Knowledge. It is at the foundation of our evolution as human beings. Certainly this is true of such disciplines as science, math and technology, but with art? Emphatically yes! Therefore, one of the fundamental objectives in my role as an art educator is to be a conduit to that knowledge.
The Ancient Greeks saw the artist as the fusion of the craftsman and the philosopher. Artists had the skills to create objects/images, as the craftsman did, but they used those created objects/images to ponder higher ideas and ideals as the philosopher did. This perception and role of the artist has, to varying degrees, been a part of Western art and culture ever since.
So, in this context, not only do artists need to master the technical skills of their respective mediums, but they need to understand what they seek to communicate through these mediums, while also knowing the historical backgrounds and evolutions of those mediums as well. As an art educator, I am dedicated to helping my students realize the fulfillment of their creative potential. Therefore, I teach in a manner that strives to achieve a mastery of these three aspects of artistic development: 1) Technical skill 2) Conceptual development 3) Understanding of Historical Context.
The first of these aims, technical skill, is heavily indebted and tied to science and technology, which have played pivotal roles in the development of art: from the study of anatomy to the invention of new artistic techniques and processes. Each artistic medium has its own specific technical attributes that must be learned and mastered by students through hands-on, repetitive studio practice under the direct supervision of the instructor. Within the context of a hands-on studio setting, the students and instructor have the ability to form more personalized relationships within the classroom that allows for more individualized instruction, based on the specific needs that particular students may encounter during the development of their own artwork.
The influence of science and technology has had a particular impact within my main areas of specialization: photography and digital imaging. Photography, in particular, is a very mathematically-based medium, and working in the darkroom is akin to working in any scientific chemistry lab. It is these scientific and mathematical foundations of photography that led it to be seen for years (decades?) as solely a technological recording device before its eventual acceptance as an "art form". It is also these scientific foundations and the subsequent advancements associated with photographic technology have made it one of the more "democratic" mediums within the arts. The spread of cameras and photographic technology through the populous has led nearly everyone to have had some sort of experience with photography from Polaroid cameras to the disposable point-and-shoot cameras found on the shelves of nearly every mega-mart and convenience store, to the fact that nearly every cell phone now has a camera built inside. This saturation of photography and photographic imagery throughout our culture poses a challenge within the realm of academia, because it seems as though the more we are exposed to this sort of imagery, the less we truly understand it.
This leads directly into the second objective of teaching art: conceptual development. Too often today, viewers fail to look beyond the superficial qualities of imagery. Therefore, it becomes crucial as an art educator to communicate to the student that art functions as a visual language, and as with any language, in order to utilize it effectively, one must understand how to both “read” it as well as how to “speak” it. This entails understanding how visual symbols function together within an image just as words would within a sentence since it is the juxtapositions of visual elements can raise various allusions, connotations and motifs that lead to meaning. In addition, students must arrive at an understanding of what they seek to convey through their artwork. As with any language, the simple act of communication is at its core. To aid in student success in this area, it becomes important to maintain an open classroom environment. This allows both for students to explain their intentions and ideas as well as for others to offer their critiques and suggestions. In this context, classes become much more successful if they become open dialogues and conversations rather than monolithic lectures.
To aid in helping students develop their own, individual artistic “voice”, it becomes important to expose them to the larger artistic conversation/dialogue that has been ongoing practically since the birth of humanity. Art is not created in a vacuum; it is both a result and a reflection of the society which creates it, influenced as much by historical and political events as artistic creativity and experimentation. It is a barometer of cultural values, mores, priorities and struggles. It provides both social insight as well as cathartic release. Dadaism arose from the pathos of World War I and the onset of cultural "Modernity". Pop Art was inexorably linked to and cultural/social shifts of the 1960s, the explosion of television and the mass media, and the general interest in the vernacular. And the course of painting was forever altered by the invention of photography. Everything that is made, be it consciously or otherwise, is a by-product of its surroundings. Therefore, the history of art IS the history of human culture and development. Throughout time, each art movement has developed by either building upon or rebelling against its historical predecessors. Without knowing where one has come from, it becomes difficult to understand where another is going. Understanding these relationships allows the artist (and students) to think critically about not only their own culture, but also themselves and their role/position/belief systems within that culture. Therefore, it becomes important for students, as they are growing and developing as artists, to have not only an understanding of art history, but also history in general as well as other academic pursuits such as philosophy, science, sociology, language and so on.
And now with the onslaught of digital technology into the mainstream of art, the need for strong technical/conceptual/historical knowledge and skills is ever increasing as the encroachment of digital media into the photographic realm has raised questions about the future of traditional silver-based photography. Will it be replaced/displaced by this new arrival? Within commercial and journalistic circles? Most likely. In many ways, it already has. But within the Fine Arts? No. There will always be a place for traditional processes, the same way that antique processes such as gumbichromate and salt printing still exist. To claim that digital media will lead to the death of traditional photography is like those who claimed that photography would be the death of painting. Eventually, digital media will find its proper niche within the arts, and wet/silver-based photography, like painting before it, will survive, albeit changed in some manner from the experience.
Within this context, my teaching philosophy revolves around the idea of being as well-balanced of an artist as possible. It is my responsibility as an art instructor to ensure that technical skills must be mastered by my students as well as conceptual skills and historical knowledge. As I attempt to ingrain within my students: No matter how accomplished you are technically, if your ideas are weak, then your work will not engage and maintain the interest of your viewer, and, conversely, no matter how good your ideas are, if your presentation and technical skills are lacking then your work isn’t going to grab your viewer’s attention -- for no matter how innovative the idea is, it is not worth showing if it is done poorly. And with that philosophy in mind, I teach within a structure which I believe pushes the students to achieve success in the three main areas of artistic development I have outlined. My classroom and course management provides opportunities for students to master the technical sides of their mediums, while also introducing them to a wide range of genres, styles and conceptual approaches that provide both a historical foundation as well as a significant amount of flexibility to explore their own interests at the same time. In addition, students are provided an environment that allows them to assess their success in both these areas as well as how well they utilize the syntax of their visual language.
However, beyond successfully imparting the requisite skills and knowledge upon my students, another, secondary agenda and obligation arises out of my position as an art educator: to be a mentor who not only preaches, but also practices. The classic “teach by example” motif arises at this point. Setting the example of an instructor who is still currently engaged in the larger, (inter)national cultural dialogue of the Arts is why it becomes so important for art instructors to also be active, producing artists. By continuing to produce and exhibit images in my chosen medium and field, I demonstrate to my students an active utilization of the skills, knowledge and concepts that I present in class, thus taking those skills out of the academic setting of the classroom and placing them into real-world practical application. As with any potential career, it is important for students to see that outside the walls of academia they will face stiff competition for jobs, exhibitions, grants and other art-related yardsticks of success not only from local or regional artists, but, in fact, on a national and global scale. My engagement with the larger art world through my professional artistic activities serves as a real-life example of this competition. In addition, by continuing to demand high levels of expectation in my own professional life as an exhibiting artist, I also illustrate to my students the sort of work ethic, dedication and effort it takes to succeed in the larger, global art world, thus, again, exposing real world applications while also revealing the fact that what I expect of them in the classroom is no different than what will be expected of them outside of the classroom. Hopefully this will motivate my students not only to attain the high expectations that I set for them, but also to establish high levels of expectation for themselves.