Art as extraordinary science: The place of art teaching in the science university

By Dr Jenny Waller

In their narratives of art education, Pevsner (1940) and Goldstein (1996) trace a complex history from the medieval guilds to the 20th Century art schools. This narrative is separate from that of mainstream education, since art schools are independent institutions answerable only to themselves. 

In the 1970’s (in the UK) however, art becomes part of the mainstream university system, bringing its traditions with it. Risenhoover and Blackburn (1976) reflect the general hope that this will bring mutual benefits, with art departments benefiting from the relative stability of the universities, and the universities themselves benefiting from insights into “creativity and productivity…highly important matters regarding the creative side” (pp. 212-3). In the event, however, they find no evidence that the universities are becoming more creatively inclined – it is after all early days.

But forty years on, Macleod and Holdridge (2006) report that art teaching remains marginalised and vulnerable to hard issues of “academic probity…much is said about artists’ ignorance, their inability to write academic texts, to undertake comprehensive literature surveys of research terrain and to appropriately undertake research” (p. 7). Why have the great traditions of art education made so little impact?

In the case of art, this interdisciplinary disconnect is compounded by differences in the paradigms of education itself which, as we have seen, have historically developed independently of the universities.

According to science historian Thomas Kuhn ([1962]1970), academic disciplines inevitably struggle to understand each other because of the nature of what he calls “the fundamental unit of education” (p. 11), the paradigm. Paradigms are “constellation[s] of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community” (p. 175) which are necessarily both invisible and incommensurable. So “schools guided by different paradigms are always slightly at cross-purposes” (p. 112). In the case of art, this interdisciplinary disconnect is compounded by differences in the paradigms of education itself which, as we have seen, have historically developed independently of the universities.

The Framework of Educational Assumptions below is designed to tease out our assumptions about education. The horizontal axis Articulation refers to the extent to which what we teach is articulated and in the public domain. The vertical axis, Acceptance by the University Disciplines, looks at the extent to which it is accepted as part of a recognised university discipline.

              Figure 1: The Framework of Educational Assumptions.

At the top right of the matrix is Normal Science (Kuhn, [1962]1970). This is the core business of the university where “the members of a scientific community …[are]… uniquely responsible for the pursuit of a set of shared goals, including the training of their successors” (p. 177). Normal science teaching and research is characterised by the familiar pedagogy of lectures, seminars and textbooks, designed to transfer knowledge as efficiently as possible.

At the top left is Professional Practice, where practical skills combine with the disciplines to form the professions. Teaching is about developing students’ personal competences through practice and reflection (Schön, [1983]2007). Professional practice is part of the university curriculum, although of lower status than purely theoretical studies.

The bottom right quadrant is where we find Kuhn’s ([1962]1970) Extraordinary Science, characterised by new ideas and experiments, the inspired intuitions of risk-taking individualists responsible for scientific breakthroughs. Kuhn notes that extraordinary science is not taught by the universities, even though the future of science clearly depends on it.

Finally, the bottom left quadrant Voodoo is where knowledge is both unarticulated and outside the authority of the disciplines. In university terms, this is the disqualified universe which includes “religion, metaphysics, intuitions, a sense of humour, imagination” (Feyerabend, 1975, p. 19).

Research into studio art teaching today shows that the contemporary paradigm is of art as extraordinary science, with artists encouraged to imagine and articulate new ways of seeing the world, just as experimental scientists would.

From the matrix, we can see how mainstream university teaching is restricted to the top two quadrants. However the historical paradigms of art education involve all four, with different emphases at different times. Research into studio art teaching today shows that the contemporary paradigm is of art as extraordinary science, with artists encouraged to imagine and articulate new ways of seeing the world, just as experimental scientists would (Waller, 2016).

So the area of science teaching’s vulnerability, its failure to teach innovation, is precisely where art teachers have experience and competence. We would argue that moving art schools into the university system did indeed bring with it the potential for showing how to teach for extraordinary science, and that the exploitation of this potential is long overdue.


References

Goldstein, C. (1996). Teaching art: Academies and schools from Vasari to Albers. Cambridge University Press.

Kuhn, T. S. ([1962]1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

Macleod, K., and Holdridge, L. (2006). Introduction. In K. Macleod and L. Holdridge (Eds.), Thinking through art: Reflections on art as research (pp.1-15). Routledge.

Pevsner, N. (1940). Academies of art past and present. Cambridge University Press.

Risenhoover, M., and Blackburn, R. T. (1976). Artists as professors. University of Illinois Press.

Schön, D. ([1983]2007). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Waller, 2016. Art as extraordinary science. Clink Street Publishing.


Jenny Waller’s career has been in teaching and training in the field of clear communications. She recently completed her PhD on the problem of how to explain Fine Art studio education in the context of university teaching, spending a year observing studio teaching and using discourse analysis to understand both what art teachers teach and how they do it. This research led to the publication in 2016 of her book Art as Extraordinary Science which argues that science departments could learn a lot from art teachers about enabling students to develop and test the new knowledge essential for the future of their disciplines.