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The idea of skill has come to seem woefully
outdated in an art world that emphasizes conceptual innovation, and
making the right statement at the right time, with the right media. Gone
are the days when life drawing was the backbone of any artists’ skill
set. The term “skill” carries not only an academic connotation, but a
working-class one. The skilled worker is one who knows something about a
particular process (which puts him or her a step above the unskilled
worker), but is not part of the professional class. Plumbers, auto
mechanics and short-order cooks are skilled workers.
I’m arguing for the re-skilling of the American art student across the
disciplines of fine and applied art, but working from our own design
field as a model. Liberal arts education is based on the view that a
certain body of knowledge is required to create a well-rounded person
and an informed citizen of the world. The liberal arts ethos withdraws
the pursuit of knowledge from the practical concerns of daily life;
indeed, it views practical pressures as somehow tainting the purity of
our educational goals.
That philosophy, of course, is under attack, and schools like New York
University are actually encouraging liberal arts students to pursue
professional internships during college (a practice unheard of a decade
ago), and even to take “non-credit” workshops on such practical subjects
as “graphic design.” The pressure for liberal arts programs to change
comes from the customers: the students and their parents. Meanwhile,
arts education offers a physically engaged, skill-based alternative to
the liberal arts.
Conceptual skills: how to get ideas
Let’s demystify the notion of “conceptual thinking.” At the bottom,
conceptual thinking is about getting ideas for a project: how to solve a
problem, how to generate content, how to set the parameters of a
project. Some students are good at this and some students are terrible,
but there’s a lot we as educators can do to help them learn how to get
ideas. This is where our work must begin. Thinking is not a mystery;
it’s a skill.
Technical skills: how to realize ideas
Many educators, even in design, put technical skill at the bottom of
their list of priorities. It’s not very glamorous or interesting to
teach how to use software or make a comp. But technical training belongs
right near the top because without technique, students are limited to
primitive ways of realizing their work. So many of the art forms that
have helped define the 20th century require a high level of technical
proficiency: film, photography, video, design, architecture, animation.
And yet faculty often looks down upon the teaching of technique. Oddly
enough, technical skills are what many of our students want. Teachers
would often rather spend a five-hour critique talking about “ideas,”
while their students are hungry for technical knowledge.
Critical skills: how to build the discourse
We help students place their work in a historical and social context.
Why do the fields of art and design function the way they do? What
issues are artists and designers currently confronting in their work,
and what’s the tradition against which contemporary practice takes
place? This critical understanding helps students engage the world in a
relevant way. The highest level of success for a designer or artist is,
in my view, to create work that influences others in the field (or
better yet, people in other fields). Such work contributes to the
Social skills: how to work with people and make things happen
Social skills are harder to teach. There is no curriculum for showing
students the importance of social interaction in the career of an artist
or designer. You have to create situations where they can and must
collaborate. I’m doing this in my graduate program at Maryland Institute
College of Art by creating large-scale projects that rely on
collaboration. Through these projects, the students witness the fact
that big things are rarely done alone. It’s great preparation for the
realities of the working world.
Professional skills: how to make a living
Last but not least: art schools need to prepare students for the working
world. We need to show them how to document their work: record it,
reproduce it, talk about it. Every student should leave school with a
personal/professional website that they built themselves. They should
all know how to write a resume, how to write a letter, how to write a
proposal, and how to communicate effectively via email.
At the end of the day, a person who has successfully pursued these
skills—conceptual, technical, critical, social and professional—is
likely to be effective in many walks of life. The pursuit and
cultivation of these skills may help students understand where their
strengths and interests lie, and prepare them for a satisfying life in
the working world.
In order to embrace a skill-based approach to art education, we have to question some of the sacred cows of the Art School.
The first one is “teaching art.” We don’t teach art; we teach art
students. Art students are our customers. We have a serious obligation
to them, and it is important to recognize their needs and desires in
this new century, and not to be trapped in our views of what “art” is. A
lot of teaching is focused more on the needs (and habits) of faculty
than it is on the needs of our students.
The old atelier model was to paint or draw in front of a live model for
five hours while the professor wandered around making comments. That
model was replaced by an even worse one: the critique, a five-hour
discussion group where students talk about each other’s work, often
pursuing a level of detail that far exceeds the intensity of the piece
at hand. Students hate critiques, but in the post-skills studio
environment, there is simply nothing else to do. Let’s use some of the
time wasted in critiques to build skills.
Art enrichment is over. It was the notion propagated in the 1950s that
everyone should learn to understand and appreciate art, thus making
people more sensitive and cultivated. This model still drives many
museum education programs, as well as arts education in the schools,
which is why art is the first subject to get cut. Enrichment is, by
definition, a luxury. Today, people’s educational pursuits are more
likely to be driven by practical and professional goals than spiritual
enlightenment or “self improvement.” At the K-12 level, schools should
be striving not to unleash a universal love for form and color, but to
expose students to the properties and resistances of tools and
materials, showing them how to solve problems and communicate visually
and structurally. At the college level, programs for graduates,
undergraduates, and post-graduates should think of the practical goals
that drive people today towards higher education.
Responsibility towards our students
It is acceptable to say that we are preparing undergraduate students for
“life in general,” but through an action- and skill-based course of
study. But I believe we must be preparing graduate students to pursue
sustaining creative work in their field of study. Although many of our
graduates will not become “professional artists” within the gallery
system, they should all leave school with a variety of concrete skills,
skills that would be useful to a person in any path of life.
We can’t teach people to be geniuses (although, fortunately, our
students are very, very talented), but we can teach them skills. It’s up
to them to put those skills to work.
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