slightly wonky

Why art cannot be taught by Elkins

I just finished reading, Why Art Cannot Be Taught, by James Elkins.  SO fascinating.  It’s the most “academic” book that I’ve read in a while, so I think that reading it again would be beneficial.  Not to be a spoiler, but his primary conclusions are:

1.  The idea of teaching art is irreparably irrational.  We do not teach because we do not know when or how we teach.

2.  The project of teaching art is confused because we behave as if we were doing something more than teaching technique.

3.  It does not make sense to propose programmatic changes in the ways art is taught.

He begins with the history of art instruction, from ancient art schools onward.  He then discusses how different studio art study is from studying other liberal arts subjects, such as English/literature.  He also  describes the type of art that cannot be attemped in schools, such as “Art that takes time”, or “Art that isn’t serious”.   In addition, he takes on an analysis of the almighty critique, or crit.  It was so fascinating to read his methodical study of this odd teaching  method…it really struck home as I recalled the years of crits that we had in architecture school.  I got the impression that art crits are somewhat more kind than architecture crits, but perhaps that’s not really the case.  Because art is often about personal feeling, I think that perhaps reviewers may tread more gently…whereas in architecture, they really don’t want to hear anyone’s personal feelings about anything.  Even when a critic provides some judgment…it is presented as “fact” not anyone’s “feeling” about something.

I know.  How can someone take apart the entire art education system that we have, and then not propose a solution?  This is how I felt when I began the book.  Now, I see how messy and unclear the whole business is…part of what separates art from more concrete things, like many areas of math, is that there is not one right answer.  Some solutions are just agreed on as being more “right” than others…but anything more definite than that tends to get murky.  How can there be a clear answer to something that is so unclear?

I highly recommend this book.  If anyone out there has read it, please comment and let me know your thoughts on it.  It is very dense with rational analysis of something that the author concludes is inherently irrational.  FASCINATING!

I have not much to show for myself…many things “in progress”.

So, does anyone out there have any thoughts either on the book, Why Art Cannot Be Taught, or on art education in general?  Enquiring minds want to know…



2 Comments so far
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My humble thoughts on the subjekt art education:
Is it possible that most art educations in many fields has been removed too far from the master/ apperentice way of teaching without a substantial basis to replace this relationship?

Comment by Ole Skat Nielsen

Yes! He mentions this as well. In medieval times, art (primarily painting) wasn’t taught in universities. Students went from grammar schools directly into workshops, where they became apprentices. Then came the various art academies, which tried to bring more broad education to the art students. The goals in the academies were so different than now…art should have perfect proportions…art was to avoid excess…and originality was not a goal. This is so different than how we both think of art now, and how it’s taught, right?

Comment by slightlywonky

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