Thursday, January 21, 2016

Art Thought: Has 100 Years of Modernism Ruined Art Schools?

I've been reading a lot of art history lately focusing on 1850 - 1985: The Era of Modernism. Having taken art history classes in college and graduate school, I was aware of the development of Modernism, but what I had forgotten was how early it began. I had some sense that Modernism was a reaction to the societal chaos that led up to the first and second world wars.  But it began much sooner with developments well underway in the 1860's - 1880's. The recent Delacroix exhibit at MIA is trying to even establish Delacroix (1798 - 1863) as the first influence on the artists who would establish Modernism.

One of the main tenants of Modernism is the throwing off of the power of the academies and establishing the individual artist's vision as the sole guiding force in creating a painting. The art academies taught a way of painting that insisted upon certain processes and subject matter when creating a painting. In particular, the Paris Academy of Fine Arts was very conservative and prioritized categories of art expecting realistic but romantic paintings. Winners of the Paris Salon (works for exhibit were chosen by the academy) were almost guaranteed to have a successful career and receive commissions from the government and wealthy individuals. Although some would find this stifling (such as those who created Modernism), the academies did teach the medium of oil painting, composition, the use of allegory and symbolism, etc. Cezanne, Manet, Whistler, Gaugin, van Gogh, etal. took painting in a different direction, but had grown up in an art environment dominated by the academies.  They were well aware of what was being taught in the academies.  Many attended the academy and knew other artists who had completed their academy training. Plus, they had attended the Salons created by the academies, and entered their paintings. At the Paris Salon of 1863, the artists that were rejected from the exhibit created a stink and Napoleon III let them have their own show in another part of the Palace of Industry to let the public decide if they like the art.  And thus, the avant-garde gained acceptance with the public and the rest, as they say, is history.

And now we come to today, a hundred and fifty years later with Modernism having been fully established for more than one hundred years. The official academies of fine art are long gone and been replaced by art departments in schools that have several departments and disciplines.  There are some private ateliers and schools called art academies, but there is not the hierarchical structure that is attached to government and private commissions. The ateliers and academies of today are simply teaching a formal technique.  If you do not do well in art school you will not lose commissions. If you excel at art school you are not guaranteed any success in your career.  Things are very different.

The structure of the academies has been replaced with the individual artist having to find their way to success by creating a compelling body of work. Compelling is the operative word here and it runs the gamut from Thomas Kincade to Karen Finley. I'm not going out on a limb stating that the difference between Kincade and Finley is greater than the difference between any of the early Modernists and the artists of the academies that they rebelled against.  There is little in our larger society from which to create a solid base of skill in making good art. Artists actually asked for this situation. Of course, the early Modernists already had a solid base for understanding painting because the academies existed and the results were all around them. But now, generations later, I fear a solid base for crafting good art is not available.  There is a craft to art.  There are media to be used and they should be used in a manner that supports the overall direction of the idea behind the art piece.  Yes, there is technique taught in art departments, but the work I have seen lately by young artists shows a lack of understanding in using their media.

Part of the problem is that artists can now use anything to create art, not just paint and canvas, or granite and marble.  There is no limit to what you can use, even taxidermied animals, computer operated light systems, and your own body. No small group of teachers at a school will know all of the available media and how best to use it.  In these cases, all a person can teach is to be a stickler on presentation and hope the student takes care.  But I'm afraid that students get teachers out of their comfort zones - ah, if only there was just one to three painting techniques to teach instead of an infinite number.

And then there is that aspect of needing to be compelling so that you can be supported by grants.  In my day job as an Arts Coordinator with the City of Saint  Paul, I have seen numerous people receive grants and only afterward contact the City to claim that they have received money to create an art piece on City property, after all, they wrote it into the grant proposal. More often than not, these artists don't have any real idea how to use their material or how to work with the space which they proposed.  But the proposal was so compelling!  Its as if artists are rewarded not for the completion of a successful piece of art, but for coming up with a compelling idea that may never actually get enacted or created in a way that will allow it to last for any significant period of time.

I have also been visiting art exhibits around the Twin Cities over the last couple of years and have been appalled at a lack of understanding of material and technique by younger artists.  I was most appalled by an exhibit for emerging artists by a local foundation.  The lack of understanding about material and process was astounding in a majority of the artists who had won the grants and had a year to develop the work - with support.  But, obviously, their ideas were very compelling when they wrote about them.

Now, in fairness, I will admit that I am a much better painter now than I was in my twenties. Even better than when I was in my thirties.  I also will confess that I have had a hiatus away from oil painting for a few years and as I am getting back into it I am realizing that I don't know much about it.  I had been previously painting with oils for years before my hiatus, but somehow, it seems now like I know nothing.  I don't just mean this as a proclamation to make me look humble.  I really feel, when I am working on a canvas, that a whole new world is opening up to me that I never was aware of before.  I do wonder where my brain was at when I was in school all those years ago. Oh yeah, I was scared I wasn't... everything.

I have no solution to this problem but to encourage artists to research their materials and technique and to learn from others who are a little further down the road, cuz' lord knows, there isn't an academy or a culture drenched in art to help you. 

To encourage artists to greater art making, I submit to you the following paintings that were created before the artist celebrated their 30th birthday.  Many of these were made when they were 25 - 27 years old.
James Whistler, Symphony in White No. 1

Anthony van Dyck, Genoan hauteur from the Lomellini family

Eugene Delacroix, La Pasion Griega

Auguste Renoir, Lise Sewing
Claude Monet, The Picnic (fragment)

Camille Pissarro, Deux femmes causant au bord de la mer, Saint Thomas 

Georges Braque, The Olive tree near l'Estaque

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Eduard Manet, Música en las Tullerías

Alfred Sisley, Lane near a Small Town

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