[Viewpoint] Arts education dilemma

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[Viewpoint] Arts education dilemma

‘My friend’s daughter applied to an art school. She had a unique style of expressing the effect of light and shadow. My friend was concerned that her unusual technique might affect her chances of admission. While I told them not to worry, I myself could not help feeling anxious.”

Artist Choi Wuk-kyung wrote this about admission to art school for the Feb. 4, 1983 issue of the JoongAng Ilbo. The late artist is known for her powerful and creative abstract paintings, including the controversial “Hakdong Village.” That painting has allegedly changed hands between the former and incumbent National Tax Service commissioners.

In her contribution, Choi wrote about her experience grading the works of applicants. “I did not know what to do when I saw so many watercolors and sketches drawn with the same technique. I could not find individual characteristics or style, and I was sad rather than resentful as I evaluated the entries that students drew like technicians, not artists.” She also despaired that it would probably take nearly a year for the freshmen she taught to break away from the conventional habits they had acquired as they prepared for admission.

More than 25 years after Choi criticized art school admissions, Hongik University, the most prestigious art school in Korea, announced that it will scrap its practical admissions test altogether. By gradually expanding the number of incoming students accepted without the practical test, the school intends to drop the test completely by the 2013 school year.

The university proposed to look at in-depth interviews, academic transcripts and grades in fine arts instead of the practical test. It also affirmed that awards in competition would not be taken into consideration, since these art competitions spur scrambling for private lessons. If everything goes well, Choi Wuk-kyung would likely welcome the change.

Fundamentally, I agree and support the decision of Hongik University. However, there are so many obstacles in the future of Hongik University’s art department.

A few days ago, I met with two owners of private art institutes near Hongik University and had a lengthy discussion. They make money by teaching the techniques that get students accepted to art schools. Naturally, their priority is their business interest. But they themselves went to art school and aspired to become artists at one point.

The biggest challenge to Hongik University is to normalize art education at private schools. At the moment, art instruction at regular schools is next to zero. In most public schools, students will receive art instruction up to the 10th grade. If a student wants to apply to art school in college, he has to get lessons elsewhere.

Unless a spirited art teacher makes additional efforts to give lessons after school, there is no realistic alternative to the private art institutes. Art lessons require spacious studios and art supplies, and it is doubtful if the government can afford the enormous budget required to bring art instruction back to the public school system. One of the art institute owners said, “Other after-school academies teach English and mathematics, which students already learn at school. We teach what the schools cannot offer; we should not be blamed. What have the government, universities and high schools done to promote art education for the youth?”

They were also skeptical about the in-depth interviews, where admissions officers claim to evaluate talent, potential and creativity. While their motives are good, one private institute owner forecast that students will take interview preparation courses and begin building up their credentials in elementary school. No matter how original the interview might be, private instruction will evolve to prepare students. Art institutes train applicants for four hours a day over one year. So they certainly deserve criticism for focusing on skill. But how will the university establish an objective standard to measure “creativity?”

As we wrapped up our discussion, one owner said, “The university wants to exclude students trained through private instruction? Well, I can assure you the art institutes can teach students to draw in such a way that they do not seem to have received private instruction.”

Please don’t think I am opposing Hongik University’s decision. The university’s art department indeed made a difficult decision. I hope it can overcome the obstacles and succeed with the new admissions procedure.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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