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Art teachers meet to learn new approach

Twenty-four competitively selected art teachers from high schools throughout the United States met here recently to explore a vital question: How to relate the traditional studio-oriented approach in art education to challenging new concepts calling for balance and integration between art-making, art history, criticism, and aesthetics. The issue had been raised in a brochure distributed by the Alliance of Independent Colleges of Art (AICA), an organization of major schools of art and design. AICA announced it was sponsoring a two-week Artist-Teacher Summer Institute to examine the issues, and invited all interested teachers to apply for scholarships. Those accepted would spend mornings in studio workshops taught by leading artists, and afternoons with specialists in teaching, art history, aesthetics, and criticism who would serve as advisers while participants developed new teaching models to be implemented the following year.

The institute would, in short, be a period of intense inquiry in which teachers and specialists would attempt to hammer out the rough outlines of a new approach. Final solutions were not to be expected, however, since they could only evolve in classroom situations.

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For its specialists, AICA hired Dr. David Baker of Columbia University to serve as the institute's curriculum specialist; Dr. David Ecker of New York University to be its aesthetician; Sue Taylor of School of the Art Institute of Chicago as its art historian; Dr. Dennie Wolf of Harvard University as its research inquirer; and Judith Linhares and John Torreano as its artist/teachers. In addition, Henry Putsch, the director of AICA, asked me to be the art critic.

We assembled bright and early on a hot July morning in a huge converted loft in the Tribeca area of Manhattan. Since teamwork was essential, we were all asked to participate in all aspects of the program.

After introductions, we went directly to work -- first painting exercises and then a discussion of our objectives. Dialogue and debate, in fact, became the order of the day. No one was immune from probing questions or from being told that an answer was evasive or inconclusive. As critic, I was asked repeatedly to be more specific about my methods, standards, and criteria -- to state why I felt I was qualified to pass judgment on another's work and to explain how what I did could be of value to high school students. The questioning was friendly but intense, and, from what I could see of other ``student-faculty'' huddles, my colleagues were being quizzed with equal focus and determination.

This spirit of inquiry permeated our morning studio sessions as well. Both artists, by directing our attention to problems of conceptualization and perception, provoked a number of questions about how best to teach drawing to high school students.

Judith Linhares, who taught the first week, asked us to draw what we perceived to be the most essential characteristics of our model, and then to list what we most liked and disliked about what we had done. With these lists in mind, we were then asked to produce a painting using as much of our sketches as we wished.

During the second week, John Torreano used slides and a model to present a series of challenging exercises in perception that had us smearing and erasing our charcoal drawings in order to respond to and capture the image or model before us more holistically.

All this was done not merely for its own sake; since dialogue played a crucial role in the way both artists taught, our studio work was examined and discussed in the light of lessons drawn from art history, aesthetics, and criticism.

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In addition, three afternoons of the first week were spent in SoHo and East Village and at the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History. The first trip was to acquaint the teachers with significant conceptual and post-modern works and ideas as a form of introduction to aesthetic inquiry. The second was to view the Modern's current Vienna exhibition and Van Gogh's ``Starry Night'' in relation to art history lectures on those subjects. And the third was to provide a context for questions about the nature and efficacy of criticism when brought to bear on the arts of so-called primitive societies.

All three visits provoked prolonged discussion and debate, some of which -- especially those pertaining to aesthetics and criticism -- became heated. David Ecker, by insisting on keeping all issues open and refusing to accept simplistic responses to complex questions, ruffled a few feathers at first but eventually persuaded everyone of the wisdom of his approach. And Sue Taylor scored heavily for art history with her sensitive presentation of the art of 1900 Vienna and of Van Gogh. Her lectures, in fact, prompted one teacher to remark, ``I'm going to use more art history in the future to enlighten and inspire my students.''

Toward that end, the specialists explained the nature and function of their professional roles; the teachers related the insights they had gained about the three disciplines to the practical problems of high school teaching; and David Baker and Dennie Wolf labored heroically to stay a step ahead of what was going on and to do what they could to direct it most effectively.

Everyone worked hard, especially the teachers, for they knew that the final responsibility for implementing the results rested with them. Discussions ultimately focused on such practical matters as how best to convince fellow teachers, superiors, and communities of the need for change, and where to find necessary funds.

By the middle of the second week, we had all participated in an intensive schedule of lectures and presentations; had visited with artists Philip Pearlstein and Miriam Schapiro and with Whitney Museum curator Patterson Sims and art educator Al Hurwitz; had taken a Sunday trip to Storm King Art Center, an outdoor sculpture museum an hour from the city; and had seen about as much of the New York art scene as we could absorb. All we needed was someone to pull it together.

Once again, David Baker and Dennie Wolf came to the rescue, this time with exercises and projections designed to relate what we had done and learned to future teaching practices. Dr. Baker explained the importance of coherence in the curriculum, especially when introducing new ideas and methods into a school system, and Dr. Wolf analyzed and charted what had been accomplished, and pointed out how future workshops could benefit from our experiences.

Along the way the institute produced several surprises: Dennie Wolf, after fearing that the studio sessions would be a humbling experience, discovered she had a real talent for making art. And teachers Michael Prepsky from Arizona, Steve Willis from Florida, and Jerry Stefl from Illinois experienced significant breakthroughs in their art work. In addition, roughly half the students reported that intense interaction with peers and specialists had triggered new insights into their roles as artists-teachers.

Fine. But had the group come even close to resolving the questions set forth in AICA's brochure?

The teachers seemed to feel we had. All agreed the institute would alter the way they will teach art in the future. Although they were still unclear about how they would manage it, all the participants I spoke with indicated they would at least try to provide their students with a better balance of the various disciplines.

For my part, I came away feeling both intrigued and impressed. I considered the institute a success not so much for what it accomplished as for what it set in motion.

True enough, several of the questions raised during the two-week session remain partially or wholly unanswered, and a number of the ideas advanced at the beginning proved irrelevant or inadequate at the end. But no matter. This was, after all, a pilot program with no real precedents and with only the goodwill, dedication, and experience of everyone concerned to sustain it.

I can't say what will happen next. Making significant changes in the mode of teaching takes time, planning, sympathetic school systems, and money -- especially in the field of art, which is perceived by many communities as the least important of subjects.

Changing that will not be easy, but a number of organizations, including the J. Paul Getty Trust and AICA, are determined to see it happen. By sponsoring this institute, the AICA has moved one important step closer to this objective.

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