December 2004

An Open Letter to Colleagues in Art Education

A great number of articles in art education publications nowadays seem to deal with everything but art education. Reading much of the stuff, as I have noted elsewhere, is like swimming in a sea of molasses.

The reason for so much irrelevant and unintelligible writing in art education, as well as for the increasing number of publications (journals, advisories, pamphlets, etc.), is the growth in the number of people with doctor's degrees. I say this because higher education pushes people with Ph.D.'s to publish or perish. They then struggle frantically to get into print, regardless of whether they have anything new or relevant to say.

Few if any high-calibre publications would accept the writing and thinking that our people do. So new publications with fairly low standards are created to accommodate the large number of folks who need to get published. These publications survive because individuals with doctor's degrees are desperate. The fact that writers are required to follow guidelines set down by the American Psychological Association doesn't guarantee that the writing will be good or even relevant to art education. Following those guidelines is a lot like painting by the numbers. Everything sounds the same when it appears in print, and it is dull as hell.

When we get doctor's degrees in art education, we like to think that we are scholars or intellectuals on a par with scientists, philosophers, and so on. But we are not. We are people with special skills and knowledge relevant to the creation of works of art and to the teaching of art. In fact, too many people in the field don't even have the skills and knowledge to do that, because we don't have any standards. And we don't have any standards because we are unwilling or unable to define the ends that we seek. That is why I have urged that we adopt a definition of art, and have proposed what I regard as a reasonable definition. While I hoped that my proposal would generate some debate, it has instead met with stony silence.

Please note that when I say we are not, in general, scholars and intellectuals, I include myself. The longer I live the more I realize my own inadequacies. So I hope my criticisms will not lead you, my colleagues, to think that I am "looking down my nose" at you. We all have strengths that we can be proud of, but for most of us high-level scholarship is not one of them.

In an effort to appear scholarly, however, art educators increasingly venture into speculations more appropriate for psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, mathematicians, psychiatrists, and politicians. They reinvent the wheel, call it by a new name, and assume that they are on the "cutting edge" of academic thought. As long as our work remains within the confines of art and education, we are safe. But if we were to attempt to publish for a more academically oriented audience, we would be sorry. Most of us therefore follow the old maxim "better safe than sorry."

Vince Lombardi, the great coach of the Green Bay Packers, used to say that football is a game of fundamentals, and the team that masters the fundamentals of blocking and tackling will win the game. Well, art and art education are also "games of fundamentals," so to speak, and only the person who masters the fundamentals can be successful. So we need to spend more time figuring out how to master those fundamentals, instead of wasting our time on a lot of peripherals.

Speaking of peripherals, there will always be people who want us to spend more time in the schools on such matters as city planning, preserving our natural environment, eliminating visual pollution and visual propaganda, and various other matters that have some relationship to the study of art. But they want us to do these things even before we have fully succeeded in helping students master the fundamentals, to whatever degree they are capable. They want us to put the cart before the horse. If we could really succeed in teaching the fundamentals, our students' mastery of such things might carry over into other fields that employ artistic skills.

Kenneth M. Lansing

"Why We Need a Definition of Art" // Addendum // Further Reading // Editors' Note