How SHOULD we teach art?
How SHOULD we teach art?

How SHOULD we teach art?

How three art professors at Christian colleges seek the right mix of studio, history, theory and the other elements of teaching art.

September 1 st 2009
Appears in Fall 2009
Comment asked three arts professors at Christian colleges to correspond about their different approaches to teaching the arts. This correspondence is mostly a reflection of the personal opinions of the contributors, even though it sometimes hints at or refers to common positions shared by the fine arts faculty at a particular school.

Bruce Herman, Gordon College:

The program at Gordon is committed to what might be termed "classical realism" in the first two years of undergraduate training, including art history, observation-based drawing (still-life, perspective, and other traditional skill sets), observational painting, foundations of design (both graphic and conceptual), and classic life-drawing (from nudes, plaster casts, human skeletons, and so forth). We've been employing professional nude models (male and female) since 1993.

Late in the sophomore year or junior we begin to introduce art theory more pointedly in our Modern Art Seminar, and begin to nudge each student toward emphasizing some specialization by declaring a focus: design, painting, sculpture (wood and stone carving), printmaking/drawing, and so on. By the senior year we invite those interested students who have demonstrated capability to mount a thesis exhibition in our beautiful professional gallery space. Prior to their thesis exhibition, all seniors have a senior seminar called Art & Vocation, where they explore further theoretical and theological concerns alongside career issues and hear from many guest speakers, among whom are many of our accomplished alumni.

We're a relatively small department, partly by decision, with only three full-time professors and five adjuncts, and about 60-65 majors most years. We require an entrance portfolio for admission into the program and regularly turn students away when we feel they just don't have an aptitude for our curriculum. Interestingly, we do not have a shortage of enrollments at the moment, despite the universal downturn in enrollments in general.

Even though we introduce art theory to our students, we do not, by and large, advocate a heavily theoretical emphasis to undergrads, believing as we do that foundational observation and traditional skills are important the same way that studying the Greek playwrights, philosophers and Western literature (Dante, Shakespeare, et al.) is important as a foundation for the life of the mind—even if your ultimate destination is to become an arch-deconstructionist or poststructuralist critic of the Western tradition.

In a reversal of the cliché, what you don't know will kill you (intellectually, that is). So not knowing the Western tradition is a serious handicap for thinking—again, even if your destiny is to lay waste to that tradition or to seek your focus elsewhere. For better or for worse, we're still committed to the classic liberal arts, with less of a professionalistic approach despite our desire to equip our students to enter any and all aspects of the art profession—including becoming patrons of art! Personally, I think graduate school is a great place to encounter the more problematized aspects of modernism and postmodernism, and I believe undergrads need to be exposed to but not prejudiced by the critical literature of our times.

John Bakker, Trinity Christian College:

Our department runs three Bachelor of Art programs. Two of these are art studio programs: one with a concentration in fine art, and another with a concentration in graphic design. Both of these programs require 57 credits. We also offer a 40-credit art education program, which requires a 33-credit education minor to meet government requirements.

We have three full-time faculty and four adjuncts, and about 50 majors. Students are split relatively evenly between the three programs. Our goal is to prepare the fine artist for entry into graduate programs; the designer for an entry-level job in the design or advertising field; and the art education student for state certification as a teacher. Our department just moved from a brown metal pole barn, a doublewide trailer and two basements into a new 44,000 square foot theater and art building— and we expect to grow.

In 2001, we rewrote our curriculum to reflect a changed climate in the art world, in which the old media distinctions have broken down. Our students begin with a set of foundation courses. From there, they concentrate in one medium, taking beginning and intermediate courses. These two courses build technical skills. We also introduce students to the historical and theoretical foundations for the discipline.

For the advanced studio courses, which students reach in their junior year, all media meet together. This open studio approach drives the creativity in the department. It orients students to the notion that their work does not exist for them alone, but is in dialogue with the art world. By their senior year we expect them to be able to defend the choices they make on the basis of category and/or art historical precedent.

We have no agenda for what kind of work students make—we only require them to be able to articulate the major categorical breaks in the art world and place their work in that matrix. That is, we want them to not only say what they do and identify their aesthetic traveling companions, but also to be able to give counter examples to the kind of work they are trying to do. We don't place too strong an emphasis on craft; after all, this is a B.A. program.

We expect that experience and time on task will address what they lack in technique—and for most students, this seems to work. Our goal is to give them categories and habits of thinking that allow them to grow on their own after graduation.

In order to assist students with the process, we require them to complete an art history minor, including an aesthetics course. The basic "toolkit" we have identified for students to succeed after graduation includes knowledge of materials, form, history and the ability to categorize the landscape they inhabit.

As we were reworking the curriculum, a colleague found this quote, which succinctly articulated the direction we had already chosen.

"For the past 30 years work has been conceptually based, yet the weakest aspect of the undergraduates work has been its conceptual content. It was also apparent that first-year students skilled in the use of basic materials, who excelled in the traditional areas of art foundations, did not necessarily become the strongest artists, especially within developing new genre areas in the department. These observations informed the ideology and content of the foundation program and supported our belief that incoming students introduced to theory and practice concurrently within a studio ennvironment could simultaneously develop the strong conceptual, analytical, and technical skills critical to the creation and analysis of contemporary art." (Kate Morrison Catterall and Helen Maria Nugent in Art Journal, Spring 1999)

Theodore L. Prescott, Messiah College:

The Department of Visual Arts at Messiah has three majors with about 120 students, seven full-time faculty members, and three or four adjuncts. The three majors are studio art, art education and art history. Proportionally the studio major is the largest, but we anticipate growth in art education, and all three majors have enough students to be healthy.

It is often said in educational circles that programs should have a distinctive character. I'll risk the opprobrium of education theorists and brand marketers to say that we do not have a niche, nor are we aiming to produce a particular kind of artist—unless you consider being broadly educated and faithful a special niche. Another way of saying this is that our faculty is committed to trying to develop the gifts of individuals through a common curriculum, rather than create a cadre of likeminded artists.

Our curriculum is relatively broad, and seeks to develop skills in studio practices, historical knowledge and aesthetic and critical thinking. The studio degree requires 57 credit hours in studio and art history, and includes a senior exhibition and a capstone seminar. We try to make sure students are prepared to meet the contemporary world both technologically and critically, but we also want them to know traditional studio techniques and understand at least something of the history of art (primarily in Western Civilization) as it has developed. Each studio major is required to take four courses (twelve credits) in art history.

I try to discourage the idea that there is something special about the fine arts, since that so often translates simply into unwarranted categorical snobbery. If our students pursue careers in design or craft out of interest or a sense of calling, they should receive our support and encouragement as much as if they aim for a gallery career. In my judgment the careful assessment of the development and exercise of one's talents—without a regard for status—ought to be one fruit of the faithful Christian life.

Bruce Herman:

Having read through the thoughtful statements from colleagues at the other Christian colleges, I feel that I should make a clarification of my first statement on the approach of the Gordon College art program. I will also attempt a brief theoretical engagement with the concerns and emphases described by the other programs.

Just as Ted Prescott said of Messiah College, the program at Gordon does not exist to graduate a certain kind of artist—though our program may seem more narrowly focused than the others, at least in the first two years for our beginning students. Our decidedly "traditional" emphasis on observation-based representation and skill acquisition might, in light of the current conceptual turn in the art world, seem a slanted or outmoded curriculum—though our intention is simply to start where the visual begins: training in close observation. The requirement that a student give an accurate record of their looking is not necessarily an end in itself, but a means to another end, namely as training in life-long engagement with the visual.

It seems the implicit value expressed in the statement from Trinity College would be that "the art world" (which I take to mean the avant-garde contemporary scene) is normative in its heavy emphasis upon the conceptual and on "de-skilling." The desire to inculcate conceptual clarity certainly seems desirable. However, the idea that "craft" or "skills in the use of basic materials" are somehow to be de-emphasized in order to achieve greater sophistication or "creativity" seems to me a loss. (Hence our emphasis on basic skills and close looking at the physical creation prior to upper division courses where the emphasis is upon developing one's own art.) Additionally, our program tends to affirm the role of beautiful form as traditionally conceived—namely, that art making is just that: a species of making, not thinking. (Though of course all art involves thinking.) Because of this conviction, our classes are focused according to media (painting, sculpture, illustration, design, and so on) and involve advancing in expertise in a given medium.

From our point of view at Gordon, the need to spend long hours looking at the visible world and working at a fitting technical skill-set seems of the essence in visual art. The intervention of the secondary—of criticism and the conceptual—in avant-gardist art culture over the past hundred years has not been an unqualified good for art history. In his book The Arts of the Beautiful, Etienne Gilson attempts to elucidate the distinctive qualities and modes inherent in the visual arts as over against those of knowledge and ethics. Beauty is a transcendent reality that requires a response by human persons, and art has always been deeply implicated in that response. As beauty has been sidelined and "abused" and the conceptual has replaced making (making as a mode of being), Gilson says, art has suffered loss. Arthur Rimbaud wrote in his preface to A Season in Hell: "One evening I sat beauty on my knees. And I found her bitter. And I insulted her."

This insult to beauty has historically been at the back of much of modernist aesthetic theory—both the Marxist critique of bourgeois sensibility and the feminist attack on the normative masculine gaze. In spite of these often legitimate critiques, in recent years beauty has made a "comeback"—albeit mostly in an attenuated, highly conceptualized format—in the avant-gardist art world. A growing alternative "classicism" is in evidence internationally, and that seems a hopeful sign, if only because it breaks the hegemony of the avant-garde and allows greater latitude for young artists.

The fact is that there are many "worlds" of art, manifest in a range of art making from traditionalist representation to conceptual art—and so we at Gordon are committed to providing our students first with traditional skills, then acquainting them with contemporary theories and approaches to art making. Hopefully, this early emphasis on depth of engagement with a particular medium and close observation of the creation equips the student with the confidence to approach art as a form of life-long learning applicable to a breadth of theoretical and technical approaches.

I personally do not believe in teaching "art" as in mandating "creativity." I am committed, however, to teaching visual study as a mode of being—of making—and I believe that those of my students who are by nature artists will develop their capacity for art-making naturally as they move through life.

My job is simply to acquaint students with enough history, practice and theory to make a start.

John Bakker:

A discussion came up in our department over the last several years about our goals for students. A former colleague framed it in this way: "Students need a toolkit so that they know how to make things when they get to graduate school; that's what undergraduate education is for." I liked the idea of a toolkit. But for students to be successful now, they must understand how the art world generates categories (theory)—one of those critical tools. We spend twelve courses in the studio, commit five courses to art history and one to theory.

Students need enough history and theory to make sense of the major discussions, the fault lines that organize the art world. Without that sort of compass, they will not be able to discern what is at stake in their own work, or even realize how their work participates in the arguments that organize the discipline. In short, along with material and visual skills, students need to know what frameworks are in competition with each other for parsing good from bad or significant from insignificant.

The Reformed tradition, Trinity Christian College's milieu, defines obedience as personal commitment leading to cultural engagement. Consequently, for our department, the need to engage and assess what is currently happening in the art world is how we understand what it means to be obedient. Not all Christian traditions would frame the task that way. But given our starting point, we look to give our students material, visual and categorical tools so that they can engage what happens in Chicago's gallery district as well as the larger art worlds beyond us.

Of course, this stance on contemporary engagement leads me to questions about Gordon's approach. While we understand the value of commitment to technical fluency that comes from extended focus, from our perspective, centering an art program on the figure as understood by the Renaissance seems like a deeply polemical position (although we covet your freedom to use the nude). The first question that comes to mind is this: for what art world are you preparing your students?

It's true that a Great Books approach such as Professor Herman cites as foundational to a Christian liberal arts education includes Plato, Aristotle and Shakespeare, but it can't stop there. For the students to understand our culture's deep commitment to pluralism—and deeper commitment to consumerism—the survey would need to continue, including Kant, Descartes, Marx, Nietzsche, Camus, Habermas, Foucault, and so forth. A visual analogue to this list for an art department would include Caravaggio, the Rubens/ Poussin argument, Manet, Gauguin vs. Cezanne, Picasso vs. Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollock vs. Judd, Jeff Koons vs. Kara Walker or similar constructions. The models provided by the Renaissance are not adequate to the complexities of our culture. Students need models of contemporary Christian cultural praxis. Hopefully, they will find that in the numerous Christians at work at all levels of the art world, including the faculty at our institutions. But Michelangelo is not much help in understanding Tim Hawkinson's "Emoter." For that you need to understand postmodernism's rejection of the category of high culture and its material strategy of using anything but paint.

What we want is for students have enough knowledge and spunk to enter the art world without fear. Ultimately, we want them to speak with the language of contemporary art with confidence and eloquence so that the values of joy and humility, mercy and justice leaven our public discourse.

Theodore L. Prescott:

In reading our initial descriptions of our studio art programs, I am reminded how one's emphases and convictions are often born out of personal experiences. It is a bit rash to say this since I don't know John Bakker, but I do know Bruce Herman well, and I certainly see evidences of my experiences as a teacher, artist and Christian shaping the way I described our program.

The differences between the programs are not so great. In each there is a mix of studio courses and art history, an acknowledgment that we need to deal with the distance between art's past and present practices, and the programs are part of a larger educational curriculum. We are all far from apprenticeships, ateliers or "professional" art schools. Having said that, the descriptions suggest different ways of spicing our educational food. John's description emphasizes the need for students to become conceptually grounded, and Bruce's description is oriented toward the study and transmission of the Western tradition—both in its craft and content.

These are worthy goals, and constitute part of the Messiah curriculum. They may be the emphasis of some of our faculty, or the passion of some students. But I think both are of limited use in guiding a program. The quote John included demonstrates the importance of concept and theory for contemporary art. Like Bruce, I question whether most undergraduates have the ability to usefully engage theory. Beyond that, I believe such an emphasis suggests that ideas—especially linguistically mediated ideas—are the origin of art. I don't believe they are. On a practical level, I know many successful artists who are not conceptually oriented. It strikes me that the conceptual emphasis in art today reflects the patronage of the contemporary academy, and the academy's influence within our most prestigious museums and galleries.

Bruce and I have discussed the emphasis on tradition and our enormous debt to the past— particularly the Christian past—often. There is much we agree upon. Our differences are real, but have strengthened rather than strained our friendship. For my purposes here, the differences between our programs is that Messiah would like to educate good, serious students whose gifts and interests lie in a different direction than the focus of Gordon's program.

When I first started teaching, I quickly discovered that very few students are really constituted for a life in the world of museums and galleries. That life demands specific skill sets, and is often nomadic, with hunter/gatherer sustenance levels. As the author of a book I used to use in senior seminar put it, "Most artists get their B.F.A., and then retire." For both practical and ethical reasons, I felt the need to create a broader understanding of how someone educated in the arts might think about their future, which can include craft and design. Thus our program seeks to be open-ended regarding our students' future direction. Some get graduate degrees—many don't. Some relate art to ministry—most don't. Some are fine artists—but many are designers. Some seek to extend the Western figurative tradition—but others are committed to installation or abstraction. I hope we have served them all well.

Coda: After our standard press deadline, our contributors continued a lively correspondence, in
esprit d'escalier fashion. An unexpected change in our production schedule allowed us to sneak in these excerpts from that dialogue.

Bruce Herman:

For the record, I wasn't championing the Renaissance or the Great Books tradition, nor was I saying that we ought to steer our students away from contemporary art. I'm afraid that portion of what you wrote in response, John, reads like a caricature of what I was saying. Rather, all I was trying to say is that we cannot simply bypass the Western tradition without cost to the integrity of our work—because, quite simply, without that tradition there is no art for us. Duchamp was riffing on the tradition—and all those who've built on the Dada foundation are too. At Gordon we're not uncritical of the Renaissance traditions—and we're not pitting Michelangelo against Tim Hawkinson. It's just that not knowing our roots is a serious handicap, and I honestly don't think that people fresh out of high school have much comprehension of Foucault or Nietzsche.

John Bakker:

Bruce, thanks for the clarification. I would not want to caricature what you do. I agree that students need the whole tradition.

With respect to Foucault or Nietzsche, I think the current generation of students lives that stuff out of their bones— picking bits and pieces from an array of beliefs that deny a single metanarrative or overarching story; persuaded that most of what is around them are mere social constructs; saying, what you believe is OK for you, what I believe is OK for me—long before they get to the reading of Foucault or Nietzsche.

For my part, I realized as I was writing, that it might sound as though theory is all Trinity focuses on. What we give up technically at the beginning of our program (and we have made conscious sacrifices) we assume that as students find their direction the time they spend on task will build the technical skill they need.

Part of our insistence on building a rudimentary conceptual framework for students does come from the framework the art world presses in our direction.

However, part of it also comes from the utter lack of such training in my undergraduate program and how at sea I felt when I entered graduate school. I was determined that our grads would not suffer my fate.

I do think that categorical frameworks are useful to students. They understand that a formalist would ignore the content in a piece—that a committed realist would dismiss abstraction and Duchamp. We go over the terms and make them wear a particular theoretical "hat," as it were, in some of our crits, so that they get to try on the arguments from other frameworks. And some of our students, in discussing the work of art students at other schools, report how glad they are that they can map their work to a point inside a larger framework.

Theodore L. Prescott:

John, you are so right about compensating for what you weren't taught. That was certainly true in my case, where the teacher that influenced me the most was conceptually oriented. So, over the years I've begun to stress craft, or the integrity of the made thing, partly because I've seen how important that is to every aspect of a work's being, including its concepts. My wife Cathy once asked one of our friends—now dean of an art school—how he determined course content. He replied, "I teach the course I never had."

I believe the issue of personal experiences goes right to the heart of teaching. . . at least in studio art. Artists work very closely with their students, and as they advance we spend a lot of time in one-on-one discussions, helping them to see, discern, think critically, make, make over, make again, and try to connect to the larger world— whether that's the art world, or some other community. What we do is really relational. There is so much nonsense spoken and written about relationships that I hesitate to use the word. . . but it is accurate here. So I think that this most personal aspect of "programs" is missing from our discussion. But of course you can't program it, you just have to hire the best faculty you can.

We hope that this correspondence will provoke those of you who are teachers and students—in the arts or in other disciplines— to think about the approach to learning that shapes the context in which you are pursuing your academic vocation. What are the considerations influencing your curriculum, the common elements in teaching style, or other aspects of the program of education? How do you respond to such local peculiarities as you pursue your vocation as a teacher or student?

Topics: Arts
John Bakker
John Bakker

John Bakker is a Chicago based artist. His work has been shown throughout the Midwest. It is in a variety of private, corporate and public collections; most notably he has received two major commissions from the City of Chicago's Office of Public Art. He has been the chair of the Department of Art and Design at Trinity Christian College for all but one of the last 28 years. He has come to believe that the iconoclast, John Calvin, secretly believed in purgatory because colleges in the Reformed tradition is where God sends artists to purify their hearts.

Bruce Herman
Bruce Herman

Bruce Herman, 59, is a painter, and Professor of Art at Gordon College, near Boston, where he is currently Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts. Herman's artwork has been exhibited in over one hundred and fifty exhibitions in major cities in the United States (Boston, New York, Chicago, L.A.) and internationally (England, Italy, Israel, and Japan). His work is housed in many private and public collections including the Vatican Museums in Rome; Grunwald Center at Armand Hammer Collection; L.A. County Museum; Cincinnatti Museum of Art; and the deCordova Museum in Massachusetts.


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