Atelier, art school, university: How to teach creativity in the twenty-first century

Loop

29 March 2021

Rachel Wellisch working with the medium of paper/pulp + sculpture + painting in the River Studio, Queensland College of Art

Seth Ellis calls for new thinking so that craft education can flourish in universities

As arts education comes under increasing fire in Australia and abroad, one chorus we hear is that people in decision-making roles—politicians, even university executives—need a better understanding of studio education and its benefits. This is certainly the case, but it’s worth re-examining what we mean by “studio education,” as its practitioners and its products: teachers and artists. Sometimes we mean something very broad, like “embodied learning”; sometimes we mean something specific not only to arts education, but to the history and precepts of a particular discipline.

In fact, there have been different kinds of studio education, specific to different historical and social contexts. In laying out what I see to be some of the main historical threads of studio-based learning, I’m hoping to clarify what kind of studio education is valuable to the twenty-first-century; and from there perhaps one can think about how that studio education can be saved, and pushed forward.

In what follows I’m addressing specifically “art,” in the limited sense of fine art practice, without discussing design as an academic discipline and a profession; to do so, and to examine the developed relationship between art and design in both academia and professional practice, is another essay. In brief, it’s been my experience that, though its situation is less immediately precarious, design education is prey to the same vulnerabilities as art—in fact the categories of “art” and “design” are historically contingent concepts, and the importance of the separation between the two is considerably overblown. I believe my conclusions here are broadly relevant to design education as well.

The atelier out of time

My own experience has been that, when some of my colleagues talk about “studio education,” they are thinking of something that most closely resembles the atelier model of art education: one enters as a teenager into a rigorous, close-knit discipline-medium- community-profession, and one never leaves it. Artistic development is, generally speaking, a process of deepening skill and knowledge within the parameters of the discipline.

The atelier model has a lot of tradition behind it, or to put it another way, it’s very old. Its roots are in a model of artistic professionalism that was relevant through the 19th century, but perhaps not since then. Most importantly, the atelier in its heydey existed outside of the university, or even the art school; the atelier was literally the master’s workshop, and the pupil was an apprentice, not a student. Acknowledging this lets us examine a crucial aspect of these various models: What happens after the education? I mean this not just in the brute-force simplification of “employability,” but in how these professionally trained artists were able to make productive lives for themselves.

Presumably the best students from an atelier went on to become masters in turn, and found their own workshops. But what about the other, less successful students? We can’t judge the overall success of a model by the success of its top participants, who by definition are outliers. In the case of a master’s atelier, presumably those artists who never achieved mastery went right on working as journeymen in their master’s workshops. Or perhaps they went to work for their ex-studio mates, the new masters setting up their own ateliers. In any case, the professional community was the answer to its own problems. The workshop system had room for the number of “graduate” apprentices it generated, and if it didn’t, it could control that by simply accepting fewer apprentices.

This professional model died out with industrialisation, at least at the scale of society as a whole. With it died the general rationale for the atelier as a model of education. Now, it’s the lucky top graduates of undergrad art programs who then become barely-paid studio assistants to established artists—a useful apprenticeship but one that happens in addition to the art education itself, and one that is available only to a small (and shrinking) number of arts graduates. The education in making is divorced from a real, professionally meaningful network of colleagues and mentors.

It’s thus tempting to say that the atelier model is irrelevant even to the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first. In fact the Bauhaus was an explicit rejection of that model, more than a hundred years ago. But let us consider, not why arts educators still find this model attractive, but why students do. Physical craft disciplines in general still attract students—often in greater numbers than a generation ago—and amongst those students, enthusiasm for their work and their community tends to be very high.

The Bauhaus is gone but the clichés of modernism are still with us; its problems haven’t yet been solved. Over the past century, much attention has been paid to the dilemma of how to be an individual within a mass society. In the twenty-first century, this mass society has changed from an industrial one to a digital one: dispersed, virtual, non-physical, with a heightened anonymity and a corresponding lack of perceived individual agency. It’s no surprise then that disciplines that involve physical making, in collaboration with others, around shared, concrete concerns, have become very attractive in reaction. These things don’t happen as a rejection of digitally-structured mass society, but as a necessary correlative. In other words, what’s attractive about the atelier model is the sense of community around a shared experience of craft. I use the word “craft” here very broadly, without meaning any particular craft and its historical baggage. It might be a community based around creative robotics, or around a mode of making that combines what we traditionally think of as different “crafts.”

If there is something worth bringing forward about the atelier model, then, it is this sense of interpersonal connection, and of the dedicated, physical specificity of the creative endeavour.

Glasshouses, 2019, Christine Ko. Shown as part of Botanica 2019, Brisbane, QLD

The disinterested art school

Sixty years ago, if you graduated from a good solid regional arts program, you might not have had the talent to become a gallery-represented fine artist; you might not have even wanted to; but you sure did know how to draw. Drawing was the ur-skill underlying all arts education; it was thus in the Bauhaus, and to some degree it still is today. If the art school tends to value breadth more than the atelier’s disciplinary depth, its breadth is embodied in the act of drawing, which informs all subdisciplines (such is the theory anyway).

This worked sixty years ago because drawing was also the ur-skill of the professional artist. If you didn’t make it as a gallery artist, or didn’t want to, you could do renderings for a furniture design company; or do fashion illustrations; or work for an architecture firm; or become a storyboard artist in animation, or in advertising; on and on. This broad usefulness to the more plebeian artistic trades allowed art schools to maintain a lofty disinterest towards the idea of professionalism; they could release a certain number of BFAs into the wild every year with the assumption that most of them would be okay, in ways that the school itself need not consider too deeply.

This is no longer the case; there are a number of reasons why, but the most relevant here is that drawing is no longer a universal base skill for all working artists, and nothing else has taken its place. Product designers use one kind of 3D modelling software; game designers use another; illustrators use something else entirely, probably several things. Trades and tools are too specific for art schools to assume that a generalist base will futureproof its students—not (let’s be frank) the passed-over students the school never talks about, who were never going to be gallery artists, and increasingly, not even the traditionally “promising” ones. The result is a system in which only a few graduates are able to compete in a shrinking gallery system; other graduates don’t really have much recourse unless they spent their education planning specifically for that recourse in the first place.

In the current sharp contraction in art education, though, we’ve lost not just the art school’s illusions about itself, but exactly that which we can critique about it: its non-utility. Even in practical terms, corporations know the benefit of having an R&D department, a space where things can be explored without a defined goal—non-purposive purposiveness, to borrow and misuse a phrase from Kant. And this is valuable not just, or primarily, in corporations who are interested in something eventually becoming profitable; it is important to humanity in its ambitions to remain fully human. Non-utile creation (that is, culture) is a human activity of deep importance that must be safeguarded against erosion. Without it, nothing of use is subsequently created, but we need not use that as an excuse; the fact of human creativity, and of creative practice, is its own justification.

We can point to the art school as the place where this happened in the past; however, the art school has outlasted its own safeguards against economic criticism, not in the way it balances its budgets but in the way it provides for its graduates. An education in dedicated non-utility (or as we say in curriculum meetings, insufficient education in “professional practice,” whatever we mean by that) has become a handicap for art school graduates. By ignoring those criticisms the art school laid itself bare to attack.1.If I were to write a section on design education in this context, it would go here, under the title “Design and the indignities of trade.” In the long view, there’s not much difference between art ateliers and design ateliers. More lately, contemporary design education arose out of trade schools, and entered into art programs proud of what art programs scorned: its ties to industry. This allowed everybody to look down on everybody else. As the nature of “industry” has changed, design has lost its ability to determine its students’ futures with any predictability, while its status as the practical twin increases the pressure to perform to that same shaky metric. It’s in the same boat as art but on a higher deck.

The university: part knowledge-engine, part trade school

And so we come to the university, which incorporates many things while being devoted to none of them. As a means of coordinating the creation and dissemination of knowledge, this works as long as the university’s various parts, its schools and colleges, remain somewhat autonomous; they each can be deeply devoted to their own particular knowledge, and the university just makes the logistics work. But the twenty-first-century university, centralised and bureaucratic, is a different beast, with “rationalised” systems often preventing the application of specific knowledge. It’s in this context we mostly find ourselves now, and the resulting, disastrous cost-cutting is the immediate problem we react to. But for art education the issue is larger than that; what’s new is not the problem but the extremity with which the problem is revealed.

It would be easy, at this point in the essay, to characterise a university’s art program as divided between those teachers who want to treat it as an atelier, and those who think it should instead be an art school (probably modelled to some degree on the Bauhaus). We could call this the struggle for balance between depth and breadth. It’s true that we tend to fall into those camps. But what we rarely say aloud is that neither of these educational models originated within the university, and it remains an open question whether the university is good at them.2.Granted, there is an occasional argument that perhaps art programs should go back to being independent institutions, as they were in Australia before the 1990s. But these arguments don’t address how an independent art school would defend itself against the same economic pressures currently facing universities—and as independent institutions, they would have no other academic programs to huddle with or hide behind. It’s very possible that a standalone art school in the 2020s would collapse for lack of funding and failure to meet government goals around “employability”; and that collapse would happen faster, and the damage would last even longer, than is currently happening.

Let’s take a look at what the university is good at; what we want to save from the atelier and art school models; and whether we can arrive at a meeting place between them. Embedded in this is a look at the way that the university is itself not living up to what the university is good at.

The university is, as the name suggests, a universalising engine. It’s good at collecting different sorts of knowledge—produced by any means, in any media—and making that knowledge widely available. What it’s not good at, as an institution, is knowing anything about that knowledge itself. The university is home to experts, but the central processes of the university have no expertise in anything in particular. In other words, if we take to heart the common comparison of a university to commerce, the university still isn’t a business; it’s a parent company that owns and manages different businesses.

The increasing efforts of the university to, in business terms, “rationalise the offerings” is the equivalent of Ford Motor Company buying a hairbrush company…

The increasing efforts of the university to, in business terms, “rationalise the offerings” of the university is the equivalent of Ford Motor Company buying a hairbrush company, and rationalising their production chains by having pickup trucks and hairbrushes made in the same factory, by the same processes. This can only make sense to someone who knows very little about either trucks or hairbrushes; and whether it seems to make sense to the people in charge or not, it still won’t work. Further, it’s very likely the hairbrush company—the recent acquiree—that will come off worse; Ford executives are more likely to know already how trucks work, and thus are more likely to expect hairbrushes to work the same way. The result will be, not that the hairbrush business will be a failure as a hairbrush business, but that the hairbrush business will fail to act like a truck manufacturer. This isn’t a reasonable definition of failure, but the outcome is the same: the hairbrush business folds, and Ford writes it off and goes back to pickup trucks.

University art programs are, of course, the hairbrush company in this analogy, but only because we are currently the most vulnerable; in fact, any academic discipline might be a hairbrush company in the right combination of circumstances, as evidenced by the planned closure of the neuroscience research centre—a STEM discipline!—at ANU. The university as an institution has little mechanism for understanding the “value” of specific disciplines, economic or otherwise.

So the designed indifference to discipline—that ought to be a strength—becomes a weapon of austerity economics. This is a tremendous missed opportunity for university art programs. In the university working as it ought, all those modes of knowledge are happening right next door to each other, and can take advantage of their proximity. A university art program is, or should be, an opportunity for “socially engaged” artists to actually learn and understand history; for “human-centred” designers to study both psychology and neuroscience; and for any student or academic to trawl the university for interesting things you don’t yet know, because frankly, you never really know where the next good idea is coming from. This is a strength that Australian universities don’t take advantage of particularly well, due to the common model of entering into a specialised degree in the first year of a three-year program. Cross-disciplinary curiosity is not incentivised for students; the result is a de facto “independent” art school curriculum sitting uneasily within a university bureaucracy. But the virtue of the university is there, however unrealised in current practice.

This potential is undermined also by the attempt to measure the university’s success by the simplest, most brutal possible metric: “employability.” In arts programs, we know very well that it is difficult to measure this amongst our graduates because our graduates don’t align with any single kind of employability at all; they find multiple ways to be productive people and to pay the bills, as indeed they are forced to by the current global economy. Underlying this, though, is the dirty secret that employability is a bad way to measure what universities do well, that is, increasing the capacity of a society to act on its own opportunities. That doesn’t really admit of a numerical metric, and so it goes unexamined. Instead universities are asked to act like trade schools in teaching and learning, in order to be allowed to act like universities the rest of the time.

But even trade schools increasingly don’t teach like trade schools any more, because many trades—in fact, the nature of trade—work differently now than they did when our schools were founded. In the twenty-first century, there is no single model of employability in the workforce. People change careers more often than ever; within careers, people who do much the same work have different titles and took different paths to get there. There is no coherent model of industrial employment any longer. Nor can individual schools within the university take over the work of defining employability for our particular disciplines, because employability is no longer a discrete attribute in any discipline. We resort to other broad terms like “entrepreneurship,” by which we mean to tell our students that they’re going to have to hustle in ways we can’t predict.

In this economic context, the danger is that our students are either overprepared for a specific profession, in which they might be engaged for five or ten years (the median length of a twenty-first-century career); or they are generally, generically prepared, but not for any particular profession. Either the trap of depth in isolation, or breadth without specific knowledge—atelier or art school, both out of place and both insufficient.

Matthew Newkirk is currently working in the discipline of print & digital media and is president of the Griffith University Printmakers.

And beyond!

At this point, it seems to me that rather than wondering which model of art education we should argue for, we should identify what virtues we’ve found in various modes of art education, and in what ways—new or old—we can validate and celebrate those practices:

  • An embodied, physically present experience of making (all making; even writing code, in the presence of other people also writing code, is different from creativity in social isolation);
  • A close-knit community of like-minded makers;
  • A professionally valuable network (related to, but not the same as, the above);
  • The removal, at least temporarily, from commercial pressures, in order to experiment, learn, and grow, without the feeling that this will handicap you later on;
  • The engagement with forms of knowledge outside of your own immediate experience, that provide creative professionals with the ability to find their own opportunities as people and as workers.

If our attempts to find such a model of education aren’t to seem merely utopian, we need first to acknowledge that they’re not in the immediate future; that they won’t happen with a complete return to older models; and that we can’t do them alone. This requires something different than hoping for a new government in the future, and that the same old funding schemes will come back. Instead, we need to find new ways to organise towards our goals, in forms that take advantage of the university’s real strengths without being shackled by its current weaknesses.

Here I encounter the traditional issue with this sort of essay: analysing problems is easier than proposing solutions. But the nature of the problem is that it isn’t possible for me, or for any one person, or for a single organisation like a university, to suggest a single coherent solution even for that organisation. Instead, we need to work collectively, as a community of like-minded makers—and we are always more like-minded than we think, even across disciplines—to define our goals and to find potential, far-reaching solutions that might work independent of, or at least alongside, institutions that are becoming less and less reliable as support structures for our particular efforts. For instance, academics in different disciplines in the same academic institution need to work together—but so do academics in the same discipline in different institutions. Dispersed learning experiences, paired with infield trips between schools, might be a way to take advantage both of digital communications technology, and of physical equipment to which not everyone has access.

We might also make deeper ties to community arts and design organisations, of all sorts—the more community-based, I think, the better; we need to be working towards a shift in the public understanding of the value of creative making. Public workshops, “micro-credentials,” cross-institutional degrees, collaborative degree programs with GLAM institutions; as universities centralise, art academics need to organise further around de-centralised networks, or we will continue to struggle to prove ourselves against a standardised metric that fits no particular discipline, and fits ours worst of all. Most of all, we need to demonstrate the invaluable nature of creative making, in a public way that can be used as leverage in public opinion and thus in policy; but this can’t happen as long as we all continue to work in isolation, as putative “art schools” strung up in the web of university bureaucracy, or as a handful of discipline-specific professionals in the usual conferences. The way out of our current impasse will not be either an atelier model or an art-school model; it seems to me that a new, twenty-first-century form of art education is what we need for the moment, at least, to valorise what is most valuable about our disciplines.

Seth Ellis is a Senior Lecturer at the Queensland College of Arts, Griffith University. 

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References

References
1 If I were to write a section on design education in this context, it would go here, under the title “Design and the indignities of trade.” In the long view, there’s not much difference between art ateliers and design ateliers. More lately, contemporary design education arose out of trade schools, and entered into art programs proud of what art programs scorned: its ties to industry. This allowed everybody to look down on everybody else. As the nature of “industry” has changed, design has lost its ability to determine its students’ futures with any predictability, while its status as the practical twin increases the pressure to perform to that same shaky metric. It’s in the same boat as art but on a higher deck.
2 Granted, there is an occasional argument that perhaps art programs should go back to being independent institutions, as they were in Australia before the 1990s. But these arguments don’t address how an independent art school would defend itself against the same economic pressures currently facing universities—and as independent institutions, they would have no other academic programs to huddle with or hide behind. It’s very possible that a standalone art school in the 2020s would collapse for lack of funding and failure to meet government goals around “employability”; and that collapse would happen faster, and the damage would last even longer, than is currently happening.

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