Art Education and Training in the Western World: notes

Medieval times saw the dominance of guilds and apprentice-model training systems. These were defined by “clearly defined hierarchy and precisely delineated distribution of tasks.” Demonstration and imitation were the emphasized modes of instruction.

The 15th century saw the creation of the first art “academies,” following the ancient Greek model of education through training the whole person. Vasari and others in Italy saw to the creation of these early models for training, in which attention to vision and nature were emphasized as well as skill in specific material trades. Notable, however, is that even the academic model held to an apprentice-master relationship of teacher to student.

Modernity saw a growing divide between those trained in craft through apprentice models and those trained in art through academic models of education. This divide of course coincided with class division, with the upper or emerging middle classes seeking training in art and the academies, and the lower classes trained in craft through apprenticeships. With the growth of capitalism, even academic art instruction saw an increased emphasis on training in production and appreciation of consumable objects – drawing, for example, found more universal value as a basic skill for use in manufacture.

The 1910’s and 20’s saw some of the most radical efforts at re-thinking art education, necessitated by political and industrial revolutions that saw an increased production of consumable goods. Germany’s Bauhaus and the Soviet Union’s Vkhutemas were the most influential of these efforst; much more is known about the Bauhaus. Gropius and others who founded the Bauhaus believed in the possibility of a universal language and a gesamtkunstwerk or ultimate artform. Toward the end of erasing the class and status divide between art and craft, these instructors emphasized both a return to material skill and an abstracted language of form and design. Students learned together, from all disciplines, about how to compose images, forms and structures that “work,” outside of any direct commerical application. Taste and aesthetic function were divorced in the interest of instructing students in universal, quantitative principles for visual and spatial harmony, clarity. Students moved from these initial courses into somewhat more specialized disciplinary areas, though even these tracks emphasized interdisciplinarity (with Architecture as a frequent umbrella area.)

Instructors at the Bauhaus included artists and designers known to many from the Modern Art collections of the world’s museums – Gropius, Breuer, Klee, Albers, Kandinsky, Van der Rohe, Moholy-Nagy, Itten.

Important to note about the Bauhaus ideal is an inherent tension between individuality and the social whole – Gropius in particular saw in the new synthesis and universality the possibility for a more progressive, inclusive, and egalitarian practice of art and design. “Fine Art” as a category took a decided backseat to “Applied Art” or design, in terms of the final outcomes of education – in one expressed ideal, Gropius hoped for a day in which students would produce prototypes for industry. At the same time, students were educated with a deliberate emphasis on development of individual perception and expression, turning away from apprentice models toward nurturing autonomous discovery. Students were led through exploration of universalizing, abstract languages as a way of returning to more innocent, childlike approaches to creation.

This conflict led to at least one notable split within the Bauhaus – Johannes Itten, responsible for the first-year course as originally conceived, left over an argument with Gropius. Itten saw Gropius’ vision of an applied art in commerce as sacrificing personal expression.

After two moves and transformations within Germany, the Bauhaus was closed by the state in 1934, branded as communist. (Russia’s school had been closed by Stalin already.)

Many of the school’s instructors and early students emigrated to North America, taking up jobs teaching in the US and Canada. Each adopted Bauhaus curricula to their new institutions, resulting in some decided changes in emphasis and approach.

In general, the newly North American instructors sought to replicate the Bauhaus pedagogical model as a method, rather than as a body of content, knowledge, or a style. This led to a shift to interest in method, at least in teaching methods, as each figure became associated with a particular institution: Albers with the Black Mountain School and then Yale, Gropius and Breuer with Harvard, Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe with Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology. Those new to the Bauhaus model often understood these figures first as teachers offering novel new methods of teaching. As they worked in dispersed and unique contexts, their methods became more clearly defined and distinct from one another.

Almost across the board, these instructors found that their approaches suited education in the US only at the introductory levels – the Bauhaus approach to integration of upper level coursework across disciplines never really left Germany. Albers’ school in North Carolina didn’t even offer upperlevel courses. Gropius was hired to teach architecture. And the IIT for Moholy-Nagy was strongly influenced by commerical art economic backers.

Their influence then, though huge and broad, was primarily on the first-level programs of college-level art education. Their work and presence eventually spawned hundreds of “foundations” programs at art schools around the United States, where first year students explored abstract, universalizing languages and mechanics before choosing their majors and moving on into specific areas.

[Some work to be done here:]

– Albers’ Black Mountain School was a huge influence on art in America, taking a decidedly experimental, individualist approach to production even as Albers persisted in the enactment and refinement of a rigid method of achieving and evaluating compositions. Cage and Rauschenberg are two of the people to come out influenced by Albers and the school. To what extent might criticism of his methods within the context of Black Mtn School represent a discussion of methodology? (Calvin Tompkins simon sez)

– What were the pre-existing modes of disciplinary education on which the Bauhaus folks were unable to have an impact? To what extent did the new foundations programs begin to influence the teaching of disciplines indirectly?

– Gyorgy Kepes left IIT and Moholy-Nagy for MIT in the 50’s/60’s. What did he take with him? What role does methodology play in his teaching and work?

Methodology in Art Education

If we define methodology as at least a consideration of HOW one goes about solving a problem or realizing a work, and at most as an agreed-upon set of methods within a profession, then we are hard-pressed to find consideration of methodology in art. More exists in design. Certainly the Bauhaus model encouraged a particular set of rigid methods, but I wouldn’t call it methodology per se, as these methods were rarely questioned. The closest we come to finding a consideration of methodology in the content of Bauhaus curricula is in the late American influences – Chris Conley and R. Wick both point to the development of the Design Methods Group in the 60s/70s out of architects in Berkeley and Canada. This group sought to place consideration of method as a central part of design practice.

Interestingly, this body of work now meets with a great deal of skepticism, as it led to a lot of “de-humanized” work with computing and design. Concern with design methodology in architecture, at least, led to standardized forms of practice and even automated, algorithmic processes of design that sought to foreground the design of methods over the design off objects. This move in architecture coincided with the emergence of serialism, ABC art, and conceptual art in avant-garde visual art and music composition.

If many describe this move to methodology as a move away from human influence or even bodies, one might also characterize this move as a late modernist strategy, in which cultural producers discover new routes to alienation from their own labor as a way of reaching more reflexively functional objects. In this late instance of quantitative approaches to design and art (recently apparent in the New Media work of Maeda, et al), the conditions of production or reception are obscure, the process of production and the resulting object foregrounded.

This consideration of methodology, of how a thing is made, is not particularly helpful because it is not in the end discursive. The means to achieving a particular end are not evaluated compared to other means. The product is evaluated and celebrated BECAUSE it considered methodology.

Richard Cary points to how a consideration of methodology has the potential to serve a more qualitative approach to creativity in art production and education. He points to the relevance of qualitative inquiry to everyday life and the production of meaning. Cary surmises that a consideration of how one chose a route of realizing a particular end result might serve to support discursive understanding of meaning and value. He is, however, wary of the phrasing “methodology” as it implies a professional standard instead of a choice of method according to context. Instead he suggests the term “research style.”

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