Deep Thought Thursday: Can art be taught?–a 2-fer

Painting and art cannot be taught. You can save time if someone tells you to put blue and yellow together to make green, but the essence of painting is a self-disciplined activity that you have to learn by yourself.

There are no goals that I still want to reach. I don’t believe in goals; goals are for a football team. An artist is just seeking what he might find.

–Romare Bearden

If you’re not a painter, substitute your medium in today’s Deep Thoughts. They both come from the book Artists Observed: Photographs by Harvey Stein and are on the same page, so I’m offering a 2-fer. What do you think?

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22 thoughts on “Deep Thought Thursday: Can art be taught?–a 2-fer”

  1. I agree that art is not something that can be taught. Through teaching, new techniques emerge, however the underlying drive of an artist, I believe, is instinctual. But in today’s world of advanced degree driven careers, it feels (to me) as if the “professional art world” may be overemphasizing the need for both bachelors and postgraduate degrees in art to qualify an artist as legitimate. I am an artist with a degree in Entrepreneurship and New Venture Management, not in Art, and while this degree has served me very well, I often struggle with the question of going back to school for my MFA. I continue to question and wonder if those three little letters would make me a better artist. So far, I feel that the global collaborations and other projects I’ve created to challenge myself are the means of stretching my creativity and serve as my own self driven MFA. I have resisted spending large amounts of money to be “vetted” by the establishment. Instead, I invest that money in tools and projects that move me forward in an organic self managed direction.

  2. Can art be taught? Most definitely. We all get taught art somehow, somewhere. The idea that artists are born not made is just a conceit we hold to make ourselves sleep easier. However, if ask “can it be taught so that *anyone* can learn to be an artist”, the answer would be no, just like it is for every skill and talent.

  3. That philosophy might work for Mr. Bearden, but not everyone is structured the same way. Some people NEED goals to achieve discipline. Otherwise, it’s too easy to meander off and watch tv, or play with Facebook. That said.. in terms of teaching art.. you can to a certain extent. I was taught technique, but I was also taught creativity, and compositional exercises. Even though I, ultimately, had to decide on my subject matter, without those tools, I never would have gotten to the level that I’m currently at.

  4. Art is a discipline of thought and action, like physics. It can be taught. And creativity and unique vision is something each person comes into the world with — that can only be “untaught,” which is what a lot of our schooling and socialization is intent upon doing. All that can be taught about art are its history, it’s discoveries by others, its techniques, traditions, routines and rituals — helpful and necessary for the artist’s life. But one can say the same for physics. What makes a great artist –or even a practicing artist of modest “talent”– is the discipline of being one willing to move beyond what can be taught into the realm of personal vision, idea, hand/body, mind, feeling and spirit. And thus it is with physicists, too. Just happens to be whether one is born with the soul of an artist or a physicist or a chef or a dancer or an entrepreneur — or whatever unnamed “you” there is inside.

  5. The first is true; but it’s only true in that the making of art is a physical activity, and all physical activity is learned, not taught. Even a shovel operator learns by doing. A senior shovel operator can *show* one way of doing it, and from that the student shovel operator can derive some good moves to emulate, but the student must learn from the doing of the work. So it’s almost a tautology to say that the making of art can’t be taught. The second is also true; of an artist who does not need to worry about the next meal, or the next show. I read the stories of the old greats, and I find goals aplenty; some business goals and some artistic goals and some personal goals, and I find (citing van Gogh, again) lives ending badly when goals are not met.

  6. Michael Lynn Adams

    Can art be taught? Richard Schmid tells us that most anyone can learn to mix colors, and the dexterity it takes to make a brush stroke is less than writing ones signature. But is that all that it takes to be an artist? NO. It reminds me of what music professor once told his choir, “Now the we know the words and the notes it is time to make music.” Making music and art are gifts that not everyone is blessed with. About Goals. – I think Romare is on to something, but I don’t think setting goals is the problem. The problem is not being totally aware of the joy, pain, failures and triumphs which are part of the journey in reaching your goals. We also should exercise the right to change our goals as we make new discoveries along the way. It would be ashame, especially for artists, to be blinded to new paths simply to achieve a singular goal. Jazz musician Arte Shaw said most disappointing times of his life was when he achieved a goal. For those of us who need goals Arte’s advise was aim higher than you think is possible and savor every moment of the journey.

  7. I do believe art technique can be taught and learned. However, I don’t think the full spectrum of being an artist is something that can be embraced or understood through classes. In art school you might be able to learn the “how-tos”. What is important is what you do with that knowledge after the classes are over. One example that comes to mind is something I noticed recently. I subscribe to a zine that comes quarterly. Every time I get a new issue, I look at the featured artists. Inevitably, there are at least a few whose work always looks the same. There seems to be a kind of mixed media collage technique en vogue right now. If you put all the work by different artists side by side, it would be difficult to distinguish the individual artists among the group of art works. To me, this shows they learned the technique. However, they haven’t gone to the next level. They haven’t found their own identity as an artist. So I agree with Bearden when he says “An artist is just seeking what he might find.” I believe many artists have learned HOW to make art, but they haven’t completed the search to FIND themselves. Sheree Rensel

  8. I believe art can be taught because I remember a drawing class at community college taking all of us (from folks like me who’d been drawing forever to others who were only just then picking up a pencil) and teaching us how to “see.” By the end of that 3 month class you could match student to her/his work…kudos to that teacher whose name is lost to me. I’m not in favor of advanced schooling for artists simply because you might learn what you “can’t” do in your medium, which you might happily go ahead and do if not “taught” otherwise – plus I can’t stand all that pseudo intellectual jargon advanced artists seem to have to learn to describe their work. In the end, any passion will lead you to learn what you need to know to do what you want to do….it’s always 95% persistance and 5% talent.

  9. Seems like many of us agree….technique and skill can be taught. I see the “born with it” artist label as coming from those who say they “can’t draw a stick man” and have no desire to spend a little time practicing stick men (or stick ladies). I see the drive for finding your own voice is a journey that must be traveled alone. (That’s not to say that a class or a teacher can’t help spur that along.) As far as goals, boy I need ’em and use ’em. I get way too distracted. Perhaps Bearden is much more disciplined than I am. Interesting food for thought Alyson!

  10. Well I have to say I completely disagree with the previous comments. School and instructions can only teach us the techniques and the tools available to us as artist. They cannot teach us to paint. They cannot teach us ‘to be artist’. Let’s equate it to something simpler: Can you teach someone to balance on a bicycle? You can show them how the bike functions. You can tell them what they need to do and even hold them up on the bike. But, they have to learn to balance on their own. That is what Bearden was saying in this quote. Painting, sculpting, etc. is inherit only to an artist. The process of ‘doing’ and accomplishing is something we have to learn for ourselves. Vikki North

  11. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Vikki: I think you’re really agreeing with what others have written. That we can teach technique, but we can’t teach the determination and sensibility. All: Great feedback!

  12. Vikki, I am not sure why you said you disagree with previous comments because in essence I said the same thing you said. Perhaps my post wasn’t visible when you responded (?) 🙂 Sheree

  13. Sheree and Alyson, Well- guess your right. Darn! As I glance back now. I should have said I disagree with ‘Tammy’ who actually said little to dispute. (I apologize Tammy) Darn again! And I was on such good roll! Don’t you hate when that happens? Vikki

  14. Hmm, is doing art to seek what you might find not itself a goal? It seems so to me. Goals can vary from the petty to the vast, the specific to the vague. They can be about career steps, business activities, creative time, personal development, metaphysical stuff, physical and mental fitnes – how can anyone have no goals? Goals can be to explore ideas, keep making new work, or just get into the studio that day. But maybe I have too many goals! 🙂 There’s just so much to do and try in life.

  15. I mostly agree with what everyone has been saying, but I do want to stress the importance that art instruction has had in my life. With out the art teachers I had in elementary school, high school, and college I wouldn’t be where I am today. They encouraged me and taught me that art can be a career, not just a hobby. They taught me to stretch my way of thinking and to look at the world from different perspectives. They also taught me technique, critique, and exposed me to artists that I might not otherwise have found on my own. Some people are lucky enough that they find these people outside of a school atmosphere, but I needed the discipline of a school to push myself to where I am now.

  16. I think deep inside there is more than intuition but the “knowing” that we are an artist; hence the expression of being born with it. Learning skills, studying, and goal setting whether written or unwritten are part of the complete picture as we don’t aspire to just be but to journey, if even to the unknown.

  17. Kids naturally develop in their drawing skills to about the third grade, then if they are not taught – by themselves or others – they remain at that level (or just beyond it) as adults. There has to be some other input. But the students I have that I think might be artists as adults are the ones who almost always have an idea. There is constantly something visual going on in their heads and they are eager to learn new ways to express it. So in my mind I separate visual communication skills (how many techniques one can use) from artist-ness. Having skills is really helpful and something everybody should make some attempt at developing – but it doesn’t make a person an artist – possessing a wellspring of personally meaningful ideas might. Put good skills and good ideas together with love and discipline and a destination for the work – then you might have an artist. So mostly I teach visual communication skills and art appreciation. Occasionally I get to teach an artist, but I’ll never really know.

  18. Kenneth Girard Hunter Jr

    Can art be taught? Of course it can but you have to be careful not to let your teachers style creep into yours. You can learn how to add contrast to your work or you could learn what colors compliment each other. You can learn the rules but finding individuality and knowing when to break the “rules” cant be taught. Many people can’t grasp perspective unless they’re teacher show them examples. Everybody knows art has rules, formal composition or informal composition anyone? Bottom Line imo is you can’t be taught what to do with what you’ve “learned”.

  19. I had a teacher/mentor who taught art technique as a cornerstone of his art appreciation class. He had a specific method of painting to teach–underpainting with glazes, which was his own method of working. He taught the way a piano teacher does, by watching how the brush was held, how lines were drawn on canvas, even checking the consistency of paint. His students got results–even those who swore they could never paint. They also looked at art with entirely new eyes after that experience. Together with the demonstrations were comments about specific artists, field trips, etc. My own thought is you take it from there and adjust the technique to your needs if you have something to say and need to be an artist. The something to say part is what I suspect is difficult to impossible to teach if there isn’t a real desire there to express it. Otherwise, no harm done and only good can come from the instruction–unlike so many university courses where most of what is offered is art world biases and little solid instruction in technique.

  20. It’s maybe pedantic to split hairs about vocabulary – but it seems to me that Romare Bearden is mixing up three different concepts in one short statement. Being an artist and being a painter is not something that can be taught – you have to DO to become ie painting is what painters do. Art is a business – and artists and painters who want to earn a living from their art better get serious about also having some goals. Art and painting both have aspects which very definitely can be taught. You can teach people a set of specific techniques – they may not be only ways of doing something and the responsible teacher would indicate this. You can teach an appreciation of art – and many artists and painters would argue that you cannot become an artist or painter if you don’t try and learn something about art that has gone before – otherwise you can be left reinventing the wheel….. What you can’t do is learn just by watching or reading – you also have to PRODUCE AND PRACTICE and keep producing and practising – and learning!

  21. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Wendy: I love this: “They taught me to stretch my way of thinking and to look at the world from different perspectives.” And I agree. I will forever be indebted to the drawing teacher I had in college. He was a grad student, but taught me so much. Betty: I’m with you on the “ideas” thing. And I love the word “artist-ness.” You should trademark that! Kenneth: This is spot on! “you can’t be taught what to do with what you’ve “learned”.” Susan: Interesting distinction between university classes and others. As I said, my drawing teacher in college taught me wonderful technique. But it’s what you do with that technique that probably makes you an artist. Katherine: I agree. Keep making art! You can only look about it and read about it for so long, but you can’t be an artist without the art-making.

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