Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Art School

I've been jumping around in the Hughes book and have found the reading good. Some sections were written in about 1980 and some were written as late as 2011, making the perspective a little confusing at times. So far I've read about Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper and low ethical standards among the artists, dealers, critics and museum curators of New York City. I'm not very familiar with recent painting, but agree with Hughes that Pollock and Hopper were the most original American painters of the twentieth century. It took a long time for them to grow on me, but I now actually like Hopper and generally consider Pollock better than his abstract successors. These two now seem to be part of the American art "canon." Sometimes Hughes sounds as if he has a score to settle, though I can't blame him considering the environment in which he worked. He genuinely loved art and had a strong background in European art history, and it is easy to see how he could have become frazzled working in Manhattan; "philistine" is one of his favorite words. He came to the U.S. from Australia via Italy and England, giving him the kind of outsider perspective so essential to good criticism yet so often lacking in the arts here.

Art is a murky area for discussion, and complete objectivity regarding the value of an art object is probably impossible to establish. Art, literature and "genius" do not exist beyond the parameters of locally defined cultural references, making their appraisal contentious, especially over short periods of time. For example, the paintings of Vermeer, who is now recognized as one of the greatest painters ever, were almost unknown until the late nineteenth century. The Lacemaker was sold for seven pounds in 1813, and it was sold again to the Louvre in 1870 for a mere fifty-one pounds. To his credit, Hughes focuses on aesthetic merit as best he can, which automatically puts him at odds with the careerists within the field.

The passage that I've found most interesting up to now concerns the undesirable consequences of the teaching methods employed by art schools and universities. Happily, this dovetails with what I've been writing about the ill effects of creative writing programs:

For nearly a quarter of a century, late-modernist art teaching (especially in America) has increasingly succumbed to the fiction that the values of the so-called academy – meaning, in essence, the transmission of disciplined skills based on drawing from the live model and the natural motif – were hostile to "creativity."

This fiction enabled Americans to ignore the inconvenient fact that virtually all artists who created and extended the modernist enterprise between 1890 and 1950, Beckmann no less than Picasso, Miro, and de Kooning as well as Degas or Matisse, were formed by the atelier system and could no more have done without the particular skills it inculcated than an aircraft can fly without an airstrip. The philosophical beauty of Mondrian's squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees. Whereas thanks to America's tedious obsession with the therapeutic, its art schools in the 1960s and 1970s tended to become crèches, whose aim was less to transmit the difficult skills of painting and sculpture than to produce "fulfilled" personalities. At this no one could fail. Besides, it was easier on the teachers if they left their students to do their own thing, and not teach – especially since so many of them could not draw, either. A few schools, such as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, held out against this and tried to give their students a solid grounding. But they were few.

Other factors contributed to the decay of the fine-arts tradition in American schools in the sixties and seventies. One was the increased attachment of art teaching to universities, which meant that theory tended to be raised above practice and making. Thinking deep thoughts about histories and strategies was more noble than handwork, and it produced an exaggerated drift toward the conceptual. This interlocked in a peculiarly damaging way with reliance on reproduction of works of art instead of direct contact with the originals....

In the slide or reproduction, no work of art appears in its true size or with its vital qualities of texture, color, and the recorded movement of the shaping hand intact. A Klee, a Pollock, or a lunette of the Sistine Chapel – all undergo the same abstraction, the same loss of presence. Impartially, they lose one of the essential factors of aesthetic experience, the size of the artwork relative to our sense of our own bodies: its scale....

A slide gives you the subject, the nominal image of a work, without conveying a true idea of its pictorial essence. You cannot think and feel your way back into the way something was made by looking at a slide: only by studying the real thing. And no tradition of making can be transmitted without such empathy. Did this foster the dull blatancy of so much recent American painting, all impact and no resonance? Have the falsifications of the reproduced image fed back into the new originals, cutting out those whose very qualities which, by their nature, cannot survive reproduction – subtleties of drawing, touch, and brushwork, of color and tone, that slow up the eye and encourage, beyond the quick look, a slow absorption?  

If, as Hughes argues, American teaching methods in the arts had a negative impact on the quality of contemporary painting and sculpture circa 1990, mutatis mutandis, a similar pattern may be at work in creative writing programs with respect to the quality of contemporary American literature. Recent history points to a reduction in aesthetic richness and depth when training in the arts becomes captive to academic pedagogues.

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