Message from the Chair
Why teach visual art? What is there about visual art that is teachable? To whom should one teach art? If you want to think about these questions and to act on them, and if you identify strongly as a teacher and as an artist, then our department is the place for you.
We are located in the premier faculty of fine arts in Canada, at a vibrant University that offers the full range of disciplinary enquiry. For this reason, every Concordia student who passes through our program is exposed to the energy and creativity of scholars and researchers in the humanities and the sciences and professional artists and art educators. Artists in the Fine Arts Faculty work at the intersection of the traditional arts (sculpture, textiles, painting, drawing, theatre, film, music) and the burgeoning domains of new media-where older art forms are transmogrified by technology. Thus, as a student here you will be exposed to the classical components of the Beaux Arts tradition and their 21st century digitized offspring. One of the benefits of studying at Concordia is that your thinking will be the richer because of your proximity to other students and faculty working in programmes in the humanities , social sciences and the pure and applied sciences.
Regardless of whether you are an undergraduate completing the Major or the Specialization program in art education or a Graduate student pursuing your Masters or Doctoral degree in art education, we encourage you to come up with your own answers to the questions I posed at the start of these comments-and to pose many other questions for yourselves. The answers that prospective teachers give to their questions are likely to be quite different from those framed by graduate students returning to their studies after time spent in the classroom or as a practicing artists. No matter, we adhere to no orthodoxies in this department, but one of our goals is to encourage our students to frame their own question and then to seek satisfactory answers.
My own responses to the three questions are these: Visual art should be taught because along with music and language, it is one of the distinguishing features of our species. The visual arts have existed ever since human beings achieved sentience – there is evidence of visual art forms that goes back some 30,000 years. The arts distinguish us from animals and they make our lives worth living. They help to frame our existential situations, they pose questions, they elevate and they delight. They “frame” life events as special–as Dissanayake (1995) proposes. Thus the arts will evolve and will exist, as long as humanity needs to frame aspects of our lives as “ special”. In fact, no culture has ever existed without some form of art- even though there have been many cultures, that have been deeply suspicious of the arts (the Platinists are one telling example and there is no lack of contemporary cultures that have vainly attempted to suppress the arts through iconoclasm and censorship.)
If we accept the notions of evolutionary psychologists such as Stephen Pinker (2002) and Denis Dutton (2009), human beings are “hard wired” for enjoying and creating art of all sorts. The quest for Beauty and aesthetic contemplation-although scoffed at by trendy academics-is still the universal raison d’etre for most people’s engagement with and pursuit of the visual arts. In point of fact, there is evidence from the studies of evolutionary psychologists that humanity has never lost its taste for these qualities in the objects that we chose for our delight and entertainment. So, from my perspective, these are compelling reasons for teaching the visual arts.
As for the question, “to whom should the arts be taught?” –the answer is simple- To all comers. Old, young, literate, illiterate, privileged and oppressed-“talented” and “average”. The arts are a vehicle for personal expression, problem solving, and the untrammelled play of imaginative and creative powers (Eisner, 2005). There are two caveats I invoke in relation to teaching the visual arts: 1) The arts should not be taught with the expectation that they will shape or change society. The arts reflect the culture that surrounds them, but they rarely change that culture. Far more effective tools for social change exist – Biology, economics, engineering, journalism, law, medicine, politics, plumbing. As Robert Hughes (1993) observed, (masterpiece though it may be) the Guernica did little to stop Franco’s victory in the Spanish civil war. The arts do not necessarily ennoble or offer moral guidance. Superlative performance in the visual arts, and aesthetic appreciation of the arts, can take place in the complete absence of a moral compass. History teaches us, to our sorrow, that cultured art appreciators are capable of aesthetic contemplation at one moment, and moral horrors at the next. The practice of, or appreciation of the arts, carries no guarantee of moral rectitude. In his remarkable series of lectures, The power of art, Simon Schama (2006) makes it clear that the visual genius of the French Revolution –Jean Jacques David, was simply a brush for hire. At first, he painted wonderful portraits of nobility, and then when noble heads were removed by the Guillotine, he used his talent to extoll Republican virtues and made saints out of the tyrants of the Revolution, such as Marat. David’s apotheosis of Marat –murdered in his bath by Charlotte Corday, is at once a work of terrible genius according to Schama and also a chilling propaganda billboard –a deceptive advertisement for a plaster saint. Schama points out that David kept himself alive long enough after the French Terror to work for the new French Emperor, Napoleon. Revolutionary propagandist or court sycophant, it made no difference to David, as long as he could ply his trade.
So, the visual arts should be taught, not to change the world, nor for personal “moral or ideological improvement” but to frame one’s concerns and experiences, to “hold the mirror up to nature”, and to pass on wisdom and insight to audiences both present and future.
As for what can and cannot be taught in the visual arts- genius cannot be taught. The justification for teaching the arts should never be based on the promise of forming the Rembrandts, Picassos, O’Keefes and Emily Carrs of the future. The advent of such individuals is hard to predict and should never be the objective of education. Even though artistic genius (or any other sort of genius) cannot be taught, there is plenty that can be taught, and much of this constitutes the grounds out of which great achievements do arise. The history and traditions of the arts from the four corners of the earth can be taught. Techniques and approaches to problem solving can be taught. The mental agility of creative thinkers has been studied (Root-Bernstein, 1999) and can be taught. Self-confidence problem-solving, perseverance and resilience can also be taught in the studio. (See Hetland et al, 2007).
As students of art education you will be involved in considering not only the visual arts and their allied techniques and disciplines: art history, psychology and sociology, but also the domain of teaching and the psychology of learning. To my mind, great teachers are as rare as great artists. And it may be that the influence of great teachers outweighs that of great artists, for such teachers have an extended opportunity to shape the hearts and minds of their students. And hearts and minds are truly the stuff out of which our future is shaped (See Esquith 2007). Again, as with great artists, there are components of the great teacher that cannot be formed through training. One such component is a sense of vocation for the teacher’s task. Like genius, a sense of vocation is not inculcated, it is discovered.
I hope that these remarks suggest how wide and deep a vista is created when the domains of visual art and education are integrated and considered as parts of the same program of study. With such rich possibilities before you, it should be easy to find the questions and the specific media and approaches that will sustain your studies and that will ultimately lead you beyond the ivory tower to the “real world” where your knowledge, belief, and commitment will be tested. We hope that in the course of your studies in art education you will develop the resources, both practical and theoretical that will sustain you as you become an actor in the institutions of learning, be they schools, community centres or colleges and universities. For it is in these settings that you will put to fullest use your double capacity as an inspired teacher and a thoughtful artist.
Chair, Department of Art Education
Dissanayake, Ellen, (1995). Homo aestheticus. Where art comes from and why. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Dutton, Denis, (2009). The art instinct. Beauty pleasure and human evolution. New York: Bloomsbury Press. Eisner, Elliot, (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Esquith, Rafe, (2007). Teach like your hair’s on fire. Toronto: Penguin Books.
Hetland, Lois; Winner, Ellen; Veneema, Shirley; Sheridan, Kimberly, (2007). Studio thinking. The real benefits of visual arts education. New York: Teacher’s College Press.
Hughes, Robert, (1993). The culture of complaint. The fraying of america. New York: Oxford University Press. Root-Bernstein,
Robert and Root-Bernstein Michelle, (1999). Sparks of genius: The 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Pinker, Steven, (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking Press.
Schama, Simon, (2006) The power of art. England: BBC Books.