Skillz Part II: that’s not art

by cjdown

Ecole des beaux-arts, students working from the live model

Ecole des beaux-arts, students painting from life, 1800’s  (Wikipedia)

In his article, Is De-skilling Killing Your Art Education?, F. Scott Hess presents several anecdotal accounts of the way that “skilled” work was discriminated against in his own education, as well that of several of his peers. In his opening example he explains that he wanted to learn how to draw the human figure, and that an “untenured professor” (i.e. less firmly attached to the institution) showed him the ropes, while the chair of the department (i.e. strongly identified with the institution), an alcoholic abstract painter, tells him that drawing the figure “is not art”, and then goes on to drunkenly smash the plaster cast that he was drawing from.

While this episode is meant to illustrate an archetypal art-school clash between painting idioms and generational investments, it also highlights a tension between competing ideas about the ways art making relates to time and history. On one hand a kind of “underground” commitment to skills and procedures that were dominant in the recent past, and on the other, an officially sanctioned sense that history “progresses” and leaves certain practices irretrievably behind. The first position assumes the ability to sustain the unrevised ideals of an earlier period, in which the warrant for making art comes from vanished monarchical and religious authority. The second position assumes the historical inevitability of current ideals, where the authority of kings and churches is replaced by capitalist markets and narratives of linear progress.

But why does this conflict seem so acute in the context of current art education? I will venture a few thoughts.

First, there is often a misalignment between the expectations of students entering programs and the sometimes unstated assumptions of institutions and faculty. For example, students may think of art making in general terms that include any and every form of creativity, from carefully stumped graphite portraits of their dog, to mixed media collages that “raise issues”, to driftwood decorated with beads, to photographs of sunsets, to digital renderings of their favorite anime character, often mixed with vague ideas about “high art”. Faculty, in contrast, will likely think about art making in more specialized terms, particularly as they relate to distinctions between “art” and “craft”, between mass culture and a more rarefied culture of avant-garde innovation, and with a much broader relationship to art history.

Mercedes Matter with students, New York Studio School

Mercedes Matter with students, New York Studio School (

Meanwhile, institutions have their own mandates and goals when it comes to education, including literacy, critical thought, skill training, disciplinary knowledge and granting academic credentials. They also tend to have biases that privilege intellectual over manual labour. Universities are premised on enlightenment ideals of human progress through rational inquiry, and this model provides an uncomfortable fit for studio practices. In the Renaissance, artists, rooted in workshops and guilds, and sponsored by wealthy, educated patrons, aspired for their work to achieve the status of “liberal art”, on par with mathematics and philosophy. They did this by emphasizing humanist ideals, the originality of individual artists, and the use of the most “advanced” aesthetic strategies, including linear perspective. The values that provide a place for art in higher education also underwrite the attitudes that seek an enforced distinction between “art” and “craft” (or theory and skill in Hess’s terms). The place of studio art in this structure is precarious, and manifests as pressure for departments and individual instructors to continually prove the intellectual, rather than the aesthetic, value of what they do in the classroom and their own studios.

We live in a pluralist time when an unprecedented range of material and conceptual approaches to art are considered to be legitimate. Although traditional criteria – such as those used by the 19th century French academy, Kantian aesthetics, or the modernist avant-garde – have faded, judgments, distinctions, and evaluations persist. This is particularly true in educational contexts, where grading is a key part of advancement through the curriculum. The same pluralism that makes this an exciting time to be an artist complicates the issue of judgment, since no universally valid criteria exist.

When subjective criteria become hardened theoretical, aesthetic, social or political positions, as they too often do, the validity of a work becomes more directly linked to its ability to fit neatly into static categories (e.g. abstraction, figuration, painting, Art, craft, advanced, reactionary, etc.), than to provide a particular experience. The problem is amplified when teachers (or critics, curators, historians, theorists) assert the exclusive authority to decide what counts and what doesn’t, what has meaning and what is consigned to invisibility. Students rightfully resent the pressure to conform to a narrow conception of what is or isn’t art. Likewise, it can be difficult for instructors to balance the need to challenge students, letting them find their own way, against their own ideological baggage.

A Lesson with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1946 photo Genevieve Naylor

A Lesson with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1946 photo Genevieve Naylor (

Although I think that Hess’s argument is simplistic, I recognize his anxiety about institutional power and its sway over art training. Anyone who has worked in the studio for any length of time will recognize the limited usefulness of rationality. To the extent that art making deals with the manipulation of material, logic only takes one so far, then physical, intuitive, and tacit knowledge has to bridge the gap. However, pure technique or “skill” similarly runs up against the problem of empty display absent an intellectual framework that allows it to articulate its specific connections to the meanings that circulate in the culture.