First, let me say that this post is a response to many unrelated but similar comments, criticisms and general attitudes that have come to me recently. I'm not going to take the time to address each of them individually, but I hope to address the general sentiment with just a few ideas.
Academic study has come under some attack as it has gained momentum in recent years. Where is the criticism coming from? From the outside, of course. As is the standard practice of today, those with the least amount of information are the quickest to criticize. We expect that anything that is gaining in popularity will find both its followers and its detractors. But the problem I see here is with all those who otherwise claim to be directly in line with the same beliefs and principles of realist painting that the Academies pursue, only to undermine these institutions that give art students their best chance at producing master works. Let me make it clear that these ideas here stated do not stem from an immature loyalty for any one school, or some brain-washed regurgitation of Academic rhetoric spoon-fed me during my time in the Academy. As much as possible I have tried to leave opinion out of this, leave aesthetics and personal taste to the side, and try, as clearly as I can to discuss the knowledge every artist must have, if he or she hopes to achieve certain things in their art.
I am aware that not every artist wants the same thing. It goes without saying, and thank God it is true. But we are approaching a moment where we might, we just might, have a chance to re-establish standards in art. With all the ridiculous meanderings we have been subject to in the last century, we are finally to that delicate stage where things could change for the better. But the good in art that is fighting and gaining ground against its modernist foes, is being attacked now from behind by a cloaked adversary. One who has claims of being allied to the good, and friendly to its cause, all the while carrying out its traitorous schemes for the sake of monetary gain. And the scary thing is that their nefarious schemes are working and adding strength to the opposition who loves nothing more than further excuse to disregard the good in art. The surest way to lose the fight in re-establishing standards in art is to victimize ourselves with the very weapons modernist have been using for years, those of misdirection and ignorant pontificating banter. The truth is a hard pill to swallow and an even harder thing to keep in sharp focus, especially today. Any and all attempts to stifle the truth will be made by those unwilling to face it. To be confronted by the truth would mean to most the nullification of all their life's work, however meager, and probably the loss of their vocation, and all the false praise, public recognition and financial prosperity that came with it. No wonder they will do anything to keep the truth hidden or at least unrecognizably distorted.
So how do we join the fight to bring the good back to art? Many would say we must let our good work speak for us. We can argue all day long, but in the end the work will either speak for or against us. I believe this is true to a point. But as part of the destruction modernism has had, it has left our contemporary world largely without any understanding or platform on which to stand when trying to judge that work and its merits. We then see artists like Jacob Collins, Graydon Parrish and Adrian Gottlieb being pooh-poohed while other contemporary realists, untrained and unrefined are exalted to skies. The fight for the good then requires that we not only strive to produce masterful work, but that we also fight to educate the public on what the difference is. It is a dangerous gamble we are forced to take, to turn our backs on the fight with modernism and focus our sights on the confrontation with the false ally of contemporary realism.
One thing we must understand is that in the 19th century, when art education was at its peak, knowledge of painting and sculpture had evolved through some of the greatest minds in history from the Greeks, through the Renaissance and on to the Naturalists of the 19th century. Why then is the term "self-taught" so captivating in today's art world? Do we really think that those who ignore the past and reinvent the wheel on their own are more genius than all those of the past combined? Or is it possible to see those "self-taught" artists as they are...children splashing in shallow pools of understanding that were once vast oceans of knowledge. The problems don't stop there. Perhaps the larger problem is not with the ignorance of this mass of painters, but with their arrogant beliefs that those puddles they are splashing in are, in fact, those same oceans the previous masters sailed and successfully navigated across. And I can't place all the blame on them. Truly they don't know any better. I blame them for their feeble and misguided attempts to correct their ignorance, but I don't blame them for thinking and feeling better about their art than they should. There are many outside sources, galleries, critics and museum director's who help create and perpetuate this false sentiment among these artists. Confidence is often gained with recognition and praise, even if that praise is undeserving.
How can we hope to overcome this ignorance then, and understand art enough to fulfill the measure of its creation? We must find a way to adopt ourselves into the conversation that was once so common and is now so rare. To understand something to these depths requires a foundation of knowledge that brings clarity and context to the discussion of art. This context allows for a clearer, more efficient path to that depth of knowledge. This knowledge was so present and pervasive in the 19th century that artists of the time almost inherited it. The wealth that was once vast has been squandered and turned into debt. It is our misfortune today that we inherit that debt and must claw our way out of it. The Academies of today, which directly or indirectly are tied to the methods, curriculum's and thought processes of the 19th century give us the best chance at recovering this knowledge and building this foundation early in our studies, early enough to leave us the necessary time to build a refined understanding on top of that sure foundation. Any other form of art study available to students today, such as Art Center, New York Academy, any University and most workshops lead us through a confused fog of broad and scattered information that forces students of those institutions to somehow try to organize and contextualize that information on their own. It's much like putting a puzzle together without knowing the final image the pieces are meant to create. It is possible to find a place for each piece, but it takes an excessive and unwarranted amount of time to do so. The Academies offer the clarity of the puzzle box cover. There is no special or secret information, just a clarity and depth of information that gives a clearer path to ones goals. No form of personal study will ever take the place of the wisdom imparted by those trained properly before us. Isn't this the very nature of education? Knowledge passed down from master to student that evolves and grows over time? But so many teachers today, most in fact, are poorly trained themselves. All any of them can hope to do is talk about the way they do things. Critiques of an art students work are more often than not "I like this, or I don't like that" with no rhyme or reason or justification behind it. Students even choose schools based on the style of the teachers and the hope that they can pick up to some extent that style or aesthetic. These decisions are made in part because most everyone wants to make art now, to sell art now, to create right now. Study, true study, gets in the way more often than not. We live in a product driven world and our art is no different. Our style-based systems of art education perpetuate this desire in students to produce before they are ready. Students should study. Artists should create. It is my belief that craft precedes artistry, knowledge precedes inspiration, observation precedes invention and a process-based art always yields a higher standard of work.
And as for the criticisms of the Academies and the work that comes from them, let us exercise a little more patience, and a little less deliberate disregard. We are after all, struggling to rediscover, re-connect and regain a knowledge that has been shit on and shunned for nearly a century. Miles Mathis in his essay about the 911 painting by Graydon Parrish writes: "Like the wolf, the commentators on the right have starved themselves into a corner. For them, Modernism is a dead-end, but, because they don’t want to be seen as completely “out of it,” they have accepted, consciously or unconsciously, important parts of the Modernist program. They don’t want to go forward with Modernism on its current track, but they don’t want to go back. They want skill but they also want astounding relevance at all times, by the modern definition. And they will dismiss any realism that does not immediately trump all previous realism (as Modernism claimed to immediately trump all previous art). Hence the absurd comparisons to Raphael. They expect craft and novelty simultaneously. Despite knowing full well that craft in art just underwent a century of obsolescence, they judge new realism by higher standards than old realism. A technical mistake in Rembrandt or Chardin or Goya is easily overlooked, for instance; a similar mistake by a new realist is cause for full dismissal. Many are so keen to prove their knowledge and taste that they can be pleased by nothing...By these standards, there is no future, no hope. The dead-end of the right is just as dead as the left, since although the right appears to have a program based on statable standards, as at The New Criterion, there is no hope of realizing it. Not because it is so high or puissant, but because it is contradictory and confused...He wants craft, but doesn’t want any derivation or historical reversion or political backsliding: he wants a new Leonardo to arrive, fully formed, and updated in all the right ways at once—and he wants this Leonardo to come to him and bow down and ask for anointment from him, the critic. Good luck, Sir."