History of the Fine Art Curriculum - Nicholas Houghton p+t






The art curriculum: what is it? Where does it come from? Where is it going?

Nicholas Houghton

Paper presented at the 4th International CLTAD Conference, New York City, 3rd April 2008


This paper outlines what is taught in higher education fine art courses and attempts to understand why. For many, fine art education is uncertain about itself and what should be taught. To help to understand fine art education now, this paper proposes six curricula that have been successively introduced since the start of formal art education: traditional; formalist; romantic; conceptual; professional. The present day curriculum is explained in terms of deskilling and a continued belief in romantic notions of art and art for art’s sake. These are often implicit and form a hidden curriculum that has a considerable impact on teaching and assessment. These romantic notions need to be better understood and challenged. Moreover, the curriculum is now both too full and too narrow. A solution to this might be found if it were presumed that the curriculum is for learning about art, rather than learning to be artists.


In this paper I examine the curriculum of higher education fine art courses and attempt to understand what is being taught in fine art higher education and in particular why. This distinction between what and why is important and needs to be made clear at the outset. The purpose of a curriculum should not be confused with what is actually taught (Allison, 1982). Although still in common parlance in the UK, the term fine art is sometimes also known as visual art or plastic art, or even just art; fine art is used in this paper to refer to any of these. However it does not refer to the broader field of visual culture (which might include for example television programmes or Hollywood films). Fine art in this paper refers to a western tradition of art, albeit one that is now international. The pre-eminence of this tradition and the implications for a fine art curriculum have been challenged by the multi- cultural art education movement (Mason, 1995).

It is claimed that in fine art courses many things might be taught, however there is no longer anything that has to be taught (e.g. Elkins, 2001, Farthing, 2002; Singerman, 2007). As Elkins (2001: 38) claims, ‘…current art instruction doesn’t involve a fixed curriculum, a hierarchy of genres, a sequence of courses, a coherent body of knowledge, or a unified theory or practice’. Although what is included in the curriculum is contested in many disciplines, for them to be considered disciplines in their own right there needs to be agreement about a basic set of knowledge and precepts (Allsion, 1982; Siegesmund, 1998). Hence this uncertainty about what to include in an art curriculum not only causes problems for those who plan and teach art courses, it also poses fundamental, ontological questions about fine art education’s raison d’être (Pearse, 1992; Siegesmund, 1998).

Curriculum types

This paper begins with an overview of the main fine art curriculum types. This broad sweep necessarily ignores exceptions and underplays complexity in order to make clear the general trends. It also concentrates more on the last fifty years. It was during this time that the greatest changes took place as precepts from Modernism replaced traditional curricula. It is also pertinent that due to the expansion of higher education in many countries that most people who ever studied fine art have probably studied it during the last half century. I have identified six different types of curricula that were successively introduced. A new type of curriculum didn’t necessarily displace the previous one; often the old would continue to a greater or lesser extent beside the new. Hence in different cases one might find aspects of any or all of the six coexisting. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the United Kingdom has issued a benchmarking statement for art and design (2001) in which some of all six can be found. It needs to be noted that I am describing curriculum types, rather than a particular curriculum that would be found at any time at a particular institution. They are: apprenticeship; traditional; formalist; romantic; conceptual; professional.

The first of these curricula pre-dates art academies and art schools and has its origins in the European Middle Ages. It is the apprentice system. A master would employ a number of apprentices, who would learn skills and techniques from the master - and from each other. The informal ‘curriculum’ would be skills-based and determined by the kind of work produced by the master. For example, if the work included gilding then an apprentice might specialise in this. At the end of their studies, learning could be demonstrated through the production of a final, major piece of work (Pevsner, 1973).

Academies of art were established in Europe from the Renaissance, however they were scarce until the second half of the 18th century, when a large number were founded. These academies complemented learning through the apprentice system until the early nineteenth century, when they began to become the sole establishments for artists’ education (Pevsner, 1973). Parts of the apprentice system carried on into the traditional curricula of the fine art academies, where students were often assigned one particular artist from whom they received instruction and an example to emulate. Moreover, the tradition of a final, major project has never gone away.

However, these institutions were more than merely the apprentice system displaced to another context. One of their purposes was to raise the status of the artists above that of the artisan and the curriculum was designed to do just that. It therefore justified a rigorous training in traditional skills, especially drawing, with Renaissance and Classical ideals of harmony, proportion and ideal beauty. Of crucial importance to subsequent art education is that the academies put drawing at the centre of the curriculum. Students spent years copying drawings and geometric shapes and then the figure from plaster casts and eventually the live model. This was complemented by lectures on anatomy, geometry and perspective (Elkins, 2001, Pevsner, 1973). This traditional curriculum became common in the fine art academies from the early nineteenth century and remained dominant well into the twentieth. For example, when the young de Kooning enrolled at the fine art academy in Rotterdam in 1916, he embarked on a curriculum still based on the 18th century French art academies, which involved years of painstaking copying (Stevens and Swan, 2004).

The third curriculum type is formalist. Its invention is closely associated with the German Bauhaus School of Art, Design and Architecture (1919-1933) although it had various antecedents. The formalist curriculum became prevalent from the 1950s when many elements of the curriculum of the introductory course at the Bauhaus were incorporated into the curriculum of numerous courses; introductory courses in particular. In large measure this curriculum reflected one of the main aspects of Modernism: a concern with the formal language of an art form, hence for fine art with colour, shape, texture etc. and the particular properties of a material or medium. It manifested itself in basic design exercises such as a producing a colour wheel or modelling out of identical geometric shapes. The formalist curriculum was underpinned by a belief that art has a common language and students need to learn how use this language and its grammar, vocabulary and syntax (Yoemans, 1988). Both the formalist and traditional curricula have been justified on the grounds that they teach visual perception or visual literacy (Macdonald, 2004).

Although formalist could be considered a radical, Modernist alternative to the traditional curriculum, they both share some significant characteristics. Both are underpinned by a belief in universals and of a core art curriculum that applies to all. The traditional curriculum based this belief on ancient Greek philosophy and Renaissance ideals, while the formal used Gestalt psychology as its rationale. The romantic curriculum was also influenced by Modernism, in particular the expressionist wing of Modernism and by Romantic conceptions of art. It was introduced from the 1950s. This curriculum was underpinned by a belief in improvisation and that every student has something unique to express (Efland, 1990). It is easier to describe its rationale than its contents, since it concentrated on individuality, not on core knowledge. In fact, it could almost be described as a non-curriculum.

Just like the art that inspired it, the romantic curriculum was often intrinsically linked with formalism. However, whereas the formalist curriculum was predicated on a belief in universals, the romantic was based on the personal. On the face of it these two curricula would seem opposites, yet in fact they were more like two sides of the same coin, often co-existing. For all their differences, they both required an engagement by the students with the properties and possibilities of their materials.

The conceptual curriculum first appeared in the late 1960s but took another 20 years before it was widespread. In the United Kingdom one of the main causes of this curriculum was a requirement for fine art courses to add historical and theoretical knowledge to a curriculum that until then had concentrated on practical knowledge and skills (Coldstream, 1960). Similar developments took place in other countries. At first this was little more than a requirement to attend art history lectures and produce some written work. However, in many cases this gradually came to mix with the studio curriculum. A new curriculum aim emerged around a need to enable students to improve their critical and theoretical knowledge and communicate effectively about their work (Corner, 2005).

A second element of the conceptual curriculum is the design process. Like the formalist curriculum, the conceptual curriculum borrowed from design education, which had developed a way of teaching through design briefs. Students were expected to address these briefs through a set process of researching, generating ideas, developing ideas and presenting a final solution. This design process provided a structure for problem solving and the exercise of creativity (Mioduser & Dagan, 2007).

Fine art courses adopted a looser version of this process and usually it was the students themselves who set their own briefs, or determined the kinds of problems they wanted to engage with in their work. They were expected to record this process in sketchbooks and be able to describe the different stages, which would be used as a basis for assessment (Lindström, 2006). Sometimes others set the problems for students, as in David Askevold’s Projects Class at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (1968-74), where the problems were set by prominent conceptual artists.

Conceptual art and its premises have also had a considerable influence on the conceptual curriculum. On the one hand this is through a concentration on ideas, on innovation and on problem solving and on the other hand through the fine art curriculum becoming an extended field of practice. As well as traditional media. students might choose to use a wide range of others, such as film, performance, installation, sound etc. In this curriculum there does not need to be an in-depth engagement with the properties of any medium, rather with underlying concepts. At post-graduate level, the conceptual curriculum proved amenable to art practice taking its place as an accepted field of university research in a way that, for example, an abstract expressionist painter probably could not have. The mixture of ideas, theory, problem solving, systematic recording and the resulting original work can quite easily sit aside existing paradigms of university research (Sullivan, 2005).

Despite the ubiquity of the conceptual curriculum, during the last ten years the professional curriculum has appeared and is sufficiently different to be proposed as the sixth type. This curriculum is tied tightly to a contemporary art world and present day trends. Students learn a practical and theoretical understanding of their professional context and how to build an effective and successful career. Hence an emphasis is placed on curating, exhibiting, presenting and an intimate knowledge of the workings of the art world. Although it could be argued that many students have been doing this for years, what marks out the professional curriculum is that everything else is subservient to this main goal: preparation for professional success (Roberts, 2007, Singerman, 2007).

Three themes

Having identified the six curriculum types, I shall now explore in more detail what I consider to be the underlying beliefs, values and taken for granted assumptions about art and artists that lie behind what is taught and why. To do this I explore three themes: deskilling, art for art’s sake and the hidden curriculum.


From the Renaissance in the 15th century, artists strove to play down the craft that was needed to produce their work. Art and artists gained status, while craft was ‘treated as despicable toil’ (Pevsner, 1973: 31). This separation of artist and artisan became even more pronounced in the 19th century when the concept of genius gained common credence and artists could claim their work was the result of innate talent or inspiration, rather than hard work or craft skill. Modernism also disparaged craft (Roberts, 2007): for example in 1889, the French early Modern artist Sérusier claimed that craft skills are positively harmful to an artist’s freedom and should not be taught (Harrison, Wood & Gaiger, 1998). This view of craft came to influence the fine art curriculum. Singerman, (2007; 1999) proposes that since Modernism entered the art academies, there has been a furious deskilling with craft skills lost. According to Corner (2005: 341) ‘…at the outset of the twenty first century, the conceptual basis is the crucial aspect in the development of students and the creation of works of art’. It could be argued that since the 1960s fine art practice and education responded to the possibilities presented by an industrial (some might claim post-industrial) society and took up industrialised media that had become affordable, such as video, in place of painting. All the same, fine art curricula do not in my experience provide a thorough, time consuming grounding in the craft of using these new media.

Those who decry this diminution of craft, point to the danger of superficiality (Barnes-Powell, 2006, Sennett, 2008). It is also claimed that the magic spells that artists can cast come from the display of a high level of craft skill (Gell, 1992). Although it is evident that craft knowledge has been replaced in many curricula by theoretical and historical knowledge (Singerman, 1999), it is far from certain that this isn’t also superficial and arbitrary in its scope.

Art for art’s sake

The concept of the artist that emerged with Romanticism at the end of the 18th century was embraced by Modern and avant-garde artists and despite challenges from critical theorists, still seems to be widely believed. This concept casts a shadow over fine art curricula; in particular the romantic. Although many conceptual artists who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s opposed Romantic conceptions of the artist (Lippard, 1997), these notions nevertheless appear to imbue the conceptual – and professional - curricula.

According to this concept, artists are creators - if not gods then at least high priests - whose identity is inseparable from their work, even to the extent of accepting economic hardship rather than compromise their work’s – and hence their own - integrity (Honour, 1991). Like the priesthood, art was a calling and the place of the artist privileged and special. Indeed, the dominant view of artists within modernity has seen them as autonomous and beyond the reach of social norms, constraints or rules. Hence ‘the artist is responsible to no one but himself or herself, except perhaps other artists’ (Gay, 2007:53). As Eagleton (2008: 19) describes it: ‘art was a secular version of the Almighty. Both God and art belonged to that rare category of objects which existed entirely for their own sake, free of the vulgar taint of utility.’

Any curriculum could be designed with an aim of changing society, or for the sake of knowledge tout court (Apple, 1986). But fine art curricula have been overwhelmingly on the side of autonomy and the special status of art and artists (Wilde, 1999). When the fine art curriculum has been influenced by craft or design, for example at the Bauhaus then it has flirted with the ideas of social purpose. This does not mean that art necessarily ignores society. The privileged position within society – and within the university – of art provides artists with permission to criticise society, while being immune to criticism coming in the opposite direction (Wilde, 1999).

The hidden curriculum

This paper began by proposing that there is no coherent body of knowledge that constitutes the fine art curriculum. This not to suggest that that there is nothing to teach. On the contrary, the curriculum has kept having bits added as it embraces new technologies, new theories, as art practice expands into ever more mediea, art history grows from concentrating on the west to embracing the whole world and professional practice teaches business and professional skills (King-Hammond, 2007). Despite this, it is my contention that many important elements of the fine art curriculum are hidden.

The hidden curriculum is what is taught despite not being in the official curriculum (Skelton, 19997). An example from schools that is often given is that a hidden curriculum aim is to socialise children so that their behaviour meets social norms. In the case of fine art, the hidden curriculum has two linked themes: inculcation into being an artist and facilitation of the emergence of innate talent (Wayte and Wayte, 1990).

Research by Drew and Williams (2002:10) found that above all fine art teachers were trying to impart the notion of ‘art as a way of life’. This is something students have to absorb, as they acculturate what it is to be an artist. This is not the same as the way students studying any discipline will learn the norms of a community of practice, for this status of being an artist is believed to be special and exceptional.

It appears that the hidden fine art curriculum attempts to unleash magical powers that enable students to attain the privileged position of being an artist. Once this status is attained and acknowledged by others, then all such a person does or touches can be significant: even their used, unmade bed. ‘We believe we are clay in our hands, artist and artefact together, free to mould our psyches and bodies into whatever shape we find most appealing’ (Eagleton, 2008: 20).

This hidden curriculum poses problems. As long as it is hidden then it cannot be assessed. If it is nevertheless affecting assessment then this is unfair. Another problem is that it leads to the view that art cannot be taught; at best you can teach about the art world and art practices (Singerman, 1999). This view is represented in the art education literature (an influential book by Elkins is titled ‘Why Art Cannot Be Taught’). All the same, it is likely that those who hold this view are less likely to engage in art education debates and that this view is hence under represented in the literature. A logical extension of this view would be that there should not be a curriculum. Certainly the imposition of a national curriculum for English schools in 1990 was almost universally condemned by art teachers. This issue can expose many teachers’ fundamental beliefs: should solutions come from the top or the bottom? Are there universals, or only many single cases (Pevsner, 1973)? It is significant that the last three curriculum types described above do not acknowledge universals and that the idea of a common language that underpinned the formalist curriculum has gone out of fashion.


The hidden curriculum described above needs to be made explicit and then interrogated for its usefulness. If the performance of highly talented, elite athletes can be improved through coaching, why cannot even the most talented artists also be taught? The notion of learning how to behave like an artist also needs to be challenged. It is ironic that as the number of students studying fine art has increased, so the curriculum has been made professional. Many of the stresses and contradictions outlined in this paper could be addressed if curricula were designed to teach about art, rather than train artists, at least at undergraduate level. Art education is justified because it provides a grounding in important, transferable skills. It is not presumed that those who study, for example, philosophy will become practicing philosophers. Perhaps it is time to design fine art curricula without an assumption that it is a professional training of artists.


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