FRAME OF REFERENCE: Developing a Stronger Arts Curriculum

Prior to the 19th century, to study the arts was akin to acquiring a vocation. The novice trained with a master and, over years, evolved from apprentice to journeyman to master in his or her own right. This vocational practice, known as the atelier system, plunged beginners into the practice of art within the framework of the professional environment.

Despite a tepid resurgence of the atelier system, the academic environment more often shapes the path from novice to artist today. The university system cultivates the ivory tower promise of detachment, fostering intellectual focus craft and communication skills. Art students are exposed to historical contexts and conceptual paradigms.

This path is not without flaws.

According to Robert Zeller, founder of the Teaching Studios of Art, in an essay for The Brooklyn Rail: “The American university system encourages an astonishing level of conformity in regards to major political and social narratives. Most telling of all is that art students are never encouraged to think about economics.”

I celebrate the object or experience of art as art’s primary contribution to our lives, while believing that additional benefits exist.

Thomas Xenakis, adjunct lecturer in the department of art and art history at Georgetown University, suggests that vision matters: “The visual examination that is not casual, but concentrated on looking carefully and not at a glance. I hate to be cynical but this is something we are losing in our society.”

Giselle Wallace (COL ’17) shares: “I would say that my one art class at GU definitely enriched my academic experience. I would never otherwise have had the opportunity to delve this deeply into … projects with someone teaching me every step of the way, so it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

The department of art and art history puts it this way on its website: “Students work with physical objects, make things with their hands, and grapple with forms and ideas from many eras and cultures. Art expands awareness of the world and enhances our ability to communicate. Visual literacy and cultural awareness are essential to informed, responsible, and reflective engagement in the modern world.”

In an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, Precious Blake, a representative from the Baltimore-based arts education advocacy organization Arts Every Day, claimed students “find forward-thinking solutions that will be necessary to drive our work force and economy. Arts and culture also have an impact on our youth’s ability to start and lead social change.”

This creative capital — a dubious term, admittedly — is fundamental in enhancing, even redirecting, social norms and practices.

I suggest three principle challenges that university art departments can embrace to serve the arts, student, faculty and community needs in the current divisive arena of alternative facts, anti-intellectualism and neoliberal policies.

1. Maintain a fundamental skill-building curriculum while embracing new art practices.

The art world has been pushing back on the neoclassic disciplines — painting, sculpture, dance, symphony, etc. — and “white cube” display options, like commercial galleries, concert halls, or museums. According to a recent article from Salon, “the musty paintings of old masters feel entirely out of touch to a youth eager for sexuality, irony and diversity.”

Although I am not that pessimistic about the ongoing relevance of neoclassic practices, I do see a prescient need for the study of arts to keep pace with emerging art practices.

2. Integrate more multidisciplinary practices.

One facet of recent art practices involves the integration of diverse fields of expertise. The separation of distinct departments within universities and museums is administratively convenient, but it also undermines the possibility of visionary work.

The University of Sheffield in Great Britain successfully merged art and science with its three-year project, “In Praise of Air.” Professor of poetry Simon Armitage and physical chemistry professor Tony Ryan collaborated to produce a 20-meter high poem mounted on the exterior of a campus building. The banner was coated with a photocatalyst that, when exposed to sunlight, removed nitrogen oxide from the atmosphere, cleansing the air.

3. Integrate technologies and hybrid options for more democratic access.

Georgetown’s 2017 Teaching, Learning & Innovation Summer Institute, which concluded May 25, involved a week of meetings and workshops that explored ways to use new technologies to expand academic opportunities beyond classroom walls. The discussions also revealed individual and institutional resistance to this democratization of the learning experience.

Successfully addressing these challenges will require a multifaceted approach.

In a commentary for Education Week, National Endowment for the Arts’ Sunil suggests: “Arts education, like the arts themselves, is a complex system that requires careful mapping of relationships among actors, inputs, outputs and outcomes. It may be necessary to venture into terrain not conveniently marked ‘arts’ or ‘education.’”

Crafting an arts curriculum that best serves students will also require an honest and rigorous examination of inter- and intradepartmental policies and practices that, despite the hard work of experienced minds and dedicated hearts, build more walls than bridges. It is both tempting and common to try to meet challenges by procuring evermore resources. However, this temptation can blind us to underutilized resources already at hand.

bruceheadshotBruce McKaig is a professor in the Art & Art History Department at Georgetown University. 

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