Aaron Van Dyke

[DRAFT][DRAFT Art Education] & Mis-education follow-up

Aaron Van Dyke

Art education is simple but difficult. It should not be complicated, but it takes a lot of work. Students need to learn a lot of skills to become interesting artists, but we don't know what those skills are, and we never will, hopefully. Art is indefinable prior to its making. There is no way to know what skill will be used to create good art to come. This is the art school's dilemma.

Schools react to this situation in different ways, sometimes stressing traditional skills (an attempt to put ground under their feet) or overloading students with required classes (required electives), for instance. This is a cliché, but students need to be taught how to learn, and art students need this perhaps more than any others.

Art teachers don't know what they are teaching. Not because they are ignorant of a lesson's subject or how to perform a skill they are demonstrating, but because they can't teach someone how to make art. This is the dilemma, not the failing, of the art teacher. The old cliché “art cannot be taught” doesn't mean we should not have art schools (necessarily ; ) but that art can only be made. Art that has been made can be taught, but this is not the same.

If we can't teach art, what can we teach, or what should we teach? Students need to know what art is being made now, so they have to look at a lot of contemporary work. They also need to know what has been made, so they need to learn some history of that art. (Art History? That is debatable). They should (I would like to think they need to) understand what this art does, how it lives in the world.

There are many other things I think students should know (they should know some history, philosophy, political theory, what's going on in the world, etc.). They need to know these to be good citizens, but not good artists. I wish these two things were tied together, but they aren't. This is something I can't cover here, but education is being instrumentalized, pushed towards training and valued only for the jobs it prepares students for. This is a larger and more serious fight.

The closest thing I've encountered to a prefect art school was the structure I had when I taught a group of MCAD students in Ireland. The students took one studio class from the faculty at the school and an Irish Studies class. The rest of the nine credits was essentially an independent study with the MCAD faculty member. The school was two miles outside of a town of 450, so it was very isolated. The students were thrown into a situation with almost no structure, at least in the way they had become accustom to at MCAD. They soon realized that they had to be self-directed and that anything positive that was going to come of this experience was going to be up to them. They were responsible for their own education.

We ended up doing three things every week: a seminar on a reading, a critique of two student's work (one hour each) and individual meetings. In a week this does not amount to a lot of time, but due to the nature of the situation and the students who were there, everyone was very engaged. It took no work on my part to get discussion going. These activities, along with their studio work, fed them all week.

I soon decided that my biggest effort would be to teach by examples. I made up a little contest in my head; I wanted to be the person to spend the most time in their studio. This ended up being a source of a little pride and a lot of humility: I lost. This was despite spending around eighty hours a week in the studio.


Art as a discipline or institution (Western, contemporary art)⁠[1] is not well understood, even by many artists. This bothers me. Art is a knowledge producing discipline made under particular historical conditions. One of the most important of these is that it is autonomous; artists have no boss to tell them what to do, tell them what is “good” or “bad”, or pay them. Questions of value (not necessarily monetary) are answered and debated within the discipline by artists, critics, curators and collectors, among others. This autonomy makes art radically unpredictable. There is no way to tell what the nature of the next important art pieces will be (or if they'll be “pieces”). None of this means art is “separate” from life, whatever that might mean.

Art is not special. And many things are not art. Design is not art; it is made under very different conditions. There are people blurring these boundaries, but in general this holds true. Art is not better than design, they just do different, though related, things. Craft is not art, though again, they are related and due to the impossibility of predicting what form important art might take, it could look a lot like craft. But again, generally craft is not art. Again, also, art is not better than craft.

There are many definitions of success, if we are to believe the panel participants (myself included). I would think it follows that there are also many definitions of failure. Any definition of success that is constructed simply to stave off a sense of failure isn't much of a definition. I think we have to take responsibility for our failures, both personally and as communities. I don't think my exhibition record is anything to write home about. The state of visual arts writing in the area runs from mediocre to appalling, with very few exceptions. The two best art departments in the state may be a state college and a religious college. Getting defensive, making excuses or turning a blind eye to these situations won't change them.

What makes a good art school? Committing to it. Keeping things simple (not easy).⁠ [2] Knowing what you mean by “art”. Saying “yes” instead of “no”. Taking risks. Going against the grain. Why would you want to do anything else?

— Aaron Van Dyke

[1] This is changing. With the rise in economic power of many Asian countries (and Japan has been in this situation for decades) contemporary art can hardly be defined as Western in any strict sense, though we might try to claim its heritage.

[2] I always use the analogy of breaking rocks. It's very simple, bang one rock against another, but it's also very hard.

These texts were written for Art and Design (Mis)Education, a series of two symposiums held in Minneapolis in the fall and winter of 2011. http://www.quodlibetica.com/constellations/art-and-design-miseducation/ (RIP Quodlibetica)