Teaching Philosophy: Developing a Critical Awareness.
There are several questions that I have been asking myself since I have begun teaching:
Teaching, to me, is a quest to continuously reinvent the process, to adapt and build upon every new teaching situation and transform it into a valid teaching methodology. I have been questioning the current state of teaching art at a major university in a sculpture program that remains open ended and experimental in nature. Part of this opportunity is to formulate my own language and teaching practice by being an integral part of developing a body of students. I have also been researching what it takes to be a teacher of art in the university as well as in the contemporary art world.
Several articles have been published recently, in popular art magazines, critically looking at art schools, universities and the teachers/artists who have had a hand in forming what and how we teach today. What is most criticized and talked about is the notion that the art school system has become a factory of institutional learning. I share the opinion that students are developing their ideas of success based on other artists and following a path that has become a paved highway. Given the financial responsibility one has towards the student loan and parental supplementations, justifying art school is difficult and I can understand why students would want to jump onto that highway instead of creating their own path. The university system itself has a difficult time validating their own art programs and often they are the first budgetary cutbacks. It is the century-old argument being put forward: Is art actually valuable? How can a person make money being an artist? Whether it is the major universities or a small local community college, art school has developed a defense mechanism. It relies on a pre-described and safe standard of educating the young artist. What the institution promotes is a snapshot image of success if the art student is able to follow the path that has already been laid out. This path is based on institutional pressure to be profitable—in essence selling a prescribed “this is how to do it”.
Many of the claims of these articles boil down to a need for change or restructuring of the art institution. At times I couldn’t agree more. Expectations have changed both for the student and the teacher. Undergraduate students have developed sophisticated notions of the art world and quickly are realizing that they want more and they want it done faster. Expedited schooling can often times be contradictory to the need for intellectual development. In an advanced level sculpture course, it can be quite surprising to find that the majority of the students will know who Jason Rhodes, Mindy Shapiro or Matthew Barney are, and not have any idea of who Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brancusi or even Marcel Duchamp are. Furthermore, artists like Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Ann Hamilton are important artists to be concerned with as an art student. These artists help to contextualize a student’s lineage and development of an art career. At best, these artists are glanced over in a world art course and never spoken of again until brought up in a special topics course or in class discussions.
Students have always asked faculty, peers and themselves “Do I have what it takes to be an artist?” The truth is that educational system has convoluted expectations of what is needed or desired from the art student. Sometimes, it demands a standard that cannot be applied to each and every student. Specifically, in most contemporary institutions, the breakdown of walls between various media (i.e. painting, sculpture, ceramics, photo, video, poetry, music, performance, digital) is expected of the contemporary art student. Art students are no longer bound and should not be bound to follow a medium. Instead the student is pushed to follow an idea or concept as the basis for making artworks. Craft, which is important, has taken a secondary role to concept, an idea that is nothing new to the art world in the past thirty years. In the educational setting, craft verses concept is a pivotal conversation teachers have with students. There are notions that concept is above all the only important moment in making a work and the development of how something is constructed is not important. Conversely, there are also widely accepted viewpoints that craft is all that matters to justifying a work of art. At times this is the truth, but it is never a constant. Teaching good craft can be a simple confidence builder, and universally understood method between teacher and student. But how, then, do we as teachers pull our students out of learning a vocation and into the conversation about art? We start with concepts and critiques. Concepts are fickle things students have a difficult time navigating through. In the beginning, students often take criticism personally. Critiques are moments of terror built around a unified uncertainty. Students avoid talking to each other for fear of hurting one another’s feelings or at risk of expressing unintelligent thoughts and opinions. Alternatively, they look to the teacher for approval, which is rarely received. The concepts are critiqued and students are often pushed to go back to the drawing board to re-develop their conceptual language. Teaching concepts becomes akin to teaching craft as there is a craft to developing a concept. As teachers, we are always asking the students to pear down the concept, to get to the core by discovering the truth behind what it is they are trying to talk about. We ask them to make this process instinctual, just as the fundamentals of design have become second nature.
Art school is a place to connect with other artists on a student and professional level. It is a unique and honorable experience where students are expected to mingle with the artist lifestyle, build a portfolio, develop an art language that is relevant, have conversations about art, practice art making, and develop critical thinking skills. However, a student’s idea of art school has transformed from one that instills a sense of privilege to one that has developed into an idea of rights without passage; in other words, they are just trying to get through it and not spending the time investigating what it is to become an artist.
Teaching is not a disgruntled profession but a profession where critical awareness is needed in order for the educator to look at the big picture. What I have realized in the time from being a student to my current role as a teacher is that there is a demand to expedite the educational process. The question that I continuously ask is “How can I facilitate the process of slowing down and get a student to spend more time with something?” Teaching patience has become an integral method, and building assignments that reflect this notion are critical in the classroom. In the Sculpture II: Visual Thinking course I have designed, the idea is to intentionally slow students down enough to look at their own process in the way that they think about the world. In a four-month semester, there are only three projects to be completed. Most students begin working on an idea without thinking it through. I encourage them to deliberate by giving a large part of the class time to brainstorming, reading discussions, individual meetings, group critiques of drawings and models as well as in process critiques of the actual project. Along the way, I ask students questions about their thinking process and encourage them to ask questions to each other to help guide and discover new ideas and processes. While this may not seem like a revolutionary process in the classroom, it is one that consistently works well at this level.
What does it really take to become an artist in contemporary society?
Many of my colleagues and former professors have driven home the cold hard fact that the studio practice is no longer the only viable way for the artist or the student artist to “make it”. We are challenged to answer “How do we make it as an artist?” Assuming there is no longer a definitive answer to what it takes to make art, we have become part of a system that questions making art at all. I believe it is a critical time in art history to compare the survival of the artist to the survival of humanity. Art has the power to connect us to ourselves and allows us to look at the world critically. Living at a time when children are born into unquestionable realities of war, poverty, and video games, teachers have a tremendous responsibility in determining the value of art in society. I believe in the need to teach that art questions, informs and creates poetic movements in a society that has a dwindling sense of humanitarianism. Recently, I met with Nuha Khoury, PhD, who is Dean of Dar al-Kalima College in Bethleham, Palestine, a college with a mission statement that reads: “Cultivating Talent, Communicating Hope, Creating A New Future”. Dr. Khoury and I talked about the power of teaching art to a student who lives a life without hope, in a prison-like environment, and why it is important to make art in this environment. What is the relevance of art to a humanity that has been destroyed, decayed and humiliated? Art creates hope and is one solution to their situation.
The contemporary state of teaching art presents several facets, each with a unique reflection displaying truths and familiarities. Often times it is quite difficult to see what the truth of teaching is—a challenge we all face as educators. Transforming the place of learning is a difficult task, but is the responsibility of the teacher when perceived deficiencies become the paradigm in which we exist. In my situation, I wish to be able to continuously adapt to this process of critically looking at education and conversing about creative solutions with peers, students and colleagues to the educational dilemma.