by Bayles & Orland
I am the product of academic training: three universities for fine art and two for earth sciences. Naturally, I became an academic and served as a college faculty member for many years. Therefore, Chapter 7 "The Academic World" interests me. But, before I delve into it, I'd like to acknowledge the fact that no academy or professor succeeds unless the students are willing and eager to learn.
A great example of this is my most recent student, Carolyn Abrams. She began private painting lessons with me last October and stepped over an important threshold as an artist when she completed her first full-scale triptych last week. Please take a look and read her wonderful statement about this piece, the first in a series, here. Carolyn achieved a great deal because of her desire to learn, her refusal to give up when it became difficult, and her innate ability to unleash her creative spirit with passion and intelligence.
So, what do Bayles & Orland have to say about The Academic World? First, they acknowledge that academic training doesn't always result in a positive outcome, or even the desired outcome. But, they do find usefulness in it. Beginning with faculty issues, the authors note that artists who teach at academies often succumb to spending less time creating art and more time in teaching and academic service. This is true, although I've known many professors who protect their creative time and are productive in art. On the positive side, these academics do teach and inspire budding artists and serve as a role model. This is a powerful influence.
And then, there's the student perspective. Universities don't prepare art students for careers, except for teaching art. As the authors point out, the M.F.A. was created to provide the credential necessary for teaching fine art in the academy. I was once invited to guest lecture a college class about the business of doing art because no course existed in the curriculum to teach it. Throughout their tenure in college, students gain technical skills in artmaking and a strong background in art history and theory in addition to a wide spectrum of courses in other disciplines. This is a valuable education, indeed. But, students aren't prepared for the challenging art world outside the university setting where they're nurtured and protected.
Next, Bayles & Orland turn their attention to art books, one of my passions. They write that when we read about the works and lives of other artists, what we really gain from artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared - and thereby disarmed - and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. Isn't that true? Further, they write: nothing really useful can be learned from viewing finished art. At least nothing other artists can usefully apply in making their own art. The really critical decisions facing every artist - like, say, knowing when to stop - cannot be learned from viewing end results. For that matter, a finished piece gives precious few clues as to any questions the artist weighted while making the object.
Personally, I love reading art books because they do answer a lot of questions. I do learn about technique, I can learn from the finished work, and I am inspired by the life-long struggles and challenges faced by other artists - especially if they succeeded in overcoming them.
Many people question the necessity or even relevance of academic training in fine art. I don't think it's necessary since many of our finest artists never set foot in an educational institution. And, the credential is somewhat meaningless if you're not planning on teaching art. Furthermore, I'm offended by people who wave about their credentials in an elitist manner as if to suggest that it sets them above other artists. Although I gained a great deal from my own academic experience, I also gained just as much outside of it. Creativity isn't bestowed by universities upon their students. We're born with it, and there's no set formula for how to develop it. That's the good news!
What are your thoughts?