Skillfull-less

Monday 28 September 2015

My ideal of an art school is one where practical, hands on visual skills are taught alongside theory and conceptual thinking, but apparently this is a rarity. The general trend in art colleges these days is heavy on theory and weak on technique.

I have nothing against theory, I love clever or moving conceptual art, and I believe that the ability to articulate oneself as an artist is a fundamental 21st century skill, but what’s wrong with teaching some good old fashioned drawing skills? This seems to be a rarity in higher art education, which means it's pretty much up to the high school art teachers to teach their students the visual skills they need before going on to art college.

With the introduction of curatorial rationale we are now placing significant value on the students ability to articulate using language and text. I wonder how the less articulate art student will fare? Can the work still "speak for itself"? How do IB art teachers feel about the relationship between verbal and visual skills?

In my own experience I had a bit of both schools, an undergraduate fine arts study at an old world fine art academy, drawing from skeletons and grinding pigments but not a lot of discussion about the why or the what. 20 years later, my Masters degree was a different story: basically scrap everything you know and start over, but this time write a 10,000 word thesis about it.

So… what about a happy medium?

Can art be taught and discussed?

Or maybe just can art be taught ? ( I am taunted by the cover of a book on my shelf entitled Why Art Cannot Be Taught, by James Elkins... Elkins maintains that art cannot be taught, but let's not get into that, then we'd all have to look for another job, right?) Moving on, in my various morning news perusals I come across this article by Scott Hess in the Huffington Post,

Is de-skilling killing your art education?

Hess exposes the somewhat bizarre but real trend in art education towards conceptualism, and the consequent lack of teaching of fine arts skills. The author points out that although in most cases a drawing portfolio is still a requirement for art school admissions, once students are through the doors they may find that they are thrown into a world of concepts where articulating and theorizing are given priority. Although there are exceptions, many fine art departments and art schools don’t bother teaching the fundamentals anymore. In some cases students get more training in traditional skills (drawing, perspective, anatomy, painting technique) in an illustration course than in a fine arts course.

An excerpt from the article:

“I wish I could say this academic prejudice against skill was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it is stronger now than it has ever been. Conceptualism replaced abstraction as the dogma of the day, and has been in turn replaced by Postmodern hybridity, identity politics, or pure theory on the majority of college campuses. As in all educational endeavors, young minds are molded to fit the norm their professors set forth. De-skilling is the term I've commonly heard used to describe this odd institutional practice in the arts.

The idea that you might train a surgeon to be clumsy, or an engineer to build poorly, or a lawyer to ignore law, would be patently absurd. In the arts, however, you will find an occasional musician who purposely plays badly, or a writer who ignores grammar, but only in the visual arts is training in the traditional skills of the profession systematically and often institutionally denigrated."

Got your attention? Read the full article here

Your thoughts?

How do you feel about the issues raised here? I would be curious to hear what IB art teachers think about de-skilling and if you find it to be true. Are there positive aspects of contemporary art education he has overlooked or sidelined in this article? What is your happy medium?

Listen to BBC Radio 4 podcast, Art School, Smart School, for a history of UK art schools, interviews with key artists on their school experience, and some fascinating reflections on how art schools contribute to forming people and ideas.


Tags: skills, theory, art education, deskilling, pedagogy, higher education, art school


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