lundi 31 décembre 2018

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A Proposal for Studio Art Classes in the 21st Century

, Jae Wook Lee

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Contemporary art has changed dramatically. Artists’ practices have become more and more interdisciplinary, combining different fields of knowledge and practices.

Also, multiculturalism plays a crucial role in major museums and biennials around the world. Also, new terms such as “Social Practice,” “Post-Internet Art,” and “Art in the Age of Anthropocene” have gained increasing attention. The art world goes beyond the mere production of art objects and exhibitions. It rather focuses more on mediating art objects, people, and creators through various types of public programs, workshops, seminars, performances, lectures, talks, etc. The tendency is not to have a hierarchy but to have meaningful exchanges and interactions.

Art schools or college art programs need to update their studio art programs to reflect these new trends in the art world. I am going to write a proposal for art schools at the beginning of the 21st century based on my own teaching experience for the last four years. I have taught various media and levels at three different schools in the United States. I was a visiting lecturer in Sculpture at the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. I’ve taught foundation classes at the BFA Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I’ve taught digital imaging and video courses at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. I am going to list some of the key concerns and share the class structures I’ve used.

A Tendency Towards the Interdisciplinary

Art schools today need to offer a hybrid learning environment for concept-based, research-oriented, and interdisciplinary studio art classes. The Interdisciplinary approach does not mean art classes abandon traditional technical skills. Instead, students are encouraged to draw inspiration from science, including physics and biology, philosophy, literature, engineering, etc., and to explore “how different forms of knowledge meet at the heart of the active practice of reimagining the world” (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev). Students’ projects can come from a range of activities that take advantage of opportunities to work in cross-disciplinary ways. Especially, an interdisciplinary approach works perfectly for schools that have a liberal arts education system. Liberal Arts in the United States generally refers to a college education that offers a bachelor’s degree of one particular focus with substantial studies outside that main field. This means there are students from many different departments in an art class such as biology, sociology, economics, computer science, and among others. Those students usually have no background in art but eager to learn and make art. It is encouraging for them to get inspired from the knowledge they learned from other majors to create an experimental art piece by accepting the fact that everything can be art, and art can be anything after Marcel Duchamp. In this situation, there should be no hierarchy of knowledge, culture, and experience. It is important that every student has an equal opportunity to speak his or her opinion and share their own experience with others.

A drawing by Peilin Li, a student at the BFA Illustration major at the School of Visual Arts, 2018.

Multiculturalism and Diversity

I believe that concerns about diversity, equity and inclusivity should play an important role in art classes today. I’ve taught a highly diverse student group based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion. Many of my students are minority and foreign-born. Some of them are from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. I encourage them to use their identities and backgrounds for artistic expressions.

Art classes need to convey the various socioeconomic, racial, cultural and political backgrounds. Students need to be encouraged to ponder the roles of artists who continue to inform the importance of diversity that shapes our world. Also, it should to be stressed that underrepresented groups are active citizens in an increasingly diverse society. Instructors need to take an active leadership role in furthering diversity and continue to support students from underrepresented groups.

Research-based Art

“Research-based Art” is an assignment that I’ve used for every class. It concentrates on the practice of artistic research used today, questioning through research what it means to understand and present art. I ask each student to select a topic that motivates him or her the most. Then, they conduct intensive research in order to produce presentations about the selected topics. Finally, based on their research, they create an art piece. Students can work in any creative media. I provide conceptual, contextual, historical, and practical guidance to expand a student’s artistic vocabulary to a living environment. I encourage students to express their personal aesthetic voices in the settings they have chosen, and I encourage them to set off in unfamiliar directions. The main point for the research-based art is for students to discover their true passion that shapes their work and make their own points. As they don’t copy someone else’s works, they learn how to justify their creations intellectually with their layering of means, goals, and significance.


I’ve tried to incorporate the ideas listed above in my classes.

To take an example of my sculpture class at the University of Chicago, the class aimed to explore technical skills for woodworking and metalworking and what might be the most critical topics and examples of historical and contemporary sculptural practices. This course also examined diverse materials such as air-dry clay, mold making and casting materials, found objects, and natural objects, among others. This course primarily focused on making processes and exploration of sculptural materials. Students created three small sculptural objects and one research-based large sculpture as a final project. This course also gave an opportunity for students to examine modern and contemporary sculptural practices in an “unorthodox” angle. By “unorthodox” I mean, the recent extensive globalization of the art world allows us to reconsider the canonical modern history of sculpture by examining examples in other parts of the world with a multitude of diverse backgrounds. We looked at historical and contemporary sculptors from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Each week, two students were assigned to prepare a 10-minute presentation together about “the artist of the week” who uses metalworking and woodworking in innovative ways. Artists whose work we considered include Rasheed Araeen, Rayyane Tabet, Petrit Halilaj, Hague Yang, Phanos Kyriacou, Hendrawan Riyanto, Lygia Clark, Amir Nour, and Lee Ufan. At times, we also read a few selected articles from Aesthetics of Installation Art by Juliane Rebentisch. Finally, students learned and developed these ideas and strategies as a springboard to produce experimental sculptural work, using basic woodworking and metalworking.

A drawing by Peilin Li, a student at the BFA Illustration major at the School of Visual Arts, 2018

To take another example of my drawing class at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, the class has been a vital part of the foundation core for interdisciplinary studies in art. This course has concentrated on the traditional elements of drawing and design : line, shape, texture, proportion, motif, gesture, value, and composition. Introduction to gesture drawing, contour drawing, cross-contour drawing, and toner drawing has been part of the schedule. The importance of drawing as a visual language as well as a means of thinking and imagining has been stressed. Students have used a wide range of drawing materials, both conventional and unconventional. A drawing can be pursued as an “imagination with your eyes” as an interplay of the retinal and the mental. This course also has given an opportunity for students to examine modern and contemporary drawing practices of various backgrounds. Each week, two students have been assigned to prepare a 15-minute presentation together about “the artist of the week” who make drawings in innovative ways. Artists whose work we’ve considered include Ollie Harrington, Frida Kahlo, Yue Minjun, Kadir Nelson, Jackie Ormes, Marjane Satrapi, Amrita Sher-Gil, Remedios Varo, Kara Walker, Martin Wong, Wang Xingwei, and Sun Xun. Students have done intensive research for the final project. Through group critiques, students have expanded their speaking skills and critical faculties with regards to their own work as well as to artwork in general.

Finally, art schools are facing a crisis. The number of applications for Fine art programs gets lower each year. There is a lack of job opportunities and financial rewards after graduating with a fine art degree while the tuition for a college art degree gets higher every year. I believe it is important to acknowledge students about the financial reality they will face after graduating. Whether students are going to stay in art and become artists or not, they will prepare what’s coming which will not be easy.

*The cover image is a drawing by Farwah Rizvi, a student at the BFA Fine Arts major at the School of Visual Arts, 2017