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Book Review


Artist Teacher: A Philosophy for Creating and Teaching G. James Daichendt (2010) Bristol: Intellect, ISBN 978-1- 81450-313-4 (hbk) £29.95



Artist Teacher has a simple and clear message. Art education needs artist teachers. However, on those programmes [in the USA, I presume] which prepare students to become school teachers of art, the emphasis is firmly on education alone, while on MFA programmes [also, I presume in the USA] those who will teach art at post-compulsory level receive no instruction in education. Whilst Daichendt (the author) expresses reservations about the latter, he is more concerned with the former. As he explains, ‘The emphasis on education has trumped the art in art education’ (p. 149).


In the UK, where I work, this isn’t quite the case. Nearly all secondary (high school) teachers of art will have first undertaken a university degree in a relevant arts discipline and then enrolled for a further year studying for a postgraduate certificate in education, while it is now becoming the norm that those who teach in the post- compulsory sectors must obtain a postgraduate teaching certificate (in further education or higher education). Moreover, there is an Artist Teacher Scheme for school teachers. So although I know what he’s writing about, it’s not what’s happening here. Throughout this book Daichendt is writing about the American context and I couldn’t work out whether it had been written specifically for an American readership or if he simply presumes that the rest of the world is exactly like the USA.


No matter, what lies behind his proposition still resonates. At all levels of education one can see greater demands being put on teachers and an ever greater professionalism required. Universities seem to prefer full-time staff, which allows little time to pursue a career as an artist. Meanwhile, the art world has also become more and more professionalised. One consequence is that instead of teaching, artists need to be spending all their spare time away from the studio networking to further their careers. In this respect Daichendt could have a point. Moreover, although he doesn’t say so, I would add that how someone teaches and assesses is intricately connected with what they teach and assess. Generic theories of education only get you so far.

 

The vehicle for Daichendt’s proposition is a book divided into two sections. The first is dominated by a chapter which provides a history of art education. In the second section there are accounts of artist teachers from USA, England and Germany, all but one of whom is well known. None of this material seems to be reinforcing his proposition, except in the most tangential way. It is striking that most of his general discussion is about teaching in compulsory education, while his examples were teaching at post-compulsory institutions such as the Bauhaus or Black Mountain College. It’s not stated why these chapters about eminent artist teachers have been written, but I presume they are exemplars of what such individuals can do. I’d rather have read some accounts of what can be achieved within the constraints of more regulated institutions. I’m sure that many, many art teachers would welcome the freedom of working at a Black Mountain College, or as Hans Hofmann did, at his very own Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.


They might also embrace the freedom they would more likely have been given 40 years ago. Because Daichendt rarely goes beyond 1970 in this book. Hence, whereas his proposition is about the present day, his supporting material is about what things were like before 1970. This happens to be the date of publication of Madonald’s The History and Philosophy of Art Education, of which Daichendt has made great use. But it’s also an interesting date for art education, because so much has changed since then. For example, there has been a marked shift in teaching from concern about product to critical analysis of the process. The taken for granted certainties, such as art’s firm foundations of a western canon of art history, have been challenged by critical theory and the multicultural and visual culture movements. Round the world there has been a huge increase in the number of post-compulsory art courses and programmes and student numbers on these, including a steady move into postgraduate and now doctoral degrees, so that most people who have ever studied art have studied it in the last 40 years. The reach of art education has extended to museum education and community education. Teaching art has been revolutionised from being about drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking to an expanded field of practice including, for example, conceptual works, installations, videos and digital media. Any history of art education appearing now and not including these is not even telling half the story. Since this book mentions this period in less than a page in the concluding chapter through a cursory and over-simplistic mention of postmodernism, it is indeed telling less than half the story.


What it does recount about the history of art education is very straight forward and very familiar. It starts with the ancient Greeks and Romans, moves on the Middle Ages and thence to the Renaissance and so on. It concentrates on Italy, then France, then England and then the USA. We’re informed about ‘the discovery of America’ (p. 32) during the Renaissance (when I read that I imagined a Native American on the shore, saying, ‘Thank you for discovering America; we hadn’t noticed it was there.’). All right, our institutions do trace their lineage back to the western tradition. The problem is an unquestioning repetition of this narrative, as if it hadn’t been brought into question in the last 40 years.


But there’s another shortcoming that runs throughout most of the book (the chapter on Geoerge Wallis being the one, possible exception). It is all description but without analysis and very largely a literature review. It is true that Diachendt has read lots of texts, which he has used to provide his narrative. However, each text has been treated as if it were neutral, as if each hadn’t been written from a particular theoretical or cultural standpoint and as if each had equal weight. Hence references to texts by the Marxist art historian Arnold Hauser can be slotted in beside ones by the fiercely anti-communist Ernst Gombrich (it tells a lot about the level of Daichendt’s scholarship that the latter is ‘The Story of Art’). As to be expected when there is so little critical analysis, the author seems unaware of his own standpoint. Behind the statement that ‘Thinking like an artist is not formal but a talent’ (p. 62) lays a host of assumptions about what an artist is (and what can and can’t be taught).


There is a further shortcoming with much of this book, which is that between the first and last few pages it meanders and appears unclear what its focus is and it certainly doesn’t maintain any sort of an argument. Hence it osculates between discussing teaching art in schools and teaching it in universities and the history drifts into design. If it’s about the teaching of design, isn’t the subject then the designer teacher?


These are serious faults for an academic text. It’s such a pity because the topic is very good one. The problems he outlines at the beginning are compelling: balancing two careers and two identities; working within two very different worlds; reconciling the freedoms of art with the restrictions of education; how do the two activities feed off each other and can they ever be kept in balance?


The fact remains that no matter what artistic know-how you might have, when you’re within the education arena you need to apply this to its conventions, while irrespective of your teaching abilities, when within the art world you need to target your interventions to that context. This book is surely within the former: it is a book about education; it is not an artwork. Therefore it’s a shame that it reads as if the education scholar has been trumped.

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