Disciplining Artists

Article excerpt

Howard Singerman. Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 306 pp., 14 b/w ills. $45; $19.99 paper.

As the culmination of years of personal experience, Howard Singerman's Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University possesses something of the character of a Bildungsroman. From the first line of the book, in which he states, "I am captured by and folded inside the object of my research" (1), Singerman situates himself as a sort of shadow protagonist within the seven chapter story he presents. That story is the development of art education in the United States during roughly the past century, which Singerman took part in directly while earning an M.F.A. in sculpture in the late 1970s. Indeed, according to Singerman, one of the key motivations behind writing the book was having left school uncertain about the skills he had acquired in the course of his studies. Art Subjects is the result of a long process of self-questioning and probing analysis into the formation of artists in the American educational system.

Besides his involvement in studio programs, Singerman is further qualified to cover his subject by his subsequent work as an art historian. Currently Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, he has seen both sides of the departmental split between art production and its historicization. His dual background clearly informs his writing, which strikes a remarkably successful balance between anecdotal address and objective inquiry throughout his text. Singerman has a personal stake in trying to answer the book's central questions: How did the visual arts reach their current level of professionalism? How have artists historically described themselves and been described by others? In other words, how are artists treated as subjects who both act and are acted upon? Singerman constructs a lucid narrative, taking the reader through many separate histories that ultimately converge in the figure of today's graduate art student.

In his chapter "Writing Artists onto Campuses," Singerman begins by looking back to the late nineteenth-century when efforts were made to standardize the instruction of art in the so-called "normal" schools, those focused on the training of teachers, as well as in the technical schools. The standards sought by these vocational programs-among which was an emphasis on drawing technique-were meant to have practical, measurable effects in terms of acquiring skills for job preparedness. Liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, while also promoting standardization, had a somewhat higher purpose. They envisioned the establishment of a unified "body of knowledge ... that anyone who wishes to call himself educated must know" 04). If art was to form part of this general platform, it would have to leave behind its attachment to the specialized environment of the studio or workshop and adapt itself to the expansive conversation of the humanities. At the time of the College Art Association's founding in 1912, it was suggested by a number of voices that one way of elevating art from its specialized terrain was to link it to programs in art history.

It is at this early stage of determining art's place in higher education that Singerman identifies a split within the ranks of the CAA between practitioners and teachers, one that to a certain extent still affects the organization. Citing a 1927 survey by the Association of American Colleges, he points out that the division was largely geographic; while the schools in the South and West were more task-oriented, the older liberal arts colleges of the Northeast gave priority to art history. In 1946 the CAA sponsored a committee report, "The Practice of Art in Liberal Education," which made recommendations toward overcoming the perceived schism among its constituents. The authors elaborated a middle course to be occupied by a new kind of educator, the "artist-teacher. …