Rethinking art education

“In arts education, something profound is happening that will force us to rethink what and how we teach,”  writes Sean Buffington in the Chronicle of Higher Educationimgres

“Art making has changed radically in recent years. Artists have become increasingly interested in crossing disciplinary boundaries—choreographers use video, sculpture, and text; photographers create “paintings” with repurposed textiles. New technologies enable new kinds of work, like interactive performances with both live and Web-based components. International collaboration has become de rigueur. Art and design pervade the culture—witness popular television programs like Top Design, Ink Master, and—the granddaddy of them all—Project Runway.And policy makers and businesspeople have embraced at least the idea of the so-called creative economy, with cities rushing to establish arts districts, and business schools collaborating with design schools.

“Those developments are already affecting how the arts are taught: Curricula are becoming more flexible, with students encouraged to reach outside their departments to master whatever tools they need to make the art they want to make.

“But there is another shift occurring that is more subtle and more destabilizing to art colleges: Suddenly, everyone is—or can be—an artist.

“The means of artistic production are widely available, resulting in what I call a radical democratization of artistic expression. It is possible now, at very low cost, to acquire sophisticated creative tools and to use them without much training. Indeed, the tools themselves can provide significant guidance to the novice user and even make creative decisions for him or her. And, of course, work produced in this way can be disseminated almost instantly to potentially enormous audiences—as free content or packaged and sold as consumer products.

“One might question whether such cultural production ought properly to be called artistic. Artistry, after all, is manifested not in the thing made but in the judgment exercised in its making. Polaroid and Instamatic cameras might have made us all vacation photographers, but most of us never become Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander. And diehard conceptualists might go further and argue that it’s the idea more than—or in place of—its crafted form that makes art meaningful and sets it apart from mere expression or observation.

“The technological changes we are witnessing will not threaten conceptual rigor or craft, nor will the ease of expression and communication make art obsolete. But these shifts are changing what we mean by art making and what counts as meaningful, crafted expression. To say so is not to judge the quality of that expression or to lament the rise of vulgarity or the lowering of standards. It is simply to observe that this democratization of expression will alter fundamentally how students—aspiring artists—think about art, its meaning and purpose, and the ways in which it is made.

“These shifts will also change the professions for which educational institutions like mine prepare students. After all, if technology becomes smart enough to make design decisions, then designers could increasingly become technicians, operators of machines instead of creative professionals. But the more profound—and less visible—impact will be on how students think about their creative pursuits.”


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