It’s an old chestnut, but always worth pondering: can art be taught? Less often asked but maybe more important is the complementary question: does art have something to teach?
Once, it would have been obvious that art was teachable. Until the nineteenth century, all European artists had either been trained in the atelier of a master or in one of the academies that arose in the late sixteenth century in Italy and spread to France and beyond. But the advent of industrially produced artist’s materials and the modernist rebellion against the academies tilted at tradition. Perhaps anyone could be an artist; what makes for art might be something over and above the techniques acquired in any school. But with the postwar transformation of art-making into a university subject, and more recently with the introduction of PhD programs in studio art, the dream that everyone is potentially an artist seems to have receded. Art is a profession whose barriers to entry are getting stricter by degrees.
Yet the re-professionalization of art has raised qualms among art educators, judging by three recent books on the topic. With more than 1,000 pages of essays and interviews reflecting the views of eighty-five contributors, they convey a cacophony of views, but one message rings through clearly: art education faces no greater threat than standardization. For teachers as much as students, art should be an encounter with the unexpected. In her contribution to Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited by Steven Henry Madoff (MIT; $29.95), Clémentine Deliss cites a nineteenth-century educator who "believed that teaching something that one knew nothing about would encourage the student to use his or her own intelligence." Thus Luis Camnitzer’s insight, in the same book, that "it is preferable to share ignorance with precision than to share knowledge imprecisely."
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Reading Camnitzer’s opinionated résumé of the history of art education in Latin America, one feels he must be a good teacher. But I’d give the classes of some of the other contributors to Art School a wide berth. Why? In an interview in Ch-ch-ch-changes: Artists Talk About Teaching (Ridinghouse; $35), a collection of interviews by John Reardon, the German artist Thomas Bayrle explains, "I want to be political but not ideological." Well, too many of the contributors to Art School (and a few of those to Ch-ch-ch-changes) are ideological without being properly political (which is to say, enlightened). Reading between the lines, we see that their endlessly proclaimed openness to exploration begins to sound like a desire to mold the student in their own image by stealth. Reardon gets it just right: "It goes something like…we’re open to everything here, but we’re very particular about what it is."
But perhaps the paradox Reardon is alluding to is inherent in contemporary art; after all, we accept that in principle anything can be art, but we are still, as he says, very particular about what it is. Liam Gillick speaks of a "productive intolerance" that allows differences to be put to the test. Perhaps the upshot would be that no one kind of school, no one type of teaching, should be universal. The health of art would depend on different schools advocating very different values. Europeans are worried about where art education is going because the Bologna Process intended to "harmonize" higher education systems across Europe seems threatening to artists. The German system, for instance, revolves around the charismatic figure of the individual artist, for whom the class, as Tobias Rehberger puts it, "is more like a family, or gang, kind of thing." Any but the loosest bureaucratic framework seems completely inimical to it.
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As Dave Beech explains in his contribution to Curating and the Educational Turn, edited by Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson (Open Editions/De Appel Arts Centre; $35), bureaucratization means that "practices that were once run on tradition, superstition, custom, religious code, spiritual inspiration or mysterious forces would be liberated from irrationalisms and anachronisms in a clean sweep kicked off by the Enlightenment." But the consensus of artists who teach (and not only in Germany) seems to be that it is mainly through just these irrationalisms and anachronisms that an idea of art is transmitted. If that’s true, then the assumption of most of the book’s contributors, many of them curators and academics rather than artists—that the point of artistic education is "to enable students to develop a self-determined, reflexive and critical view of their own position and the role of art in society," in Ute Meta Bauer’s words—seems dubious, however desirable it might sound. In fact, as Marion von Osten observes, "this educational turn in contemporary art engenders a rather strange concept of art itself; it somehow reduces art to an instrument—a utility—for generating a ‘better society’ and, furthermore, this instrumentalization can readily be appropriated by neoliberal governments." But at least there’s this hope: just as much of what is most interesting in art emerges from a place that is sheltered from the conscious intentions of those who make it, much of what’s most interesting in art education happens at cross-purposes with the explicit aims of those who run it.