Art Can't Be Taught? By Mandy Theis Hallenius (President and Cofounder of the Da Vinci Initiative)
The contemporary Modern Art movement in America advocates a single approach for educating artists. Pillars of Modern Art theory, such as the belief that real artists can only be made through their ideas, and that the confines of training will inhibit the journey to true artistic enlightenment, are frequently advocated in art education as unbendable truths. The painter Jean Dubuffet articulates the Modern Art philosophy when he writes, “…I hold to be useless [conventional] kinds of acquired skill, and those gifts, whose sole effect seems to me to be that of extinguishing all spontaneity, switching off the power and condemning the work to inefficacy.” (Ashton, pg. 123).
The Austrian stone sculptor, Fritz Wotruba, goes so far as to warn all artists, “In technique lurks death.” (pg. 110). Some Modern Art extremists label supporters of traditional techniques as socialists, as the Expressionist artist Pierre Alechninsky did when he wrote, “fighting … Social Realism on the left kept me pretty busy...” (Ashton, 11).
The unquestioned acceptance of these ideas prevents educators from teaching specific concepts out of concern of ruining budding artists. Issues with teaching a Modern-Art-only curriculum, however, reach deeper than reluctance among pedagogues. This approach to education also inhibits the active, targeted teaching of art in favor of a passive approach, as it is perceived that teaching a specific objective will interfere with the creative potential of pupils. Also, it creates a system in which educational goals are vague and students often have little understanding of what it is they are supposed to learn.
These theories also deprive art educators in the K-12 system of much-needed educational tools, especially well-rounded textbooks and meaningful assessments. In addition to these problems, the Modern Art Movement accepts almost everything as art, which allows many non-art subjects to supplant the art curriculum in the K-12 public school system. The adoption of Modern Art ideologies has also deprived teachers themselves of well-rounded art educations to use in their own pedagogical practices. Finally, these ideologies have created a lack of understanding among art teachers of what technical skills students can learn, and at what developmental stage pupils can learn them.
Advocates of the Modern Art system of teaching-by-not-teaching include professors at prestigious art schools, such as Michael Asher at CalArts. Asher is famous for his teaching philosophy, which asserts that “…students do all the talking while instructors bear witness” (Thornton, p. 46). His theory is that the instructor’s role in the school is not to interfere with whatever it is the students are doing: and that the students, who by definition lack knowledge, should teach each other.
Although this methodology of teaching-by-not-teaching is used by most art professors today, it has an increasing number of influential critics. One is James Eakins, a respected art historian who works in the strongly Modern-Art-learning Art Institute of Chicago. Eakins believes that the trend of Modern-Art-influenced teachers has nearly ended the teaching of the majority of classical art techniques that were traditionally passed from generation to generation. In fact, he describes these nearly-lost techniques, that until recently were a staple of art education, as endangered species. He states that “…there is no reason why ‘endangered’ media can’t be revived. It’s just that they are not usually taught, so they count as things that cannot be learned in studio art classes. With the giddy growth of new media, it might seem that [they] are obscure or trivial. On the contrary: they were the central techniques of centuries of art production. In that respect, it’s contemporary practice that’s impoverished, not older practice” (p. 74).
Though Modern Art pedagogy was invented as recently as the 20th century, it is nearly universally adopted by art teachers today, many of whom teach these principles exclusively. This narrow approach of teaching-by-not-teaching negatively affects the education of art students by depriving them of an active source of artistic training. The Modern Art idea of treating every child as an individual on a mission of self-discovery with minimal guidance also creates boredom, frustration, and confusion for both pupils and educators. If nothing a child does can be wrong in the art classroom, and no clear objectives are presented for what the child should learn from a day’s lesson, then it becomes impossible to measure how and what the pupil is actually learning. The faults of this approach go against many established principles of pedagogy commonly used in other subjects.
The absence of these established principles in the art classroom, such as standards-based learning and active assessment, can best be noticed when compared to other subjects. For example, a music teacher would never give a child a trumpet and for the next several years tell him that nothing he does with that trumpet is incorrect while simultaneously refusing to teach him how to play notes. The child would inevitably become bored by his lack of progress in music, and by his complete inability to create what initially drew him to music. The boredom, misunderstanding, and confusion in art education is in large part due to the exclusive application of Modern Art theories.
The Modern Art approach to education also dominates many contemporary mainstream textbooks, which are an important tool used by art educators. In these textbooks, trendy modern art subjects are covered in depth, while classical principles such as armatures of rectangles, have been ignored for so long they have become completely forgotten by many authors. Look carefully through the Art Connections series, or the Art and the Human Experience textbooks and a plethora of lesson plans emphasizing balance, symbolism, shape, rhythm, and pattern can be viewed. These topics are the most instrumental tools of the Modern Art movement according to many Modern Art practitioners. In fact, Gunther Uecker uses many of these concepts when describing his own work.“ At first I use strictly arranged rhythms, mathematical sequences, but these dissolved into a free rhythm… I decided on a white zone, as it is the extreme of colorfulness, the climax of light, triumph over darkness.”
Although these textbooks include some art history lessons that cover art prior to the advent of Modern Art, they teach few skills needed by students in order to achieve a similar result. The lesson plans that do reference pre-Modern Art are heavily Modern-Art-derived. They focus on shapes and colors, and offer little in the way of technical skills. Modern Art plays a very influential role in the way techniques and ideas are selected for art education textbooks, which in turn dictates the way art is disseminated within K-12 classrooms. Due to the Modern Art belief that less technical training (and especially no classical training) makes purer artists, contemporary art textbooks are skewed heavily towards a Modern-Art-style lessons at the expense of more balanced educational approaches.
Another important tool, assessment, is also not applied by educators who believe in a Modern–Art style of pedagogy because this methodology specifically prohibits making value judgments about art. Art teachers have been taught through their K-12 education and then at college not to judge art. If someone protested that a black dot on a canvas for example, were not art, she would be condemned as ignorant by Modern Art advocates. This mentality has created a fear of making any judgments towards any art, and therefore many art teachers have forfeited the ability to be discerning when it comes to art created by their students. If all art is equally valid, how can teachers possibly make meaningful assessments of student work? Many choose instead to grade art students on superficial factors such as participation or classroom cleanup. Neither of these teaches art to students, and therefore many teachers who grade in this way have come to the conclusion that art can’t be taught. Teachers have effectively inhibited themselves from teaching art by refusing to evaluate art.
When art educators accept the Modern Art idea that art is anything and everything an individual wants it to be, they enable the definition of art to become so broad that it invites other subjects to besiege art curricula. Frequently these additions to art curricula include “everything else” that the government/ school board/ principal decides should be taught but doesn’t want to fit in elsewhere. In the K-8 school where I recently taught, for example, measuring, greenhouse, and Native American studies are all squeezed into the art class, and all must be taught in just one period per week per class. Because art teachers have allowed the definition of art to become so broad, we can no longer defend art as an independent and legitimate subject. The strongest defense art educators in this Modern Art system have left to them is that exposure to art improves student performance in other subjects.
Another major reason why many art teachers are so invested in promoting Modern Art pedagogy is that an overwhelming majority of them do not know how to teach technical skills. This is often true because their teachers didn’t know how to teach those skills. And nor did their teachers’ teachers. An overwhelming majority of art teachers today are a product of this Modern Art system that has eliminated technical training in favor of so-called “pure” ideas. Because art teachers have never been taught these under-appreciated skills, many do not believe the skills are teachable. This problem of technically-untrained art teachers is a direct result of the nearly universal application of Modern Art theories throughout the last century.
Of all the reasons for the belief that “art can’t be taught,” perhaps the most obvious is that few teachers really seem to know what technical skills students are capable of learning in art, and at what age they are able to learn them. This lack of understanding becomes very apparent when art skill sets are taught outside the art curriculum. Skill sets that cover art topics in The Creative Curriculum for Preschool compare very oddly to those indicated in art education textbooks. In The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, there is an entire column devoted to assessing random scribbles, controlled scribbles, and circle scribbles. Preschoolers are expected to know shapes, including triangles, circles, squares, rectangles, ovals, and diamonds. They are expected to draw people with faces and arms and bodies that stand on a baseline and show two dimensions. Preschoolers can do all this, yet similar lessons are presented to many grade levels in the K-12 art textbooks.
Considering shapes, for example, the third grade Art Connections textbook introduces square, triangle, circle, rectangle, and freeform shapes, and suggests that students practice tracing shapes with their fingers. The fourth grade Art Connections textbook also covers most of these same shapes (the freeform shape is excluded for unknown reasons) even though the same textbook series already covered the material in third grade (p. 68). The fifth grade Art Connections textbook covers the same material yet again (p. 88). And yet, according to preschool experts, these shapes are fully recognizable to the average child at the age of three or four. This lack of understanding of developmental artistic skill sets is due largely to the fact that Modern Art theorists value neither technical ability nor assessment, and therefore choose not to study how children learn art.
The Art Connections curriculum is not alone in underestimating children’s technical abilities. Page 5 of A Handbook of Arts and Crafts states, “In such areas (as perspective and lettering), dexterity can be judged, but one can rarely expect great displays of comprehension and coordination in the lower grades.” This passage asserts that younger students are not capable of understanding calligraphy. Yet handwriting, a subject regularly taught in Kindergarten, is by definition a form of calligraphy. In fact, all areas of art can be effectively assessed when certain principles of Modern Art theory are rejected, which will then allow a true understanding of students’ technical abilities to emerge.
Modern Art ideas have a place in many art curricula, but should not be taught exclusively. Art teachers have a professional obligation to their students to provide them with a balanced education and a complete art curriculum from which to learn. With multiple tools and approaches, professionals can expand art education beyond its current boundaries and lift students to even higher levels of artistic understanding.