I consider critical discourse and theory to be of primary importance to any arts education.
I believe that communicating ideas is at the core of every visual practice. Rather than emphasizing mastery over a given form such as sculpture or painting, I advocate for a thematic curriculum that investigates the nature of such communication. At Wichita State University, the program in which I currently teach has developed a number of courses based on this shared philosophy, and classes have been successful in advancing student work. Examples of such courses include “Narrative in Art,” “Site-Specific Art,” “Art, Surveillance, and Technology,” “The Moving Image,” and “Art and Subcultures.” This approach not only demonstrates the value of critical engagement in a studio arts setting, but also provides a platform for students from various degree concentrations to participate in the formation and critique of each other’s work.
Many of my students have shown specialized interest in what I call “applied arts” practices such as illustration, concept art, animation, and graphic design. I stress the importance of having a strong background in critical theory even for students in these fields for two main reasons. First, a thorough understanding of visual communication on a conceptual level improves an artist’s work regardless of how it is employed in practice. Second, a university degree program is fundamentally an educational platform, and a studio practice without theoretical discourse would constitute an incomplete education. I often use other humanities as an analogy, arguing that philosophy or anthropology students are expected to engage in idea-based research and discussion rather than simply understand the mechanics by which humanities are practiced. In a similar way, the act of creating visual works is only a fragment of what it means to study art.
While certain studio skills such as composition and color theory are foundational to all art concentrations, I find it misguided to prioritize individual techniques over discourse, particularly at the undergraduate level. I encourage my students to pursue research-based approaches early in their education, as materials and processes can more fruitfully be developed on an individual level after establishing a rough philosophical perspective. As an instructor I do not discredit the importance of traditional studio training, and in fact the practice of teaching classes such as foundation drawing and 2-D design has been rewarding. In this context I promote the idea that an artist should seek to better understand the conceptual nature of his/her work, even in a classroom setting that is focused on formal skills. One of the joys of being a teacher is having the chance to see a student’s work improve as a response to instruction, and these improvements are always the most pronounced among artists who choose to engage with critical discourse.