C.S.: -sometimes you do.
J.E.: Sometimes you do! [laughs] But the idea is that as a student, you have seen what individuality is, and you see how it could happen to you.
C.S.: On what level could a discourse about art education be introduced within Art Schools? I don't think that a lack of theory is problem. It seems that the formats within the institutions, which would include this discourse into the education process ,do not exist. Reflecting about teaching and learning art should be part of teaching and learning art.
J.E.: If I could answer that, I would be EU Commissioner for art education! I am trying, tough, and I am doing my part. We have a conference next year (2009), called "What do Artists Know?" and I want this conference to produce a book which will set out these problems, then it will at least be there, to be looked at. (The conference is listed at www.stonesummertheoryinstitute.org.) For example, first year education is debated in a number of different places: there are the ARCO conferences, which have extensive debates about this; there is College Art Association in the US, there is the British AAH; there is the International Art Historians Association (CIHA)-they all have had sessions on this topic. Almost always, the speakers end up being anecdotal; you end up with a speaker saying "In my college in (naming some tiny town), we have found an interesting exercise for first-year students..." and they'll tell some story. I think what needs to be done is to set out, as clearly as possible, the best models.
The four models I mentioned earlier are different from models that have been proposed by the Belgian art historian Thierry de Duve, and perhaps a good starting place would be a comparison of his classification and mine. That is the kind of thing I plan to do in the book. So next time an administrator comes to look and ask him- or herself what can be done for art students, at least they will have a resource to argue with.
C.S.: I think the question is how Art Schools can be forced to engage in the discussion, because as long as they are not forced, there will just be business as usual. Reflecting is just extra work.
J.E.: Ah, you're so right! I have been giving talks on the first year problematic, and I started getting asked by people how our model in Chicago works, and I had to admit that I had no idea, because I had nothing to do with our own first year program. Since then I have tried to start a dialogue with the people in our first year program; they are interested, but-as you say-they have no time, so it is very unlikely that we will produce a really conceptually strong revision of our first year program. What we have right now in Chicago-which is typical of most Art Schools-is an ad hoc mixture of three out of the four models, with no immediate hope of change.
C.S.: Now comes what actually was meant to be my first question: You have studied Fine Arts yourself. Why did you decide not to become an practising artist, but a theorist? Does this have to do with your own art education?
J.E.: Yes and no. I have the MFA, so I have the terminal degree, and technically speaking, I could be a studio art instructor, but I switched to art history. Part of the reason was the kind of education I had, but only a small part. It was more having to do with what I thought the truly difficult challenges were, and what I became interested in... and to do with the fact that I began to realize that my own art practice was appallingly bad.
C.S.: Oh, really? [laughing]
J.E.: Yes, very much anachronistic, and pretty much hopeless [laughing]. But this is another story, which is not a secret by the way.... The salient fact has really not to do with what we have been talking about so far, it has to do with the way critiques were held in the institution where I was, which was Midway Studios at the University of Chicago. In that MFA program, they had a kind of critique which we used to call a "psychodrama." They were in a 45 minute format and sometimes would be intensely, even violently emotional, and the student would sometimes end up crying in front of the 30 people in the room, faculty members and other students. Teachers were vicious, not all of them, but some.
And I should add here that all the faculty now has changed, none of them are the same, it is a different place now-but back then, the violence of the critiques made me wonder about how education could be carried on when it depends on the institution called "the critique." And my book Why Art Cannot be Taught does have an argument about whether you can teach art or not, but the heart of that book is about critiques. It actually should have been called A Handbook of Critiques. That is what it really is.
C.S.: Why do you give the critiques so much attention?
J.E.: I still think that art critiques are the most irrational form of educational evaluation that exists in any field. It think of them as 99% irrational.
C.S.: What do you mean by irrational?
J.E.: Well, I am interested in critiques, and I say at the very end of the book that I don't want to change them, but simply because you should not change anything you know nothing about.
C.S.: Why do you say that? The whole book shows that you know so much about art education...
J.E.: I am only talking about critiques now. I don't think anybody knows much about them, by which I mean no one could know much about them, because they are so far from clear, logical, ordered, purposeful, controlled speaking.
C.S.: You often hear from students that they are very well able to distinguish between a teacher who is able to do good critiques, constructive ones, and other teachers are not. I think there is a certain ability involved which is objectifiable. In my opinion it is a certain technique. Mainly of asking questions, which certain teachers have developed-maybe unconsciously, and others have not.
J.E.: I am very pessimistic about that subject.
C.S.: Are you, really?
J.E.: Yes. And maybe we should switch the conversation a little bit. Maybe instead of talking about critiques per se, we should talk about what it means to teach art. In that book I have a couple of theories that I gathered from talking to people when I asked them how they teach art. One of them, which sounds like the one you were just talking about, one of the theories is, that you can't actually teach art itself, but you can teach up to it, right to the limit. In other words, you cannot make a great artist, but you can push people in the direction of art. Ask the right questions, in the right direction.
C.S.: How about providing the right atmosphere, the skills, the knowledge...
J.E.: That is a second theory: it is what I call the "incubator theory," that Art School is like agar-agar-it helps art to grow; it has an atmosphere, a richness of discourse, it's inspiring to be around and to learn...
C.S.: In your book you use the term "infection" for that way of teaching.
J.E.: Exactly. Ok, here is the pessimists' answer to those two theories. First about the theory you raised a minute ago. I doubt that anybody knows how to ask the right questions. I doubt that anybody knows what direction a student should take. How should we know what that proper direction is? For example, somebody who has been doing performance art: how do you know that person might make better art when you push him/her in the direction of photography? Everyone has hunches, and these are based on many complicated experiences, but in fact there is no way to know for sure whether or not you are hurting a student, or hampering a student, or just slowing her up.
The pessimist's answer to the other theory, the one about incubation is that, yes, Art Schools provide a wonderful atmosphere when they are good, they immerse you in the discourse of art, and they do definitely help you to talk to gallerists. You can definitely learn "art speak"; you can definitely learn new ways of articulating your practice. In that sense Art Schools help students learn a new language.
The problem is that, to my mind, that learning is an automatic, almost biological consequence of a rich environment; in the same way that a mother who is pregnant does the right things, eats the right food, sees her doctor regularly, but does not direct the formation of the child. Because the child is in the environment of the womb, it grows. You cannot prevent learning about art if you have the right "atmosphere." There is a lack of control there, so no one can take direct credit for the outcome, and therefore art is not directed in the way that teaching physics and chemistry, biology, or economics are.
C.S.: This may be true, and I think your book is very rich and inspiring to read: you provide a historical overview over art education through the centuries, you try to develop a theory and systematization of contemporary models to teach art, but I have to say, what I do not like about your book, is the end. After providing all the information which I think is a first step to demystify what is going on in Art School, at the end you say that it does not make any sense to try to understand how art is taught, and teaching art simply means to live a contradiction. That is too simple, and in a way it destroys all the efforts you have made before... Why are you going back to this mystification at the end? What purpose does it serve?
J.E.: Critics have said that before-that the problem with the book is the way it ends. I would rather not say "mystification" but rather acknowledgement of our lack of knowledge, lack of our control of the situation. That was what I had in mind when I wrote the end. In order to change critiques, you would have to change things fundamentally. In the book that presents two possibilities: one is to go ahead and consider the different suggestions that I make throughout the book, and try to clarify and control critiques. The other is the route that I took, which is to say: Here are the different things you could say to clarify and control critiques, but most of them can't be controlled.
I am torn about these two alternatives. But the reason that I chose the one that's more pessimistic is because it's more realistic. I think if I were Dean of an Art School, I could institute a procedure for critiques, which would follow some of the suggestions I make-and that others have made-to increase the number of clear and distinct ideas in critiques. But in doing that I would be instituting a practice which would be fundamentally different from any other Art School's critique. I would be replacing critiques and creating some other practice.
I am not trying to defend the form of the book, it's very problematic. I wrote it again I would probably be more optimistic and say: Okay, let's just do what we can.
C.S.: So something also changed for you since you wrote the book in 2001.
J.E.: Yes, and that is also the reason why I would like to revisit that book. What I want to do is to split it in two-but that's not a plan for the foreseeable future. The publisher would not want to do that; but it is really two books-one concerns the historical and critical issues around the development of Art Schools, which I think it is useful for students to know; and the other concerns critiques.
C.S.: One more remark about the critiques just entered my mind: It actually is very similar to psychotherapy, where you also have the problem how to find the right therapist, who will be able to respond in a constructive way to your problems, who also will not know what the right way is, but still, through asking question helps you to find this way yourself. In order to make that work, there first needs to be established a sort of trustful relationship, but that is not enough, the therapist also must be equipped with a set of tools or techniques which prevent the whole undertaking to become personal and irrational. Maybe it is this set of tools or technique I am aiming for in the art education...
J.E.: Art critiques are very often therapy. Occasionally the student is seriously disturbed or there is some medical issue, and those critiques are literally therapy. I could tell you some stories about those; horrifying things can happen. The conversation about art stops, and some other conversation starts. On the other hand, there are almost no critiques that have no psychotherapy in them. Most critiques end to go back and forth because of the nature of art. And this is another source of confusion: it leads me back again to my pessimistic conclusion. Critiques are always already partly psychotherapy, but they are performed, usually, by people who have no knowledge of therapy and don't even think of themselves as performing therapy. How much more illogical can you get?
C.S.: And it brings me back to the very beginning where I have mentioned that people tend to respond very emotionally to the question of art education. I think we talked about some possible reasons for that, and one of them certainly is the traumatic experiences many artists made during their own education...
J.E.: I love this subject: it makes me feel entirely helpless.