About once every decade I decide to confront the issue of whether it’s possible to teach art or not. My immediate, passionate, and unexamined inclination is to say: yes, it’s possible. When facing our poor track record of producing good artists, I would say that this is because we still don’t know how to do it. It’s not a fault of the students but rather that of the teachers. I’m not referring to art teachers that only teach in an institution to subsidize their studio work and don’t spend time thinking about what happens in the classroom or in the student’s mind. I’m referring to the committed teachers aiming to change and tweak curricula to achieve more success, but yet who don’t get better results (or didn’t, as in my case).
A long time ago I figured that the main function of a thought-out syllabus was not to optimize anything but to minimize the damage caused by bad teaching. The effect has been, however, that good creative educators have become limited in their ability to adapt to particular students and to explore new innovations, and there are more limitations than curricula. Curricular development and revision are slow and sporadic, belatedly following perceived needs that by the time of implementation may no longer be current. Usually there are also ideas we take for granted and national directives buried in both ideology and funding requirements that, because we were educated within them, we accept without any challenge.
While I always opposed the notion of grades and credits, I never had gone as far as to challenge the ideology of meritocracy. I didn’t fully see the inbuilt contradiction of trying to develop the best in each individual while aiming to identify the best individual. Both PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) were very helpful in raising my awareness on these points. Education, especially in the U.S., is not designed to improve individuals, but to have the country compete with other countries and beat them. For that, it’s believed, one needs the best individuals. STEM’s intention, according to government rhetoric, is to prepare students to make the nation more powerful and achieve a leading position in the world. PISA measures national ranking and success in the endeavor. If all this is to serve the nation, it’s not clear why then students and not the nation have to pay for education.
With STEM came STEAM as a reaction, asking with the added “A” to also include the arts. It’s a corrective step and, at least for a while, I was sympathetic to it. STEAM seemed to redirect emphasis from national interest to the development of better individuals. I have now changed my opinion. I believe it’s lucky that the arts are ignored by both STEM and PISA. The arts, as long as they are still allowed to exist, remain an area for free thought. Once included in acronyms, that freedom will be lost.
I thought all these were very wise thoughts, but I never took them to their logical conclusion. Without noticing, by using certain words, “teaching” and “art” among them, my thinking was imprisoned. The word “teaching” is deficient because it assumes that knowledge can be taught independently from context and therefore easily transferred. With teaching, the student becomes a receiver or a trainee. With learning, the student develops a never-ending autodidactic ability and becomes a researcher and an experimenter. We should therefore talk about learning and not about teaching. Art, which is an autodidactic process defined by research and experimentation, actually shouldn’t be taught. Teaching art means transferring existing technical, aesthetic, or conceptual recipes. Teaching art therefore closes options instead of opening them, and defeats the whole idea of forming artists. Grading, a consequence of teaching, not only corrupts education by introducing competitiveness, but also is only capable of verifying if the recipes come out correctly. I think that if we intend to help in the formation of artists (or anybody else) the word “teaching” should be eliminated from our vocabulary and only “learning” should be used.1
“Art” is the next problematic word because of its wide range of meanings. When we ask if teaching art is possible, what we mean is can we increase the number of successful artists through institutional education. Is there any difference in the results from teaching and, say, spontaneous generation? Institutions try to stack the deck in their favor by accepting only those they perceive to be promising students and then teaching them “how” to do things. The “what” part (and the “why” related to it), where art actually takes place, is presumed to be unteachable and left up to the students. Presumably the idea is that the better the entry filter, the better the school is at identifying any given prospective student’s potential to understand and develop the “what,” the better the quality of the graduates. Meanwhile, those who really need to learn are left out.
Accepting that the institutional quest is not to teach art but to identify future successful artists, what would happen if we change the question? Is it possible to learn to be a successful artist? Schools keep refining the process, but their rate of success, when measured statistically by those admitted and those who make it, is still dismal. The social task should not be to promote the best talent at the expense of those we decide don’t have it. We should make sure that everybody has equal access to good education, in art as in any other field, and that those who seem less promising are guided to find stimulation instead of being left aside because of snapshot information used as filters for admission. Obsessed with the creation of a national elite, what should be a comprehensive education system seems to forget that its mission should be the empowerment of individuals to function in a community and not in a nation.
I’m increasingly becoming more of an extremist in my views of society. I dream about a socialism of creation. It is something more urgently needed than any traditional socialism of consumption. Art focused on the elaboration of products creates traditional market relations and the consequent need for branding as well as respect for authorship and competition. Objects, knowledge, and ideas become labeled as “mine” instead of “ours,” and the distribution of power becomes unequal. Released from this focus on the product and the value of property, and with a reorientation toward art as a form of non-competitive cognition, a socialism of creation may have a chance to redistribute power towards ultimate equality and a better society.
Unfortunately we are drifting further away from this utopia. In the U.S. we seem to be entering a perverse version of neo-feudalism. An already stratified society is reaffirming class and wealth separation, and academia is complicit in the process. Yet art schools maintain some advantages for those that can afford it both in terms of tuition and the failed quality of life they can expect after graduation. Granted, art schools are elitist and guided by institutional greed. But in educational matters they also are imprecise and clueless enough to allow them to be the only free area in academia. By not teaching what art is or might be, students are at liberty to imagine, speculate, fail, and waste time. Wisely administered, these conditions provide a platform on which one may build something worthwhile.
One question then is: Could artistic success come by changing the education model rather than through tightening admissions? Since art schools intend to form professional artists, we should discuss the relation the artist establishes with materials, with the artwork, and with the public. In certain ways these relations are different forms of dialogue, and in this regard I like to speak of two dialogues. Dialogue 1 is the conversation the artist has with the work of art he or she produces. Dialogue 2 is the one that takes place between the object and the public. These two dialogues don’t exclude each other, but any predominance of one over the other has educational consequences.
Dialogue 1 started with negotiating the presence of the work of art as an exchange between artist and material. For a long time this was an authoritarian relation. The artist took the role for granted, but had to prove the ability to master materials to the point of virtuosity. The reference for evaluation was the precision in rendering, and the administration and editing of the information rendered. Visual information was processed and downloaded into the object. With this process ended, the public consumed what could be seen. All this led to the emphasis on craft training in art schools.
During the period of romanticism, the processing of information became more complex because it also included introspection. This meant that personal neurosis, suffering, and the feeling of being chosen all became part of creation. What was taking place could be described as an exploration of the personal “black box,” the unreachable mental areas from where our need to make art springs. Information was now processed both visually and emotionally, and was still downloaded through the material into the object. In schools the black box was left alone to do whatever it does, and except for occasional recommendations to meditate, the notion that art can’t be taught took a stronger hold than ever.
Later, with the modernist isms, things were taken a step further. It was clear that nobody knew exactly what art was, and the search for an understanding was extended to include an analysis of the components that make artworks art. This generated the variety of art styles that were constructed around singular qualities, such as space, movement, dreams, and expressions. The production of art objects as ends in themselves continued. It made sense to have formal art education prioritize craft, but a better knowledge of the history of art was also added. The elusiveness of the inside of the black box was accepted and referred to with words like “inspiration” and “intuition.” Assignments in schools started to focus on self-enclosed problems closer to design than to art. They were more teaching props than learning conditions.
Dialogue 2 coincided with the mid-’60s push to blur the distinction between art and life. From the art side it took the form of happenings, political activist art, interactivity, documentarism, and, more recently, social practice. From the non-art area there was a demand for thinking “outside the box,” lateral thinking and creative entrepreneurship. Maybe it was thanks to Claude Shannon’s writings about information theory, or to Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about media, or just to an awareness of the impact that mass media and advertising were having on our culture. Seeing art as information and communication brought the viewers’ “black boxes” to the fore. This shift became so strong that in spite of the embargo against Cuba, in 1988 the U.S. Congress declared Cuban art (in line with all art) “informational material” as opposed to commercial objects, and so allowed it to travel freely across the U.S. border.
The shift had both bad and good effects. Viewers were often patronized. Art became spectacular and the time needed for consumption was considerably shortened with the rise of visual one-liners. But art also became overtly recognized as part of cognition. The object stopped being admired merely for its execution or presence and started being read as the solution or response to a problem. The importance of the piece was judged on the problem’s interest and how well or elegantly it was solved. Execution became a matter concerning presentation, and generally the idea of quality had the possibility of becoming clearer for both artists and the public. That it isn’t as clear as it should be today is only because quality is still associated with maintaining the canon and not with the validity of the cognitive process.
Traditional education is based on a functionalist position where knowledge is dealt with as dis-embedded from context. In its dis-embedded stage, skills are highly simplified and are expected to transfer easily from situation to situation and to maintain their applicability. That is the pedagogical ideology that emphasizes the teaching of technical skills in their most basic and easy fashion, like reading, writing, mathematics, and logic. In art schooling one would include brushing, carving, photographing, and any skill before it becomes contaminated by any concrete application. The approach neglects to see that art, on its creative level, is clearly a fully context-driven activity. In the expressive phase of Dialogue 1, it’s the subjective context that both originates the work and serves as its resonance box. This makes art already a prime example for context-sensitive “situated learning.” In Dialogue 2,where the relation with the audience becomes part of the work, its context has to be included as well and, depending on the situation, will even override the artist’s own
Not all the results, however, succeed in expanding or generating knowledge, and often don’t go beyond modest hybrids, examples of applied art, or experiments in new media. In Dialogue 1, there was the possibility of an expansion of knowledge often categorized as “mystery,” and addressing the unknown was a personal task that drew energy from hunches. This is one of the reasons that inhibited the “teaching” of art. Teaching meant trying to get into the student’s “black box,” and nobody knows how to do that effectively. In Dialogue 2 it’s about exploring the limits of knowledge and helping the viewer/community to exceed them.
In the merging of art and life one would expect that art would benefit from contributions in other areas. Yet, mostly, art schools today are chaotic playpens with technical and behavioral instruction, and with an overlay of amateur psychology and sociology. The playpen environment is conducive to explore the unknown, but uncontrolled it also leads to mystification and self-indulgence and keeps artists in the Dialogue 1 mode. The addition of serious critical thinking, problem formulation, administration of information, presentation, social studies, and ethics, paired with rigor and responsibility, could make Dialogue 2 more socially effective. This description, however, applies not only to those who want to be professional artists, but to everybody. We all should stake out what we know in order to face the unknown, we all should play with connecting what supposedly cannot be connected, we all should challenge systems that order us, and we all should do this and communicate it rigorously and ethically. Maybe then we will start down the road to a socialism of creation.
- Coaching, a third term often used in the arts, is a hybrid concept taken from sports lingo and directed at honing presumed existing excellence.
Luis Camnitzer is a Uruguayan artist born in Germany in 1937 and has lived in the U.S.A. since 1964. He is a Professor Emeritus of Art, State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. He graduated in sculpture from the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad de la República, Uruguay, and studied architecture at the same university. He received a Guggenheim fellowship for printmaking in 1961 and for visual arts in 1982. In 1965 he was declared Honorary Member of the Academy in Florence. In 1998 he received the “Latin American Art Critic of the Year” award from the Argentine Association of Art Critics and in 2011 the Frank Jewitt Mather Award of the College Art Association and the Printer Emeritus Award of the SGCI. In 2010 and 2014 he received the National Literature Award for Art Essays in Uruguay. In 2012 he was awarded the Skowhegan Medal and was a USA Ford Fellow. He represented Uruguay in the Venice Biennial in 1988 and participated in the Liverpool Biennial in 1999 and in 2003, in the Whitney Biennial of 2000, and in Documenta 11 in 2003. His work is in the collections of over 40 museums, among them Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Whitney Museum, New York; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Sao Paulo; Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires; and the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo de Costa Rica. He is the author of: New Art of Cuba (University of Texas Press, 1994/2004); Arte y Enseñanza: La ética del poder, (Casa de América, Madrid, 2000); Didactics of Liberation: Conceptualist Art in Latin America (University of Texas Press, 2007), and On Art, Artists, Latin America and Other Utopias (University of Texas Press, 2010).