Why Art Cannot Be Taught

A Handbook for Art Students
Author: James Elkins
In this smart survival guide for students and teachers -- the only book of its kind -- James Elkins examines the phenomenon of college-level art instruction, focusing particularly on the problematic practice of conducting critiques of student work
Paper – $26
eBook – $14.95
Publication Date
Paperback: 01/01/2001
Buy the Book Request Desk/Examination Copy Request Review Copy Request Rights or Permissions Request Alternate Format
Book Share

About the Book

In this smart survival guide for students and teachers--the only book of its kind--James Elkins examines the "curious endeavor to teach the unteachable" that is generally known as college-level art instruction. This singular project is organized around a series of conflicting claims about art:"Art can be taught, but nobody knows quite how."

"Art can be taught, but it seems as if it can't be since so few students become outstanding artists."

"Art cannot be taught, but it can be fostered or helped along."

"Art cannot be taught or even nourished, but it is possible to teach right up to the beginnings of art so that students are ready to make art the moment they graduate."

"Great art cannot be taught, but more run-of-the-mill art can be."

Elkins traces the development (or invention) of the modern art school and considers how issues such as the question of core curriculum and the intellectual isolation of art schools affect the teaching and learning of art. He also addresses the phenomenon of art critiques as a microcosm for teaching art as a whole and dissects real-life critiques, highlighting presuppositions and dynamics that make them confusing and suggesting ways to make them more helpful.

Elkins's no-nonsense approach clears away the assumptions about art instruction that are not borne out by classroom practice. For example, he notes that despite much talk about instilling visual acuity and teaching technique, in practice neither teachers nor students behave as if those were their principal goals. He addresses the absurdity of pretending that sexual issues are absent from life-drawing classes and questions the practice of holding up great masters and masterpieces as models for students capable of producing only mediocre art. He also discusses types of art--including art that takes time to complete and art that isn't serious--that cannot be learned in studio art classes.

Why Art Cannot Be Taught is a response to Elkins's observation that "we know very little about what we do" in the art classroom. His incisive commentary illuminates the experience of learning art for those involved in it, while opening an intriguing window for those outside the discipline.

About the Author

James Elkins, a professor of art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is the author of The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing, What Painting Is, and many other books.


"Instead of proposing drastic changes in the way that art is instructed, Elkins asks that schools and art departments try to understand what they are already doing. . . . He advises students to use a chain of questions process to try to uncover the teachers' reasoning and unexamined assumptions. . . . Whether you're an artist, a teacher, an administrator, or a student, I encourage you to explore your own questions through Why Art Cannot Be Taught."--Teaching Artist Journal


"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