Teaching art is a bizarre task. I have been working with students at the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas for more than ten years and in my experience, one can certainly lead students to improve their technical skills and to enrich their understanding of contemporary and historical art. But what makes teaching art so difficult and different from say, teaching computer science, is that it involves making decisive evaluations about objects that frustrate clear understanding; contentious arguments about quality and matters of taste are inevitable. In fact, as much as some like to think they can codify and systematize the way art is taught, the nature of creating art resists formulaic attempts at instruction. Art teaching and art making are at their best when they acknowledge the idiosyncratic and slippery ways in which art is born.
In fact, what can one say about art with any certainty? Only that people (those who make things and those who view things) will disagree about the value of any art object. As an artist, critic and teacher, my evaluation of art is an ongoing process that takes various forms, but is always determined by the logic of my own values. In the classroom, I attempt to make clear to students that every decision they make regarding their art speaks volumes about what they deem necessary and worthwhile. As Theodore Adorno famously noted—artworks reside in uncomfortable proximity to one another, because each artwork proclaims itself important and valuable in opposition to all other forms of artistic expression. So, with a healthy dose of skepticism about my ability to mold students, I long ago decided against giving students mere prescriptions about what to make, and instead decided to actively describe the pitfalls of certain subjects, techniques and procedures.
Extending my critiques and discussions with students, I use my office door as an ersatz bulletin board. Among a smattering of aphoristic food for thought, and ridiculous humor by David Shrigley, my door has a list of Ten Things Not to Paint emblazoned on its surface. The list, which certainly could be longer, looks something like this:
• Puppy dogs, cats, your favorite dead pet memorial painting etc.
• A fetus or saccharine portrayals of children
• Flowers (especially blue bonnets)
• Halloween paintings (moody trees and purple overcast skies)
• Clowns, Angels and Barbie
• Unicorns/Dragons/Demons/Warlocks/Witches/Fairies/ scantily clad women holding swashbuckling swords/muscle bound men holding machine guns
• Skulls, because you fashion yourself a modern day pirate or a retro goth vampire
• Your favorite cartoon character (doe-eyed Manga characters) or your current rock star hero
• Landscape à la your favorite Impressionist painter
• Thatched roofed cottages
My list is meant mostly as a joke, but also as a way of reminding students that they need to think about their chosen subjects and stylistic choices as a language declaring attitude, intellect, and perhaps an embodied meaning. As a preamble to my list, I purposefully intone the following caveat:
“There really are no taboos in art. That doesn’t mean anything is good. If you paint any of these subjects, you must work hard to reinvent them and make them fresh—not clichéd. Or, better yet, simply paint something else.”
Despite the obvious dangers of the list, many students have made paintings from these subjects; a handful have been smart—most, horribly misguided. Yet, to prove that there are no absolutes in art, I love to find examples of great paintings using these questionable subjects. Kirk Hayes has a fabulous dead clown painting and David Humphrey comically envisions garage sale-style cat and dog paintings. Still, one of my mantras to students is to avoid a hackneyed familiarity in their art. Cliché is a graveyard. Yet, if one is persistent and delves deep enough into a cliché, sometimes there is life after death. Essentially the difference between a ham-fisted artwork and an engaging artwork is the difference between what is already known and what is found. Even when painting a trite subject, one can find gold in the mud.
In the end, teaching art, like making art, is always difficult. My former colleague at UNT, Vernon Fisher, was prone to say “art can’t be taught, but it can be coached.” This seems as close as one gets to the truth of the matter. Coaches mentor, direct and cajole athletes into using their bodies more powerfully and economically for their given sport. With this in mind art “teachers” should encourage students to pay attention to their aesthetic decisions as markers of value and to recognize that their choices reflect a partisan valorization of a particular taste—one they will have to defend in the marketplace of competing ideas. Most importantly, art educators ought to focus on the crux of it all—whether a students’ efforts are supplemented or subverted by the particular vision offered in their art.
But before I ramble on, I had better get back to working on my majestic painting of a demon clown riding a unicorn through a darkened forest…
Matthew Bourbon is an artist and writer. His art was recently seen in Death of a Propane Salesman, Anxiety and the Texas Artist at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, and Our Splendid Defeat at Rudolph Blume Fine Art in Houston. He is currently an Associate Professor of Art at the University of North Texas’s College of Visual Arts and Design. Bourbon is also an art critic and contributes to Art Forum Online, Flash Art, ArtNews, New York Arts Magazine, Art Lies and KERA Art and Seek.