What worked earlier may not work now, what works today may prove unsuitable tomorrow. Art educators need to see themselves as learners on a shared journey so that they can create humane spaces for students to explore their diverse potential and relate to the world around them.
At a conference organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation in conjunction with the Students Biennale recently, acclaimed art historian R. Siva Kumar presented a paper on the challenges facing contemporary art educators. Drawing on his long and rich association with Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, both as a student and teacher, Siva Kumar dwelt on what he considers to be of cardinal importance in art education in general. We present below an edited version of the paper.
Rabindranath Tagore, whose ideas guided the educational initiatives at Santiniketan in its early years, saw all education as an invitation to participate in collective human endeavour, and art education at Santiniketan under Nandalal Bose was no different. This is, I believe, a good starting point. If we do not believe in passing the torch, from one artist to the next or from one generation to the next, then there is no need for art schools or for that matter any educational institution.
But what does it mean – this idea of passing the torch? Does it mean teaching a set of skills, as artists and craftsmen did in the past, and as some art schools still do? Or does it mean offering a philosophy or a theoretical framework for practice, especially that which the leading practitioners of today believe in?
These aspects have their relevance, but we who teach at art schools, should remember one thing. Our training is rooted in yardsticks of the past and it is with this training that we try to address contemporary challenges, teaching those who will have to respond to what is as yet an unknown future. This is something every art school and individual teacher will do well to remember.
All art education, then, is a training to creatively respond to an unknown future. This renders a fixed syllabus redundant. Anyone who thinks he can foresee the needs of the future is more of an astrologer than a teacher. Educators should be equipped more with a sense of purpose than an elaborate syllabus. Purpose functions as a compass, not as a road map, and therefore encourages thinking and re-thinking.
The syllabus, on the other hand, is fixed; it is a tunnel road. It takes away a sense of initiative from the teacher and the learner, encourages conformity. If we are journeying into an unknown, unmapped future, then decisions will have to be taken en route, and the decisions we take have to be recognised as essentially contingent.
Education, then, is about cultivating the mind, training it to be creative. Creativity is not always innate; more often than not it needs to be discovered. Potentialities should be realised through exposure and willingness to experiment. Rabindranath Tagore and a host of other self-trained artists across the world exemplify this fact. Imagination and insight are perhaps more important than skills, at least in the conditions under which art has been made since the beginning of modernism, but what we gain through them needs to be perfected through practice.
Imagination, innovation and skills are interrelated, and creativity is the outcome of a synergy between them. In the past (and in art schools that still conform to older values) skill was often over-emphasised and it killed the spirit of imagination and innovation. Today we run the risk of doing just the opposite.
In the past, theologians, scholars or patrons provided artists with themes, iconographic schemes and conceptual underpinnings; today artists often provide the research and conceptual framework, and hire skilled workers to materialise them. If the former was acceptable then, there is no is no reason why the latter should not be acceptable now.
However, it might be more desirable to have an education that helps young artists become intellectually endowed, technically skilled and capable of making social, political and aesthetic judgements for themselves.This would not only bring about a greater synergy between the different aspects of an art work but also between the different faculties of an artist, and make him or her a more complete artist. Art schools should make some provision for this. In other words, art schools should have teachers who can help students acquire technical skills, intellectual rigour and critical judgement.
If specialisation and the division of labour ensuing from it is one aspect of the problem today, bringing about uniformity is the other. Human beings, and therefore students too, have diverse abilities and different types of intelligence. It is important that art schools provide space for the realisation of diverse possibilities. As art educators we need to learn not to privilege one kind of practice over another. When we do that, we take away the element of choice from the student whose decisions with regard to the future would be based on our judgement or bias. It would be better to expose students to a whole range of practices, giving them the freedom to choose and specialise in the way each one wants. The programmes we plan and the arrangements we make should allow for developing breadth and depth in equal measure.
Just as bringing about uniformity within art schools is not desirable, uniformity among art schools too is also not a prudent proposition for the simple reason that it will shrink the cultural gene pool available to us. It is based on the idea of ensuring a sense of certainty about the future and does not prepare us effectively for dealing with the unknown. It allows ease of administration and therefore it is tempting for governments and art schools as well to enforce uniformity, but it is not a sound economic or educational strategy.
Inflexibility of goals and thus of programmes necessitates different institutions and separate programmes for training different kinds of creative men and women—artists, designers, visual communicators and skilled craftspersons to name a few. While art practice is becoming progressively inflected by visual culture, art schools and pundits don’t seem ready to loosen old hierarchies between art and design, art and craft, expression and communication. Even when they acquiesce, often they trade one for the other in the name of undoing old hierarchies. An art school where there is space for all these will be a more humane space, where students with different abilities feel empowered and
have the opportunity to flourish. It might also be a better way of using our scant resources.
Keeping in mind the contingent nature of all preparations for the future, teachers should be willing to see themselves as learners. They should be willing to see themselves and their students as fellow travellers. All of us who have been teachers for any length of time know that in a changing world where there are no absolute disciplinary certainties, we need to be self-reflexive and ready to re-position ourselves. What worked in the past may not work today, what suits us today may prove unsuitable tomorrow. So teachers and students should educate one another, and the art school should provide the setting and the environment for that co-learning.
Moreover, disciplinary uncertainties and the possibility of being proven wrong should make both teachers and students more humble and open to correction. After having covered much ground we might even discover that we had taken a wrong turn and ought to go back and correct our course, and it is for this reason that we cannot write off the past however distant it might appear in relation to our present needs.
Openness to diverse possibilities should also be reflected in the modes of testing adopted in art schools. If we accept that students are differently endowed, then testing should be broad enough to accommodate such diversity. In the creative arts, especially when it is not guided by a fixed norm, testing has a great chance of failing. Students can challenge established practices or values on their own, but with a narrow system of evaluation the possibility of their success can be killed before they are socially tested. Teachers are appointed representatives of the people at large but we are not the people, and society at large, or the society of the future, might decide differently from us.
There is, then, a need for bringing people within the ambit of education, particularly since art schools teach something that has been generally written off or pushed to the margins of most societies through an evolutionary process driven by utilitarian and economic concerns. For this reason art schools should not be perceived as or function as standalone institutions. They should be seen as part of a spectrum that includes museums, galleries, and periodic events like the biennale, for instance. The museum privileges the past, that which has passed the test of cultural acceptance. The gallery privileges the contemporary or that which has economic value. Periodic expositions like the biennale are spaces where contemporary art is presented before the public with an invitation to respond. Certainly there are curators working behind it, and in some ways it is a non-commercial space and a temporary museum which generates cultural capital put together.
Be it the museum, the gallery or periodic expositions, today all three are governed by experts from the art world who are privileged by their special knowledge of the arts. Compared to the museum or gallery, periodic expositions are more open to the non-specialist viewer. They are the closest we come to the Salon de Refuses where the artist came before the public unheralded by specialists and their establishments [the Salon de Refuses refers to the show of art works rejected by the official Paris Salon jury, particularly to the 1863 show of the work of Impressionists who were rejected by the official forum].
Even if our art schools may not be able to bring into being a new Salon de Refuses for our times, they should make the best use of what is there and encourage students to address their public. Students should try to relate their work to the immediate world where they live in close proximity with fellow humans who are not members of the art world. This engagement can be at several levels and can take several forms: it can be political or aesthetic, didactic or experiential, representational or participatory. And art schools should arrange their own little fairs or periodic expositions to which men and women from every walk of life should feel welcomed.
R. Siva Kumar is head of the art history department at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan.