Is Art an Act of Learning?

As part of Acts of Learning, I led an online debate for the website of Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. The lead question was: "Is art an act of learning?" The respondents were six artists, all practicing educators interested in rethinking arts pedagogy: Ana Laura López de la Torre working in Montevideo, Carla Herrera-Prats in New York, Saidel Brito Lorenzo in Guayaquil, Ricardo Basbaum in Rio de Janeiro, Mónica Giron in Buenos Aires, and Abraham Cruzvillegas in Mexico City. You can read their responses in the CPPC website, and the kick-off statement I wrote here:

Common discourses reckon that knowledge is power, that education promises equality, that emancipation enables freedom. There’s truth in this, no doubt. Debatable, however, is the efficacy of the systems designed to accomplish those aims. While learning can happen with calculation, fortuitously or inadvertently, it doesn’t necessarily become part of an experiential continuum that is formative. Acting here as an operative term, the formative emphasizes the shaping of self and community, of language and meaning, and, needless to say, of criticality and art. Acts of learning are thus beholden to ideologies as much as circumstance. At the center of this premise are the questions of why and what one learns, when and how learning may become transformative, with whom we learn, and, to our topic, who learns from art.

It could be considered that at times art anticipates experiments in pedagogy and contributes to education. The ways in which this happens is less clear than the impetus behind these conjectures, namely, the centuries-old questions about the being of an artwork, and consequently, of art making and aesthetic experience. This ancient yet still relevant inquiry has considered artistic labor beyond an activity of imitation, and beyond an activity grounded in shaping abstract ideas or physical matter into something that is, or that may become, meaningful. Moreover, it presupposes art to be a defiant exercise in thought that is sparked at the crossroads where spirituality, reality and potentiality meet.

It’s worthwhile to look at some of the philosophical developments of the art academy over the past century, as these point to larger changes in culture and to value systems championed, questioned, made visible or obscured. As Thierry de Duve has noted, there has been a shift of focus in the foundational precepts of what forms and informs art and artists. This shift, he explains, has been from talent to creativity to attitude; from métier to medium to practice; and from imitation to invention to deconstruction. It’s also worthwhile to chart some common terms in the art field that have been repeatedly used but seldom debated in art schools since the start of this century: professional development, research-based practice, project iterations, and aesthetic strategies.

In the face of these changing paradigms or in the use of these so-called terms of engagement, what kind of comprehension can be had of contemporary arts education today? In your experience, what are the forms of learning art, and of learning with art? How and when do you share—which may not necessarily imply didacticism—this learning experience with others? Why is it that you, as an artist, or someone who may not consider herself or himself an artist, can learn with art? By raising these basic questions, the debate intends to open a discussion about the comprehension of art, art making and aesthetic experience, about how these comprise a world. We invite you to respond with ideas or examples grounded in your own formative experiences—as an artist, and also as someone who teaches art—while being responsive to the ways in which art and education have informed your work and shaped value systems in your own context.