For the past year and a half, I’ve been teaching Foundations at Northern Arizona University. Recently I was invited to present at a session at the FATE Conference “Tectonic Shifts” in Indianapolis. (The whole #boycottindiana thing didn’t start until our last day there.) It was, among other things, an opportunity to reflect on what, exactly, Foundations is, as a subject, and what it could and should be.
Foundations programs typically include Drawing, 2D Design, and 3D Design. They often also include Color Theory, Figure Drawing, and (very occasionally) an introductory Digital Media class. This presupposes a certain set of priorities that influences students’ perceptions of what art is, and bear in mind that within a college or university setting, most students in a Foundations course will not necessarily be art majors.
The premise seems to be that most of the classes are set up to prepare a student to work in two-dimensional plastic arts, chiefly painting. And indeed, in the popular imagination, painting serves as the holotype for what art is. The combination of Drawing, 2D Design, and Color Theory is perfectly geared towards preparing a student for Painting I, or perhaps Printmaking. In my own studio practice I am a painter, and perhaps I was drawn into this medium by a similar set of assumptions. (What I thought I was attracted to, in my teens and early twenties, as “painting,” was in fact primarily illustration, albeit rendered in paint.) 3D Design is a nod to sculpture, and some departments have begun introducing various courses in Digital Media in an attempt to “contemporize” their departments.
I’m not particularly interested in reinventing Foundations, certainly not in the sense of being on some sort of crusade to throw out the traditional model. But I am interested in how and why we have formed our assumptions about what comprise the fundamental building blocks of an artistic practice. Certainly the type of Foundations that I learned when I was in college, that I used to build the technical skills that form the basis of my practice, and that I now teach to my students, have much more in common with the kind of art we saw before 1965 than since.
I should here also mention that I attended community college and then a four-year public state university, and now teach at a similar university, so my experience was and is very different from what one might have at an art school. The foundations curriculum at MICA, RISD, or SAIC might very well be very different from what I’m used to. If I were to look at a cross-section of contemporary art, and use that as my starting point to reverse engineer what a Foundations program should be, I would imagine that the first semester would consist of Introduction to Art Theory, Art History Since 1965, Digital Photography (probably camera phone based), and Writing For Artists. If there was a first-semester foundations studio course at all, it would probably be Found Object Assemblage.
I should be clear here that this isn’t some Swiftian “Modest Proposal” in which I argue that contemporary artists have no hand skill anymore, and that it’s all showmanship and networking and name dropping. Not that it’s not, just that I recognize that there’s no point in bemoaning the fact. Rather, I am saying that over the past few decades, the new work being produced has often (not always) emphasized concept over technique (I am under no illusions of this being a groundbreaking revalation), and that when contemporary work does require hand skill, that hand skill might have little or nothing to do with traditional plastic art skills of drawing, painting, carving, and casting. Rather we see cabinetmaking and welding, mechanics and electronic engineering, computer programming and choreography, each used as it suits the artist’s needs. Indeed, an art education that geared students to produce for the contemporary market might look something like two years of hardcore art history and theory, culminating in a “sophmore seminar” in which the student produces a written proposal for an ambitious thesis project. The following year is spent on exchange to a vocational trade school where the student learns whatever skills he or she needs to execute the project, whether that be horseback riding or taxidermy, mountaineering or tattooing, explosive demolition or flintknapping. The fourth year consists solely of guided studio time coupled with a class in professional practices. The thesis show is presented at the end of the fourth year, and the fifth year is devoted to developing a new, post-thesis body of work intended for submission to grad schools or galleries.
I don’t know if this would be any better or worse than what we have now. I, for one, would feel the loss of the traditional media in art programs. I’d certainly be out of a job. But if art education exists not as a sort of pyramid scheme in which we enlist the help of the next generation in taking our classes so that we can repay our student loans, in the hope that they will one day pass on this curse to students of their own (like the monstrous antagonist in It Follows), but as an actual service to our students, then it must prepare them for the world that they will actually face.
I’m left with the question of what role my beloved traditional media play in an ever-changing world. There are only so many hours in the day, indeed, only so many hours in a lifetime, and every new skill that is introduced must of necessity displace something else. Introduce Robotics, and a student never takes Lithography. Introduce Relational Aesthetics (which I’m currently teaching), and perhaps it’s Figure Drawing that gets left behind. Earlier today, a student was planning her schedule for the Fall, and had to choose between my Color Theory class and a 3D Printing class being offered at the same time.
In some cases, the progression seems natural: that digital photography has relegated the entire darkroom to the role of alternative process makes sense, for the same reason that wet collodion printing isn’t taught in Beginning Photo. The technology has evolved. (I love oil painting, but for me, Beginning Painting makes more sense in acrylics.) But the kind of theory-driven, technique-thin program I hypothetically described above sacrifices some of the most important elements of artmaking. The “wow, I made that!” satisfaction of a well-executed representational drawing can be what inspires a student to pursue art as a degree, a career, a life. For all the practicality of digital photography, there is an alchemical magic to the darkroom that can never be rendered in pixels. And as any observational painter or drawing teaching will tell you, you’ve never really seen something until you’ve tried to draw it. This is the magic, the power to inspire, that we must preserve at all costs as we chase the spotlight of new technologies and ideas through the prison yard of the art world.
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- Artist Residencies:Are They Worth It?(Part 1 of 2) - July 7, 2015
- Turning the Titanic: Artists as Agents of Change - June 2, 2015