February 2011

Engaging Future Art Teachers

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

At the invitation of Tracie Glazer--a visiting instructor in art education at Nazareth College in Rochester, N. Y.--I recently had the opportunity to engage in an extended dialogue regarding the nature of art with her graduate students in an introductory course for future teachers.

What prompted the invitation? Students had been assigned my article "Modernism, Postmodernism, or Neither?"--which, Mrs. Glazer reported, had "sparked their thinking" more than anything else they had read, eliciting "heated and emotional discussion," as one student put it. Such a reaction is not at all surprising, for the article challenges the basic assumptions about art that these students have grown up with. In contrast with the dominant premises of today's artworld, it argues that art can be defined, and that neither modernist (i.e., abstract) nor postmodernist work qualifies--because, as I argue, they depart so fundamentally from traditional art that they cannot, logically, belong in the same category.

Before the discussion, Mrs. Glazer asked students to write to me. All thirteen did so, indicating in part their educational background and work experience--which ranged from the study of Renaissance styles of drawing and fresco painting in Florence to design work at an advertising agency. They also stated points of agreement (on which, see below) and, more often, disagreement with my thesis. "Who are we to decide what art is?" wrote one. Several dubbed me a "reactionary," and simply could not believe that I was actually arguing that so much contemporary work really isn't art. Another vigorously rejected what he characterized as the "fallacy of antiquity."

Early in December, after reading their letters, I "met" with the students via Skype Video Calling. Taking advantage of video technology to illustrate my points with representative images, I began with a brief summary of my background and the evolution of my ideas on art. I then responded to students' questions and comments. Key points covered included the roots of the concept of art, and the nature of concept formation in general; the essential distinction between the fine arts, as vehicles of meaning, and the largely "decorative" arts and crafts; differences between fine art and purely commercial forms of imagery, as in advertising; and the insubstantial nature of "video art," as contrasted with the art of film. The session lasted two hours--after which, as Mrs. Glazer later informed me, the class was so eager to continue discussing points that had been raised that it voted to skip the customary break in the four-hour class.

Significantly, in their initial letters to me most of the students had agreed with my contention that modernist and postmodernist work is largely unintelligible to the viewer. In their view, however, that only served to demonstrate the importance of the now-customary "artist's statement" explaining the work. During the class discussion I countered by suggesting that if a work is incomprehensible without the aid of such a statement it has failed as art--a point that students generally conceded. (Often, I might add here, artists' statements are as opaque as the works they purport to shed light on).

While several students had written of "frustration at . . . professors' unwillingness to teach . . . traditional rendering techniques" (as one of them put it), they nonetheless tended at the outset to advocate an "open-minded" approach toward what they referred to, however mistakenly, as new "styles"--from installations to "conceptual art." One of the ideas I therefore focused on during the discussion was that such new forms had originated as expressly anti-art gestures, which deliberately rejected all the essential attributes of traditional art. Thus they were not new styles of art but diametrically different forms of expression.

I then pointed out that, ironically, such work has become the mainstream in the contemporary artworld, fully accepted by the arts establishment. A further irony I noted was that one of the most acclaimed and financially successful postmodernists, Damien Hirst, has entirely abandoned installations--finding them to be an inadequate form of expression--in favor of painting. As I added, however, he sadly lacks the skill and training to create anything of value in that traditional realm.

A few weeks after the class, I was delighted to find in the Aristos mailbox a thick envelope containing thank-you letters from students in the class--no doubt also written at Mrs. Glazer's suggestion. The broad consensus was that our discussion, even more than my article, had prompted them to think about previously unexamined ideas. As one student noted, it "brought to light many concepts, questions, and viewpoints . . . not considered before." "[Y]our knowledge and information," she added, "challenged my personal paradigms, and [have] led me to think about how I will teach in the future."

Although students had begun by rejecting, in principle, any attempt to define art, several of them now wrote to say that the discussion made them recognize the importance of having such a definition, even if they did not wholly agree with mine. Especially surprising (not to mention gratifying) to me was the letter from the student who had initially protested against the "fallacy of antiquity." Writing that the class discussion had been "a very valuable experience" for him, he added that I had "refute[d] perfectly" all the objections raised to points I had made and that he himself had "[come] out of the experience with a new definition of art." He now believed that he and his fellow students should put "a strong emphasis" on the sort of work that I regarded as art. Finally, he concluded that they need not call other "forms" art, "when comparing the two, or at all"--evidently alluding to such things as "installation art" and "conceptual art."

Most important, many of the students vowed to continue to read and think about these crucial issues as they are raised in the pages of Aristos and elsewhere.

What did I gain from this experience? A heightened conviction that direct engagement with students is both important and potentially fruitful--as well as a feeling of optimism that there is hope for the future of art education, and of art.