The problem (?!) with Art Education

Augustana had a rockstar on campus this past Thursday and Friday.  Dr. James Elkins was here for the South Dakota College Art Association annual conference this past Thursday and Friday, giving two talks that were intriguing and potentially upsetting –  I’ll get to that in a moment.  Dr. Elkins flew in on Wednesday night, and had to cut short his lecture on Friday afternoon so that he could make another flight, with an eventual destination of China.  That he happened to have stopped in South Dakota of all places on his journey around the world is pretty darn cool!  Kudos to the SDCAA for getting Elkins for the conference (which I will be writing about again later this week I’m sure – saw a lot of great stuff during the ceramics workshops!).

Anyways, back to the potentially upsetting.  Elkins warned us right at the beginning of his Friday lecture (titled “What do Artists Know”) that his talk would be depressing for any art majors in the room.  The reason being that, as it turns out, art is problematic to teach – big surprise right!  But Dr. Elkins explained in depth the reasons why it is so difficult, and these have to do with knowledge (epistemologists, now is the time to get excited!):

  1. The Language problem – When asked to define what special knowledge artists have, artists responded in a variety of ways.  The language used to describe artists’ knowledge is often ambiguous.  My favorite artist response was “Artists don’t have any special knowledge, they just use the brains in a strange way”  (perhaps that one is the most accurate?) (:
  2. Knowledge is hard to recognize and assess in artwork.  Do artists gain knowledge through their education, or do they gain competence?  Also, is knowledge found in the finished artwork, or in the process of creating art?
  3. It isn’t clear what sort of knowledge is gained from artworks. (ie, logical, practical – things you can do but can’t really explain, experiential, or tracit – things you don’t know yet, but could eventually learn)

Ultimately his point was not that an art education is pointless, but rather that people studying art need to be aware of these pitfalls, and take charge of ensuring their education is fulfilling.  This requires a great deal of self-reflection and meditation – something I think is necessary for any artist to succeed.  We can’t simply rely on our professors to assess the knowledge (or competence?) we have gained, we need to be actively involved in this process ourselves.  While this is also true, and extremely helpful, for any major one might be pursuing, the highly subjective nature of art and the lack of a central organization to standardize art education globally makes it especially pertinent for artists.

In a way, this means art should not be created for the grade, but should be created because there is a felt need to be in the process of creating.  This is why I enjoy my ceramics class so much – there are no specific assignments.  We are free to create whatever we desire.  Grades are assigned based on time spent in the process of creating.  This teaching paradigm celebrates the process over the finished product.  That’s why I find it so superb.




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