In arts education, something profound is happening that will force us to rethink what and how we teach.
Art making has changed radically in recent years. Artists have become increasingly interested in crossing disciplinary boundaries—choreographers use video, sculpture, and text; photographers create "paintings" with repurposed textiles. New technologies enable new kinds of work, like interactive performances with both live and Web-based components. International collaboration has become de rigueur. Art and design pervade the culture—witness popular television programs like Top Design, Ink Master, and—the granddaddy of them all—Project Runway. And policy makers and businesspeople have embraced at least the idea of the so-called creative economy, with cities rushing to establish arts districts, and business schools collaborating with design schools.
Those developments are already affecting how the arts are taught: Curricula are becoming more flexible, with students encouraged to reach outside their departments to master whatever tools they need to make the art they want to make.
But there is another shift occurring that is more subtle and more destabilizing to art colleges: Suddenly, everyone is—or can be—an artist.
The means of artistic production are widely available, resulting in what I call a radical democratization of artistic expression. It is possible now, at very low cost, to acquire sophisticated creative tools and to use them without much training. Indeed, the tools themselves can provide significant guidance to the novice user and even make creative decisions for him or her. And, of course, work produced in this way can be disseminated almost instantly to potentially enormous audiences—as free content or packaged and sold as consumer products.
One might question whether such cultural production ought properly to be called artistic. Artistry, after all, is manifested not in the thing made but in the judgment exercised in its making. Polaroid and Instamatic cameras might have made us all vacation photographers, but most of us never become Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander. And diehard conceptualists might go further and argue that it's the idea more than—or in place of—its crafted form that makes art meaningful and sets it apart from mere expression or observation.
The technological changes we are witnessing will not threaten conceptual rigor or craft, nor will the ease of expression and communication make art obsolete. But these shifts are changing what we mean by art making and what counts as meaningful, crafted expression. To say so is not to judge the quality of that expression or to lament the rise of vulgarity or the lowering of standards. It is simply to observe that this democratization of expression will alter fundamentally how students—aspiring artists—think about art, its meaning and purpose, and the ways in which it is made.
These shifts will also change the professions for which educational institutions like mine prepare students. After all, if technology becomes smart enough to make design decisions, then designers could increasingly become technicians, operators of machines instead of creative professionals. But the more profound—and less visible—impact will be on how students think about their creative pursuits.
We cannot say with certainty what that impact will be. The first generation of so-called digital natives is reaching college only now; the environment they grew up in—which seemed so radical and new to many of us just a decade and a half ago—is already a punchline. Soon it will be an antiquated joke that doesn't even make sense anymore. Remember AOL? Remember plugging in to access the Net? Today's students don't.
They arrive at college having shot and edited video, manipulated photographs, recorded music—or at least sampled and remixed someone else's—designed or assembled animated characters and even virtual environments, and "painted" digital images—all using technologies readily available at home or even in their pocket. The next generation of students will have designed and printed three-dimensional images, customized consumer products, perhaps "rapid-prototyped" new products—I can't imagine what else.
Students today are not simply bombarded by images, consuming them in great gulps, as previous generations did; they are making the environments they inhabit, and making meaningful connections among images, stories, mythologies, and value systems. They are creative and creating.
But their notion of what it means to create is different from ours. It's something one does to communicate with others, to participate in social networks, to entertain oneself. Making things—images, objects, stories—is mundane for these students, not sacred. It's a component of everyday experience, woven tightly into the fabric of daily life.
So what is the task of arts educators? Is it to disabuse these young people of what we think are their misconceptions? Is it to inculcate in them an understanding of the "proper" way to create, to make art or entertainment? Is it to sort out the truly artistic from the great mass of creative chatterers—and to initiate them into some sacred tradition?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Or maybe the task of the educator is to help them develop judgment, to help them to see that creating, which they do instinctively, almost unconsciously, is a way of learning, of knowing, of making arguments and observations, of affecting and transforming their environment. And perhaps that's not so very different from what we do now.
We do it now, though, in the context of a curriculum and institutional histories oriented toward specific professional training and preparation. We seek to develop in students the critical faculties needed to thrive in clearly defined professions. But in the future, we may have to rethink our purpose and objectives. We may have to reimagine our curricula, recast the bachelor-of-fine-arts degree as a generalist—not professional—degree.
In a media-saturated culture in which everyone is both maker and consumer of images, products, sounds, and immersive experiences like games, and in which professional opportunities are more likely to be invented or discovered than pursued, maybe the B.F.A. is the most appropriate general-education experience, not just for aspiring artists and designers but for everyone.
That poses challenges for arts educators. We are good at equipping students who are already interested in careers in art and design with the skills and judgment necessary to succeed in artistic fields and creative professions that are still reasonably well defined. We are less good at educating them broadly, at equipping them to use their visual acuity, design sensibility, and experience as makers to solve the problems—alone or in collaboration with others—that the next generation of creative professionals may be called on to solve. These will be complex problems that cross the boundaries of traditional disciplines, methodologies, and skill sets—ranging from new fields like data visualization, which draws on graphic design, statistical analysis, and interaction design, to traditional challenges like brand development, which increasingly reaches beyond logos on letterhead to products and environments.
To do that, arts colleges would have to reorganize their curricula and their pedagogy. Teaching might come to look a lot more like what we now call mentorship or advising. Rather than assume that young people know what they want to do and that we know how to prepare them to do it, we would have to help them to explore their interests and aspirations and work with them to create an educational experience that meets their needs.
Curricula would not be configured as linear, progressive pathways of traditional semester-long courses, but would consist of components, such as short workshops, online courses, intensive tutorials, and so forth. Students would pick and choose among components, arranging and rearranging them according to what they need at a particular moment. Have a problem that requires that you use a particular software program? Go learn it, to solve that problem or complete that project. Want to pursue a traditional illustration-training program? Take multiple drawing and painting studios.
Linking all of this together would not be a traditional liberal-arts curriculum but what one faculty member at the University of the Arts has called a liberal art curriculum—one focused on design as problem solving, on artistic expression as the articulation and interrogation of ideas. Instead of an arts-and-sciences core curriculum separate and disconnected from studio instruction, we would build a new core that integrates the studio and the seminar room, that envisions making and thinking not as distinct approaches but as a dynamic conversation.
This fantasy of an alternative arts education—which resembles experiments that other educators have attempted in the past—begins to veer into utopianism, though, and a vague utopianism at that. It would be impossible to administer and to offer to students cost-effectively. And most students would probably find it more perplexing than liberating.
But I see an urgent need for new models that respond to the changing conditions affecting higher education—models that can adapt to conditions that are in constant flux and to an emerging sensibility among young people that is more entrepreneurial, flexible, and alert to change than our curricula are designed to accommodate.
We need an educational structure that takes instability and unpredictability as its starting point, its fundamental assumption. If a university is not made up of stable, enduring structures arranged linearly or hierarchically—schools, departments, majors, minors—but rather is made up of components that can be used or deployed according to demand and need, then invention instead of convention becomes the governing institutional dynamic.
Sean T. Buffington is president of the University of the Arts.