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Hand to Hand

Post #1612 • July 10, 2013, 10:29 PM

(In this installment, after the titular post: the Quote of the Week, and the calendar.)

My worlds collided this week when Peter Plagens, whom I profiled here along with Laurie Fendrich, covered a FATE panel presented in part by Brian Curtis and Peter Kaniaris. I presented a paper at FATE myself alongside Brian and Peter K. a few years ago advocating for the primacy of hand-skills in art education.

Plagens:

The proliferation of so many art specialties raises the question of whether there any common elements of an educational "foundation." If there are, how can they be most effectively crammed into a four-year curriculum that's supposed to produce employment-ready video-game creators, carbon-fiber-kayak designers, and textile artists? Examining this issue is an organization called FATE (Foundations in Art: Theory and Education), 600 of whose members—art teachers in the undergraduate trenches, largely in regional state universities and private colleges and art schools in the "flyover states"—gathered in Savannah in April for its biannual meeting, with the Savannah college as host. ...

A few—such as University of Miami's Brian Curtis, in a "postHaus" presentation on a panel about teaching the rudiments of color—rail against the computer itself. It removes from art, he says, the essential touch of the human hand and insinuates into the fundamentals a lot of unnecessary geegaws—for example, fancy color systems "when all you really need is Isaac Newton's color wheel with a little infrared and a little ultraviolet at either end to complete it."

Most of the resistance to the digitalization of teaching art fundamentals comes from more-moderate conservatives, who, like Peter Kaniaris, of Anderson University in South Carolina, cut their artistic teeth on the still-predominant method in art schools and college art departments: a combination of the Bauhaus's "basic course" and required classes in drawing, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, what you see. Students who have taken a good bit of observational drawing, Kaniaris says, "simply have a greater range of visual experience, visual sensibility, and subsequently a wider tool set at their disposal."

This seems to have been on all our minds for quite a while. Eight years ago (!) I wrote a post for this very blog entitled This Art School Ain't Big Enough For the Two of Us, in which I opined on the selfsame topic in response to Laurie Fendrich before I had any idea who she was.

Competent interaction with materials requires hand-skills, and thus theory-driven education, again under the guise of open-mindedness, slights art to the extent that it doesn't embrace theory. The realists have it especially bad in such an environment—you could spend four years doing nothing but pounding technical chops and you still might not have the finesse to pull off great realist work. But embrace theory, and you don't have to go through all that labor. Furthermore, someone will tell you that you don't want to fool around with that old stuff anyway. The enterprise will happily sell you out from the get-go.

I give quite a bit of thought to the higher education bubble, which may have started popping in earnest since federal student loan rates reset to historical levels on July 1. Low rates, about half of the current ones, were passed with bipartisan pandering in Congress last year, but with no election looming, the pretense of concern for the future of education gave way to anguished public displays of economic illiteracy. Elizabeth Warren complained about the enormity and enormousness of student loan debt, over a trillion dollars in total, and proposed lowering the rate to match the Federal Funds Rate. The Berkshire Eagle recently reported,

"It's not just what rate. It's how do we keep college costs in check?" said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who pushed for the extension measures. "It will allow us to work through a very complicated set of issues."

What's complicated is that it's hard to jump in a lake and not get wet. Low interest rates encourage borrowing, easier borrowing stimulates demand, and increased demand drives up prices. How do we keep college costs in check? We raise loan rates. That, or we federally mandate price controls on university tuition, which I wouldn't put past this administration. (Note to the administration via whatever NSA spook is monitoring this blog for critical speech: that was not a suggestion.)

So let's say that the bubble pops, and much education is taken over by online learning. This puts the hand-skills educators and the digital, theory-based, and otherwise disembodied educators in strikingly different positions. Charles Renfro, in his essay for Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century, proposed a campus building for an art school that had no studios—after all, why do you need a room in which to make things to support a conceptual practice? The logical conclusion is that there's no need even for a building. Meanwhile, hand skills, which cannot be taught except in person, are going to sustain a sort of education that will in many ways resemble the forms it has always taken.

It's going to be interesting.

Quote of the Week

"In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."—Susan Sontag

The Calendar

Shows I will see, shows I wish I could see, and items of personal import for anyone keeping track.

Through July 20: "Karla Wozniak: This Weather Is Cosmic" at Gregory Lind, San Franciso.

Through July 26: "Albert York: A Small Selection" at Davis and Langdale, New York City.

Through August 11: "Franklin Einspruch: According" at Hess Gallery, Pine Manor College, Boston.

Through August 20: "Estlin Cummings Wild West Show" at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. See the Slate article (h/t E.O.).

Through September 29: "Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966," at the Legion of Honor, de Young Museum, San Francisco.

Starts October 14: "Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Runs through January 5.

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