Why Art Cannot Be Taught

by Alison Armstrong

Why Art Cannot Be Taught, by James Elkins. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.  213pp. Paperback. ISBN: 0252069501

There is a specter haunting higher arts education today, and its name is rationalism. There are goblins, too: theory-driven art, lack of clarity in terminology and intention, hidden agendas in critiques, “de-skilling,” the manufacturing of young art stars, among others. James Elkins certainly has plenty of company1 in which to raise doubts about the teaching of visual art. Allies include art historians and artists of stature, many of whom also teach. Dave Hickey, not a visual artist, but a professor of English literature, art criticism and theory, writes: “In the present moment, artists are better off training themselves at home and acquiring the benefits of a good liberal arts or art historical education.” But Judith Russi Kirshner observes: “Creativity flourishes when there is a critical mass of diverse individuals working side by side, often in an urban setting.” Could this apply, perhaps, either inside or outside an art school environment? “In art school, a student is likely to become a better artist sooner,” said Jack Tworkov, teaching in the 1950s at Yale.2“Ultimately, the artist must transcend his teacher,” was the advice of Isamu Noguchi.3
An initial response to Elkins’s provocative title might be that his premise—that art cannot be taught—is both right and wrong, depending on how we define the notions and activities of teaching and of art. Is being an artist identical, today, with being creative? With concern for excellence and quality? Isn’t Elkins implicitly saying that it is creativity that cannot be taught?
When it comes to college-age students, who increasingly derive from diverse cultures, it may be that they learn nearly as much from one another as they do from the professors and a curriculum that purports to teach skills in evaluation as well as technical skills. But, in “Histories,” Elkins’s first chapter, he wisely points out that much has been lost to our education from classical and medieval origins—strict copying of master artworks, memory training, rhetorical speaking skills, dialectic or logical argument—and that these omissions are not now made up for in graduate schools. Before he addresses what it is to teach and to learn in studio classes, Elkins sets up a history of studio art education, from ancient times through the Baroque and up to early modernism with the Bauhaus, to demonstrate that assumptions about the role of the artist in society have changed, as have the notions of what can be taught.
The second chapter, “Conversations,” is rooted in either/or thinking, for example, in the two extremes addressed in the Absolutist versus the Relativist stance with regard to the Core Curriculum problem. According to Elkins, the Absolutist believes that a child does not know what he needs to know, in terms of history or skills, and that what children are interested in is necessarily too limited, very contemporary, usually high-tech and often determined by the purse. “Relativist learning, in contrast, would seek to revise the curriculum every so often to keep it responsive to the surrounding culture.” In other words, does teaching (whatever the curriculum) prescribe, preserve and define a culture? Or does it react to what is perceived to be a culture? The latter, it would seem, presents the danger of “dumbing down.” Elkins lists nine types of art that cannot be taught in studio classes, including art involving traditional techniques; art that takes time; works in a single style; works in too many styles; a style that requires naiveté; art that needs extensive contact with non-art information and industrial art.
In subsequent chapters he draws on the four forms of literary criticism, as elucidated by M.H. Abrams, but he only partially understands their limited usefulness when applied to visual art. Themimetic, the pragmatic, the expressive and the objective were terms meant to apply to the temporal language arts; any spatial visual art that is analyzed according to these four terms must then be translated from “lit. crit.” One is here irresistibly reminded of the postmodern presumptive application of terminology from semiotics, structuralism and Lacanian deconstructionist literary theory to architecture by Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk and others in the 1980s. Their “Deconstructivist” exhibition of Malevich-esque red and black maquettes and drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, along with their writings, obscured more than they elucidated. Elkins sees Abrams’s categories as a “nice complement” to his own six kinds of criticism: professional, ethical, theological, metaphysical, scientific and teleological. Yet such precisely categorized approaches, either to the discussion and analysis of art or to its making, push the intuitive into the realm of the fully conscious, rational and intentional. Is it irrational to say that art can be taught, since we do not know how we teach art? Elkins finally concludes in the affirmative. But first he describes intentionality as fundamental to both teaching and learning: “Teaching requires the fiction of intentionality.” Despite the abstract nature of teaching, he says, we concentrate on finding rational content, focusing on only that part of classroom (and studio) activity that is capable of being analyzed.
In the end, Elkins is skeptical of trying to change the way art is purportedly taught. “Why change what we know so little about? Any fundamental change in teaching habits will also change our concept of art,” he claims. Is concept, for him, a fixed definition of a function that critiques society (as art does for the modernist), or does the word concept mean that art is a fluid activity that is always responding to (and affirming) societal changes (as it does for the anti-modernist)? Doesn’t teaching, that is, intentional and conscious motive, subvert the unconscious, intuitive and accidental during the student’s making of art? W.B. Yeats warned: “It is a mistake to expect the Will to do the work of the Imagination.”4 At times, it seems that Elkins would agree: “To hope for an improved kind of art teaching is to also hope for an impoverished art, one that depends more on [the] rational, speculative….”
He also argues that studio critiques are too short and that we must become aware of unexamined assumptions in voicing critical responses to students’ artwork. He complains: “there is no good theory about art critiques that would give us the possibility of understanding what actually happens in art classes.” But can a theory do that? Theories are not just descriptive; more often they are pre- or proscriptive. He apparently wants both open-endedness and closed systems. He completes his book with a series of “Suggestions” to raise some unexamined assumptions with “a few whimsical questions,” followed by “Conclusions.”
In a recent survey in Art in America (May 2007), Elkins focused on “Ten Reasons to Mistrust the New Ph.D. in Studio Art,” concluding “no one has come up with a persuasive argument that art is a kind of knowledge.” 5 However, Leonardo da Vinci himself insisted that drawing and painting were a kind of science—that is, a way of gaining knowledge. 6 As Chair of the department of art history, theory and criticism at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and Chair of the department of art history at University College, Cork, Ireland, Elkins has written or edited publications that address higher degrees in studio art abroad—and his alarm that they are becoming more popular in North America. Certainly, as an arts administrator, a teacher and a practicing artist with vivid memories of his own art school experiences, Elkins is qualified to critique his own profession. Yet his arguments are at times difficult to follow and seem ingenuous. They contradict the very theorizing and list making that he indulges in as he attempts to rationalize and justify an activity that defies rationalism. His conclusion? Teachers teach creative subjects in the heart of a contradiction: “Even now, having finished the book, it is not apparent to me how my rational analyses bear on the irrationalities of art teaching.” 
In a New York Times survey7 of then-young successful fiction writers, a consensus emerged that writing workshops cannot teach creativity. Novelist Jessica Hagedorn: “You have to have it from the beginning. It’s a gift. But tools can be taught….” Novelist Bruce Palmer: “There’s an inherent ability to being a writer, but…teaching in workshops can help enormously….” Susan Minot, short story author and writing teacher at the 92nd Street Y: “Writing schools are helpful for people who want to refine their sensibility as writers. It’s not going to turn you into a writer.” Paul Auster: “I believe that every writer teaches himself how to write…. Writing classes probably teach people to become better readers. The real work of learning how to write is a completely personal and private struggle.” If there is an analogy to be made between making visual art and making literary art, it seems important to hear what artists themselves have to say. Current students at the School of Visual Arts have responded to the issue. Students can learn from one another to become better artists, according to Sandy Lim. Skillful use of mediums, career tactics and development of style can all be taught, but not how to be imaginative, says Eric Kaczmarczyk. Skye Greenfield thinks that, since feelings cannot be taught and art is derived from a creative feeling, it can’t be taught either, but techniques can.
Elkins’s concern is urgent, troubling, but in the end affirmative. Not every activity can be reduced to nuts-and-bolts objective rationality. The very essence of making art—and this includes the art of teaching it—eludes the limits of rational language. Elkins prefers to embrace Pyrrhic inaction and pessimism because “art teaching is already a mess….It does not make sense to try to understand how art is taught.” Precisely. That it is taught and how are, however, the issues which defy his conclusion. His modesty is disarming, coming as it does at the very end of a painstakingly argued but sometimes maddening book marred by banal analogies, cartoons and simplistic either/or distinctions. He has played with the Socratic method, questioning more than he answers in order to raise consciousness above the hidden assumptions that may mislead both teachers and students. Understanding and clarity in the practice of art-making are not arrived at through purely rational, cerebral, intellectual means.8 After much training, the happy accident occurs for the artist who can let go. Art, by its very nature, must go on defying the attempts of the controlling mind. I once read that it is aerodynamically impossible for the bumblebee to fly. And yet it does. Theories can be persuasive but are often refuted by the facts.


1. See “Issues & Commentary, Art Schools: A Group Crit,” Art in America (May 2007), pp. 99–113. The first two quotations derive from this article.
2. Related by his former student, New York painter William Anthony.
3. Paraphrased from Noguchi, speaking late in life and referring to his apprenticeship with Brancusi, in a film at the Noguchi Museum, Long Island City, N.Y.
4. A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1937).
5. Op. cit., Art in America. Elkins is among twelve other contributors: Suzanne Anker, Chair of the fine arts department of School of Visual Arts, New York; Laurie Fendrich, professor of fine arts at Hofstra University; Bruce Ferguson, former dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, New York; Dave Hickey, formerly professor, art criticism and theory, now a professor of English at University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Leslie King-Hammond, Dean of graduate studies at Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore; Thomas Lawson, Dean of the School of Arts at California Institute of the Arts, Valencia; Saul Ostrow, Chair of Visual Arts and Technologies Environment at the Cleveland Institute of Art; Archie Rand, professor of art at Brooklyn College; Lawrence Rinder, Dean of graduate studies at California College of the Arts, San Francisco and Oakland; Judith Russi Kirshner, Dean of the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago; Howard Singerman, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; and Robert Storr, Dean of the School of Art and professor of painting and printmaking at Yale.
6. Leonardo on Painting, edited by Martin Kemp (Yale: Nota Bene, 2001). I am thinking in particular of his arguments in favor of painting as the superior science above all other arts, see especially pp.15–33.
7. “Can Fiction Writing Be Taught?” The New York Times (October 23, 1994), p. 12.
8. In her review of The Philosophy of Teaching by John Passmore (London: Duckworth, 1980), Onora O’Neill notes that “the most important question about any teacher is whether he loves his subject and so can be ‘a begetter of passion’ for his pupils… “in the end the separation of intellect from passion and action is artificial, in teaching as elsewhere.” London Review of Books (21 May–3 June 1981), pp. 19–20.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2008, Volume 25, Number 1