Peter Halley

I love art schools. They are just the only place where artists as students and teachers come together to talk about what makes works of art function; where issues of intentionality, syntax, and the responsibilities of authorship are regularly considered; and where success in galleries and the market is hardly ever a topic of conversation. They are places that allow artists of different generations, ideologies, and backgrounds to regularly interact, which is of increasing importance today when the heterogeneous modern city has all but disappeared.

My experience has been mostly that of teaching in graduate programs—I’ve taught at UCLA and Columbia, and served as director of the Yale MFA program for nine years. I believe simply that grad schools should be places that embrace a diversity of points of view on the part of both students and faculty. To me, any school where contrasting, conflicting ideas are in play establishes a setting that is conducive to learning and creativity.

At Yale, I also encouraged students to take the initiative in shaping the school’s program. I feel that when students organize seminars or choose visiting artists, they are doing just the sort of thing that’s important for artists to take on in the outside world.

I’ve often heard people raise the question, “Can art be taught?” As a teacher of graduate students, the role I embrace is quite modest—it is to listen and to interpret, and to tell students about artists and ideas with which I am familiar and that might be useful to them.

Ultimately, I believe that fine art graduate programs are generally havens of idealism in today’s money-crazed, spectacle-driven art world. They’ve come to serve a role not so different from that of the Irish monasteries in the Dark Ages.

The general situation in art education is, however, rife with contradictions. To begin with: for several decades, art programs in elementary schools and high schools have been eviscerated, resulting in less, rather than more, art education for children and teenagers.

If undergraduate art programs and art schools seem to have grown, a great many of these students are nevertheless focusing on graphic design, film, fashion, or industrial design. This seems inevitable in a culture that, as a result of digitalization and globalization, has become more and more based on visual communication and less on the written word.

As a young artist in the late 1970s, I taught beginning drawing and design classes at a state university. I used to tell my students that only a few of them would ever be able to make a living in the visual arts. Nowadays I’d tell them that they almost certainly would.

However, at every college and art school, there is still a small minority of students who are majoring in fine art. Of course, only very few of them will achieve careers as artists. Yet, to me, this is no more of an issue than the small number of English majors who become novelists or poets. A degree in fine arts, with its emphasis on visual literacy, provides a grounding in humanist studies no less than a degree in literature does.

For years, I lamented that with the onrush of digital media, there had not been a revolution in the teaching of visual art such as that which occurred at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. However, today, after speaking with a few of the devoted artists who teach design and fundamental classes in first-year core programs at big state university art programs, I tend to believe that such a revolution probably has occurred—but that it’s been a silent revolution.


Peter Halley