Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students Reprint Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0252069505
ISBN-10: 0252069501
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students, James Elkins (The Object Stares Back), professor of art history, theory and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, paints a nasty picture of what goes on in art schools. Critiques of students' art are comparable to "psychodramas," with the usual result of the criticized artist breaking down into tears. The chapter "Teaching and Learning Mediocre Art" begins from a sour premise, that "most artists do not make interesting art." Art students and teachers might find a grim sort of gallows accuracy in this deadly portrait of their activities.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Elkin's title throws the proverbial gauntlet at the feet of studio art teachers... His ideas are provocative, effectively phrased, and are useful for testing one's unexamined prejudicial assumptions." -- Choice "The virtue of [Elkins'] latest book is the daring with which it addresses (but does not answer in the end] the doubts that gnaw at anyone, teacher or student, who participates in an art critique... Let's pray that this is the opening shot in a long, honest dialogue, a self-examination." -- Ballast Quarterly Review ADVANCE PRAISE "Original and timely. I don't know of any other book that addresses the issues of contemporary art teaching so convincingly. Elkins's bold analysis of the critique should be required reading for art teachers and students." - Judith K. Brodsky, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University "Elkins challenges all the comfortable myths that art schools run on: that art can be taught; that we know what we're doing when we try to teach art; that the class critiques which are the heart of art school teaching make some kind of sense. His dissection of art school practice is penetrating and witty-not just iconoclastic, but soundly based in serious philosophic discourse. The range of his scholarship is breathtaking." - Howard S. Becker, author of Art Worlds

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 213 pages
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition (May 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0252069501
  • ISBN-13: 978-0252069505
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #241,575 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Note: information on reaching me, on unpublished texts, etc., follows this bio.

James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer.

He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in Chicago; he got a graduate degree in painting, and then switched to Art History, got another graduate degree, and went on to do the PhD in Art History, which he finished in 1989. (All from the University of Chicago.) Since then he has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism.

His writing focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images, writing systems, and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some are about natural history (How to Use Your Eyes).

Current projects include a series called the Stone Summer Theory Institutes, a book called The Project of Painting: 1900-2000, a series called Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Art, and a book written against Camera Lucida.

He married Margaret MacNamidhe in 1994 on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Margaret is also an art historian, with a specialty in Delacroix. Jim's interests include microscopy (with a Zeiss Nomarski differential interference microscope and Anoptral phase contrast), optics (he owns an ophthalmologist's slit-lamp microscope), stereo photography (with a Realist camera), playing piano, and (whenever possible) winter ocean diving.

Contact information:

Hi, most everything about me, including unpublished texts, is here:


That site also has a contact form:


And that website also has my travel calendar, in case you live outside the US:


(Amazon won't let people link their Google calendars to their profile page: don't know why.)

I'm also very active on Facebook:


And I am active on Library Thing (posting reviews of contemporary fiction):


PS, I also have an Amazon "aStore," a special site for buying books:


And last, I also have an Amazon Listmania! list:


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

62 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Grafflin on June 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
Chatty and irresistable, rather than being the harsh polemic that the title might suggest, this volume is a multifaceted discussion of the issues involved in teaching and studying art in a studio environment. Anyone who has ever lived through a studio critique will find the book hard to put down. Like Elkin's earlier work, "What Painting Is," it will make any art-student readers wish that they could study with him at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Despite the provocative title, Elkins has very little interest in transforming arts education. Rather, he wants to point to both the virtues and the pitfalls of critique-based evaluation, and to get both teachers and students to appreciate just what a mysterious and irrational process it is to attempt to teach/learn the studio arts.
The author is an insider speaking candidly for other insiders -- the audience for this valuable and intelligent essay may not be huge, but within that group, it will stimulate many electrifying conversations.
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67 of 74 people found the following review helpful By "fanboyfromva" on July 15, 2003
Format: Paperback
The answer: I think so. The author changed my way of thinking about the subject of what is plausible in arts education in our time. The apprearance of total artistic freedom from judgement as formulated by postmodernists, yet the intrinsic nature of how the academy/school affects an artist, is seriously examined by Elkins.
This book is amongst the first to pragmatically question some of our common misunderstandings about the methodology involved in teaching the visual arts. The reason for this maybe due in part to modernist and postmodernist intellectualizing of art (e.g.-the endless pages of ink spilled in history books about content free Minimalist paintings and Conceptual Art). Elkins really does an marvelous job at collecting the evidence that studio art teaching and learning is fundamentally different in goals from more conventional subjects such as the sciences, languages and even music...yet, artists should have a somewhat rounded education.
To the authors credit, the book avoids the idealistic view of the arts, dispenses with the RomanticEra cliches of " the gifted talent" or "starving artist" or "outsider art" and deals with THE pragmatic reality of art instruction. Elkins' surveys are about the historical roots of art instruction: the Medieval workshops, the Renaissance guilds,the Baroque academies, and the 20th c. Bauhaus School are compared and contrasted with one another.
THIS comparison of instruction models is EXCELLENT!
The assumed historical 'reality' of the types of artists each system was capable of producing serves as a spring board for discussions on how philosophical discourse influences the instruction model. The book addresses the question of "what body of knowledge is central to the education of an artist?
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52 of 64 people found the following review helpful By OhYeah on November 1, 2009
Format: Paperback
James Elkins is not an artist... he is an art theorist. The book should be titled "Why Art Theory Fails in the Studio"... or "Why James Elkin's Generally Fails to Educate". If you are interested in the 1001 and one ways that Critique and Art Theory confound themselves in inherent contradictions, then by all means. If you are down with the Elkin's self-proclaimed skepticism and cynicism... with his claim that his art teaching experience is typically irrational and useless (and a dozen other negatives)... but that he doesn't want to see it changed... then by all means.

As for the question "Why Art Cannot Be Taught"... that is easy. It's not true. Art can be taught in any environment that can articulate and commit to a coherent idea of what art is. The problem is, that the typical postmodern art institution cannot articulate a meaningful conception of art. Elkins states that the issue doesn't matter... that he is fine with any number of contradictory conceptions of art. What matters to Elkins is not what art is... but how to talk about it. How you can talk about a subject that you can't or won't conceive of clearly, is absurd... and is also the specialty of post-modern art talk.

Let's be honest here... You can't teach what you can't state clearly. Imagine you want to teach something like "plumbing". You want to teach people to do plumbing work. The first thing you have to do is state clearly what plumbing is... something like... "Plumbing is the systematic use of pipes to route fluids around the house". Given that conception, you can build a body of knowledge and techniques, and teach it to someone.

Now imagine if you let the conception of plumbing fall prey to a series of re-definitions that are incommensurate with the original idea of plumbing.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Frida Kahlo on April 20, 2013
Format: Paperback
As an artist and art educator, I want to start by stating that I really wanted to enjoy this book. Some of its virtues include very interesting approaches to critiques that I would love to try: secretly placing someone else's piece among a series of your own, having someone else "play" you as the artist, including one work you absolutely hate, and/or emulating a famous artist without naming them. This was fascinating, although it took most of the book to get there.

In 2013, it's very difficult to read a book in which all the students are unnamed "she"s and nearly all the professors and artists named are male. This is problematic, and should probably be addressed in a book about the issues of why or why not art can be taught.

The author also proposes critique as a sort of "seduction", with examples where the professor "seduces" the student to agree that their work will fall apart. Surely a better metaphor must exist for this sort of critique? If not, I sincerely feel for the author's wife or partner...

Putting these rather large gender issues aside, there are some major difficulties throughout the book. The author suggests storytelling as a framework for critiquing and discussing art. This is interesting. He summarizes his point by noting that he loved his grandmother's stories growing up, until he realized they were a way of "rehearsing her unhappiness" at which point he no longer was interested in hearing them. How is this rehearsal different than the process of making art? Or different than talking about making art? Points like these are strange and almost nonsensical, or simply horrible. As the author summarizes: "People tend to be less interesting when I understand their stories." Likewise, your book becomes less interesting when we comprehend your personality...

After all this, the curiously short (less than two page) conclusion doesn't leave us with much else.
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