Can Art Schools Teach Students To Be Artists?

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The other day I saw a post on LinkedIn asking if art schools could teach their students to become artists. I meant to comment on this, but instead viewed a few more posts and lost the original one asking this provocative question. The answer to it is, “yes” they can and do.

The question as to whether someone can be trained as an artist is an old one. It gained a lot of momentum when James Elkins published “Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students.” However, most people who use that book to fuel their argument haven’t actually read it. They just read the title. As Elkins does regularly, he lobs a philosophical grenade into the conversation to get it roiling.  In the end, he never really answers the title of his book. I’ve even heard art professors say “no” to this question. My immediate response to them is, Why do you have a job?

Art is like every other domain; if you learn how to do it better, you can do it better. The myth is that there is some supernatural, mystical ability artists must possess to be classified as real artists. In reality, that mystical ability is determination. As a comparison, kids all over the world learn to play soccer. And we assume that a kid can become a better soccer player if he/she learns the skills related to playing the game. We know they won’t be the next Ronaldo or Messi. But we still consider them soccer players.

The problem with art may come from the fact that we also associate the term artist with exceptional skill: He’s a culinary artist, or with a type of mysticism or deception: She’s an artist with cards. But being an artist means doing art-type things: painting, sculpting, designing, playing an instrument, or any number of other art related activities. The more you work on related skills, the better you’ll get.

Let see how some of the top artists of our time learn to be artists.

  • Jeff Koons: BFA fromMaryland Institute College of Art
  • Brice Marden: MFA from Yale
  • Bruce Nauman: MFA from University of California
  • Cindy Sherman: BA from Buffalo State College

Of course, there are others who didn’t finish their degrees, like Jasper Johns. He did attend art school though. But neither Bill Gates, nor Steve Jobs finished their education.

The main problem with art education is teaching students how to maintain an artistic practice. That’s more about practical skills like networking and maintaining a small business. My institution, SCAD does this very well. I keep in contact with many of my past students and they say SCAD prepared them to succeed. They work hard and work to get art related jobs. When I look at what they are able to do, and the lives they live, I’m amazed. But in the end, a greater portion of those who succeed are the determined ones.

3 thoughts on “Can Art Schools Teach Students To Be Artists?

  1. I love this post! Scott, you may remember me from my visiting professor appointment at SCAD in 2010. I am now deep into analyzing my interviews, with professors and students, about how art making is taught and how students learn to make art. As a creativity researcher, I started my research by posing an even more provocative question than Elkins: “Can you teach someone to be creative?” Based on my data, I believe art schools actually do that, but just as you say, explaining that requires us to carefully deconstruct several false beliefs that many people hold about art (and creativity).

    1. Keith, it’s great to hear from you. Thanks so much for your comments. I’ve been teaching your Zig-Zag steps in my creativity class. And I base a lot of the collaborative work in the course on your research. Would you mind posting your comment also in LinkedIn? The link is here. I post the same thing there as my blog. Many of my students read my posts through LinkedIn, and I’m sure they’d like to read a comment from you. I hope things are going well in UNC.

  2. I totally agree with your point in this post. Our artistic perspective grows with exposure to new concepts, practices and ideals. I am self-taught, but my son is a senior at SCAD. You guys are amazing there, I cannot say enough good things about the work all of the professors at SCAD are doing for these students. Yes, you must work on things constantly to improve and grow as an artist. Thanks for the great post.
    Mary Michelle Scott

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