Education’s purpose is to produce knowledge. ‘Art school’, which now seems a slightly archaic term, is supposedly the ‘artistic’ catalyst for such production. The debate as to what ‘artistic knowledge’ is exactly is not absolutely definitive; it therefore comes as no surprise that as debatable are the methods of its production – the ways in which art is ‘taught’. James Elkins’ book Why Art Cannot be Taught, as its title suggests, challenges the notion that art is a teachable subject and draws on several problematic aspects of the pedagogy of art. Elkins illustrates the difficulty that the idea of teaching art poses. Teaching art, he states, which implicates teaching the making of art, is not something learnt in the same way as that of an academic subject and does not pertain to that of conventional knowledge or understanding.
A fine art education is particularly difficult to comprehend, as although the student leaves with a degree and technically is qualified, what the student has learnt must, must it not, be fairly different to that of any other education, particularly insofar as that which is learnt artistically or on an artistic level; thus a clear dichotomy between two kinds of knowledge is evident. Craftsman-like skill, conceptual understanding, the manifestation of idea into object are all, I suppose, involved in and yet removed from that which artistic-knowledge is. For example, if one were to label artistic-knowledge quite simply as ‘material understanding’, with the artist becoming a craftsman-like figure, then the ‘idea’ or conceptual understanding of the work is rendered unimportant, or rather an unimportant part of that which the artist or student-artist knows. Whereas one cannot possibly separate ‘idea’ from the making of art, without a preconceived idea (or thought) one could not possibly make art if in fact the ability (or knowledge required) to make art is the most definitive label one can bestow upon that of ‘artistic-knowledge’.
Understanding (or not understanding, as the case may be) that which artistically is learnt, which one might describe as artistic-knowledge, results in an ever more challenged notion of art education – if what is known artistically is indescribable (even unknowable), how can it possibly be taught consciously?
In a contemporary art education learning is not limited to that which is known artistically -programs of fine art education involve the theoretical, historical, philosophical and the curatorial. The student is taught several skills often employed by working artists, skills that intentionally are transferable and applicable to other areas of work or study. Such skills exist as part of an art education due not only to their relevance and necessity to work successfully as a practicing contemporary artist, but because an art education was lacking a measurable way of producing knowledge. An art education must serve the purpose of education and as a result, must meet the expectation that the student leaves qualified.
The idea of art as a qualification is challenging in itself, a notion that is further problematised when one considers an art qualification in relation to other (particularly academic) qualifications. It is possibly the implementation of theory and history that bridges the gap between that which is learnt as a result of an academic education and that which is learnt as a result of an artistic education – the uncertainties of what artistic-knowledge (or the ability to make work) is alongside the implementation of art school into the realm of the university and academy (a motion which has drawn an unspoken parallel in the sense of the production of knowledge) created the need for an ability to measure that which is learnt – the student dissertation is an example of that which is measured within either variety of education. The qualified artist quite obviously does not know the same as the qualified scientist, either practitioners breadth of knowledge may overlap, but what it is that either knows can never exist on a parallel level, as either has different skills and abilities (one might go as far as saying that one has the ability to make work and the other does not, although there is without doubt exceptions to this rule). The type of knowledge produced by either academia or art seem incomparable, although theoretically exist on the same plane; a BA (Hons) degree in either fine art or in Science technically have the same academic value.
Separating that which is learnt artistically from that which is learnt theoretically, philosophically, historically or curatorially is challenging, if not impossible. These are factors that have become wholly engrained within an art education but also the way in which contemporary art is practiced and the way one thinks about practicing art. One might argue that making art is inclusive of simply that – making, and that practicing art and the knowledge one gains from such activity is separate from that of theory, philosophy, history or even the curatorial. But to understand the relationship between these ideas and the making of art, one must imagine the academic and the artistic as two separate entities – what would art be without theory, history or philosophy?
So much a part of the way contemporary art is made is understanding what it is that has been made – the way in which a particular work performs. We not only attempt (and are taught) to understand what it is we have made, but so often that understanding is relative to particular theories and/or histories. The emphasis on knowledge-production, not as opposed to, but in addition to the production of visual art has meant a dramatic shift in the seriousness of an art education. Theoretical, historical, philosophical (and to some extent, curatorial) aspects of studying art, no doubt became a more integral fixture and are parallel to the introduction of art into the syllabus of academic institutions and the translation of many art schools into art universities. Programmes of study such as the Master of Fine Arts and the practice-based PhD are examples of ways in which the pedagogy of art has moved to exist more in accordance with ideals of the academic. Practice-based research, which programs of study such as the Master of Fine Arts and the practice-based PhD are involved with, attempt to produce knowledge (in an artistic sense) which exists in problematic correlation with that of scientific or academic knowledge, although is not in opposition completely.
What artistic knowledge is, is hugely challenging, therefore as challenging is understanding exactly what it is that an art education teaches its students – what the student learns. Artistic knowledge,which we know to understand as knowledge, which allows the artist the ability to make work, exists in a wholly individual sense – the knowledge required by the artist to make work is dependent and interchangeable on that which the artist wants to make/is making. Art education no longer concerns itself with the teaching of traditional craft to an entire class (or year) of students, therefore it’s necessary for the education that is delivered to be as diverse and wide-ranging as its students and the work they produce. Presumably, this need for diversity is where the dialogical and conversational methods of art education have stemmed from – with a personal tutor, group critiques etc, the education is more or less personalised to that of the individual.
Self-motivation and self-driven practice (and by extent, learning by means of one’s self) are the basis of the current pedagogical method, which is employed as a pivotal role in the way the student-artist learns (and is taught). The implementation of student-lead learning, or really, the eradication of lecturer-lead learning challenges the idea that the master knows more than the student. The course if nothing else, teaches its students to problem solve. Dialogue and critique employ the notion that the artist or student-artist knows the most about their work, but benefit from an open dialogue surrounding it. The idea of looking at other art is the method employed to allow the student an understanding of how to position themselves in regards to contemporary art. Although theoretical, historical and curatorial understanding is commonplace within most art education on and above a degree level, the rhetoric of an art course is making, this is easily overlooked. An art education is, at its core, an allegorical, microcosmic view of working as an artist – the idealistic student routine goes something like; wake up, make work, sleep, wake up, make work. Yes, there are lectures and seminars, talks and course meetings; the fluidity of practicing art is made rigid with such activity, not to mention the requirements of the course (such as grading criteria). The student-artist writes and thinks but above all they make-work and they learn to understand how they make work, what it means to make work, and what that knowledge means.