The Re-Skilling of the American Art Student
The idea of skill has come to seem woefully outdated in an art world that emphasizes conceptual innovation, and making the right statement at the right time, with the right media.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 discourse.
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.
About the Author: Ellen Lupton is a writer, curator, and graphic designer. She is director of the MFA program in graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She also is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.