Teaching the Unteachable: What Should Art Schools Teach Asks Dave Beech

Article excerpt

Paul Kristeller, in his pioneering 1951 study of the historical formation of the 'modern system of the arts', says that the modern belief that 'art cannot be learned, and thus often becomes involved in the curious endeavour to teach the unteachable' was unknown to the ancients, who conversely equated art with skill--which was understood precisely as 'something that can be taught and learned'. The difficulties and controversies associated with teaching art arise as a result of the transition from the various arts to the singular concept of art in general.

The various arts had always been ordered but the 'grouping together of the visual arts with poetry and music into the system of the fine arts', Kristeller says, 'did not exist in classical antiquity, in the Middle Ages or in the Renaissance'. There was no immediate change in the methods of teaching the skills required for the fine arts from the methods of training artisans in the arts, although when academies replaced guilds the teaching became more scholarly. The single most important issue was that of life drawing, which was the chief reason for setting up the academy and distinguished it from the guild workshop and the later schools of design. More severe pedagogical difficulties arose when the fine arts were reconfigured according to the concept of art as such.

'We have been saying "art" in the singular and without any other specification', Jean-Luc Nancy observes, 'only since the romantic period.' Nancy turns his back on modern usage, preferring the technical specificity of the multiple arts of painting, sculpture and so on rather than the abstract concept of art, but in doing so he suppresses the material embodiment of the general concept of art in the specific institutions of the art museum, the art magazine, university departments of art history, art writing and curating, and the art school. Within the real circumstances of a culture ordered by the concept of art in general, the insistence on the specificity of the various arts is, ironically, the act of a nostalgic attachment to an abstract principle. Art education must face up to the non-specificity of its discipline or it is in danger of reverting to an abstract and fanciful pedagogy of craft. The question of how to teach art can be clarified, therefore, by studying the transition from the arts to art that took place in the 18th century.

Art differentiated itself from the arts by incorporating them into its broader and more abstract category. The pioneers of the new conception of art in the 18th century had little or no interest in drawing a precise line between art and the arts but, on the contrary, blurred the line in the interest of accomplishing the hegemony of art over the arts. The first history of art, rather than a history of painters and sculptors or a history of antiquities, written by Johann Winckelmann in 1764, applied the new concept of art in general to Ancient Greek statues and paintings. So, when the entry for Fine Arts was placed under the entry for Art in the Encyclopedic in 1781, art in the singular preserved the arts in the plural within it. When the Louvre was established in 1793-99, it also naturalised the new concept of art within a historical display of the continuity of art throughout history divided into the arts of various schools. This is why Theodor Adorno was right to observe that 'the arts do not vanish completely in art'.

Tensions between the new concept of art and the old pedagogical institutions of the arts persisted into the 19th century. By 1861 Gustave Courbet proclaimed, 'I who believe that every artist should be his own master, cannot think of making myself into a professor.' To say, as Courbet did, 'I deny that art can be taught', was to express precisely the chasm between art and the arts, the latter understood since antiquity as a skill that can be taught. The Paris Academy of Arts--note the plural--did not teach its students to be artists except insofar as it trained them in the arts (of drawing, painting, carving, casting and so on). …

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