Confined Arts

Students negotiate the limits of their own potential

Caroline M. Trusty

It’s no coincidence that the Harvard Art Museums are located steps away from the Carpenter Center, which houses undergraduate studio art classes. Solid brick walls separate works that have been deemed worthy of exhibition from those which have not—or, at least, not yet. The work of students at the Carpenter Center is years of practice and thought away from being considered alongside the works of a museum, assuming the students have the potential to be great artists in the first place. How can students become capable of producing artwork at such a high level? Can an unskilled beginner, after taking the right mix of classes, start in one building and end up showing work in its more prestigious neighbor? Many students stake their education on the assumption that creativity can be taught, but the potential of arts education to form talented artists remains open for debate.


Arts instructors disagree as to whether talent or training contributes more to one’s creative success. According to Zachary C. Sifuentes ’99, a visiting lecturer on Visual & Environmental Studies and expository writing preceptor, artistic ability can be fostered in the classroom. “I’ve learned the past few years that Harvard students don’t really need to be taught. They need to be given the opportunity to learn something new, something complicated, something fascinating,” he wrote in an email.

Sifuentes leads a freshman seminar, “Pressing the Page: Making Art with Letters, Paper & Ink,” this term on the letterpress and typographical art. “Students can absolutely learn to make art, and I think this is especially true of students who don’t think of themselves as artists…. It’s showing students what’s possible and giving them the opportunity to test out those possibilities. And when they do, they do incredible work,” he wrote.

Sifuentes’ opinions on the potential of arts education are distinctly optimistic: given encouragement and guidance, students and their artistic output will flourish. Not all instructors share this view. Visiting Professor of English Henri Cole, who teaches a poetry workshop, draws a line between talent and accomplishment. “I don’t think you can teach talent. I think you can nurture and guide and coax it….The goal isn’t necessarily making a fantastic poem.”


If you cannot teach talent, then what can be taught? Technical artistic skills can be improved by adequate training. But given the explosion in non-traditional art forms over the last half-century, there remains the question of whether manual skills like sighting angles, mixing paint, and stretching canvas are relevant in today’s art world.  VES concentrator, Clarissa M. Hart ’14 believes these skills still have a place. “The thing about classical training is that to really be a good artist you have to get experience in as many fields as possible, so if people cut out classical training…then I think they’re missing out on a new perspective,” says Hart.

“There’s no need to re-invent the wheel if someone has already figured an easy method,” says Robert D. Dolori ’15, a guitarist who composes music. “I think if you teach yourself an instrument or an art or a skill, you’re really going to see that differently than someone who has taken more classes and is classically trained, which could be an advantage…but, at the same time [you] might miss out on more traditional techniques that might have improved [your] art.”

Another downside to the do-it-yourself approach is a lack of guidance.  Hal Glicksman,  former associate director of the Center for the Educational Applications of Brain Hemisphere Research at California State University, Long Beach, would agree: “I believe that [creativity] can be taught in the classroom…creative assignments—go out and find 50 different red things and see how they relate and put them together in a design—the crazy things that you throw out in design classes really do work,” he said.

Assignments require students to constantly create; the practice in itself contributes to their development. “In a sense my goal is to push people to make as much work as they can,” says Matthew Saunders, a visiting lecturer on VES.

What happens to the work of those artists who try to break into the art world without classical training? A lucky up-and-comer might find success in the Chicago-based exhibition space Intuit, the only non profit organization in the U.S. that is dedicated solely to presenting self-taught and outsider art. Cleo Wilson, executive director of the museum, said that it continues to be difficult for untrained artists to compete in the art world. “Galleries, that is commercial galleries, have their own niches. They don’t show outsider art. There are [only] a few outsider artists that have been accepted by museums into the mainstream.” Artists who do not go through formal training produce noticeably different end products from those who do, which may account for the disparity in success. “They use non-traditional materials, there’s a different passion, and they’re not looking to academia or the traditional world for what their art should look like, so it’s not reflective of [artists like] Michelangelo.” Despite the flourishing of non-conventional art forms, the route to success in the artistic community is less laissez-faire than one might expect. A lack of artistic education does not necessarily undermine potential, but according to Wilson,  it makes eminence significantly harder to attain.


After shopping Saunder’s “Postcards from Volcanoes” painting class, I take a moment to unwind in the silence of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. The first floor features a collection of well-known abstract and modern art; there’s a 1950 splattered canvas by Jackson Pollock hanging near a familiar 1922 geometric painting by Piet Mondrian. The skeptical response to such works, from those suspicious of or uninitiated into Modernist painting, is a surefire whine: “I could have made that!” Science, however, says otherwise.

A 2011 study co-led by Boston College’s Professor of Psychology Ellen Winner and PhD candidate Angelina Hawley-Dolan, investigated whether people could distinguish between abstract paintings created by professional artists with formal training and those created by children, monkeys, chimps, and elephants. The study found that people favored the professional works, even when they were falsely labeled as amateur pieces. “People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings,” said Winner in the study’s conclusion. “People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist, but when forced to choose between a work by a child and one by a master such as Rothko, they are drawn to the Rothko…. People see the mind behind the art.”

The study argues that a qualitative difference exists between the work of formally taught artists and animal amateurs, even in the less restrictive medium of abstract art. If classical training makes a substantial difference even to the unexperienced eye, then the impact of arts education is significant.  Yet Winner has her doubts about the potential of education to create artists.“I think that training cannot make someone picked at random into a prodigy or a great creator,” Winner wrote in an email.  Winner is a former member of Project Zero, an educational research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Project Zero’s mission is to understand and enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts as well as the humanities and sciences. In her 2008 paper “Toward Broadening the Definition of Giftedness,” Winner concluded, “Environmental stimulation, personality, and temperament variables can promote or strangle giftedness but cannot created giftedness out of normality.”  If genius artists are that way as a function of their genes and environments, then the implications are dire for aspiring artists lacking raw talent.



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