Friday, May 8, 2009

Artists, Art Education and the Academy

(AP Photo/The New York Times, Ruby Washington)

NY Times art critic and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Holland Cotter published a terrific article this February titled "The Boom is Over: Long Live Art". With characteristic optimism and genuine passion, he argues that the economic downturn may in fact be good for art and artists, who can take the opportunity to slow down, think more and take greater creative risks: "...adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again." In other words, since not a lot is selling anyway, why not do as the spirit moves you, rather than bending your creative agenda in the attempt to produce work that is "sale-able". There is much truth to this argument. It is easy enough to think of artists whose work has become stale, or worse, under the pressure to produce and reproduce sale-able product.

Embedded in the article are a couple of paragraphs in which Cotter suggests that art schools might also reconsider how they teach:

"Art schools can change too. The present goal of studio programs (and of ever more specialized art history programs) seems to be to narrow talent to a sharp point that can push its way aggressively into the competitive arena. But with markets uncertain, possibly nonexistent, why not relax this mode, open up education?
Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today."

Of course, he is talking about something which would operate on a deep and systemic level, beyond simply tacking a few liberal arts courses onto a program of studies so that art schools can grant bachelor's degrees instead of "mere" diplomas. The transition from art school to degree-granting University status has been a painful experience for several Canadian art schools in recent years. I have friends on faculty in some of these schools. These teachers tell me that by far their best students, and often those who display the greatest talent, are students who have done a couple of years or even a full undergraduate degree in science, liberal arts, whatever, before coming to art school. They also tell me that generally, kids attending art school fresh from high school dislike the liberal arts courses they are required to take, because they fail to see the relevance, or because they lack the academic preparation needed to make productive use of their exposure to a larger world of ideas.

"Multidisciplinary" and "interdisciplinary" are not the same things. It is enormously challenging to create a truly interdisciplinary atmosphere in an academic institution. It requires open mindedness, a setting-aside of ego and territoriality, and a willingness to take chances (*see footnote). It also requires an ability to communicate in plain English, rather than discipline-specific jargon. These qualities are in as short supply in art schools as they are in any institution. In an ideal future, perhaps we'd see not only greater interdisciplinarity within a given institution, but greater inter-institutional co-operation and collaboration. It would it be easier for students to transfer credits between institutions (and not only credits for matching courses), and there would be structures in place to facilitate cross-institutional collaboration in research, and a sharing of resources. Currently, this exists in mostly nascent form as special events or conferences, for example the Toronto's annual Subtle Technologies festival, or in superstar think tanks such as the Perimiter Institute. Hardly the stuff of everyday experience for the average undergrad, let alone grad student or even faculty member.

Buy-in to the interdisciplinary notion is made all the more difficult when it is perceived that studio hours, and entire studio programs (ceramics? glass?) are being slashed to make way for lectures in anthropology. Graduate programs in fine art can leave their participants feeling drained of all creative energies, if verbosity is rewarded over tangible productivity and development of technical skill. Allow me a deliberate non sequitur: raw Derrida is already pretty hard to chew, and it doesn't get any more nutritious when mashed up and added to art stew. It is difficult to get the recipe just right. (**see footnote)

It is curious that arguments for interdisciplinarity in art education take on a one-directional, one-sided character. Even in Cotter's essay the suggestion seems to be that artists would make better art if they had more exposure to liberal arts, science, etc. Is this is a reflection of artists' unconscious participation in creating and maintaining their own underdog status in western society? Let us frame the issue in the opposite direction, and promote the value of education in the arts for the betterment of other disciplines. Wouldn't visually literate scientists or engineers have a leg up on their more narrowly focused, less educated colleagues? Making sense of the ouroboros might only be possible in the context of a visually enriched and broadly educated psyche. I know of few concrete examples of taking interdisciplinary education in this direction, but here is one. At Harvard med school, students spend an hour a week at local museums undertaking guided study and discussion of major works of art. Improving their visual literacy is seen not only as a culturally enriching experience, but as a cognitive exercise which contributes to the development of greater powers of observation and visual discrimination, thus improving basic bedside diagnostic skills.

* David Bolduc is one of Canada's most sublime contemporary painters, and his bio provides a wonderful example of how interdisciplinarity can flourish outside the academy. Would he be the painter he is today if he had not dropped out of art school in the late 60's, taking his bedroll and camping out on Stan Bevington's sofa at Coach House Press? Would "Brick" be the same without Bolduc's contribution?

** For a fascinating thread on the worth of an M.F.A., go to this recent discussion on Joanne Mattera's blog. The discussion is relevant to the Canadian state of affairs, although thankfully, the costs of higher education are far less a factor in Canada than stateside.


  1. Interdisciplinary artists / people

    some further thoughts on this contemporary topic

    Having come from Industrial Design and getting a minor in B Lonergan with my BFA in studio arts - maybe I am just biased too.

    For the future of art, I think that ironically, art may become the bastion of individual points of view, giving refuge for McLuhans endangered isolated perspectives (required for logical thought paradigms - placed at risk by our immersive digital media) Regardless, art has a place in our society and society a place in art.

  2. As an academic with interests in education, controversial issues, liberal arts and philosophy, some questions arise for me. First, who benefits from the an integrated approach to arts education? Is there a teleological underpinning which undermines the value of arts as a discipline already informed by multidisciplinary influences, albeit not necessarily institutionalized? Is art/society not a mutually constitutive relationship as is?