The Chronicle of Higher Education: Art Education Reform

Art Education Reform

The Chronicle of Higher Education posed the following questions on its web site under Colloquy: "Free-standing art schools have long produced leaders in the arts -- and controversy.

An article in the new issue of The Chronicle profiles students at the San Francisco Art Institute, which recently experienced an uproar when a student there -- as part of a class performance -- had oral sex with a bound volunteer. The article explores the students, their artwork (ranging from a piece in which doughnuts are served in bathrooms to a work in which colored ice melts), and the educational ideas behind the program there and at other leading art schools.

Faculty members at the San Francisco institution say they must let students take risks -- including risks that result in artistic failures -- to promote creativity. Does this philosophy work? Are today's art schools producing good artists? Is the emphasis on performance art and genre-bending work improving or hurting art schools? What are the strengths and weaknesses of art schools today?"

Virgil Elliott's response follows:

The art school system is long overdue for reform, in fact its agenda has been so off-base for so long that reform is far too mild a term. It needs a complete overhaul, from top to bottom. The worship of all things purporting to be avant-garde has denied several generations of aspiring artists and would-be artists the kind of training they sought, and had every right to expect to find, in an art school or art department of an educational institution.

What has been promoted instead of actual education is an indoctrination to a very perverted avant-garde party line. Its emphasis has always been on novelty and audacity; superficial and fleeting qualities, if they can be called qualities at all, which evaporate upon short exposure, leaving behind nothing of substance once the hype has been removed in its never-ending pursuit of the latest thing. The products of this pointless endeavor are thus doomed to ultimate obscurity, as the creators of it have never been taught how to imbue their works with the kind of intrinsic appeal that allows works of art to transcend the centuries.

For art to endure, it must connect with human sensibilities on a deeper level than can be reached with gimmickry and fashion. Intrinsic appeal does not find its way into a work of art by accident, by magic, or by inspiration alone. It must be engineered with that purpose in mind, and the effort can only be successful when the guiding intelligence behind it is well-equipped with the discipline and mastery of technique necessary to carry it through. These are the things that can and should be taught in art schools. Creativity cannot be taught. It is up to each individual to find it, and then put voice to it using the technical means that should have been learned and mastered in the educational institutions.

Art should be able to carry its own message to the viewer without requiring an interpreter to explain away confusion, or to supply meaning where none is apparent. The notion that art must have a supporting theory behind it to be legitimate ignores the fact that it is the purpose of the art itself to convey its message, and that if it fails to do so, it has simply failed as art, and no amount of talk can change that.

The solution will not be easily implemented, as it must include the removal of entrenched tenured incompetents who never should have been hired in the first place, whose lack of versatility precludes the possibility of their ever changing. Until they die or retire, the professors' unions will oppose any attempt to purge the system of them. What can be done in the meantime is for the administrators of these institutions to hire new instructors who can demonstrate actual competence in the disciplines of art that they will be called upon to teach, and to treat them well enough, and pay them well enough, to induce them to stay, despite the opposition they are likely to encounter from the existing faculty. What it will take to bring these administrators to the realization that this must be done is for the students to be very vocal in demanding it. They must express their dissatisfaction to the people in charge of the institutions when the instructors do not provide what they, the students, have come there and paid their tuition to learn. They must likewise inform the dean when an instructor does his or her job exceptionally well, and express appreciation for that instructor. Merit should be rewarded. Incompetence should not be tolerated.

Art suffered many setbacks in the last hundred years. It is important to the future of art that the worst aberrations of the Twentieth Century not be continued into the twenty-first. Their string has long since been played out. It is time for them to go.

Virgil Elliott
Atelier of Virgil Elliott