Recently (and repeatedly), the subject of art education comes up in discussion, and it’s usually universally agreed upon that the art education we have (in the US) is grossly inadequate. We should have more of it, more funding for it. I think of the terms "art education" as very broad and amorphous. In my mind, there are three aspects that are distinct, but of course, blend together: 1) technical knowledge specific to art creation 2) art history/appreciation/philosophy 3) creative problem-solving Which aspect is relevant to society as a whole? All three?
If I was running the universe, or more modestly, only the US, here is how I might consider the issue: First, is there a problem? Since art schools crank out far more artists than the marketplace can absorb, I'd say yes there is a problem: our education system is generating far too many artists. This addresses point #1. But one could argue that the volume of artists serves as a culling mechanism, the competition elevating the heroically persevering survivors to the upper echelons. So then it's OK to have the excessive quantity of artists in a society, with the understanding that most are utterly irrelevant, wont function as even moderately successful artists, other than to serve as an upward pressure for the quality of art production.
Either way, the implication is that we have enough art education for the purpose of generating artists. So point #1 is fine as is. The next question becomes what benefits does society derive from point #2? In isolation, nothing. Because removed from historical contexts, art history/appreciation is meaningless. However, as a crucial element of broader history, literature, music, philosophy, etc. to ignore art history would be choosing to remain ignorant, and to instill ignorance in future generations. Art is a foundationally human activity that defines culture and civilization, predating all of the other liberal arts. To not have a clue about this aspect of being human is truly not having a clue. So #2 needs to be expanded and integrated more fully into history/philosophy/anthropology-based classes and liberal arts in general, at every level. #3 is not tied to visual art. But the process of creating art is critical problem-solving at its core.
To define an intent, engage with materials, change the course of development due to the interaction with the materials, to adapt the flow of engagement, to understand that the anticipated outcome needs to be perpetually reconsidered due to ever-changing prevailing conditions, and to finally reach a cohesive/coherent outcome, an outcome that is more fulfilling and compelling than the sum of it's parts, is creative problem-solving at it's best. In the visual arts, #3 is informed by #1 & #2. Without #1 & #2, the chances of successfully implementing #3 is very low, or simply chance and luck.
If I had to prioritize, my sequence would be this: 1) creative problem-solving (previously 3) 2) art history/appreciation/philosophy (previously 2) 3) technical knowledge specific to art creation (previously 1) The first is applicable to pretty much anything. The second gives one a cultural/contextual overview. The third is for specializing. But here is where the real problem of all of the above comes in: how is it taught, how is it assessed? Most art teachers in K-12 education have a rudimentary understanding of the above. They may know the art education establishment's metrics on how to teach some of it, but may or may not really understand how it all works.
I've had the opportunity to be a judge for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards (a nationally respected US competition) several times, and have been witness to much of the mediocrity that is generated in 7-12 grade art programs, and these are the schools that take art more seriously, because many don't submit works for the competition at all. M
y co-jurors and I have discussed that much of the judging is less the judging of students, but more an assessment of the teachers. Two or three of my close friends teach high school, and their student's work leaps across the rooms to take prizes year after year. Not because the teachers have learned to submit flashier works to seduce judges (bad teachers play that game), but because they are eliciting serious work out of engaged students. They are excellent teachers and the qualitative difference is huge. Conversely, you feel bad for the potential of students who are in less then adequate art programs with teachers of limited competence. This commentary could be a applied to ANY field. That being the case, then the problem needs to be re-assessed to not be a problem of art education, but a problem of the education system as a whole. Content is one side of the issue; facilitators on the other side.
(Because lets face it, we could get rid of 90% of the paperwork and administrators/bureaucrats, without an adverse impact on education). My view is that there are always individuals that become artists, no matter what kind of incentives/disincentives they experience in their lives. They are hard-wired to be artists, and so become artists. Same is true for those on the receiving end; some seek out art experiences because they feel enriched as a consequence. I think good art education can greatly broaden both categories of people. There are also people who are inherently creative problem-solvers. They may or may not gravitate towards the arts; they may become scientists, engineers, corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, or an endless variety of endeavors.
Good (general) education can increase this volume as well. But for all things there is an opportunity cost; people engaged in one activity may not become engaged in another. What would the theoretical goal be of increasing/expanding art education? Should art NOT be elitist? Would Education through art, art education, increasing the funding priority of art education, enrich our culture? Make the world a better place to live in?
What is the actual problem we're talking about trying to fix? It seems to me there are more artists today than ever before in history, more opportunities for artists to create in an infinite proliferation of mediums and media, than ever before in history, more consumers of art (in any medium) than ever before in history. Can an argument be made that art is drowning in mediocrity due to too many people going into the arts?
On the receiving side as well? Are there too many consumers of bad art? I'm here to raise everybody's blood pressure by playing Devil's advocate... have at it...!