theory for fear of weakening the creative muse. (Despite Ben Shahn’s wry
observation that intuition is the result of prolonged tuition!)
Taking Schon’s generalization to heart, this article accepts that there is a
danger in an over-reliance upon the undoubted value of nurturing the
capacity for intuitive responses in students, especially if such reliance is at
the expense of imparting an understanding of, and developing an articulacy
with, the fundamental theoretical bases of visual art production: those of
visual perception theory, visual communication theory and the socio-
political construct that Danto (1964) identified as the ‘Artworld’, a con-
struct elaborated later by Dickie (1984, 2001) and Levinson (1990).
The article offers a flexible structure for an art pedagogy suitable for a
changing artworld, based upon the theoretical bases identified above. But
first, a rather controversial issue needs to be broached.
Disturbing the roots
‘Sometimes the gap between the philosophical and theoretical ambitious-
ness of a work of art and the banality of its statement grows so large that it
takes itself ad absurdum’ (Ruhrberg 2000: 390). The cause of these misgiv-
ings about the lack of a visual vibrancy in contemporary art here expressed
by Karl Ruhrberg and earlier by Campbell, among others – Collings (2005: 9),
for example, pulling no punches, has referred to contemporary installationist
Fred Wilson’s ‘…anaesthetic plodding … visually inane work…’ – might
stem from roots deep within the art school system; roots laid down in the
pre-Academe, medieval guild system of master–apprentice, roots so estab-
lished that any attempt to disturb them smacks not only of wilful rashness,
but of heresy, even. Many of the contributors to Stephen Farthing and Paul
Bonaventura’s A Curriculum for Artists (2005), for example, assume as a nat-
ural law that practising artists make the best teachers. Nevertheless, this
article suggests that the core of art school lore which holds that the future
generation of artists is best served by following the advice of practising
artists imparted on visits to the teaching studios, might be in need of
scrutiny. Of course, there ‘is’ a place for visitors, as we shall see, but not
where theory informs practice.
Perhaps there was still a case for the ‘do as I do’ teaching strategy of
pre-1990s, before the UK art schools were incorporated within the univer-
sity sector. In those days, art schools were organized more akin to an
extended ‘atelier’ system, operating rather like a master–apprentice rela-
tionship. In such a system, the input of visiting artists who were experi-
enced in the manipulation of a more limited, relatively stable range of
materials and techniques might have been justified. However, anyone involved
in today’s art schools should be obliged to recognize that an exploding
paradigm of contemporary theories – Iser’s (2006) recent book identifies
no less than twelve – together with a burgeoning research culture,
demands of lecturers a much higher degree of articulacy in theoretical
issues than ever before, as well as a fluency in the much more complex mix
of materials, media and processes deployed in contemporary practice.
No one should expect a full-time practising artist to keep abreast of the
advances in pedagogical theory, committed as they (rightly) are to the pro-
duction of work and the concomitant obligation of negotiation with the
many and varied denizens of our increasingly complex artworld. Neither
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should we expect them to research, understand and teach innovations in
perception and communication theories suitable for application in studio
projects. But should bona fide academics simply abrogate responsibility for
this crucially relevant part of a visual education in the face of a negative
attitude towards theory supported by the often-quoted, flippant quip against
theory attributed to Barnett Newman?
It is high time to refute Newman who, readers might recall, during his
debate with Susanne Langer at the 1952 Woodstock Art Conference, New
York, famously denigrated the value of aesthetics theory by comparing its
worthlessness to artists with the worthlessness of ornithology to birds
(Ho 2002: 318). A superficially witty sound bite, granted, with an illusion of
balanced argument, but one that is based upon a false logic – surprising in
one who had studied philosophy. Newman’s argument needs to be dis-
mantled once and for all, since it has become the default dismissal of
theory glibly adopted by many artists privileged with access to the teaching
studios, even though Danto (1964: 571) had argued convincingly that it was
precisely ‘theory’ that makes something a work of art: ‘To see something as
art requires … an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history
of art: an artworld.’
Newman’s false logic tries to argue that, just as birds exist and fly with-
out needing any knowledge of the how and why of themselves, so artists
can exist and produce art without needing any knowledge of how or why.
However, note the elision of the distinction between a ‘natural’ phenome-
non – birds exist through biological evolution – and a ‘cultural’ one: art is a
social construct and artists develop within a socio-cultural context. Newman
neatly naturalized that which is cultural. The fact that so many people,
including some who teach, are still unable to recognize his argument as
false is in itself evidence of the need for art students to be properly
acquainted with the theoretical underpinnings of their practice!
Newman was labouring under a common, philosophical misconception
…that human beings come equipped with faculties, dispositions and/or char-
acteristics that suffice for the creation of art. Most earlier philosophers
assumed that an omniscient, omnipotent God had had the foresight to create
human beings with the hard-wired equipment that would suffice for the cre-
ation of art…
(Dickie 2001: 9)
Even though – perhaps because – Newman had studied philosophy (in the
mid-1920s at the City College of New York) and ornithology (he was elected
to the American Ornithologists Union in 1940), he had failed to understand
…that art is a collective invention of human beings and not something that an
artist produces simply out of his or her biological nature as a spider does a
web or as a bower bird does a bower. The production of an artwork, unlike the
production of a bower, does not appear to be directly connected to behaviour
closely tied to the evolutionary process as the bower of a bower bird clearly is
because of its role in the reproductive process.
(Dickie 2001: 10)
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Surely these days we recognize that even though birds do not need
ornithology, it is imperative that artists understand their cultural and theo-
The Newman sleight of logic is also lurking in the popular misconcep-
tion which conflates the natural, innate human capacity for language acqui-
sition with the culturally developed capability for producing art. Despite an
ignorance of language theory, the argument goes, most people are still able
to express themselves adequately in everyday communication situations;
therefore (here is the point at which the sidestep is made) artists may
express themselves without knowledge of, let alone the need for analysing,
the communication strategies they employ.
However, apart from falsely naturalizing the cultural again, this argu-
ment ignores the fact that the everyday usage of language is ridden by
clichés and full of phatic redundancies. The repetitions, habits and conven-
tions that fetter everyday speech have their visual equivalents in the work of
artists unversed in theory who trot out trite material metaphors and
mediocre metonyms empty of conceptual and perceptual intrigues (Riley
2004). This is the situation that has given rise to the concerns and criti-
cisms of Campbell, Ruhrberg and Collings.
It is the contention of this article that today’s art schools need teachers
who understand the importance of enabling students’ practice through a
sound basis in visual communication theory which can facilitate a higher
level of creative response than is generally required in everyday social inter-
course. It is the ‘poetic’ function of communication that needs to be nur-
tured in art schools, not the phatic (Jakobson 1958). It is the poetic function
that, through well-informed selection and combination of visual elements
and material qualities, serves to foreground the perceptual form of the con-
ceptual content in artworks, and which, ultimately, intrigues the viewer in
both eye and brain by making the familiar strange.
This article proposes that the quality of any conceptual premise driving the
urge to produce art, when matched by the quality of perceptual values
embedded within the materials, media and processes which make that con-
cept visible and tangible, would result in a richer experience both for the
producer and for the viewers of such artwork.
The implication of this hypothesis is that students need to be taught
how communication strategies such as metaphor, metonym, oxymoron
and pun, which carry socio-political or simply personally expressive insights,
may be constructed in visible, tangible, material form with equiva-
lences between the conceptual insights and the perceptual values – the
haptic, the distal and the proximal values – imbued in the materials
An art pedagogy for a changing artworld
The proposed aims of an art pedagogy for our times are twofold: firstly, to
contextualize studio projects within an understanding of a regional art-
world. George Dickie’s (2001: 58–61) five definitions, which formulate an
institutional theory of art from Danto’s earlier concept of an artworld, might
be useful for this aim:
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1. An artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making
of a work of art
2. A work of art is an artefact of a kind created to be presented to an
3. A public is a set of persons the members of which are prepared in
some degree to understand an object which is presented to them
4. The artworld is the totality of artworld systems
5. An artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art
If Levinson’s (1990: 38–39) definition of an artwork is also explored in stu-
dio discussion: ‘…an artwork is a thing (item, object, entity) that has been
seriously intended for regard-as-a-work-of-art – i.e. regard in any way pre-
existing artworks are or were correctly regarded.’
Then we have a context for practice that can focus students’ intentions,
and which, Levinson insists, stipulates that ‘…in order to make something a
work of art you must have a proprietary right over it; that is, you must either
own it yourself or have a right to use it in this way’ (Warburton 2003: 113).
Now this is where visitors are best employed: not only practising artists,
but also curators, dealers, critics, patrons, funding agents should all be wel-
comed, singly and in panels, not to teach, but to demonstrate the myriad
roles and network connections that make up an artworld.
The studio teacher’s responsibility is to help students anticipate the
domain of the twenty-first century artworld beyond the horizon, and to help
identify possible roles and strategies of intervention as yet unfulfilled in the
regional, and ultimately the national and international artworld domains.
The second aim of an art pedagogy for our times is derived from the
Hegelian concept of art: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s elaboration of a
normative philosophy of art provides an opportunity for avoiding the diffi-
culties in defining art ‘per se’, by construing art as what he refers to as a
‘determination’. The difference between a definition and a determination is
explained by Bungay (1987: 25):
A determination is not a definition because a definition excludes possible
examples delimiting the object at the outset. A determination is a theory, a
framework of universal explanation, which then must demonstrate its own
explanatory power through its differences and its instantiation.
Within such a framework of universal explanation, Hegel identifies a place
for art: halfway between intellectual understanding and sensual experience.
For Hegel, the distinguishing feature of art is the ‘sensual presentation of
the Idea’ (Graham 1997: 174).
For the purposes of this article, the sensual presentation of the Idea is
construed as a balance between ‘conceptual intrigue’; how a work can afford
viewers fresh mental insights on the theme or concept to which it alludes,
and ‘perceptual intrigue’; how the manipulation of the material qualities
of the work might stimulate perceptual experiences which cause
the viewer’s gaze to linger, and perceptual complacencies to be challenged.
Studio teachers should devise, or encourage students to develop, pro-
jects specifically designed to address the balance between conceptual
intrigue and perceptual intrigue.
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Five premises for a curriculum beyond the horizon
A future curriculum for the studio teaching of contemporary visual art prac-
tice could be premised upon five specific aspects of the two fundamental
theoretical bases relevant to art production: those of visual perception and
Seeing and believing
If students are to develop the capacities necessary to manipulate the bal-
ance between the conceptual and the perceptual in artworks, it is essential
from the outset that studio projects are designed to encourage students to
understand that perception is (1) culturally conditioned, and (2) capable of
being ‘tuned’ to different levels of attention. How we see the world is con-
ditioned by what we believe. This is easily illustrated for students by show-
ing the variety of ways that different cultures with differing belief-systems
about space–time, for example, have devised to represent the relationship
Once students are aware of their own ontological constructs, they
become more flexible about recognizing the validity of those of others, and
also more capable of inventing alternative constructs which can inform the
creative production of art.
Levels of perception
Three levels of visual information crucial to a visual art can be identified in
the structure of the light arrays arriving at the eyes (Gibson 1979). These
may be explored in studio or elsewhere through exercises designed to focus
attention on the ‘haptic level’, at which information about surface qualities
which indicate texture and colour may be accessed; the ‘distal level’, to do
with information about relative distance, size, scale and depth of field and
the ‘proximal level’, which provides information about the overall pattern
and rhythm relationships in the visual field as a whole. The honing of such
an intelligence of seeing is crucial if students are to manipulate and control
the degree of perceptual intrigue in their work.
Functions of art
Alongside the exploration of perceptual values, students would be intro-
duced to the theoretical bases of visual communication via either set pro-
jects or student-driven projects.
Students understand at an early stage that a mental concept, an idea for
an artwork, needs to be transformed into visible, tangible form in order to
be shared within an artworld. The teaching challenge is to impart practical
methods which can facilitate such transformation. Michael O’Toole’s (1994,
2005) systemic-functional semiotic model of the visual arts is a proven
valuable aid to structuring studio practice (Riley 2002). He introduces the
inter-relationship between the ‘representational function’: the content car-
ried by the mental concept; the ‘compositional function’: the practical
processes of selection and combination of visual elements, materials and
media in order to realize – make visible – the concept and the ‘modal’, or
‘interpersonal function’: how those compositional choices might affect
viewers, positioning them in terms of mood and attitude towards the
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Such clear structuring of the art production process may be imparted
both through illustrated talks and through one-to-one discussion over the
Strategies of creative communication
Roman Jakobson theorized the two poetic devices of ‘metaphor’ and
‘metonym’ as characteristic realizations of the two fundamental processes
of selection and combination through which the poetic, or compositional,
function of communication operates. Metaphor, of course, refers to the
substitution of one sign for another from the same paradigm; metonymy
refers to the process whereby one sign becomes contiguously associated
The poetic function foregrounds the equivalences between visual ele-
ments of a composition, or work, producing visual pattern, rhythm, sym-
metries and harmonies (or their opposites), which draw attention to the
look of the work. In Jakobson’s (1958: 358) famous phrase: ‘The poetic func-
tion projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the
axis of combination.’
An understanding of the power of these devices as vehicles to make
visual equivalences of conceptual ideas will surely empower students’ prac-
tice. Other rhetorical tropes can also be employed to good effect in art prac-
tice, and so oxymoron, irony and pun might usefully be introduced and
illustrated in visual work.
Art production as a process of transformation
Ultimately, art practice is construed as a ‘process of transformation’:
• Transformation from concept or percept to artwork via systems of
geometry, lens-based and/or time-based media or three-dimensional mate-
rials (the tradition of representationalism)
• Transformation of individual perceptions into social communication
(the tradition of expressionism)
• Transformation of cultural values into material form (the tradition of
art as socio-political comment, or, more contemporaneously, interven-
tion in the social process through site-specific installations, perfor-
mances, multi-media presentations)
Upon these five premises it would be feasible to build a teaching pro-
gramme for a course in contemporary visual arts practice, and to that end
a small-scale pilot study is underway in the foundation course here at
Swansea. The challenge is to persuade colleagues – both in-house acade-
mics and visiting practitioners – that the time has come for an adjustment
of roles and a reconsideration of the apportioning of responsibilities.
This conceptual article is itself a conjectural extension of a research pro-
ject into the teaching of drawing conducted here at Swansea (Riley 2001),
which showed that students’ intelligence of seeing could be enhanced
through a pedagogy based upon aspects of perception and communication
theories. It is offered in a spirit of academic optimism for the future of
visual art in the twenty-first century, and any comments, constructive criti-
cisms or suggestions for collaboration are welcome.
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Bungay, S. (1987), Beauty and Truth: A Study of Hegel’s Aesthetics, Oxford: Clarendon.
Campbell, P. (2005), ‘At the Saatchi Gallery’, London Review of Books, 27: 4, p. 24.
Collings, M. (2005), ‘Modern Masters’, The Guardian Review, 14: May, p. 9.
Danto, A.C. (1964), ‘The Artworld’, Journal of Philosophy, 61, pp. 571–84.
Dickie, G. (1984), The Art Circle, New York: Haven.
—— (2001), Art and Value, Oxford: Blackwell.
Farthing, S. and Bonaventura, P. (eds.) (2005), A Curriculum for Artists, Oxford:
Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art; New York: New York Academy of Art.
Gibson, J.J. (1979), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston, MA:
Graham, G. (1997), Philosophy of the Arts, London: Routledge.
Ho, M. (2002), ‘Chronology of the Artist’s Life’, in A. Temkin (ed.), Barnett
Newman, Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, pp. 318–35.
Iser, W. (2006), How to Do Theory, Oxford: Blackwell.
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Linguistics and Poetics’, in T.A. Sebeok (ed.), 1960 Style in Language,
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 350–77.
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—— (2005), ‘Pushing out the Boundaries: Designing a Systemic-Functional Model
for non-European Visual Arts’, Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 1: 1,
Riley, H. (2001), The Intelligence of Seeing, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Wales.
—— (2002), ‘Mapping the Domain of Drawing’, International Journal of Art and
Design Education, 23: 3, pp. 258–72.
—— (2004), ‘Enhancing the Teaching of Contemporary Visual Arts Practice’, in
A. Davies (ed.), Enhancing Curricula: Towards the Scholarship of Teaching in Art,
Design and Communication. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference,
London: Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design, pp. 362–74.
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(ed.), Art of the Twentieth Century, Cologne: Taschen, pp. 390–99.
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York: Basic Books.
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Riley, H. (2007), ‘Beyond the horizon: future directions for the teaching of
visual arts practice’, Journal of Visual Art Practice 6: 1, pp. 73–80,
Howard Riley is Head of the School of Research and Postgraduate Studies at the
Dynevor Centre. He has taught drawing, and the history and theory of art and
design in Australia and Malaysia as well as the United Kingdom. His publications
are in the fields of visual semiotics and multimodality, and his drawing has most
recently been exhibited in the Wales Drawing Biennale 2005–2006. Contact:
Dynevor Centre for Arts, Design and Media, Swansea Institute, University of Wales, UK.
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