Should Art Be Taught?

Speech delivered to the 136th Assembly of Members of the Royal Academy of Art at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, May 13 2016

I am going to talk to you today about the transitional if not transformational process that art schools are going through at the moment. I will discuss what that may mean for the future with some reflections on the past. There isn’t time to go into the particular history of this art school, but after 91 years, the important thing to say is that there IS a history although you wouldn’t know it if you just walked into the school for a visit. Art Schools always try and look as contemporary as possible!! BUT there is a history and it is deeply embedded in the DNA of institution. And that history is rich in output and rich in graduates. 

James Elkins from the Art Institute of Chicago points out that so much of early training in the arts was “to enable students to draw from memory.” (19) (Why Art Cannot Be Taught) This was not so much in the service of originality but was oriented to training the mind and increasing the visual acuity, memory and imaginative abilities of students. Although we now use different terms and there are many more disciplines in art schools, the same values of visual acuity, imagination and memory are still prevalent. 

As recently as last Saturday a distinguished contemporary artist implicitly criticized art schools in a manner not so different from the criticisms of the 1850’s when post the Great Exhibition in London, both artists and their patrons claimed that art schools inhibited creativity and imagination because too many of the works that were shown used technology and untraditional methods. I will come back to this point in a moment. Suffice to say, that the tensions between idealized forms of learning in the arts and the push for greatness and success of individual artists continues to be a source of tension. Many of these tensions centre on whether art schools release or inhibit creativity, whether they simply replicate existing forms of expression or whether they are sources of innovation and change. These are not simple binaries. Rather, art schools celebrate the rather small number of their graduates who MAKE it in the art world and pretty much pay no attention to everyone else. Yet, only a small percentage of graduates from art schools cross the threshold into recognition and everything that comes with it. The question for schools is whether we need to be more cognizant of the implications of that division.  

Artists who teach in art schools often see the differences between their art practices and teaching as a fundamental division — a sort of two solitudes. Studio practice is generally off site or at a different location from the school, a protected place where students are sometimes invited to help build or construct art for other artists, but not as a place of formal learning. 

As we shall see, this division has been a characteristic of art schools since their professionalization in the early fifteenth century. (Art academies of various sorts started in the twelfth century and there were often as many as 500 in a country like Italy, but professional studio based vocational schools really proliferated from the 1830’s onwards.) Most teachers in art schools are themselves not famous or have not crossed the threshold into the upper reaches of the art world. Nonetheless, their work may be as important as their nearby colleagues. The question is how do these differences translate into teaching and learning experiences for students?

In general, teaching is seen through the lens of practice-based outcomes and strategies of teaching and learning are seen to be different from strategies for making or creating. I started a studio for filmmaking at a college in Montreal in the 1970’s and was told many times that to be creative meant not thinking too much. Be spontaneous and the insights and epiphanies will come. One of Canada’s most important filmmakers came to give a class and he warned everyone about the negative impact of theory on creativity. I would argue that that tension continues today and is often evidenced by the fact that critical studies are divided off from studio courses. 

Studios are often seen as substitutes for other modes of learning not central parts of all engaged forms of pedagogy. Or, as was often stated in Bauhaus discussions of learning, some form of activity always precedes learning. This is a powerful trope but it does not mean that theory and practice are in opposition. It is more the case that they are brought together by every engaged act of creative engagement.  

I cherish the central importance of the studio experience both for teachers and learners. To me, there is nothing more important than the struggle to engage with material practices and/or other forms of practice that may in fact have no visible outcomes, but are nevertheless integral to learning.

Chris Frayling the former Rector of the Royal College of Art captures some of this when he says, “the sense of understanding things, experiencing them, learning how to do them and getting tangible results,” for him is at the heart of creative engagement and different forms of practice. 

Yet, studio practice can never be an end in itself. And creative epiphanies are rare if they happen at all. 

And, even in the small art schools of the nineteenth century where there were often no more forty or fifty students, the academic study of form, function and object was crucial to the success of students. So, distinctions between different levels and different ways of learning need to be discussed and deepened. 

In the nineteenth century critiques were deeply informed by philosophy and other emerging disciplines. There was a more linear but also important connection between studio work and the intellectual life of places like Paris and Berlin. Studios were temporary sanctuaries sandwiched in between fierce arguments about different mediums and disciplines, their importance and impact. Studios were permeable and often crucial sites of exhibition and discussion.

In contemporary art schools there are striking differences between studios, labs, workshops and classrooms. Each often has its own culture. Disciplines are taught as if their differences are one of the foundations for originality and creativity. We continue to use systems of classification that may not be appropriate for the time we are in. And frankly, the art school rush to be current and contemporary is as bad as the resistance to change. 

So, a fair claim could be made that studios continue to be fundamental to art schools but one could argue that that is just not enough. I will address this thought in a moment. 

In most cases as I said, artists were seen as outsiders and art schools became increasingly eclectic venues where people at the margins of society could find a home and interact with and learn from fellow travelers. I mention this history because there is a certain romanticism to this development and notwithstanding numerous challenges, that original model continues to resonate to this day. And it resonates most in those schools which have tried to sustain studio practices as their primary approach to learning.

It is important to note that in an age where boundaries are falling between all sorts of practices and where artists have the capacity to engage with multiple forms of expression, media and audiences, Art Schools persist in defining themselves through their traditional disciplines and yet simultaneously claim to be at the forefront of experimentation and innovation. Art School writ large is often referred to through these traditions and new disciplines are seen and felt to be interlopers if not antithetical to the mission of the Art School. I would argue that Art Schools have ceased to be leaders in many of the disciplines they teach in large measure because few of the schools have examined their histories and often no longer know why some areas are static and others are very dynamic. 

I am really interested at the interface between tradition and revolution. How can art schools regain their position as leaders in producing not only great art but new generations of leaders in all creative disciplines?

How, for example can we hold onto the core of the craft process while also supporting new modes of production? How can we engage with the hand and the eye, keep the physical nature of art production alive and well and simultaneously work with virtual tools? How can history, analogue processes for example be sustained while also recognizing the integral role played by digital technologies? 

What is experimentation in the 21st century and do art schools continue to value testing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not?

What do we mean by fabrication in a transitional time for education in the arts? What do we mean by craft? Let me quote the following to you from 1901 when among others, Charles Robert Ashbee was asking major questions about the role of art in the coming 20th century. “Modern civilization rests on machinery and no system for the endowment or for the encouragement or the teaching of art can be sound that does not recognize this.” This is from his book entitled, Should We Stop Teaching Art? 1901. His second statement is that the craft cannot be learned in the school, it can only be learned in the life of the workman in the workshop. We don’t have time to delve more deeply into this discussion, but experiential learning, coops and internships are examples of his second notion at work and the struggle with technology is an example of the first. Of greater importance perhaps is his assertion that learners have to teach themselves. Today, we call this informal learning. 

So, here is another longstanding tension. For centuries, great artists have been self-taught. Their role in art schools has been to transmit what they know and then to judge whether their students have adequately responded to the challenge often of imitation and sometimes of originality. 

But, let me reference Ashbee one more time to show how embedded certain aspects of art school cultures are and how over 117 years ago, debates we consider to be contemporary were in fact taking place with same degree of vigor. Ashbee says, “In a period of ten years, 459 students have been trained at the Royal College of Art; out of these only 32 have made the practice of art in any form their livelihood while 126 earn their living as teachers.” (16) How familiar! Or, this. “The fact that out of 459 students, 126 earn their living by teaching is an even more damaging criticism of the system; for it means that the perpetuation of a type of teacher — the Art School Master — who is divorced from the actual conditions of life and often teaches what he does not practice.” (17) Reference

I leave it to you to speculate on why this particular challenge continues, but it does point out that for better or worse, governments have internalized these valuesand expectations largely because we have not developed better arguments to justify the claims we make about the impact and importance of contemporary art schools.

So, let me turn to the transitions we are experiencing at the moment and how they mirror debates across not only our sector, but also the university sector itself.


We are moving at high speed towards a series of micro-worlds, where different types of practice, traditional forms of production, and established notions of expression are foregrounded by small communities with shared interests. Increasingly, as we are witnessing in the United States, these micro-communities are seeking to communicate and in some cases impose their views on others. Micro-communities are characterized by common notions of value and communal structures that generally reinforce often unspoken but shared ideas about the world and the place of their members in it. 

Art Schools have always been defined by an explicit set of boundaries either produced through a dominant movement or the individuals that define those movements. Conceptualism is a good example of this tendency but there have of course been many others. Contemporary art schools have become micro-communities trying to justify their existence to variety of stakeholders and this is particularly the case in Canada. 

In an age largely defined by government policies that seek uniformity and linearity, outputs and inputs, outcomes and more, art schools have come under attack for their perceived distance from the needs of the communities they serve. 

The communities we serve. Why do we teach art? Why do we engage with the creative process in the first place? What does it mean to serve a community or communities?

Which communities do we indeed serve? It could be argued that contemporary artists seek community when necessary and isolation as a context for creative practice. I have met very few artists who have said to me, I don’t want to sell my art. Nor have I met artists who say, keep me away from the patrons or for God’s sake I don’t want to have a show at MOMA.

Actually, to be a bit more accurate, I have met some creators who speak with disdain about art worlds and worlds of art but carefully exhibit in every venue they can find and relish fame as much as the next person. Artists seek autonomy and independence and understandably fame and yes, power. 

But, the transitional phase we are in is leveling the playing field. There are now so many ways in which art and creative work can be distributed that autonomy is hard to maintain unless you are famous. This is why art schools are increasingly talking about business practices, the nature of markets and best practices when it comes to marketing work. Art schools have also become more conscious of where their graduates end up and track their careers in a much more formal manner. 

Yet, all of this feels somehow antithetical to the mission of art schools. And it shouldn’t.


Is the purpose of art school to train budding artists in the techniques they need to become creators? In the 19th century, craft, technique, teaching form and function was essential to the success of art schools. Keep in mind, there were no degrees, little certification and more often than not art schools were small, and reflected the individual proclivities and the particular strengths of one movement over another either through their teachers or more rarely through their students. 

Today, art schools have as their mission a broadly based education that may or may not lead to a career in a specific discipline. They have shifted away from their vocational role in the 19th century to a more liberal arts approach. Art Schools have generally grown in size and in Canada they are publicly funded. 

To be publicly funded means more than receiving money from government. Arts Schools in general have had some trouble in getting their collectives heads around this challenge. Government funding comes with a variety of obligations that may not match the values of the schools. For example, the government wants to know what happens to our graduates. Is this fair? Is this part of our mission? Art Schools have always celebrated the members of their communities who have become famous. But, that is a small minority of people. What happens to everyone else? We cannot simply ignore them.

Everybody else. The vast majority of our students go onto success in many fields and many disciplines. This is their success not ours although we may claim some influence and impact. No one knows exactly what they are or will become. What we can do is understand our students better so that we can exchange practices and ideas with them. What we can do is spend more informal time with the students engaging with their goals even if those goals are not ours. Our mission becomes to understand the different generations who walk through our doors, to produce flexible ways in which in these discussions can be held and to create venues that open learners to the many different ways in which they see themselves and their ambitions.

The contemporary art school MUST become student centric, must orient itself to continual change, needs to redefine its disciplines, needs to look carefully at new disciplines but not because they are fashionable but because they add value to student experiences. This orientation to students cannot be achieved without integrating studio experiences into every aspect of a student’s experience. It also cannot be achieved without open discussion about the future, about where the learning might lead, about the context in which the learning is taking place and about the many different ways in which what has been learned in art schools can be applied to different careers and life experiences. 

Key words for the future include:

1. Contingency

2. Design

3. Pedagogy

4. Innovation

5. Experiential learning

6. Studio practices

7. Computer programming

8. Cultural Diversity and Inclusion

9. DIY activities

This is not a definitive list.