Relativity in Art School

Pretty Pretty



There are lessons learned in art school from the coursework, and there are lessons learned in art school from the experience. Both are instructive.

The lessons taught in classes generally relate to the history, theory, technique, context, and vocabulary of that discipline. This is true across the arts and is the basic structure of an education in those various fields. To what degree each aspect is taught depends on the school, the nature of the class, and the teacher.

There is no objectively correct way to teach art, so sometimes the balance between two of those categories can cause conflict—a common one being theory vs technique. A conceptually minded artist may dismiss a craft-oriented curriculum as undesirable since it is focusing too narrowly on a specific set of skills. Meanwhile, a technically minded artist will lament that the tradition they admire is being constantly called into question and not being taught as it was to artists in other cultures at other times.

Art school, as it exists currently, is a relativistic affair. Once, when I was in graduate school, a professor suggested that we move on from such designations as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when critiquing work. She didn’t mean that she wanted us to be more specific. She was suggesting that statements regarding quality in any way were not productive. That position did not appear to outwardly surprise or trouble any of the MFA candidates in the room.

It didn’t surprise me either, but it confirmed something I found troubling about art school—its illogical structure. If nothing is better or worse, then how is improvement possible? Why have an art school if not to improve?

I understand her position better now, and concede that it has merit. It may be fair to say that artists do not actually improve; they just learn new methods of expression. What is the measure of a quality? What scale does one use?

While I’m tempted to conclude with a working theory of how to rate artwork fairly, it would be disingenuous. The truth is I still struggle with this one. I have never found an objective way to judge art. When I need to pick favorites, or make creative choices, I still simply rely on intuition.



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