Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Importance of Art Education

I have thought about this a lot. It is my opinion that art education reached its pinnacle in the schools of the 19th century, namely those of Paris, Spain, Munich and Russia. The results speak for themselves, don't they? Art is such a stupidly difficult thing to talk about generally because it has been overrun by opinion. I like this, you like that and that is all that matters. But is it all that matters? I don't think so. Certainly it is important to allow people to enjoy whatever they find interesting, but is that the final say on art? How did the standards in art become so lost? And I'm not talking about the fight between post-modernism or any other abstract nonsense and realism. I'm talking about the state of realism vs. realism today. To my surprise, most 'artists' and especially art students are oblivious to what the standards in art once were. I hear the comment over and over "That's just not how we paint anymore". Really? Really?? Could it be that we don't paint like that anymore because we can't, and not because we 'choose' not to. Doesn't choosing require that you have options to choose between? Let's be honest. Most artists paint how and what they paint because they are incapable of doing anything else. And the reason for that is the fundamentally flawed systems of art education that exist today. If we hope to achieve anything brilliant that rivals the masterworks in history, doesn't it stand to reason that we would have to understand how those paintings were made and what the artists went through to make them, including their training? And isn't it disturbingly obvious that the work of today can't hold a candle to the work of the 19th century? And doesn't that mean that maybe something is wrong with our system today? Or do we think that the human race has just run out of genius? Where are the Michelangelo's, Sargent's, Waterhouse's and Gerome's? The Beethovens, Shakespeare's and Chopin's? That's all for now.


Sakievich said...

Though I think we've discussed some of these issues, so some of them may be restated for clarity.

In making broad statements like the ones you've made here, you need to qualify them. To state that something is self-evident to you, does not mean that it is evident to anyone else. If you want to state that the academies of those cities and that time were the best, you have to provide evidence why that is so and how that contrasts with what was previous to that time and what followed. There are a great many people who work in the realist vein today who argue that when education moved from the artists' atelier to the large established academies, that something was lost. Others also argue that the introduction of sight size and shape methods of drawing and painting broke down the capacity of painters to express form in an image and that this led directly to the advent of modernism. There was a reduction in the knowledge of structure of anatomy and form, Ingres once argued that it was a waste of time to know anatomy and bragged that he didn't know any of the anatomical names. This is powerfully evident in much of the work of the late 19th century where there is a strong flatness to the image and form is lost. The British academy was very much opposed to the “french” painting methods and worked very hard against them, preferring form over the flat. This was part of the major discussion in art during the 19th century. The arrival of the photograph also threw things for a loop. Many painters applied this new technology to their work, which also added to the flatness of their work. Bastien Lepage, while he died young, was a major advocate of the use of photography and used it with life work as well as gridding out his canvases with his photographic reference. His work is very flat. I still love it all the same.

Sakievich said...

What were the standards? That depends on who you talk to and which school of painting you followed. While there was a link between the major academies which led students up to the Prix de Rome. They didn't necessarily agree in their systems nor did their graduates necessarily agree with what was being taught. I recently finished Ilya Repin's autobiography Near, Far (only available in Russian as far as I know). The St. Petersburg academy was a six year program that involved not only art education for painting, but also had science, philosophy, architecture and other general ed courses that were required. Repin eventually read/spoke 5-6 languages before he died and was well reknowned in Russian intellectual circles as a result, even though he came from fairly indigent circumstances in rural Ukraine as the son of a Russian army officer. But at the same time, he lamented the strict classical orientation of the school. By classical, he meant literally classical. Specific cannons of design (golden section, etc.), human proportion and anatomy, and color were the ticket to success in that school. Repin was by nature a painter in the naturalist tradition. He was lucky that Kramskoi was too and helped mentor him in his interests. But pursuing that sort of work in his school was considered inappropriate and radical, since it was seen as a direct assault on standards that they had worked so hard to codify in their academy. Certainly Repin benefited from this education, but at the same time it took him years to break off from these codes to where he was producing prodigious works that give us serious pause and awe when seen. What are your standards beyond “19th Century”? Which 19th century standards do you imply in that and why were they more successful than any other prior time period?

Sakievich said...

As to why there were so many painters at that period of time, well, there was a high demand for them. The middle class, much as it has for the last 150 years, has grown exponentially. During the 19th century the middle class had a huge expansion and at the same time many of the old aristocracies were broken down in events like the French Revolution, which while less violent was happening or eventually happened in other places. The new middle class with their new disposable income wanted to raise themselves up in their status and lifestyles. One of the major signs of class and status was the ability to collect and display art. The academies grew out of this demand for supply. Much of that work as you and I can see in Sotheby's and Christie's catalogs today was along the same vein as Kincaid. Silly and vacant of real emotional content. Overtly cutesy and sugary.

The relatively recent revival of so-called ateliers (they're really watered down academies, not ateliers for the most part) has been both a curse and a blessing. In talking to many that attend these new academies I find that they lack any historical perspective about the kind of work they're producing. While the ability to render precisely seems to be very high, that is all that I see of interest coming from these schools. I'm not sure if this is strictly the fault of the students. When I look at the portfolios of those who head up these schools or teach in them, I see mediocre content. Typically a figure lounging in a dark space in the middle. There is no narrative. Oddly enough, this could be considered a new direction of post modernism, since they could be read very ironically. They tend to lack compositions, since I don't generally consider a single figure standing around a composition. This lack of compositional ability and narrative capacity is a huge hole in the work coming out of these schools. Instead of actually producing great impactful paintings approaching the quality of the 19th century, they produce students who are zealous about rendering casts and figures holding sticks in dark rooms. This philosophical perspective misses the point of an art education. This is not to say I am against the application of sight size as part of an educational method, but it was considered even in the 19th century ateliers to be a temporary method to help you learn to see correctly before pursuing your interests. Today it is seen as the be-all end-all of art. Which, if you want to bore people into comas, then this would be highly effective. The 19th century academies were palces of intense competition. Competition for seats in the class (much like in orchestra today!), competion for medals based on compositions that were given weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually. These are some of the qualities of the old academies that are lacking today and which weaken the foundations of the new ones.

Sakievich said...

As to where are the Michelangelo's, Sargent's, Waterhouse's and Gerome's? The Beethovens, Shakespeare's and Chopin's today? That's an easy question to answer. They make movies and video games. They write the scripts and musical scores and create developmental art for them as well as work as photographers and editors. At least two of those in your list had little to do with the academies. Michelangelo had nothing to do with 19th century academies and was largely self taught after a short stint an atelier assistant, where he was one of the few, if not the only one, to get paid at that one. And he was there only a couple years before his sponsorship by the Medici. Waterhouse was rejected many times from the British painting academy and was only accepted after he applied as a sculptor. His early paintings after leaving the academy were evidence of why he was rejected. They were really really awful, though he did eventually become excellent before his late period in which he lost a lot of what he had been doing earlier. Shakespeare as far as anyone knows had no real formal education. He worked in the theater business and adapted and augmented others' stories to make his own. Copyright is a relatively recent development.

I think there are great painters today, some that stand on par with the best of history and some which excel beyond. They create works of magic based on their personal vision to which they directed their education. While today the education system for artists is deeply flawed, it depends on what it is you want to learn. There are schools that produce great visual development artists and there are great painters out there who excel in spite of their educational circumstances. Why are there so few great painters today? I think that has less to do with educational opportunity and more to do with market forces. There simply isn't the same demand for paintings that there once was. Most people don't want or feel any need for a real painting. This can be attributed to several things, but the fact remains. They can have compelling visual experiences for 10 bucks at the local cineplex or on their home theater or computer. They can literally immerse themselves into rich visual environment in contemporary video games, who's visual imagination and experience far rivals that of a staid picture on a wall. It moves, and you move and you can move stuff around and influence that world. The 9 foot smile on a theater screen is a tough competitor, an argument that Annie Dillard, a favorite author of mine likes to point out in her book The Writing Life. She argues that you shouldn't write books to compete with film but should write books for those that love to read. I think that argument is applicable to painting as well.

Sakievich said...

Outside of market forces, I think there's one big missing element. The major element missing in art education is not the ability to draw accurately, though that's a big one. The major element is personal compelling vision. When a painter knows what they love to paint, they find the means. That's been the major mover of art in history. I think this is what is missing. All the great painters I know who have achieved their levels had a vision of what it is they wanted to paint and then went about discovering the means. Why did Waterhouse, Rembrandt, Rubens, Sargent, and Gerome exceed the quality of their masters? Because they had a vision of what was possible and pursued the means to achieve that. I go to a Steven Assael show or to Collins landscape show last year or any great painter's show here in NYC and many of them lacked the foundation that would have allowed them to have easily come to produce the work they create today. One of my favorite painters, Vincent Desiderio, started out as an abstract expressionist and now creates powerful and intimate and even intellectual paintings. Andrew Wyeth did not have the atelier training that Pyle had, Pyle in fact hated the sight size method and said it restricted creativity. He did have his father to teach him, who's major teaching came from Pyle that image creation was more about living in the painting and being able to see it in the mind's eye and from this basis came Wyeth whose works haunt us and we forgive the sometimes strange drawing because in all truth it adds to the narrative presented. Ultimately its this kind of vision that is necessary to a painter, because without it, he tries to attach meaning to work that should only be considered studies.


Sakievich said...

sorry about the multiple wouldn't let me put the whole thing in one comment post...

These are the real issues I think that are at the heart of paintings trouble today.

McGarren Flack said...

Amen Peter. I agree with both of your comments I mostly think the problem is in the extreme. Balance is necessary to achieve masterful paintings. I would never hope to compete against a movie or a video game but I do hope to produce the best pieces I can by any means necessary. I love you both, keep up the great work.

J said...

I think you guys need to work more and bullshit less. The academies currently have the highest standards I have seen of the available educational systems in regards to naturalist painting. They are still in a very adolescent state and the instructors claim nothing more than an honest quest to understand how to be more masterful in their attempts. I believe the next few generations of artists coming from this type of education will quell any disputes with the quality of their mature work.

Sakievich said...

I've checked with people and I'm not sure how I could be more clear. My point wasn't that the new ateliers are bad, but that they miss the point of what the original academies are (they represent themselves as a rebirth of them, so yes, this is a relevent point). Which was to produce people that could paint compelling images (often marketable as well). The steps which are the foundation and focus of current ateliers were just beginner steps at the original academies. I think they can be of tremendous positive value, but only to students that have some kind of vision beyond the curriculum. And so far I'm not seeing it. I am well aware of the weaknesses in my current school and my past ones. As well as being full aware of my own weaknesses. My point is that ultimately an artist succeeds or fails because of his or her personal vision and that he/she acquires independently the skills necessary to pursue that vision. I provided examples of truly great contemporary realist painters who suceeded in spite of all the odds against them. Every school has it's weaknesses and strengths and it's up to the student to watch out for the one and take advantage of the other.

And technically speaking naturalist painting is not being taught at the ateliers. Naturalist painting was a specific movement in art and literature at a certain time centered in France and western Europe around the writings of Emile Zola and in Eastern Europe around Tolstoy. They dealt largely with the plight of the downtrodden and impoverished as a way of bringing that situation to the view of the aristocracy of the time.

Justin said...

What are the standards in art you guys are talking about? I would like it if you could give me your difinition of art.

Is it the artists’ depiction of their soul on a canvas that creates the masterpiece? Is it technical skill and classical styles that create the great masterpieces? Is it just common earthly beauty depicted through the artists’ vision? These questions have reverberated throughout history and now they plague us again.

These questions pop up all the time when I’m teaching. My answer is usually a compilation of replies.

Answers that I have heard throughout my learning and teaching career:
Art is something that makes us more thoughtful and well-rounded humans.
Art is something that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing to our eyes.
Art is in a constant state of change.
Art is subjective, and means something different to every single person on earth.

I feel that everything just stated has elements of truth, but is largely based on opinion. I usually tell my students to form your own opinions (that should be the reason you are receiving an education, after all.

I found this answer a while back and I have tweaked it to form my own “opinion.”

Art is form and content.

Form means (1) the 7 elements of art, (2) the 8 principles of design and (3) the actual, physical materials that the artist has used.
Form, in this context, is concrete and fairly easily described - no matter which piece of art is under scrutiny.

Content is a little tricky. "Content" is idea-based and means (1) what the artist meant to portray, (2) what the artist actually did portray and (3) how we react, as individuals, to both the intended and actual messages.
Additionally, "content" includes ways in which a work was influenced - by religion, or politics, or society in general, or even the artist's use of hallucinogenic substances - at the time it was created. All of these factors, together, make up the "content" side of art.

This is the best answer I can come up with right now.

If I had to explain it in a paragraph I would say:

Painting for me is the ability to choose from among the parts and impressions of an observed or envisioned subject those characteristics that hold meaning (content) to me and be able to set them down in concise and attractive terms (elements of art and principles of design). It is the ability to merge what I see in the subject with what I want to see in the artwork, and to show this integration of inquiry and intent in the completed work (form and content).

By the way, J you are an ass!

rsbart said...

Thank you for posting a comment. I'm not going to discuss the definition of art because that is nearly impossible to do without being objective, and especially without having some sort of common ground between the two speaking about the subject. Unfortunately we haven't built that common ground yet, so I'll save that for another time. But what I can address are the standards in art. The problem I see with what you are trying to say is that it is focused on the art. If you are trying to talk and teach about art you have to start with how art is created, and that does not start with concept or vision. It starts with education and technical refinement. I know most people in today's art world don't believe that, but it is true. First and foremost, an artist must have developed profound drawing and observational skills. Without these he will always be mediocre. On top of those drawing skills comes the development of painting skills that build an even stronger foundation for the artist. If you are teaching and students are asking you about art, those answers you have listed here are great things to have discussions about. But those discussions tend to become the main focus of modern art education. Content, creativity and other out of context information that students are unprepared for. The best thing you can do is have the discussion and then remind the student that they need to get to work and figure out how to master their foundations before they get too excited about making art. Otherwise they'll just add to the growing number of undereducated, over anxious artists who jump into the profession too early and strap themselves to the mediocre likeness takers and decoration designers producing work that matches the couch but leaves the viewer with no real lasting impression. This is what we're fighting for here. The reformation of art education that will allow more students to properly develop that foundation in a way that offers them their greatest chances of producing a lasting and elevated art.

J said...

When I speak of naturalist painting I simply mean that we are making no effort to idealize in any way. There is an honest effort to understand how the object depicted is affected by light, form and atmosphere to create a natural illusion. A figure holding a stick in a dark room is not a work of art, and was never intended to be. These are exercises meant to increase our understanding of how to convincingly construct a realistic work of art when that time comes. I agree that each student needs to have his own vision, and with proper experience and standards students become professionals that are not hampered by inability.

Justin said...

I think we have more common ground than you think we do. The Form that I talked about in my last blog, or am talking about with my students now, is developing profound drawing and observational skills using the elements of art. The second part is idea based. I think content should be thrown in as soon as possible (while the students’ observational skills are developing). The question I would ask then is: Why are we doing this anyways? Why am I taking a burnt piece of wood and making a mark on a flattened dead tree? Why am I holding a stick with animal hair at the end of it and making marks on fabric with oiled pigments from the earth? There has to be a reason why we do this? I think that reason is just as important as the foundational (drawing, painting, observational) skills we learn. I 100% agree with you when you say “The best thing you can do is have the discussion and then remind the student that they need to get to work and figure out how to master their foundations before they get too excited about making art.” I would add that the discussion is just as important as the foundational work. If I didn’t have content or an idea, why would I make anything at all? There has to be a reason why you paint the things you do and there has to be a reason why I paint the things I paint. I believe that form (profound drawing and observational skills) can’t develop without content.

rsbart said...

Justin, I think we do agree in the sense that a discussion on what this is all for is important from the beginning. The danger is in mixing that conversation with the observational training. The very nature of observational training requires the student to approach his studies as naive as possible. All he thinks he knows about a subject must be put aside for the sake of observing the truth and refining his perceptions. The teachers job then, is to guide the student in this search, correcting along the way, and guiding the student toward finding a more efficient way of developing a drawing from start to finish. As soon as any art element enters the conversation, elements such as invention, design, or any other artistic decisions that aren't directly tied to what the student is observing, teaching goes out the window. Those things are style, preference and aesthetically based and it is not for the teacher to push these things on a student. It is his job to correct and refine. But most educations today aren't like that. They are mostly style based. This is why we are in such desperate need for reformation in art education. Part of the trouble with reforming the system is that most people don't think it needs reforming. But art training is hugely important and few understand the depth of what that means. Is there any chance that you are Justin Taylor from the Bridge? If so I'm glad you're posting. It's great to have a dialogue with you. Especially after this whole Sean absurdity. I'd love to talk to you more about all of this. If this is you, and you don't mind, maybe I'll give you a call sometime after the holiday weekend. But if you'd rather keep the dialogue to this blog arena that's cool too. Let me know.

Justin said...

No, this is Justin Hayward.

J said...


Am I an ass because I think we could all be encouraged to work more and talk less, (obviously sarcastic humor doesn't transcend this forum) or because I believe most instructors of drawing and painting today are mediocre in both their draftsmanship and teaching abilities? Having experienced a number of educational situations (including studying in one of your classes)I strongly feel that the best option for acquiring foundational skills is found in a select few of these academies today. I mean no disrespect to anyone by sharing my opinion and experiences, everyone is entitled to their beliefs.

kpinstituteforhealthpolicy said...

Art is critically important to the human condition. It is often a kind of release and a way of relaxing. Sometimes it is the creation of artistic objects and sometimes it is about the appreciation of art, observing art or commenting on it.

Arts and Education