The very best way I know of helping people improve the technical quality of their prints is to give them an opportunity to actually see high quality work.
I don't think it is any different with artistic quality of photographs.
Photography is essentially a very unnatural two dimensional medium (mostly). While there are probably a few people out there who are born geniuses, the vast majority of talented people need to have some sort of reference before they can create something of high quality in photography.
So I will agree with the OP - a familiarity with some sort of body of photographic work is necessary in order to create something artistically valuable. An artist needs to say something with their work, and the language of expression depends on history.
Note however that I don't believe that a photograph need be artistically successful in order to have value - pretty pictures have value too.