Rethinking Art Education
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
And what they don’t teach at art school (and never will)
by Ranjan Kaul
My previous essay reflected on the disconnection between society and the visual arts – it identified inadequate exposure and lack of proper art education in schools and colleges as two primary reasons for the disjuncture. (Here, I would like to clarify that in this essay I use the term “art” to essentially refer to the current practice of fine arts (painting, sculpture, ceramics, print-making, multi-disciplinary, installation, performance) and to neither applied art, visual communication or design nor the performing arts.) As in the case of the previous essay, here I’ve partly drawn upon a few of the discussions we’ve been having on Wednesday evenings on the artamour club on Clubhouse; I also reached out to teachers and practitioners who did not join us in the club rooms.
To join the conversations of club artamour on Clubhouse: www.clubhouse.com/club/artamour
Screenshots of the app Clubhouse room for club artamour on Art Education: What Needs to Change
A couple of Indian art students and recent art graduates who had joined our discussions expressed concern about their careers and said that they were not being given any guidance on how to become professional fine art practitioners. They bemoaned the fact that a career in teaching was among the limited options that were available to them, but even for this they now need a PhD degree and clear the NET. It is indeed a sad state of affairs that young and talented artists have no other means of survival save academics; this severely hinders them from pursuing their art practice for which they are trained. I have attempted here to address some of these issues, identify the causes, and also suggest a possible way forward.
This business of a mandatory PhD even to be hired as an Assistant Professor (earlier designated as Lecturer) announced in 2017 is curious and perplexing. Even experienced art teachers are today required to do their PhDs to be eligible for promotion to the post of Associate Professor. I’ve no issue with teachers who wish to pursue their doctorates to advance their learning – my quarrel is with the mandate to make it a compulsory requirement. From next year, no teachers in art colleges can be hired who are not PhDs and even the existing faculty need to be enrolled for it. Clearly, the decision makers in government thoughtlessly continued the same sweep of the brush to cover art as they did to cover other subjects such as history or physics, rather than differentiating it using a separate brushstroke and colour. (Given their muddled understanding, even if they’d done so, they'd probably have done it without cleaning the brush, and thereby still made a muddy mess!)
Before this decision came into force, many leading Indian art institutions such as the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, MSU Baroda, College of Art, Delhi, had very accomplished masters as members of the faculty who possessed only a bachelor’s art degree, or at best an MFA. During our discussion, one student pointed to the fact that among the PhDs serving as faculty in her art college are those who have not held a brush in years. What can be more ludicrous than this?
It is then not surprising that such teachers have little credibility among students who’d rather not attend their classes and do so merely for meeting attendance requirements. There are of course other reasons as well for students to skip lectures. As in other courses, there will always be disinterested students or those who joined an art college merely for the degree. In fact, one student complained that these students putrify the academic environment which is demoralizing and not conducive to learning. This leads us to the criteria for admissions to art colleges. In many colleges, as much as fifty per cent or even more weightage is given to the marks obtained in the school-leaving examination and only the remaining part to the aptitude test. Thus a student of the science stream, who obtained very high marks in, say, mathematics, gets an unfair advantage while a more talented candidate is denied admission. This must change urgently. The IITs have a separate entrance examination in which no weightage is given to the school results. Why can't art colleges similarly have a separate joint entrance examination to test the aptitude of admission seekers? Mediocre faculty and outmoded pedagogy are other reasons for students’ disenchantment. Finally, in a few cases, it is the exorbitant fees and high living expenses in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai that compel students to bunk classes and take up commissioned work.
Dr Daniel Connell, an Australian artist and art educator who has spent considerable time in India, could not join us in the discussions but shared his thoughts separately based on the successful experience of the Adelaide Central School of Art with which he is associated. Among the practices he’s suggested is running practice-based PhD courses. His point is pertinent: art is a practice-based discipline and the requirement of an academic regimen to award a PhD should not be the only option. A speaker mentioned that apparently practice-based PhDs were indeed awarded in a couple of Indian institutions but the others I spoke to were unaware of such a practice – the fact remains that practice-based PhDs are presently not recognized in the country. Recently, one senior faculty member from an art college decided to take premature retirement because her practice-based PhD from a foreign university was not regarded as valid. The question of course remains: What is so crucial about a PhD for the teaching of fine arts? Is it only there to determine pay scales and positions? I am given to understand that some sub-standard colleges have started awarding online PhDs to accommodate the rush to obtain one. Would this not lower quality standards of teaching? It would be understandable if the PhD had relevance to the subject being taught, but in most cases the dissertation thesis would be an obscure topic with little or no bearing on the art classroom/studio. There was a time when some of the most accomplished and senior artists in the country were engaged in teaching art – none of them possessed a PhD or even a formal master’s degree. This necessity of the PhD criterion could keep away some really good faculty from teaching.
Hiring of part-time art teachers along with only full-time ones is another of Daniel’s useful suggestions. This and appointing Artists-in-Residence would at least bridge the current divide between academic teaching and contemporary art practice. In my previous essay I’d dwelt at length on the National Education Policy 2020 regarding art education in schools and the policy directive to appoint an Artist-in-Residence in all colleges, irrespective of the discipline, to expose students to art. There is however no specific mention of appointing them in art colleges.
Allow me to take a pause here and compare fine arts education with architecture. Architectural practice and education are governed by The Council of Architecture (COA) constituted by the Government of India under the provisions of the Architects Act, 1972, enacted by the Indian Parliament. Besides providing for registration of architects, it specifies standards of education, qualification prerequisites, and so on. Of relevance are two of its mandates: one, that 20 per cent of the faculty must necessarily be external visiting faculty, and two, the teacher-student ratio must be 1:10. I believe it was Piloo Mody who was an architect and Rajya Sabha member for two terms who shepherded the Architects Art, through the Indian Parliament; regrettably, there has been no visionary politician to push a similar Fine Art Act. Till 2017, there was no requirement of a PhD for teachers of architecture; but now even they are in a quandary. Those involved with architectural education are now required to at the least enrol for a PhD by the end of 2021 to continue being a faculty member; I believe some have decided against it and even the profession of architecture will in the future suffer a similar fate as that of fine arts. No such council will be able to override the mandate of ill-informed bureaucrats and so-called experts in the UGC; yet there is certainly a strong case for instituting a Council of Fine Arts as there is in architecture.
There is no doubt that appointment of more visiting faculty art practitioners can enhance art education, especially, as mentioned earlier, some of these PhD teachers have stopped practising their art or even for that matter keeping themselves up-to-date with current developments in the world of contemporary art – they are quite content with receiving their monthly wages till they retire. This is indeed disconcerting – their teaching is bound to become stereotypical and mechanical. It is essential that art teachers continue their practice, and specifically in their studios in art schools, so students can visit them there and see the process first hand. The PhD requirement means that now even sincere art teachers will necessarily need to set aside time to work on their PhD, which will naturally affect their practice. Bose Krishnamachari, artist, curator and Founding President and Director, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, who joined the Clubhouse session as a listener but finally did also speak, stressed the need for teachers who can be inspirational role models and recounted his own experiences during his student days when accomplished masters of the likes of Gulammohammed Sheikh were his mentors and teachers. How many role models do we have among our PhD faculty nowadays who can truly engage with the students is a moot question. What is most important for a teacher, especially in a creative profession such as art, is to bring out the best potential of a student.
To quote Kahlil Gibran, “If he (the teacher) is indeed wise, he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”
Kochi Biennale (from left to right): Kochi Wings by Shilpa and Rachel Appu; visitors at Kochi Biennale; installation by Sue Williams (photos courtesy of Jenny Mackness, Wikimedia Commons)
There is also a need for upgrading the infrastructure of art institutions and introduction of relevant technologies in the curriculum. As humankind progresses rapidly towards a digital age, the world of art is also becoming increasingly technology driven – for instance, we have seen in recent times the phenomenal growth of NFT (Non-Fungible Tokens) in art. (Those interested to know more about this topic may read Aakshat Sinha’s well-researched article, The Case of NFT.)
Here, one must distinguish between technology and digital art. Some art students complain that they are not taught digital art – only colleges who have well-equipped computer labs are able to impart instruction on creating digital art, including animation, and most often such instruction is limited to applied art students. I’m personally not in favour of including such a course in the BFA art curriculum. There are no shortcuts to art – I do believe that art students need to first learn drawing, anatomy, composition, and other basics at the graduation level – digital art can be taught as a specialization in MFA. The danger with teaching digital art is that it would tempt students to download and print photographs, add flourishes and effects – and voila their art project is done. I have similar reservations about some of the digital art that is being peddled in the market; at the same time there are an increasing number of artists who are producing quality digital art. If students are really interested, there is nothing to stop them from learning the relevant software by enrolling for the several courses that are available online or register for them later after completing their BFA.
Freedom of Technical Minds by Ramchandra Pokale, Digital art
Online art education is something else, which I believe must be encouraged. Students seeking admission to art colleges are on the rise, and there are only that many that can gain admission given the limited availability of seats. The high cost of fees for a full-time course also deters students from joining a regular art course. There are a few institutions that do offer online courses – in fact, there has been a mushrooming of them during the pandemic and even many practising artists also took to running art classes to support themselves. However, here, there could be problems of maintaining quality standards; also students would be confused which course to enrol in. It thus makes sense for India’s leading art colleges to take the initiative in this case. There should be avenues available for anyone who wishes to learn art, and this must be encouraged and supported. This would also help to grow the art community and enhance awareness and understanding of the visual arts.
With most galleries remaining shut, the pandemic also compelled artists to take to social media and market their works themselves; I believe some did it successfully. Adversity is often a great teacher. In today’s day and age, teaching the effective and appropriate use of social media (including its hidden dangers) and doing virtual shows would certainly be useful to art students, who mostly use it to post selfies or forward inane and ridiculous content.
Equally important is the need to introduce courses in marketing, business and entrepreneurship, and curation. Graduating artists need to know how to promote themselves and begin earning as professional artists, rather than join a design or advertising firm or pursue MFAs and PhDs so that they can take up a teaching career. A lot has been written and discussed around this, so I fail to understand why art colleges have not included such courses in their curriculum. From writing an artist statement and preparing a portfolio to designing a catalogue and reaching out to galleries and potential buyers are all things that artists need to know to survive as professionals in a not-very-supportive environment such as India.
Since Independence there has been a raging debate around indigenous and western art and the need to shed the colonial legacy. The year 1947 was a turning point not only because the country gained freedom but also because it was the year when FN Souza founded the Progressive Artists’ Group along with MF Husain, KH Ara, HA Gade, SK Bakre and SH Raza. The Group’s manifesto, which Souza wrote, rejected the hackneyed 19th-century English art school education and underscored the need to go forward. Shockingly, they found no place for Amrita Sher-Gil nor Rabindranath Tagore or even Jamini Roy. Abanindranath and the Bengal School and students of Tagore’s Shantiniketan University too had similar laudable objectives but their approach was different. It is neither my intent nor relevant here to discuss the two strands of thinking, but I do believe that art pedagogy should be open ended and flexible; art teachers must necessarily continue to practice and be given the necessary freedom to design their own curriculum and teaching methodology. There has been a lot of noise about cultural identity and finding indigenous roots, but what these mean is woolly. We know that much of art, not only in India, but equally in the west, was developed and supported by royal or religious patronage. To a large extent such art was inclusive, be it the art and architecture in temples or Mughal art, and did not reflect the lives of the subaltern, the atrocities against marginalized communities, caste discrimination, deep-seated patriarchy, and so on. Chittaprosad Bhattacharya was among the few artists who drew inspiration from the villages and is acclaimed for his woodcut prints of the Bengal Famine and flood victims.
Flood Victims by Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, woodcut
(Image courtesy of The Waswo X. Waswo Collection of Indian Printmaking,
University of Iowa, Stanley Museum of Art)
Therefore, in my understanding “indigenous” art cannot only be found in the cave paintings of Ajanta or Ellora or temples, or Mughal and Rajput miniatures, or mythology and folk lore, or for that matter tribal and folk art forms; rather, you can discover your roots by keenly observing the lives of common people, their traumas, their distress, their joy, and by making an effort to spend time with them. That does not mean art colleges cannot and should not instil a more Indian cultural outlook; for example, Shantiniketan University has since its inception been inculcating “Indianness” in respect of forms of greeting, reference to seasons, addressing their teachers as Dada (elder brother), and so on. More importantly, it is the social milieu of the university that has kept alive the Tagore spirit – so, culturally enriching activities related to literature, theatre, film, and even casual singing are all part and parcel of the university’s character.
As contemporary art becomes increasingly multi-disciplinary and immersive, creating such an interdisciplinary environment becomes even more important. There is definite need for including inter-disciplinary programmes such as music, dance, theatre and poetry as part of the regular academic calendar. Aakshat Sinha, my co-founder at artmaour, has himself been organizing a multi-disciplinary art festival called IAM Identity Art Mix (formerly Identity Art Marathon) annually that runs for 25 days (which unfortunately has had to be been put on hold because of Covid).
IAM Identity Art Mix (formerly Marathon) 2019: Artist Ranjan Kaul giving an interview to DDNews; Artist Arpana Caur adressing the visitors; Performance artist Inder Salim's opening act of the festival; Late artist, art curator and critic Alka Raghuvanshi holding a talk on Sarees; HEXXYDUXXY BOX performance acts (Satadru Sovan and Prashant with Abhimanyu on guitar)
(Kindly click on the arrows left/right to view the photos)
Finally, there is another dimension that did not come up for discussion in the club rooms but which relates to the latter, parenthetical part of the sub-title of my essay, “And what they don’t teach at art schools (and never will)”. While it is conceivable that some progressive art colleges will gradually introduce courses related to technology, business acumen, social media and inter-disciplinary art practices as part of their regular curriculum, what art schools are unlikely to include is what I’d like to bring to the table for further deliberations before I conclude.
Contemporary art practices are increasingly becoming diverse and inclusive and blurring the boundaries of disciplines – while there are a growing number of artists who are using new media and whose interests span other disciplines, there are also people from different fields who are involving themselves with art either individually or in collaboration with artists. As an example, Susanta Mandal had curated an exhibition titled Erasure where along with more established artists he had invited creative practitioners from various fields – music, dance, theatre, medicine, architecture, education – to understand how ideas are formed and processed and had devoted a separate exhibition room for the display of their works.
Installation views of the inter-disciplinary submissions to the Erasure show
(Images of the artworks are courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery and the respective artists,
taken by Aakshat Sinha in the gallery)
Given this trend, I would recommend that courses from other liberal art disciplines – literature, sociology, history (not only art history), theatre – be offered as optional subjects to art students in art colleges. Such a study will not only widen the outlook of aspiring artists but give them a more creative and nuanced understanding of the environment they live in. For example, a deeper awareness and knowledge of issues, such as India’s deep-rooted hierarchical caste structures and atrocities against the Dalit community, the aftermath of Partition that has led to prejudicial behaviour towards Muslims, the marginalization of tribals, the rural-urban and class divides, would help artists to better comprehend Indian society and polity.
It is my belief that artists and writers, more than any other professional, need to keep their minds open to allow free flow and exchange of ideas. To make their courses more meaningful and enriching, I would also suggest that art students could be asked to work on art projects around their local communities and also be taken to villages and tribal areas which would not only be an enriching experience but inspire ideation. Such courses and exposure would greatly contribute to shaping a truly “indigenous” cultural identity in the country.
Finally, a work of art lives with the life you breathe into it. If there is no emotion, no ecstasy, no quiver of delight, no discovery, no intensity, that work of art will be limp and lifeless. Even a mundane work can become great if there is a purity of spirit, an honesty of intent, a visionary awareness. And no art school can or will teach you this.
Acknowlegements: I am grateful to Dr Daniel Connel, Ananda Moy Banerji, Sanjeev Sonpimpare, Mark Warner, and Soumen Bhowmick for their valuable comments and suggestions for this essay. I would also like to sincerely thank Rajan Shripad Fulari, Aakshat Sinha and all others who participated in the artamour club room discussions on Clubhouse. In the end, the views expressed here are my own and not necessarily attributable to those mentioned earlier.
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.