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I thought painting was supposed to be dead. It seems impossible to nail into its casket. Wherever I look this autumn, paint is being splashed about. From Turner and Constable to Rembrandt, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, great painters are strutting their stuff.
Even Marcel Duchamp, inventor of the readymade and, some would say, the artist who knocked painting off its pedestal, is examined in a less familiar light – as a painter – by the Centre Georges Pompidou this autumn. Duchamp proves it’s an empty cliche to think painting is irreconcilable with the multiform art of today. Painting has such a diverse history – encompassing such varied phenomena as Chinese landscapes on silk, medieval frescoes and Jackson Pollock – that it obviously has the capacity to evolve in infinite ways as the world changes.
And yet, it’s undeniable that many people today equate modernity in art with modern media. Video and photography are glibly identified with the new, and painting is routinely equated with the past. This is arguably true of many art schools, where there is a powerful emphasis on multimedia ways of making art.
Some painters are rebelling against this. They have even founded a new art school to put it right. The Turps art school, co-founded by painter Marcus Harvey and connected with the magazine Turps Banana, has just been given a painting by Keith Coventry to support its activities as it moves to a new home on the Aylesbury estate, in south London. It defines its mission as fighting for better painting tuition and tutorial input, and against the rise in tuition fees on established fine-art courses.
Why do we want students to learn about the arts? Is it for their social benefits? Because they “save” students who are little interested in math or English? Because they teach tolerance for other viewpoints?
Why are we all for arts education?
I’d guess that many (most?) Arts Journal readers don’t even think about the why. We just know the arts are intrinsically wonderful. But are we making the best argument for arts in education?
Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, doesn’t think so. In a recent post on his blog on Brainstorm, the group blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education, he offers “How Not to Save The Arts.” It refers, in turn, to an article he wrote for Education Next called “Advocating for the Arts in the Classroom.”
Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts
We know that the brain has a system of neural pathways dedicated to attention. We know that training these attention networks improves general measures of intelligence. And we can be fairly sure that focusing our attention on learning and performing an art—if we practice frequently and are truly engaged—activates these same attention networks. We therefore would expect focused training in the arts to improve cognition generally.
Some may construe this argument as a bold associative leap, but it’s grounded in solid science. The linchpin in this equation is the attention system. Attention plays a crucial role in learning and memory, and its importance in cognitive performance is undisputed. If you really want to learn something, pay attention! We all know this intuitively, and plenty of strong scientific data back it up.
The idea that training in the arts improves cognition generally really is not so bold within the context of what we call activity-dependent plasticity, a basic tenet of brain function. It means that the brain changes in response to what you do. Put another way, behavior shapes and sculpts brain networks: What you do in your day-to-day life is reflected in the wiring patterns of your brain and the efficiency of your brain’s networks. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in your attention networks.1
For most of us, if we find an art that “works” for us—that incites our passion and engages us wholeheartedly—and we stick with it, we should notice improvements in other cognitive areas in which attention is important, such as learning and memory, as well as improving cognition in general.
Michael I. Posner, Ph.D., and Brenda Patoine
The Gross Clinic, by Thomas Eakins
Incoming freshmen to the University of Pennsylvania, as at many schools across the country, typically start their college careers reading a common book and then discussing it – an orientation activity meant to unify the class.
This fall, the 19-year-old project takes a new twist at Penn: Students will study and discuss a painting, Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic.
Penn officials said they think they are the first to use a painting for the orientation project, and national officials knew of no other school.
The university is changing its approach as part of a new campaign it will officially launch next month, called “Arts & The City Year.”
For years, school systems across the nation dropped the arts to concentrate on getting struggling students to pass tests in reading and math. Yet now, a growing body of brain research suggests that teaching the arts may be good for students across all disciplines.
Scientists are now looking at, for instance, whether students at an arts high school who study music or drawing have brains that allow them to focus more intensely or do better in the classroom.
Washington County schools Superintendent Betty Morgan would have liked to have had some of that basic research in her hands when she began building a coalition for an arts high school in Hagerstown. The business community and school principals worked together, and the school will open this summer, but even at its groundbreaking a man objecting to the money spent on the school held up a sign of protest reading “Big Note$ Wrong Music.”
Scientists and educators aware of the gap between basic research and the school systems are beginning to share findings, such as at this month’s seminar on the brain and the arts held at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.
The event was sponsored by the new Neuro-Education Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University, a center designed to bridge that gap.
Brain research in the past several years is just beginning to uncover some startling ideas about how students learn. First came the proof, some years ago, that our brains do not lose brain cells as we get older, but are always capable of growing.
Now neuroscientists are investigating how training students in the arts may change the structure of their brains and the way they think. They are asking: Does putting a violin in the hands of an elementary school student help him to do math better? Will learning to dance or paint improve a child’s spacial ability or ability to learn to read?
Research in those areas, Harvard professor Jerome Kagan said, is “as deserving of a clinical trial as a drug for cancer that has not yet been shown to be effective.”
There aren’t many conclusions yet that can be translated into the classroom, but there is an emerging interdisciplinary field between education and neuroscience. Like Hopkins, Harvard also has created a center to study learning and the brain.
Much of the research into the arts has centered on music and the brain. One researcher studying students who go to an arts high school found a correlation between those who were trained in music and their ability to do geometry. Yet another four-year study, being conducted by Ellen Winner of Boston College and Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard, is looking at the effects playing the piano or the violin has on students who are in elementary school.
More than 400 files are now on iTunes U – a section of the online store which features educational content.
Projects include a series of films that use social networking site Twitter to bring the audience’s questions directly to artists like David Hockney.
There are also recent interviews with contemporary artists including Jeff Koons and Louise Bourgeois.
Clips of Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed and his band performing at the Tate Modern are featured alongside debates about his work.
Audio recordings of leading academics, teaching resources and multimedia guides for the latest Tate exhibitions will also be made available.
The Tate has four galleries – two in London, one in Liverpool and one in St Ives, in Cornwall.
If you think you’re the next big thing, forget it. You’re nothing. So said the tutors of the Royal College of Art to their fine art and sculpture master’s students in 1991. Gavin Turk, then a student, now a highly acclaimed British artist, remembers it well. “‘Britain has had David Hockney; we aren’t bothered by you,’ they told us. They were incredibly patronising and we were a bit depressed after that,” he says.
Little over a year later, Turk had his work snapped up by millionaire art collector and talent-spotter Charles Saatchi – despite being refused a master’s for leaving only a heritage plaque to commemorate his work at his all-important final show.
Today, Turk and some of his fellow artists accuse art colleges of doing just the opposite to dampening students’ ambitions. Art colleges are behaving irresponsibly, they say, by raising students’ expectations that they will “hit the big time”. This is particularly unfair as the country enters a recession and the art market shrinks, they argue.
“It is possible for a gallerist or someone in the art world to come to a degree show, enjoy a student’s work and for the student to find themselves in quite a professional form of art soon afterwards,” says Turk.
But the economic climate has changed since his and Damien Hirst’s days at the start of the 90s, when Britain was experiencing an art boom.
“When art students come out of college now, they aren’t going to be in that climate,” Turk says. “The recession will make things even more difficult for them. Let’s try to keep their feet on the ground. If we build their expectations, they aren’t going to be able to square it with reality when they come out of college.”
But colleges are building up expectations, according to Naomi Pearce, 23, who graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2007 with a textiles degree.
“Most students know that it won’t be easy, but art colleges ignore the fact that you are going to be poor and might not have your work picked up,” she says. “They use their famous alumni in the prospectus. I do feel my expectations were unfairly raised.”
When there was no interest in Pearce’s work after her final-year show, she “wondered what on earth to do” and “felt the art world was completely out of my grasp”. She came up with the idea of curating recent graduates’ work with fellow Goldsmiths textiles graduate Gavin Ramsey, who was in the same position.
The pair now tour the country’s art college degree shows and pick some of their favourites to display for art-lovers. Their partnership – Pearce and Ramsey – takes a small commission from the work sold.
“No one ever told me that I was going to be the next big thing at art college,” she says. “But you hope it will happen. All you hear about are the big shots.”
The “big shots” tend to agree with her – or go even further. British artist Patrick Hughes says art schools are “extremely indulgent with their students”.
“The colleges treat students as if they were little geniuses,” says the former lecturer at Bradford, Leeds, Chelsea and Wolverhampton schools of art. “The art teachers walk around and say to their students: ‘Oh, you are interested in pigs, are you?’. That’s OK up to the age of 15, but past 18 it’s a bit indulgent.”
British artist Fiona MacDonald says London art schools have a “hot-house element” and treat their students as an “elite” for getting on to their courses at all. “It’s as if they are saying, ‘You are now here and are going to have a career paved with gold’,” the Chelsea school of art graduate says.
Some recent graduates have indeed fast-tracked to success. Boo Ritson, for example, graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2005 and had her first solo show two years later.
Pearce and MacDonald were among those who spoke out on this topic at the Crunch Art at Hay Festival last November. “A decade ago, you had a longer-term view of things. You’d work up to your first solo show five to 10 years after you graduated,” MacDonald says.
She doesn’t wholly blame the art colleges or their students.
“It’s our reality TV society that makes us think we can go from pauper to princess,” she says. “There’s more chatter about who sold what to whom than there used to be. That atmosphere has pervaded the art world in general.”
Artist Adam Dant agrees. “The media covers the financial aspects of the art world much more than it used to,” he says. It follows that “more people are attracted to art college because of the perceived financial gain and celebrity success”.
He remembers being given unrealistic expectations himself back in 1992, as a student at the Royal College of Art. “A woman who came to talk to us started her sentence ‘when you earn between £50,000 and £60,000 a year…’ I only know two or three people who earn a living as fine artists, including myself,” he says.
British artist Brad Lochore says there is a “ghastly celebrity culture in the art world” and artists in their 20s are “tempered by it”. He gave up teaching in art colleges in 2001.
He blames the massive growth in the number of art students. To reduce unreasonable expectations, colleges “should reduce the number of students and it should be harder to get in”, he says.
Art colleges have expanded at an even greater pace than universities in the last decade. Between 1998-99 and 2006-07, the number of art students at undergraduate level in the UK rose by 23.6%, compared with 20.6% across all subjects.
But the colleges say they have made up for this with extra tutors and resources. They provide business courses – in how to publicise a gallery, for example – so that students have other skills.
The rector of the Royal College of Art, Sir Christopher Frayling, refutes the criticism of the artists and graduates. “A lot of high-profile artists tend to badmouth art schools because they think it diminishes them as geniuses to admit they ever learned anything,” he says. “They think they jumped Minerva-like to stardom.”
Frayling says this portrait of art colleges might have been true a decade ago, in the heyday of British art, but isn’t true now. “We encourage them to build a career slowly,” he says. “We really try to train them not to be dazzled by the celebrity culture.”
The art world is a lottery, he says, and yet 93% of graduates are in work related to their degree subject within two years of leaving his college. “If we were to dangle the carrot of gallery success in front of our students, it would be immoral. But we aren’t.”
Richard Noble, head of the art department at Goldsmiths, says the artists’ criticisms are “an absurd caricature”. “The idea that we promote a celebrity-driven notion of the art world is simply wrong and does a disservice to the seriousness of our students,” he says. “Students are required from their first year to have their own practice and to develop it through a sustained critical engagement with tutors and fellow students.
“Celebrity, if it figures at all in any of this, only does so as a subject for critical engagement. Of course we try to help our students make the transition into the professional art world by inviting artists, gallerists and career counsellors to speak to them in the summer terms. But we would never suggest that visual art is a means to either celebrity or riches.
“The written and verbal skills they acquire with us, as well as their understanding of the visual, prepares them better than many traditional humanities and social science disciplines for work in the 21st-century economy.”
Professor Karen Forbes, head of the school of drawing and painting at Edinburgh College of Art, says the first priority for her college is to help students develop to a point where they will be able to sustain their work “even in complex circumstances”.
These circumstances may be just around the corner. Artist Jane Simpson says she can predict that the “DIY attitude” she had when she left college in the late 80s may be about to return. “Then, we created our own opportunities and couldn’t rely on a dealer to flog our work at an art fair,” Simpson says.
If so, students about to graduate should perhaps be taking Pearce and Ramsey as examples, rather than Damien Hirst.
In thinking about how universities can take a more ambitious approach to the arts, we can find a useful model in how society approaches science. The rise of what is often called “Big Science” during and after World War II changed how science was done – and changed human knowledge with it. Ambitious new machines and tools, international collaboration among teams of scientists, and the urgency of problem-solving led to the development of new creative paradigms in research. Big science was marked by big staffs, big budgets, big priorities, and a big place within the intellectual and fiscal economy of the university.
Art, too, is poised for this kind of change. Art today is often collaborative, costly, and ambitious. Whether for an installation, a film, a theater or dance production, or some combination of these, art requires large and flexible spaces, and large and flexible budgets. There is more need than ever for connections, global and local, and for expensive, delicate, and complicated tools and equipment. When the need for high-end equipment and money is combined with the need for more space and the acknowledgment of the importance of collaborative work, the result is a blueprint for something I will call “Big Art.”
Big Art would create a home for artistic work on campus on a scale now rarely possible. Universities would create open spaces for art-making, with natural light, high ceilings, flexible flooring (for dance and other performance activities), and acoustic sophistication, furnished with state-of-the-art technology, staffed by skilled technicians, and providing spaces for encounters and improvisation across art practices. With augmented funding and a new vision of art’s centrality, universities might set up endowed centers that bring together international practitioners, begin directing major donations toward art centers, and recruit major working artists and give them a home during the prime of their careers.
Working in teams, improvising and experimenting round the clock, creative artists could undertake large, world-changing projects, from architecture to environmental and public art. And like Big Science, Big Art would be international, bringing together key players from all over the globe. But I should underscore here that by “Big Art” I mean to propose an institutional vision. Artists who work alone, who do not require large spaces or expensive tools and materials, could benefit as much from this change as those who work collaboratively or on a large scale.
Universities already possess many of the capabilities they’d need to set up such programs. They are accustomed to managing grants from government, industry, and private sources. With relatively little adjustment, federal and state funding for the arts, and funding offered by foundations and private individuals, could be channeled – still competitively – through the university, just as with funding in the sciences. Professors, administrators, and curators already assess proposals in the creative and performing arts competitively. So routing outside arts funding through institutions of higher learning is making use of the evaluative systems that are already in place: the same people, the same kinds of reports, and in many cases, presumably, the same outcomes.
The universities can, and should, become patrons not only of art but also of that far more problematic and volatile category, artists. All too often public funding agencies have found it more comfortable to underwrite arts institutions than individuals, whose projects have sometimes been subject to political as well as aesthetic review. The university, the home of academic freedom, is a natural partner for artistic experimentation on the part of both students and teachers. It is only in an atmosphere of freedom that the best work – in research, scholarship, and the arts – can be produced and tested.
The idea that universities should house makers of art is as reasonable, natural, and logical as the idea that the university should contain and nurture other makers: engineers, or chemists, or applied mathematicians. And like those other makers, artists, no matter what arts they practice, need space, materials, training, and assessment, as well as a tolerance of imagination, “genius,” stubborn dedication, or eccentricity.
A number of academic institutions, spurred by inventive leaders, committed faculty, and farsighted donors, have already moved in visionary new directions in their approach to the arts. Yale, with graduate schools in art, drama, music, and architecture, has long been a visible player. The University of Michigan has brought the Royal Shakespeare Company to Ann Arbor for three-week residencies in which members of the company not only perform, but also work with the university community and the wider Detroit area.
At Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, new energies – and funding – are making a difference. Princeton and Stanford both have major universitywide initiatives to create new homes for creative arts and bring them closer into the curriculum. At Harvard, president Drew Faust appointed a universitywide task force to undertake “an expansive inquiry into the role of the arts in liberal education and in the life of the University.” The task force is expected to report its recommendations this fall.
Throughout history, the arts have depended on committed patrons. And all the forces that have gone into the story of arts patronage through the ages – wealthy individuals, passionately concerned mentors, national pride, rising arts consciousness among the middle class and across ethnic, social, and gender lines – find a natural and powerful home in the university, where freedom of expression, the toleration of difference, and the high value placed on originality and imagination have defined the very purpose and essence of the institution.
A university is not a paradise devoid of influence from donors, political factions, and prejudicial or interested beliefs. But the lively debates of the art world are really not so very different from those that animate discussion in other lively and contestatory fields, from government to economics to science. These fields too have non-academic institutions with which the university is in constant dialogue. The commerce between and among such institutions (museums and galleries; government agencies and NGOs; laboratories and think tanks) strengthens the university, while also allowing for theorizing and fact-finding in the context of academic freedom.
The world sometimes known as “academia” has rules, practices, expectations, and standards that make it hospitable to experimentation and risk-taking in the service of intellectual, scientific, and artistic progress. Artists have, in fact, been thinking outside the box – the white box of the museum gallery, the black box of the cinema – for a long time now. Perhaps it’s time for universities to meet them there.
Marjorie Garber is chair of the department of visual and environmental Studies at Harvard University, and director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. This is part three of a three part posting adapted from her new book, “Patronizing the Arts”.
What would it mean for the university to be a “patron of the arts”? For one thing, it would mean raising and channeling funds, from individual donors as well as from national and independent foundations, to enable creative artists to teach and work within the context of the university. It would mean providing appropriate spaces, budgets, and materials. It would mean building instructional staffs with the rank and clout of professors (whether their appointments are renewable or tenured), rather than largely adjuncts or visitors. And it would mean having the institutional confidence to assess creative work as work: admirable, difficult, challenging, controversial, field-changing.
To make the arts a significant part of the standard university and college curriculum would require new and expensive spaces and materials, and – equally challenging – a rethinking of what constitutes academic work. But of course, this was once true also of training in the applied sciences, which were relegated to specialized institutions. Many “applied” fields, from computer science to applied math, were once not thought of as part of a general education. Today, excellence in the sciences is the proudest boast of many liberal arts institutions – and backed by substantial funding for professors, laboratories, space, and graduate students. Whether art practice is considered as “pure” or as “applied,” its relevance to a broad general culture will depend, as do all other fields, upon how well, and how seriously, it is taught and learned.
The making of art, as well as its history and criticism, belongs in the university. Art gives pleasure, and it provokes thought. It is both sensory and intellectual; it intersects with history and with culture. Nothing could be more central to the life of the university. If universities become art patrons, boosting their spending and integrating the arts into the main intellectual mission of the school, they would dramatically improve the educational experience for all students. The cross-disciplinary collaboration embodied in much contemporary art is good preparation for the interlinked world of knowledge and work that they are about to enter. And unlike some other kinds of work produced in and by the university – scholarly monographs, databases, certain kinds of experiments or equations – works of art can be seen and heard, experienced and discussed, and sometimes even joined or inhabited by all students, faculty, and members of the public.
In the “arts and sciences” that form the basis of a broad general education, the word “arts” is a shortening of “liberal arts,” the traditional academic curriculum that includes literature, philosophy, history, languages, mathematics, and art history. Art-making, by contrast, was long considered a craft, or recreation, rather than part of the intellectual core of instruction. Creative and performing arts were studied in liberal arts colleges and universities as part of history and culture, but not as practices that in and of themselves opened up the mind to new ideas.
Students interested in training as professional artists often elect to attend conservatories and art schools, like Juilliard, Berklee, CalArts, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Increasingly, universities and colleges have developed partnerships with conservatory programs, as both Tufts and Harvard have done with the New England Conservatory of Music, offering programs that combine dedicated training in the arts with some elements of a broad general education. While terrific for those students who choose them, in effect these programs still outsource advanced work in the arts, rather than integrating it into the central life of the university.
Creative arts deserve a central place in the university curriculum, along with the traditional humanities and sciences. Like liberal arts scholars, artists are deeply engaged in the world of ideas, in breaking new ground, presenting, disputing, and vivifying new ideas in visual, aural, and tactile form. And as with scientists, artists’ work is theory in practice, marked by repetition, experiment, the exploration and testing of materials and technology, and the imaginative as well as the actual configuration of time and space. Because of the kind of work they produce, artists today often know, and need to know, a good deal about the full spectrum of the academic work done at universities, fields from physics and chemistry to history, philosophy, and literary theory.
Marjorie Garber is chair of the department of visual and environmental Studies at Harvard University, and director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. This is part two of a three part posting adapted from her new book, “Patronizing the Arts”.
Jeff Koons, who has been called, by turns, brilliant, notorious, subversive, egotistical, opportunistic, hilarious, cynical, hollow, revolutionary, and ‘chillingly puerile,’ speaks at the Carpenter Center. Staff photo Matt Craig/Harvard News Office
When the sculptor and pop artist Jeff Koons came to Harvard University’s Carpenter Center last semester for an advertised lecture, the hall where he spoke was jammed to overflowing, and people had to be turned away at the door. When Spanish cinema director Pedro Almodóvar spoke at Harvard a few years ago, a crowding crisis was averted by the decision to hold the event twice. Similar turnouts have greeted the artist Ed Ruscha and architect Maya Lin.
A decade or two ago, it might have been the celebrity philosopher Jacques Derrida who was the big draw on campus, and before that, say, a poet like T. S. Eliot. Today it is more likely to be someone like Almodóvar, or choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, or Art Spiegelman.
This is an era of what could be called the “visual intellectual.” Students on college campuses and members of the general public flock to hear – and see – addresses by filmmakers, artists, and performers. Cultural attention, and cultural primacy, have shifted to encompass art installations, the moving image, technology, and performance. Phrases like “visual literacy,” “aural literacy,” “digital literacy,” and “media literacy” are increasingly common.
But although artists and performers are highly prized as visitors to colleges and universities, the kind of work they do has not reached a comparable importance in the curriculum.
Art and higher education might seem a natural fit in many ways, but they have a long and uneasy relationship. The arts are often still consigned to a secondary role within universities, sometimes viewed as not intrinsically intellectual, or not intrinsically academic. Even when a university invests significantly in the creative arts, and offers an array of courses in painting, sculpture, creative writing, and performance, many scholars and academic administrators remain unconvinced: Arts do not seem to lend themselves easily to the “tenurable” standards of other university subjects.
What should the role of art be in the modern university? Today, art often serves as what business calls a “loss leader” – an appealing product offered at a nonprofit-making price in order to attract buyers. A college or university can advertise its dance or theater or musical groups, or its art classes and galleries, with handsome photos on the website and in the brochure, while at the same time reserving its major fund-raising efforts – and major donors – for science laboratories, international affairs, or sports teams.
It may be that the time has come for the university to become a patron of the arts, embracing and funding the actual making of art on a new scale, and bringing to bear all its institutional traditions of judgment, peer review, and freedom of ideas. An open-minded patronage, providing courses taught by the most talented artists – in the same way that the university seeks the most talented philosophers, psychologists, and physicists – could change both the way we learn, and the way we encounter the world.
Marjorie Garber is chair of the department of visual and environmental Studies at Harvard University, and director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. This three part posting is adapted from her new book, “Patronizing the Arts”.