Remedial Education

John Haber
in New York City

New Media, New Markets, and Art Education

What should happen to arts education? Does one need it less, now that anything can become art? Or does one need it more, now that new media present their own obstacles to learning? Does one need it more still as a place of respite from and opposition to other pressures on artists—from markets and the media?

Do artists and critics still receive their best education in the streets? And if so, what do they owe to others? Do they need to teach and learn in the academy, or only share career leads and validation? John Baldessari's Solving Each Problem As It Arises (Yale University Art Gallery, 1967)

History lessons

In suggesting a unique, intrinsic role for technologies, I have already made a mistake. People often talk about certain media, based on algorithms rather than art objects, as uniquely suited to education or to contemporary life. That talk has the flavor of science fiction.

The belief that a medium has an essence that structures the work amounts to formalism for geeks. In this way, it undermines itself, for it perpetuates late modernist illusions, including that of the art object. From Windows to the iPod, even algorithms now find themselves embedded in material and economic realities, not to mention the artist's aims. In fact, technology may actually decrease the primacy of education, as artists will find their software out of date in a matter of years. And that assumes they will not outsource the coding.

However, raising the technological bar does contribute something important. It frames arts education as more than a training in esthetics. It treats artistic development less as philosophical inquiry or the refinement of a sense of beauty than as learning a craft, a mode of representation, and a role in society. It takes one back to the old question of what schools should do—and how education can transform art beyond the academy. To find an answer, it helps to look beyond art and the academy in the present and in the singular, to how arts and modes of education took on their roles today.

Every writer is both an educator and a student, and so is every artist. Their job is not to hold art accountable to artistic standards, but rather to share personal passions about art and the world. Still, there's no way getting around interrelationships between what facts to single out, how one sees them, and what one values.

Whether in judging, describing, or merely seeing, one is making an interpretation. And good interpreters plus good communicators add up to educators. In a conversation with Artforum, Michael Craig-Martin and John Baldessari debate whether they truly can create an environment for learning. Can art be taught? Can it be learned? What interests me more is how these roles—of teacher, interpreter, communicator, historian of past and present, constructive critic, and educator—have become institutionalized at distinct historical moments before and after Modernism.

From the moment art became art, the workshop system began to give way to academies. By the time of Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, around 1750, the Prix de Rome could make or break a career. In the process, certain contemporary authorities took the place of tradition. And in changing the role of tradition from a teaching to a matter for reflection, art took the first step toward modernity. In this way, the Renaissance (or rebirth) gave way to the pure present-ness of the Baroque and indeed, eventually, Postmodernism.

The right stuff

France formalized the change with the Academy. England's typically clumsy RA did the same thing, but, despite its name, with greater roots in bourgeois audiences rather than the court. The difference enabled British art to maintain for too long its mix of high serious and representational subject matter. Postmodern mockery from the Young British Artists merely popularized the mix. Yet the new conception of formal education brought with it what would spell its demise—esthetic qualities uniting painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry. This notion of the fine arts probably first appeared in France, in a treatise of 1747, but the separation of esthetic quality from skill in a given medium came to fruition only later.

American Modernism furthered change in just that direction. More artists no longer wanted training, and their careers no longer depended on it. Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko met on a park bench. Sure, Lee Krasner encountered Hans Hoffman at the Art Students League and helped Jackson Pollock get up to speed. However, such private institutions worked at the edges of the educational system as one sees it today. In fact, visiting a student show at the Arts Student League now, one can hardly believe it ever played a role even in mid-century America.

This refusal of education remains anti-elitist in a very real sense, one that Postmodern critics can too easily dismiss as the myth of the avant-garde. However, it surely does sustain its own elites. Budding artists, critics, dealers, and collectors had to know one another at first hand. A small circle drew on an exclusive set of patrons, and the politics of the art world had the charge of office politics now. Art had its politics in other ways as well, for the avant-garde coexisted with talk of national and class struggles.

Art had at once a political charge and a family, enabling its unusual expressive power at the intersection of public and private worlds. Some remnants of elitism and absorption exist even now. In lucky cases, one can feel richer for it. While I am not advocating nepotism, imagine Kiki Smith's access without her father. Then imagine the images, materials, feminist pathways, and shaping myths of art today without Kiki Smith.

In the myths of the present, those days remain the norm. They seemed to represent an irreversible change, and yet in retrospect they occupy only a brief period. Schools have lost much of their past significance. Academic is still an insult. Yet schools did not actually lose power, at least for long. Rather, the nature of their power changed.

For starters, schools became a survival mechanism for artists outside of or excluded by New York. I think of Tom Doyle, a sculptor close in style and outdoor scale to Mark di Suvero or Anish Kapoor, as just a footnote to his wife, Eva Hesse. Yet he survived as a teacher throughout his creative life, within parameters that she herself largely left behind. Conversely, Lee Bontecou headed for the country, because New York seemed an oppressive environment for a woman working in strange styles and unfashionable media. One could think of schools, then, as a denial of artistic freedom or an escape from elitism after all. One had only to find a decent school rather than a seat at the bar.

Back to school

Largely outside New York, then, changes in the role of education began, and these changes brought new problems of their own. While fame hinged on the power of a few galleries, Cal Arts and others maintained their stronger presence out West, enforcing its own esthetic choices. A teacher could have the charisma of artist and dealer combined—and make many of the same demands. Modest as Baldessari is in the interview and supportive as he is of artists in real life, he has had an incalculable influence on a creative style and culture distinct from New York's. And he is not alone.

Just as important, without a technical imperative, schools could teach critical theory, just when philosophy, linguistics, and literature made it necessary. As early as Josef Albers, schools could welcome different crafts and styles while insisting on a theoretical imperative. At Black Mountain, this imperative liberated artists, dancers, and poets to interact. it also produced the confluence of performance and painting in a Combine by Robert Rauschenberg. Another artist nurtured there, Dorothea Rockburne, took up metaphors from mathematics that the Classical world might have recognized.

Elsewhere, theory stood for liberation and yet a more standard curriculum. Students might learn more of the Frankfurt School than I care to remember myself. They might also have a chance to commit to the arts, when they studied something else entirely as undergraduates. This period also set up certain MFA programs, such as Yale and Columbia, for cachet in a post-theoretical world still to come. I mean a time of more open markets.

While academies regained prominence, so did the market value of art. The market is broadening, no longer with artists who necessarily know one another. The three hundred Chelsea galleries sound impressive, but they thrive on something broader still—the globalization of the art world and the media circus. The illustration to this article just happens to call itself Circus, too.

Markets attained both a broader reach and a greater uncertainty. Schools become a certification of value once more: they became a distribution channel to the new private system. Universities even have museums of contemporary art to prove it, including a new one at Bard. Jeffrey Deitch, the influential dealer, can boast of not visiting studios. True artists, he assures the posh interviewer, will find him. Yet he poaches on Yale as much as anyone.

Not only have schools taken back their role, but one needs the right schools. Once the wall labels in a Whitney Biennial instructed visitors which galleries to seek out. Now shows of emerging artists, such as "Greater New York," practically tell aspirants which program to attend.

The teacher and the musicer

How can one respond? One suggestion looks again to new media, but this time for new distribution channels that will make commodity culture a thing of the past. It promises that the old channels will no longer matter, just as data-driven art claims the authority of representation once accorded painterly illusion alone. Yet the market keeps extending its reach, just as open-source code responses to Microsoft have had only limited success.

Artistic and technological frustrations at not making money or finding a public only grow. If a new role or content for education will arise, it will have to take care for its influence as much as to its medium or its message.

How then can one teach, what can one teach, and who can teach? What if arts education cannot do better, just as textbook publishers in every discipline now offer free student and professor Web sites? Why bother any longer to ask MFA programs what to show? I myself have no advanced degrees and no academic affiliation. I write and I lecture occasionally in public, but I have no illusions of importance. Why should professional educators?

The growing market could itself help solve the exclusivity of arts education, by demanding so much fodder. Its demand for greater productivity could spread influence to more universities. It could produce market niches, based in different schools. To some extent, it already has. Its ever-pressing demand for new work, new experiences, and rising stars to validate them could refocus education on the contexts surrounding each corner of the triangle. In much the same way, a philosopher has called for education able to comprehend not just the music, but also the "musicing" and the "musicer."

Older powers in education could help drive that change. They could make more serious efforts to recruit and to teach a wider range of skills. An arts education already ranges from old practices and theories to financial survival. I cannot even begin to talk about deficiencies in arts educations at other levels. Grade schools encourage self-expression, high schools cut arts education in favor of material on tests, and both separate studio arts from art history. This, too, can change.

Perhaps education has to get outside the ivory tower, outside debates over the information age and the society of the spectacle. Then again, maybe it has to bring those debates more fully into the public's and the mass media's education. Now if only I could figure out how to convert this site to a database.

BACK to John's arts home page

This article arose from reading a discussion of "What Is to Be Done" in Empyre, an online forum under the care of Christina McPhee. I mention the September 2007 issue of Artforum and refer to David J. Elliott's Music Matters (Oxford University Press, 1995), which also supplies the reference to a 1747 system of the fine arts by Charles Batteux.


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