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Book Review

WHAT DO ARTISTS KNOW? JAMES ELKINS, ED.,2012

University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 228 pp., ISBN: 978- 0-271-05424-7, h/back, $74.95

Reviewed by Nicholas Houghton


Reviewing this book presents a very particular problem. This is because it consists of the transcript of a symposium about what artists [need to] know, followed by no less that twenty-three reviews of the symposium. To review the book therefore, I not only have to add my own review of this symposium to all the others, when you might say that it had been reviewed quite enough, but also I need to review the many reviews, which feels like being sucked into a postmodern whirlpool. I’m also a bit hesitant because reading so many reviews makes me all too aware of the possible pitfalls. While some are the result of considerable reflection, others read as if they have been dashed off following a succession of reminder emails (this review of the book is being written a day before the deadline for submission). I also noticed that many chose not so much to provide an assessment as to latch onto one topic on which they like to pontificate – and which they have written about before. In the same way, I find myself itching to bang on about some of my pet topics, but will resist.


To begin with I’ll avoid these problems by describing the contents. Nearly half the book is the transcript of a week-long seminar held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA in September 2009. This set out to discuss ‘issues about how artists are taught and what they know’ (p2). It was led by James Elkins, who is best known in art education circles for his (2001) book ‘Why art cannot be taught’ and attended by thirteen participants from North America, seven from Europe, one from Australia and one from Hong Kong. Then in the second part comes the many reviews of the seminar, each about 250 words long and written by three assessors from North America, eleven from Europe, seven from Australia and one from Hong Kong. A majority of the participants and the assessors were already known for their views about post-secondary art education. (As an aside, many of these - as always - seem come from a background in teaching art theory and/or history, rather than studio).


Running through the book were issues, sometimes as points of discussion and at others lurking in the background. The main one questioned what art students need to learn, if anything, in a context where a contemporary artist doesn’t necessarily need to acquire any making skills whatsoever. One answer provided is that they learn to talk the talk and walk the walk of an artist (adopt an attitude). Allied to that was the view that an important function of post-secondary art education is to ensure students unlearn what they were taught about art during their compulsory education. For some the current state affairs means in artist’s education there is no there there any more, while others are more correct in seeing this as pluralism. If the one essential skill is for students to be able to talk about their art and not sound naive, then it was felt that they need art history. However, the more this was debated, the more problematic it became. Which art history? After all, art history as a discipline has for the last forty years been questioning the assumptions on which the discipline is based. Like the art curriculum itself, it appeared there is no particular art history which needs to be learned. If not art history, then perhaps theory. The usual suspects such as Deleuze and Derrida were trotted out, as they might have been twenty years ago, which served as a reminder that the art school curriculum has been facing this dilemma for quite some time.


The discussions often meandered away from curriculum issues per se to questions about the purpose of post-secondary art education. Is it to train artists, as a law school trains lawyers, or is it in fact to provide a liberal education? If the latter, is it to equip future citizens to take their place in society, or to be able to critique it? Answer: the latter. Another issue which kept trying to surface is the effect of the art school losing its autonomy and becoming a part of higher education, usually as part of a university. This seemed to be viewed from the perspective of the art school. That is understandable, but universities have their own strains and stresses which also impact on those learning and teaching art.


Perhaps the issue which was of greatest concern was the qualifications structure. For some from Europe this was mostly about having the Bologna Process imposed upon them, whereby the degree structure is being harmonised throughout the European Union. But the main preoccupation was the never ending USA debate about the PhD and whether or not the MFA should be the terminal degree. This broadens to questions about whether art can be considered research and if so what kind. These issues have been discussed often and in more depth, including in this journal through book reviews (and next year in a special issue: 11.3). However, I did enjoy the cynical comment that degree inflation is a Ponzi scheme for art education, providing ever more employment opportunities for graduates.


Moving on from description to an evaluation of the book: with so many people expressing opinions there’s bound to be things one agrees with and others one doesn’t; some insights, some clichés and a few statements that are simply wrong (e.g. that there are no MFAs offered in Europe). My main argument with the book is that so many of these voices, who clearly know a great deal about allied disciplines, nevertheless fell short in their knowledge and understanding of art education. When they set out to discuss ‘What is the relevant history of art education?’ (p. 2), they appeared well genned up on what happened (in the west) in the nineteenth century, but their grasp of what took place afterwards was patchy to say the least. They fell into the old trap of discussing events at the Bauhaus as if that is synonymous with its influence. How Modernism entered the curriculum and then had to find space for poststudio art practice was passed over. The text which bounded their discussion was De Duve’s (1994) polemic, which is partial to say the least. To me it was as if this part of the discussion was taking place if not in the dark, then certainly the gloom. History might be an interpretation of the past but those who express opinions without being informed by research are not so much interpreting as being naïve commentators.


They also set out to find out ‘How art is taught around the world’. It turned out they didn’t have a clue. Often contributors to the symposium or the reviews of it would refer to their own context with words to effect that where they work they do things in such and such a way. As with the history of education, the perspective could be narrow. After reading though all the transcripts and the many reviews, I longed for examples or scholarship to which these views could be attached. I also found that almost everyone in it was far too hip and post-everything savvy to believe a smidgen of the Romantic myth of being an artist, while nevertheless clinging to a belief in art’s specialness. All the same, I find I’m up to my word limit with much more I’d like to write, which shows that the book, if sometimes irritating, was overall stimulating – and writing the review wasn’t so problematic after all.


References


de Duve, T. (1994), ‘When form has become attitude – and beyond’, in N. De Ville and S. Foster (eds.) The Artist and the Academy: Issues in Fine Art Education and the Wider Cultural Context, Southampton: John Hansard Gallery, pp. 23-40.


Elkins J. (2001), Why Art Cannot Be Taught, Urbana: University of Illonois Press.

 

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