AMHERST, MASS. — Back when Dave Richards was earning his master's degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one department there was always a mystery to him: art and technology. "I never took a class there; I didn't even know what they were doing there," he says.
Now, 20 years later, seeing the blend of art and computer technology is as normal as opening the mail. As an admissions counselor at the school, he regularly reviews portfolios in the form of Zip disks, CD-ROMs, and websites. A drawing is as likely to be created in Freehand a software for artists as to be actually drawn by hand.
At virtually every art school in the United States, computer technology has gained a foothold in all media and in many time-honored courses, right down to the instructional classes that freshmen are required to take.
The impetus for this change has largely come from employers: Advertising agencies, design firms, and publishers demand that their hires be proficient in a variety of computer applications. Schools are responding to this demand, but not without awareness of the need to strike a balance between traditional art instruction and the fascination with computers.
"The concern in my mind is, are we turning art education into vocational education, teaching students to run machines instead of teaching them concepts that they may use to create significant works of art using the machines?" says Samuel Hope, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design in Reston, Va.
Students themselves are driving the shift, too. Those who come to art school with advanced technological skills want to continue to build on that foundation.
"Students here don't feel burdened by technology," says John Gordon, provost at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. "They are hungry for it, and we're under the gun to develop more digital-based applications. We're constantly getting more computers, upgrading those computers, then getting more computers."
The use of new technology in art always blurs the distinctions between media. What, for instance, do you call the final product when a painting has been scanned into a computer, manipulated to include photographic images, and then printed out onto a canvas?
New art forms also present special teaching challenges, because the basis for evaluating works is not clear. It took the better part of a century after the invention of the camera for photography to arrive at its own aesthetic instead of being judged by the standards of painting.
Similarly, "there is not a set of criteria for critiquing digital art," says Dike Blair, a painting instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence. "There's not much to fall back on. Both the student and teacher are, in effect, groping together for some way to evaluate what's going on."
Even the distinctions between students and faculty are breaking down. Computer technology advances rapidly, and teachers who are up to date one year may fall behind the next. To close this knowledge gap, a number of schools have offered regular software training for faculty.
Not every art school has jumped on the computer bandwagon. A few continue to teach only traditional disciplines in traditional ways. The Lyme Academy of Art in Old Lyme, Conn., and the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia both stress drawing and "the mastery of classical fundamentals," says Henry Putsch, president of the Lyme Academy. "We don't do computers here."
Carl Sesto, a digital-media professor at the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts, has a different philosophy: "It's not the goal of art schools to create well-rounded artists," he says. His school "won't force people who aren't interested in traditional art to spend a year drawing and painting. If they just want to sit in front of a screen for hours at a time, that's fine."
Yet faculty at various schools have some trepidation about where this is all leading. "I see a lot of digital artwork from graduates that all looks the same," says Linda Burnham, chair of the School of Fine Arts at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles. "You can give 10 people a pencil, and they'll all use it differently. That's not so with a computer."
Schools find many students gravitating to digital media because they can pick up the technical skills in a few weeks. "The problem of immediate gratification affects the culture of painting," says Tony Phillips, chair of drawing and painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Students' enthusiasm for computer-generated art might lead them to concentrate on creating pieces that don't have a real market. Collectors still prefer paintings and sculpture that were created by traditional means, says Jay Coogan, dean of the fine arts division at RISD.
"There are a lot of interesting questions that digital art raises for the art world," he says. "But, in a more practical sense, it is hard to know where or when the market will develop for digital art."