Archive: 2007: Artist Training With Historical Context

Summary of: atking.ca/timothy/arttraining.htm


Art education has evolved to meet the needs of the human society in which it exists. In a less complex, earlier society, the apprenticeship system offered a mirror of the human family structure that allowed practitioners to work in an intensive, personalized environment. As the population grew, this one on one instruction was no longer possible. Educational expectations made it financially impossible for a teacher to only have handful of students over the course of their careers. Apprenticeships became guild affiliated and finally the training of visual arts became the purview of specialized institutions of higher education. During this advancement, the personal/mentoring aspect of the apprenticeship system has been lost.

The modern view of visual arts is complex. Once a straightforward trade based entirely on quantifiable and observable skills development surrounding the recreation of natural forms, the visual artist has become something of a hybrid, straddling the lines between the experiential, materials handling, hand-eye skills associated with a skilled trade and the mental disciplines associated with aesthetics, philosophy, art history and the development of a personalized and unique artistic sensibility. The requirement of both of these rigorous mental and physical aspects within the field of visual arts is quite unique. Few other disciplines require the mental athleticism and hand eye skills that a mastery in visual arts demands. Teaching to this requirement is an ongoing struggle.

The benefits of this research in terms of presenting art history are fairly straightforward. What is perhaps more valuable to me is an awareness of just how difficult it is to balance the widely differing needs of visual arts in one course of study. My own background suggested that high school visual arts attempts to focus too much on the mental aspects of the discipline and leaves the challenging (and often repetitive) hand-eye skills development to college. My initial drive in reviewing the history of art and art training was to resurrect an interest in improving the technical proficiency of the high school visual arts student by recreating something of the intensity I experienced while apprenticing.

In retrospect, I think this will not work. As an apprentice, I was financially and professionally obliged to work through some very difficult material. Dropping out would have cost me a great deal of money, not to mention lost me my job. High school students do not have this motivation, especially in visual arts which is not even a mandatory course. In order to serve as wide a public audience as possible, it makes sense to design visual arts curriculum around Socrates’ view of visual arts, as a course designed to create an interest in the visual arts as part of a liberal arts education. This would, of course, require students to become aware of the means of production of visual arts (so studio work is still an important portion of the curriculum), but it would not require the students themselves to be artists with the associated intensity of expression. I find this very similar to the current atmosphere in English, where literacy is stressed, but the teacher isn’t looking to cater to student writers. It is assumed that these students will display competence in the basic skills and find ways to express their writing skills in specialized courses or outside of the curriculum.

I find it unfortunate that curriculum can not cater to mastery focused students in this way. Visual artists in high school would simply, for them, an empty survey of the subject matter while they wait for an opportunity to really exercise their creativity in a post-secondary situation more suited to their need for specialization. This situation makes me wish for a means of bypassing years of unproductive basics, especially if a student wants to specialize intensively in a particular subject. An early graduation for these students might be a suggestion to move them into more effective learning. If an exceptional fine arts student demonstrated sufficient technical ability and the wish to more aggressively pursue their discipline, the opportunity to apply to post-secondary institutions at the age of 16 or 17 might make public education more than simply waiting to turn eighteen.

Note: Interestingly, the high skills arts major became an option only two years after this was written.

Note: Interesting tie in with the Mastery Blog entry from last week.