tsunami and, along with it, an explosion of commercial-art fields. As Edmond Salsali, a teacher of a beginning video-game-making course at Georgian Court University, put it in his FATE presentation, "We start with digital technology right away in foundation because otherwise there's not enough time in a four-year curriculum to teach students to be game designers."

So his students work from the get-go with "game engine" programs to create, for example, car-racing games whose most arty component, Salsali noted, is the digital "environment" (roads, trestles, barriers, background landscape) for the bumper-to-bumper action.

Naturally, traditionalists are digging in their heels at such developments. A few—such as University of Miami's Brian Curtis, in a "postHaus" presentation on a panel about teaching the rudiments of color—rail against the computer itself. It removes from art, he says, the essential touch of the human hand and insinuates into the fundamentals a lot of unnecessary geegaws—for example, fancy color systems "when all you really need is Isaac Newton's color wheel with a little infrared and a little ultraviolet at either end to complete it."

Most of the resistance to the digitalization of teaching art fundamentals comes from more-moderate conservatives, who, like Peter Kaniaris, of Anderson University in South Carolina, cut their artistic teeth on the still-predominant method in art schools and college art departments: a combination of the Bauhaus's "basic course" and required classes in drawing, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, what you see. Students who have taken a good bit of observational drawing, Kaniaris says, "simply have a greater range of visual experience, visual sensibility, and subsequently a wider tool set at their disposal."

In a standing-room-only presentation at the FATE conference titled "From Bauhaus to postHaus: Implementing a New Value Set Into Foundations," Marlene Lipinski and Fo Wilson, of Columbia College Chicago, described how their art-and-design department, in a three-year effort involving testing and a pilot project, is redoing its entire foundations program. In the new arrangement, students will begin in small modules, focusing on drawing and the use of color, then proceed to bigger groups for collaborative studio projects (for example, group-made murals concerning a civically relevant issue), and finally to peer-group critiques.

Columbia College's new program flips the conventional pedagogy, in which students are considered more or less uniform novices and are given standard and laborious assignments to complete, such as matching and organizing colors with bits of pasted paper. Those exercises supposedly prepare them to enter the big, diverse outside world of work, and to function in one artistic field or another.

In the reformed foundations program, "project-based learning" (those tedious assignments) is replaced by something called "inquiry-based learning," and "student production" (the products of those tedious assignments) will give way to "student comprehension" (measured, one supposes, by something other than the work that students produce). Simultaneously, stuffy art history will open up into "techniques of looking," which means that chronology, iconography, and erstwhile great artists will give way to the study of generalized cultural attitudes.

The curricular sea change means that students will bring their diverse backgrounds and experiences into the classroom, and will decide by consensus what they want to get out of the foundations program. Instead of imposing learning on them, professors will draw it out of them.

The revamped program emphasizes collaboration rather than individual effort, and students' working directly with their bodies and voices to manifest design concepts instead of producing objects separate from themselves. Columbia's neighbor and rival, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, even has a foundations instructor, Jennifer Mills (a presenter on the same FATE panel), who is a stand-up comedian on the side; she has students perform improvisational monologues to build their artistic confidence.

In both content and methods, I'm with the traditionalists, but only up to a point. They provide a humanist grounding—a connection to the discoveries of Leonardo and Picasso, and to the philosophical and historical narratives of Wölfflin and Gombrich—that keeps art-foundations curricula from flying off into digital oh-boyism or sinking into touchy-feely group therapy.  

 But we live, I admit, in the 21st century, not the mid-20th, when I matriculated through a couple of college art departments that bought into the Bauhaus philosophy. And we certainly don't reside in Ingres's 19th-century academy, drawing from plaster casts of classical statuary. Art in all its fine and applied forms will never turn away from electronics; ours is a one-way cultural drift into the virtual. Observational drawing and those beginning-design spinoffs of the Bauhaus's "basic course" (students call them "spots and dots" classes) serve best these days as curricular guardrails, not platforms.

All of which brings up the Great Unmentionable—a word not uttered once within my earshot at the FATE conference: talent. Whether besotted with the digital or circling the wagons to protect good old-fashioned observational drawing, almost all the pedagogical momentum evidenced at "postHaus" ran toward getting every student prepared to be some kind of artist. It veritably fled from any idea of weeding out those who, whatever their romantic longings and/or au courant employment ambitions, lacked visual acuity and touch.

As with almost everything on the non-STEM side of academe, what constitutes a "foundation" for today's art students and how best to teach it are substantially driven by economics. Art schools and art departments in private colleges need tuition revenue to survive. They're not going to get it if faculty act like the law professor whom John Houseman played in The Paper Chase, trying to ensure that only the gifted few make it through to a degree. Public colleges' art departments face the same problem, plus the skepticism—even wrath—of philistine state legislators who, whatever the supposed employment prospects in industrial design and digital animation, regard art as an expensive educational frill.

The "every child is special" ethos of nursery-school education transported upward into college-level art study—where it becomes "everyone has an inner artist longing for release"—dulls the budget-cutting ax by helping to maintain a financially acceptable retention rate, and by attracting applicants for the next freshman class. And the digitalization of art schools provides a nifty-sounding tech vocabulary, along with some valuable ancillary skills (advanced image-manipulation programs, for example) that also attract and retain students.

In terms of the gallery-and-museum sector of the art world that I—an abstract painter—inhabit, the FATE panelist Kaniaris asks: "Is the purpose of art education to teach students how to be successful in galleries and [contemporary] art fairs? If the answer is yes, then faculty may as well concede that they have more in common with American Idol than art education."

My answer is that if faculty are concerned about teaching the best students, the most talented ones, then aping American Idol isn't such a terrible idea. After all, there is a sort of rough justice—a vulgar meritocracy—to the show. It's the winners and runners-up—not the contestants who didn't make it past the auditions or who lost in the first round—who've given us the concerts and recordings we enjoy and remember.

All fields of art want excellence—or at least originality—whereas education, conducted democratically, wants equality. Original artists are interesting; equal artists are dull. No morphing of B.F.A. degrees into employment chits, no digital-skill sets, no confidence-building exercises for shy students, no little boot camps in observational drawing are ever going to change that.

Peter Plagens, a painter, is an art critic for The Wall Street Journal. His monograph on the artist Bruce Nauman will be published by Phaidon in 2014.