Educating Artists

First Things First...

This lesson traces the history of artistic training in modern Western Europe and the United States through several case studies, including the Royal French and British Academies (founded in 1648 and 1768, respectively), the Bauhaus (1919–33), California Institute of the Arts (1961–present), and contemporary art projects that seek to create alternatives to traditional art educational institutions. By analyzing the evolution of artistic training, the lesson explores the shifting role of the artist in society and questions access and privilege within artistic training systems.

Many of the students in art history surveys enter the course with a notion of art as mythic work produced by geniuses. This lesson helps to deconstruct this idea by highlighting the structures and systems of the art world. The focus on educational systems, in particular, connects to students’ own experience, encouraging them to consider how they are impacted by access to schools and structures within schools.

The majority of the lesson is organized around the three paradigms of art education outlined by Thierry de Duve in “When Form Has Become Attitude — And Beyond:” the “talent-métier-imitation” paradigm upheld by royal academies, the Bauhaus emphasis on “creativity-medium-invention,” and the “attitude-practice-deconstruction” model that emerged at North American art schools in the late-1960s. The essay provides a useful framework that can also be called into question, especially de Duve’s mournful conclusion about the “sterile” third paradigm. Students may find the writing in this essay challenging, so be prepared to allow time to carefully discuss his central points. This lesson concludes by moving beyond the three paradigms to draw on recent research by the collective BFAMFAPhD, whose “Artists Report Back” highlights the precarious economics of art education and art labor.

Big Questions:

  • How has art education changed over the course of the modern period, and what factors govern that change?
  • How has access to art education changed throughout the modern period?
  • How have these shifts altered the role of the artist in society?

Background Readings

Johann Zoffany, The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1772.

For students, I recommend:

  • Thierry de Duve, “When Form Has Become Attitude — And Beyond,” in The Artist and the Academy: Issues in Fine Art Education and The Wider Cultural Context, ed. Stephen Foster and Nicholas deVille (Southampton, UK: John Hansard Gallery, 1994).
  • BFAMFAPhD, “Artists Report Back,” 2014.

Potential further reading for students:

For instructors, I also recommend:

Content Suggestions

In an hour and fifteen minutes, this content area can be investigated through many objects and projects, including:

  • Johann Zoffany, The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1772
  • National Academy of Art Life Drawing Class, c. 1905
  • Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
  • Pietro Antonio Martini, The Salon of 1785, 1785
  • Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Dessau, 1925–6
  • Walter Gropius, “Diagram for the structure of teaching at the Bauhaus,” 1922
  • Eugen Batz, Exercise for color-theory course taught by Wassily Kandinsky, 1929–30
  • Josef Albers and students in a group critique at the Bauhaus Dessau, 1928–9
  • Félix Duban, Palais des Études, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, c. 1830
  • Marcel Breuer, “Wassily” Chair, manufactured by Standard Möbel, Germany, 1925–6
  • Gunta Stölzl, Slit Tapestry Red/Green, 1927–8
  • Herbert Bayer, Bauhaus, 1925
  • Postcard of CalArts, c. 1975
  • Womanhouse, Linen Closet, 1972
  • Womanhouse, Nurturant Kitchen, 1972
  • Ironing Piece, c. 1972
  • John Baldessari and his Post-Studio Students, c. 1971
  • John Baldessari, Assignments (Optional), 1970
  • John Baldessari, Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square, 1972–3
  • BFAMFAPhD, Artists Report Back, 2014

As one of the aims of this class is to get students to connect their own educational experiences with the larger paradigms discussed, the topic can be introduced by drawing upon their experience. Consider asking: how many of you have taken some sort of art class? How was the class taught? Were you taught to imitate another artist or to copy something that you see as exactly as possible? Were you taught to explore different artistic materials, or to use found objects? This class will touch on many of these methods, as we look at the history of art from the rise of the academy in the mid-seventeenth century to that of contemporary art schools.

Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy provides an introduction to the Académie royale in France and The Royal Academy of Art in Britain, established in 1648 and 1768, respectively. These schools served to professionalize the status of artists, distinguishing them from craftsman’s guilds, previously the predominant mode of education and organization for artists. Academies were not only centers for instruction, but also dictated artistic patronage through annual or semi-annual salons, which, until the mid-nineteenth century, served as the major venues for exhibiting new work. The academic model quickly spread to other countries and still exists in some schools today.

After briefly discussing the formation of the two schools, I ask students to analyze the members of the British Royal Academy as depicted by Zoffany: what conclusions can you draw about who can be part of the academy? Why might the women only be seen in portraits on the wall? Women’s membership to the Royal Academy was capped, and history painter Angelica Kauffmann and flower painter Mary Moser are seen only in portraits because it was not considered proper for women to participate in life-drawing sessions. Zoffany’s painting also highlights the centrality of life drawing to academic art, and the significance of classical models: What is the significance of the props that surround the men?

The photograph of the National Academy of Art Life-Drawing Class offers another glimpse into learning at the academy. As in many academic classes, all of the students are drawing from the same figure, each trying to depict the model as accurately as possible. Students also took this approach to drawing from classical or classically inspired statues, which the academy upheld as exemplars of the human form. This photograph presents an opportunity to foster discussion about de Duve’s analysis: how does de Duve describe this educational paradigm? How does he define talent, métier, and imitation? And, after students have teased out de Duve’s analysis: what sort of artwork might this type of educational system produce?

An exemplary painting from this era of art education, David’s The Death of Socrates demonstrates the academic emphases on classicism and life-drawing. Also an influential teacher, David’s work epitomizes a Neoclassical academic style that would remain in fashion into the first half of the nineteenth century. This painting depicts Socrates surrounded by grieving disciples after the Athenian government accused him of heretic teaching. Rather than renounce his beliefs in accordance with the government’s wishes, Socrates chose to drink poison. Students can analyze the style of this work, discussing its crisp draftsmanship, naturalistic figures, and classical aesthetic and subject matter.

In Martini’s The Salon of 1785, David’s The Oath of the Horatii (1784) is recognizable, hanging on the back wall. This cartoon is useful to get students to tease out how a floor-to-ceiling display of work reinforced hierarchies within academic painting. Reading from top to bottom, a close look reveals that history paintings are given a place of prominence, then portraits, genre paintings of everyday scenes, landscapes, animal paintings, and still lives. This hierarchy reminds us of the rigidity of rules in the academy. It is worth noting that this system was maintained throughout much of the nineteenth century, albeit with increasing dissent from avant-garde artists.

Walter Gropius, “Diagram for the structure of teaching at the Bauhaus,” 1922.

In rejection of formal academic training, many artists began to form small coteries in which they could advise each other in a way that might be considered an early predecessor of modern art school group critiques. These coteries, which existed among nearly every major movement from the Impressionists to the Surrealists, also found alternative venues for exhibition. While these groups operated outside of the academic system, they did not seek to reform or alter the system itself. The step towards re-thinking art education in an institutional capacity that challenged the perceived problems of academic teaching did not occur until 1919, when architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany.

The Diagram for the structure of teaching at the Bauhaus reveals the key aims for this new school. The circular plan should be read from the outside ring inward, showing that all students had to begin in a “basic course” (whose modern equivalent is typically known as “Foundations”), where they studied materials used in art, color theory, and form. Students then entered more specialized workshops, many of which were modeled after medieval guilds in their emphasis on collectivity and teaching craftsmanship. Have your class analyze the diagram: what might the emphases in this basic course signify? In his “Bauhaus Manifesto and Program,” Gropius highlighted the idea of uniting different artistic disciplines into a workshop-based system. He believed that this training should lead to the creation of a complete building, hence the central sphere, and that the building should be a unified “total work of art” with all components thoughtfully and coherently designed and crafted.

The basic course aimed to help students develop a universal formal language that could be applied to different areas of design. Eugen Batz’s Exercise for color-theory course taught by Wassily Kandinsky provides insight into the types of exercises that students did to build this language. Kandinsky asked his students to assign the three primary colors to the three elemental geometric shapes. Your students can try this exercise here.

A comparison of the National Academy of Art Life-Drawing Class and Josef Albers and students in a group critique at the Bauhaus Dessau reveals immediate divergences between the two paradigms: while the students at the academy are all drawing from the same model, the students at the Bauhaus have all created different sculptural forms. In fact, Gropius specifically denounced the “professionalization” heralded by the academic model. Students can unpack his opinion by analyzing this quote: “…art is not a ‘profession.’ There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, transcending the consciousness of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in a craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the prime source of creative imagination.” This comparison also speaks to Thierry de Duve’s discussion of the two academic paradigms: how do these two classroom scenes differ? How does de Duve discuss the differences between the two models of art education?

The divergences between the two modes of art education is further evident in the comparison between one of the main buildings of Félix Duban’s École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1830) and Gropius’s Bauhaus building in Dessau (1925–6). Duban’s school, built under the aegis of traditional academic training, upholds the forms of classical tradition; Gropius’s sleek, restrained design embraces new materials and industrially inspired form. The latter building’s architectural advancements include a glass curtain wall, steel-frame construction, and an asymmetrical plan. This building reflects Gropius’s increasing embrace of industrial production. By the mid-1920s, he had adopted the motto “art into industry,” encouraging students to create designs that could be mass-produced. This point is worth considering in greater detail: what does this embrace of industry signify about the role of the artist that the Bauhaus sought to produce? How can we explain this shift? At the time, Germany sought to become a center for manufacturing and design in Europe, and Bauhauslers wanted to help shape that production.

This embrace of industrial design can be seen in many of the objects produced by members of the Bauhaus, including Breuer’s “Wassily” Chair and Bayer’s Bauhaus font, shown here with Stölzl’s Slit Tapestry Red/Green. Stölzl was one of many female members of the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop. The school welcomed female students — in fact, more women applied to the school than men in its first year. However, inequalities still existed at the Bauhaus, and women were much more likely to participate in traditionally “feminine” arts like weaving and ceramics than architecture or sculpture.

The Bauhaus closed in 1933 due to an increasingly turbulent political climate in Germany. In the years leading up to and during World War II, however, many former Bauhaus students and teachers emigrated to the United States and other areas of Western Europe, leading to a widespread adoption of tenets of Bauhaus pedagogy, and even forming a satellite Bauhaus in Chicago in the late 1930s. The Bauhaus legacy can also be seen in Black Mountain College (1933–57), an experimental college in Asheville, North Carolina where several Bauhaus instructors and students taught.

Womanhouse, Linen Closet, 1972.

The California Institute of the Arts (abbreviated CalArts) serves as a case study for the next paradigm of art education, but it is important to note that the shift in art education in the late-1960s did not emerge at a single school. Other schools that could be brought into this discussion include Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), the University of California at San Diego’s art department, and the Hornsey College of Art in London. CalArts was formed in 1961 through the merging of the Chouinard Art Institute (famed for its education of many of Disney’s top animators) and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. Financed largely by Walt Disney, CalArts was thus initially conceived of as an art-themed incarnation of a Disney venture that would train Disney animators. However, an innovative dean hired a cohort of highly experimental artists, filmmakers, and critical theorists, so when the school officially opened in 1970, it was seen as the next Bauhaus or Black Mountain College. This postcard offers a glimpse of its surroundings in suburban Valencia, a northern suburb of Los Angeles. CalArts included a School of Arts, a School of Music, a School of Film/Video, a School of Theater, and a strong Critical Studies department. The School of Arts’ early faculty included Allan Kaprow, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Michael Asher, John Baldessari, and Alison Knowles. I have selected a few School of Art courses to highlight in this discussion.

CalArts’s Feminist Art Program, established by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in 1971, was one of the first of its kind. When it began, the program’s studios were still under construction, so the participants converted a deserted Hollywood mansion into an installation and performance space they dubbed Womanhouse. Womanhouse, although only one of many aspects of the Feminist Art Program, provides a good entryway into the work of the participants. The installations Nurturant Kitchen (which was entirely pink) and Linen Closet and the performance Ironing Piece provide an idea of the analysis of gendered work thematized by Chicago and Schapiro’s program. [Instructors wishing to show other views from Womanhouse can use this resource.] Through a discussion of Womanhouse, you can return to the earlier discussion on the built environments in which learning takes place: how does this building differ from the other academic spaces that we have looked at? What modes of teaching and learning are possible here that may not have been possible in other spaces? These questions should engender a discussion that touches upon some basic tenets of feminist pedagogy, such as the struggle against the objectification and alienation of the traditional academy and the embrace of personal experience. For an overview of feminism in the arts, feel free to consult Saisha Grayson-Knoth’s excellent lecture for AHTR here.”

In his Post-Studio course, the conceptual artist Baldessari refused to give students actual assignments, instead offering them a list of over one-hundred options that they could try. To enliven the class, students could be asked to each read one of these ideas out loud. This slide also shows a photograph of Baldessari and his students outside, where class was often held, and one of his works from this period. Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square is indicative of the type of tautological games that frequently constituted works of art for the members of the class. In this work, someone tried the action described in the title while another person took pictures. The act was repeated until a roll of film was used up. Once your class has read the ideas and unpacked the other images on the slide, they can discuss the implications of Baldessari’s course: how does this differ from the earlier images of art classes? What does it mean to be “post-studio”? What societal shifts may have led to this change? What is the role of the artist here: intellectual, clown, critic? And finally, do you agree with De Duve’s assessment of this paradigm as faithless and sterile? Why or why not?

De Duve does not dwell on the financial concerns of the art schools that he discusses, but the issue of expense is a central concern surrounding most forms of higher education today, especially art education. BFAMFAPhD’s Artists Report Back, which analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey (ACS), highlighted the economic challenges faced by graduates with art degrees. The blank slide indicates a pause where students can discuss the central points of BFAMFAPhD’s findings. Important points to draw from this discussion include the lack of substantial overlap between working artists and art school graduates, the expense of art schools compared to other schools, and the race, ethnicity, and gender imbalances within the population of working artists.

Once students have discussed these points, they can turn to a larger question posed by the study: if art schools are some of the most expensive schools, as highlighted by the Artists Report Back slide, is an art degree necessary? This question serves as a great point of debate for the class. Do students agree with BFAMFAPhD that low-cost art schools are worth attending? Can they imagine other modes of learning and exchange? And, crucially, how can these questions be connected to students’ own experiences of higher education? Do they see ways to reform the higher education system that they participate in? Can they imagine other modes of non-institutional learning that might better serve their own goals?

To conclude this discussion on a note of hope, the final slide shows three alternative, extra-institutional modes of learning and exchange that artists developed in the wake of the 2008 recession. The Public School (, founded in 2007, is an international platform where individuals can propose classes, points for discussion, and inquiries. Formed in 2009 by BFAMFAPhD member Caroline Woolard with Louise Ma and Rich Watts, Trade School ( is a network of barter-based, self-organized schools. Students can sign up for classes ranging from “How to Make Butter” to “Drawing for Pleasure and Relaxation” by offering to barter a service or good with the teacher. In 2009, the New York City-based collective Bruce High Quality Foundation founded Bruce High Quality Foundation University (, which offers free classes and critiques. BHQFU aims to “create new communion between artists, to develop and deepen the exchanges artists have with their work and each other.”

At the End of Class...

Comparisons: To review or further elaborate on the paradigms discussed during this lesson, students could write about or discuss the following comparisons:

  • Eugen Batz’s Exercise for color-theory course taught by Wassily Kandinsky and John Baldessari’s Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square: how do they highlight different modes of art-making and teaching at the Bauhaus and CalArts?.
  • The photograph of the Life-Drawing class at the National Academy of Art and Nurturant Kitchen: how does each reveal contrasts in the role of women within these two paradigms?
  • The postcard of CalArts and the image of Trade School’s website: juxtapose the institutional architecture of the two schools and ask, how does the comparison emphasize the free, non-geographically bound exchange made possible in the latter option?

Reflection: Students could describe their own ideal schools, taking tenets from the above examples and/or developing their own educational approaches and solutions.

Research Project: For a longer investigation into the teaching of art, students could research the pedagogy of central teachers within these three paradigms. Possible teachers of interest include: Charles Le Brun at the Royal French Academy, Joshua Reynolds at the British Royal Academy, Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus, Wassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus, Anni or Josef Albers at the Bauhaus and/or Black Mountain College, Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus or Yale, Allan Kaprow at CalArts, Michael Asher at CalArts, or Roy Ascott at the Ontario College of Art. Students could write papers about these teachers or enact one of their methods in the classroom.

Hallie Scott (author) is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center and the Education Director at the Wassaic Project, a contemporary art center in Dutchess County, NY. She is working on her dissertation “Teaching=Doing: Communication Pedagogy in California, 1966–1974.”

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.