Sunday, May 19, 2019

Shortcomings of American Art Education

In the following essay, a famous artist discusses the shortcomings of art education in America, and proposes some remedies. At the end of the post, I'll let you know who wrote the essay.  

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Portrait Class, 1901
"It seems to me that no one could seriously dispute the fact that a great school of art in America is needed, or that such a school would have the very greatest influence in the development both of the spirit and the practice of art. As art is now taught in this country, it is too fragmentary. The pupils are not thoroughly grounded. Any one who wants to study art here can do so. The examinations are too easy. In the foreign schools the examinations are very difficult. The student must know a good deal to pass them. There should be an American school with equally high requirements. 

If a young man [or young woman] wants to enter Harvard or Yale, his preparation must be thorough. That is the way it should be with the school of art, for the school of art should really be like a university. The student, before being admitted to the university, should have passed beyond the elemental stage of study which properly belongs to the grammar-school grade. As it is now in America there is no place where parents who think their son is a genius can send that son to find out that he isn’t a genius. There are very few people who can’t be taught to draw more or less well, but the mere ability to draw does not make an artist. 

"There seems to be a desire on the part of a very large number of persons either to become professional artists, sculptors, and painters or to acquire some of the principles of decoration. But there is also widespread ignorance that a thorough grounding in certain facts is absolutely essential to the serious student before he is prepared to avail himself of the experience of others. 

Those who wish to study art here are admitted to classes far too leniently. In the schools abroad the entrance examinations are very severe, and by a succession of examinations, the less talented are eliminated. This refers, of course, to the great schools — not to the irresponsible studios, where a model or two is hired and a few painters with a present reputation are engaged to call in occasionally to give advice; to such schools anybody, with no experience whatever, can, by paying a small fee, be admitted. 

It has been immensely to the advantage of America that there is nothing for architects abroad which corresponds with the irresponsible painting ateliers referred to. The student of architecture going to Paris, for instance — although my remarks do not apply to Paris alone — can only study his profession by going into the “Beaux Arts.” The entrance examination is very severe, of course, and should be so, but the effect upon the American student is everywhere apparent here, and has given the architects of the United States the great position they occupy to-day. 

If the money is provided — and one of the things which surprises me on coming back to America is the amount of money there seems to be — there would seem to be no reason why a great American school of art should not be established and be put in working order within a reasonably short time. A building should be furnished, among other things, with copies of the best examples of art in foreign countries in sculpture, painting, and architecture. There would be little difficulty in acquiring these, although it would take time. 

The American Art Federation would be the institution which would most naturally father the work of establishing an American school. And the question of a location for the school would have to be answered by circumstances. It should be in a center, some place where it would be to the advantage of both pupils and instructors to live. The location might be a problem. One would name New York as the obvious place for the school, as the National Academy is there, and the various art societies to which most American artists contribute hold their exhibitions there. 

The art ability of Americans is not to be belittled. The best American artists can hold their own anywhere. American art as a whole, however, has the tendency to be preoccupied with problems of a technical nature, such as how to put on paint, and things of that sort. The painting of individual pictures is not art in its highest form. Pictures are only fragments. The great things are works which carry an idea through to completion. 

I do not think that the great problems of adapting one subject or composition to its environment is sufficiently studied, if it is studied at all. The three great branches of art — painting, sculpture, and architecture — should be independent. Without a knowledge of the other two, each is incomplete. The restraining influence the study of each one has upon the others is of the greatest importance and of the greatest service. 

A school should have, first of all, the great artists of the country as overseers. That is the method pursued in Munich, where the great artists are given studios in the school, and the students are allowed, several days in the week, to consult them about ideas. In addition to the influence of American artists of first rank, the American school might also make arrangements to receive the benefit and advice of prominent foreign artists who are visiting this country from time to time. As to the instructors, there should be many of them, and there is no reason why they should not be drawn from the ranks of American artists. 

The curriculum of the school should embrace sculpture, painting, and architecture, and every student should be made to learn something about all three branches of art. There are many Americans who are quite competent to act as instructors, under the supervision of artists of first rank. And the great thing is that the school should have one inspiring head. The advantage of having great artists on the staff, to whom students can have access, lies in the fact that one can learn much more by working with a man than by simply being told what to do, or what not to do. The establishment of the school would mean, primarily, the sifting out of the incapable. It would push forward those who had real talent, and would discourage those without talent. 

An art atmosphere is hardly to be spoken of as something which is created; it is rather something which happens. It is a matter of tradition. A whole country grows up to art, and the atmosphere comes gradually into being, one can hardly explain when or how. And a people who have once developed an art atmosphere may degenerate. Take Italy, for example. The Italy of the past was a paradise of art. Rome is an eternal city because of the handiwork which immortal artists have left there, if for no other reason. But take the Italy of to-day—where is its art atmosphere? The average modern Italian likes the worst pictures and loves noise. It would seem as if all the art air had been breathed over there. An art atmosphere is not generated entirely by pictures. The kind of houses men build, and what they put into them; the decorations of public buildings; the beautifying of public parks; the care of the streets, all these things play important parts. In this day, it is not so much the love of pictures as care for vital things which needs to be encouraged. 

The generating of an art atmosphere requires a great deal of money, as well as a great deal of good taste on the part of a great many people. Public building decorations of the highest order are so expensive as frequently to make them impossible. The artist who does the work, too, must inevitably make sacrifices. But the man who takes up the profession of art must have higher aims than financial considerations. The painting of an important and thoroughly careful work is much more expensive than most people realize.

Edwin Austin Abbey King Lear, Act I, Scene I The Metropolitan Museum of Art.jpg
King Lear, Act I, Scene I (1897-98) By Edwin Austin Abbey -
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain, Link
The essay was written by the American illustrator and painter Edwin Austin Abbey, and it appeared in Brush and Pencil magazine. Abbey was an illustrator and painter, trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was a good friend of John Singer Sargent, and alongside Sargent, he painted murals for the Boston Public Library. He lived and worked for most of his career in Great Britain, and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. The essay was published in the March, 1902 edition of Brush and Pencil magazine.

Questions for discussion:
1. Abbey argues for maintaining high standards and weeding out those of lesser abilities. Is that position tenable in our time, and in today's art world?
2. Should an art school have a shared set of standards or values, and what should those standards be?
3. Why does our contemporary artistic culture allow for these standards in music conservatories, such as Julliard, Bard, or Eastman, but not in art schools?
4. He says "American art as a whole has the tendency to be preoccupied with problems of a technical nature, such as how to put on paint, and things of that sort." Is it still true that Americans are preoccupied with tools and technique? 
5. Abbey argues that the curriculum should embrace painting, sculpture, and architecture. For those of you who have studied sculpture or architecture, what has that study given you as a painter?

16 comments:

My Pen Name said...

Is it still true that Americans are preoccupied with tools and technique?
I wish! The academic schools are almost anti-technique -on the hand ateliers like Grand Central stress it above all else (too much?)

- one observation about sculptures - I have always found a good sculptor is usually also an outstanding draftsman I think it's because they understand planes and depth better than someone who trains exclusively in 2d.

My Pen Name said...

-- and one follow up comment - I think some standard might be nice to introduce - perhaps there could be a blend of open enrollment at places like the Art Student's league - and a 'professional' program - the way dance studios attached to companies have professional and open programs.

Drake Gomez said...

A fascinating essay, James. I'm particularly taken by Abbey's statement that "the mere ability to draw does not make an artist," and how contemporary art instruction has used that idea to conclude that drawing, therefore, needn't be taught. Clearly this is not what Abbey was getting at.

As a college art professor, I'm of the persuasion that students should be grounded in the fundamentals and exposed to a range of art forms, if only to learn what does and doesn't resonate with them. I think larger art programs (colleges and universities, art schools) should accommodate different aesthetics or styles of art, but you start with the fundamentals. Sadly, at many schools this is missing, and not just in the form of traditional drawing instruction--even studying color, composition, or other broad aspects of art is often dismissed as irrelevant to being an artist today.

A related problem is that students are often steered toward certain aesthetics through the culture of a school, the influence of what is currently fashionable, dogmatic professors, or other forces. Of course, this can happen with classical styles of art making, too, but classical art, in my experience, more often carries a stigma.

Aaron Parks said...

1&2. Abbey was reacting to reductivism(gaining understanding by reducing an idea to its simplest parts). Rightly so imo. What he argues for is a distinction between what can be bought and what must be earned. Learning to paint will make you a better cook, however it's bc of human character traits like creativity and passion that any synergy between expressive mediums can be attained. I think some things, once you take them apart, cannot be put back together in the same way.

The best art flows like a river, it is only what it must be, nothing more. If there are any rigid standards they would come in the form of something like the experiential learning cycle. I made my own 3 step version: Impression, Expression, Reflection. This is a scalable and very versatile way of working. It's a rigid process that allows for subjectivity/chaos. And honestly the last step, reflection, feeds back into the first step, impression, so it's more like just two steps.

3. The sub par ateliers Abbey complains about are now the standard for art colleges, sry Abbey this problem has gotten worse.

4. Much easier to talk about somebody's "how" than "why." Again, reductivism favors the objective and misses the greater beauty.

5. As a painter my experience with sculpture, digital and traditional... it's like a vitamin or something, to pick it apart and figure out why is a waste of time. Just do it and you will notice your work is much healthier. Even playing guitar! I could not paint if I did not play music.

Here is a question for you Gurney: What do you know about ancient medieval/renaissance combat? They took something everybody wanted to learn: sword fighting, and taught it in a way that related it to music, math, astrology, grammar... So numbers, animals, shapes, planets all had layers of meaning and were used to relate/synergize with each other. The rhythm of sword swings would be related to the rhythm of brush strokes, melodies, waterfalls...

Sconklin56 said...

I agree with Drake: exposure to a wide variety of art is critical. It’s said for writers to write every day and more importantly, to read every day. Visual arts are just another form of art. Critically study as much art as possible (the reading), and then draw or paint every day (the writing). Eventually this leads to your personal style (genre). A strict curriculum benefits some, but not others. Self-motivation is a powerful instructor.

I have a degree in architecture from the 80’s (pre-CAD). I do great perspective and drawing, but have had to educate myself on color and composition. Architectural composition, or design, differ from organizing a painting. Lighting and shadows were covered fairly deeply, but varied by school, or rather, the professors. I can only assume the same is true in art schools.

As far as technique, every workshop I’ve ever attended has questions on what brush, what paper, etc., some of which matters, but mostly shows the student is asking the wrong questions. In the Internet age, sifting the wheat from the chaff for content that actually teaches can be hard to find. Only seeing someone’s process risks creating imitators. Content that inspires you to find your own voice is much harder to find.

Sconklin56 said...

It just occurred to me this argument is all from the perspective of classical Western European assumptions on what constitutes “formal” training. So I’m curious: How did (or do) non-Western cultures approach this subject? I’m assuming everyone agrees Eastern, African, and Native American art are valid forms of expression. My father has an early volume of Hokusai drawings he sent home from Japan in the 60’s that I tried to copy when I was 8 or 9.

coryneale said...

I am trained and work as an architect, and think that study has given me an appreciation for light, shadow, correctness of proportion and perspective, and perhaps most importantly rigor in design. Design in how you approach a problem, or a goal. The process. I think American art is very much about process these days, rather than tools and technique.

I do disagree about the need for exclusivity in art. Art should be encouraged for anyone wanting to explore its benefits. Dive in. Change media, find the thing that works for you. Some people write: scripts, theater, songs, poems, literature. They find the word-thing that suits them. No different for someone exploring visual, because they feel called to that. It might be sculpture, architecture.. or it might be quilting. I am idealistic, but I picture art practice as being a part of everyone's daily routine. Appreciating excellence, and nurturing curiosity.

MerylAnnB said...

I’ve enjoyed reading the comments here…

I agree with Abbey that there are shortcomings in typical American art education - even more now than when he wrote this…but as much as I like his art, I can't agree with his elitist attitude. I think desire is more important than natural ability…many art students who have become excellent artists were told to give it up (including my own teacher, who - after studying with Frank Reilly and Norman Rockwell, became an excellent artist and fabulous teacher.) Elvis Presley was told he had no musical talent, and Marilyn Monroe was told she didn't have any talent for acting, if they had taken the advice they received - to be a truck driver and a secretary - our culture would be the poorer for it. And for that matter, how would our world be different if Hitler had not been terminally discouraged from pursuing his passion for art? I don't think any art student with art in their soul should be discouraged from learning - like the story of the tortoise and the hare, the deeply inspired ones may outrun some who started out with more talent.

I do find that my students who have studied elsewhere before studying with me (including some with M.A.'s) typically took many diverse classes and really only skimmed the surface of art training, learning various techniques, tools and media without the foundations of form, values, color and composition. I don't know what use it is to know the technical methods if one does not understand the basics. Everyone with a university art degree who later came to study with me told me that they learned things in my first class that they thought they should have learned in their college career, but didn’t. Art students who study at universities these days don't seem to get the kind of foundational studies that were traditionally taught, for instance, in the French Academic tradition, and the foundations are essential. Art students who find this training in universities or anywhere, are pretty lucky. For artists, the traditional atelier approach seems to be a much richer, deeper and effective way to impart knowledge and understanding than today's higher education style. I tried both almost 50 years ago…after 4 years of evening classes with my teacher, I went to what was considered the best university in my state for art, where, after a portfolio review, I was politely told not to expect to learn more there than I already knew. I left, and went back to study full time with my teacher, and learned plenty more in the next 3 years!

The Art Students League in NY, and Howard Pyle’s school certainly trained large groups of excellent artists…I am not sure if Abbey was targeting them or not in this essay…and in spite of the fact that the typical university schedule does not lend itself to the ideal learning situation for artists, I am sure that some excellent teachers can be found in universities, too - (I had one !) And one of my compadres in the atelier I attended went on to study with Nelson Shanks, who ran a wonderful atelier style school, too. So there are still some places to get academic training, but it appears that these may be getting rarer and rarer.

Sheridan said...

I agree with MaryAnnB. "I think desire is more important than natural ability". No amount of structured training will surpass the drive of a person that really wants to learn. I am a graduate of a 4 year art school, and certainly wouldn't recommend it today.
I think anyone today would do much better studying places like your blog and videos, and the seemingly endless information available on the web. Practice and observation are the keys.

Abbey comes across as a pompous twit. He doesn't sound like anyone I would have wanted to know, much less be taught by.
The saying "Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." comes to mind. Take a look at the painting you supplied of
the ladies. It is my observation that all of the people are 10 heads high. His buddy John Singer Sargent did the same thing in many of his works. I would hope they weren't the ones teaching anatomy class in this proposed school. I don't remember of hearing that any art school teaches a class in "ideas", but it would be an immense help if they could.

Your question on whether sculpture or architecture helps, reminded me that part of the reason that I drew so much at a young age was that it was a way to visualise things I wanted to build. The name "Snowman" didn't apply to the dragons, animals, or cartoon characters that graced our winter lawns either. So I guess I'd say, yes it helps.

D.Neiman said...

I think this can be linked with your previous post about teaching art fundamentals http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2018/12/should-art-schools-teach-fundamental.html
And as you noted there art means many things to many people, and I assume standards and values also varies depending on what people want to achieve and what art is to them. But at the same time, are there any rules in art? And if there are,who makes them? And who are to judge what is good and what is bad in art..

Roca said...

I do think it would be better for potential art majors to be told that they are terrible before they blow $50,000 or more on art school and then find out when trying to get a job. (IF standards can somehow be made objective) But I also think that there should be room for people to make and learn art in a non-competitive environment. I for one have been exasperted with grade-school art teachers that told my son to stop coloring outside the lines. They destroyed his enjoyment of art before it ever developed.

Also consider the extreme bias that exists among some art educators about what is and isn’t art. Every teacher I ever had told me that cartooning and illustration weren’t “art” and wouldn’t allow me to draw those things. We should start by raising standards of art educators so they understand all the different professional fields available, and not be hung up on just “fine art."

Rich said...

He wouldn't have been prepared for Jeff Koons.

Michael Pianta said...

When I was younger, say 19 or 20, I would have basically agreed with this essay. Now I have what I guess I would call a more pluralistic attitude. I say let everybody do whatever they want and let the collector market sort it out. I think one big challenge is that the term 'art' has become so multifaceted and almost self contradictory that all blanket statements become nonsensical. I'm no longer even of the view that sort of "classical realist" painting that I practice and the various other things we call 'art' are even part of one thing at all anymore. It's not that art evolved in the 20th century, it's that it forked, and forked again and again. Now there are many arts and I don't think it makes sense to judge them against each other, or lump them all together. Consequently, do "art schools" need to impose stricter standards? Who the heck knows? What is art, and what sort of standard could you possibly impose? If on the other hand you narrow the question down something more specific - do 21st century realist ateliers need to impose stricter standards? - maybe then you could at least have some kind of debate.

An analogy might be to literature, where the oldest forms of epic poetry and Greek tragedy lead to the development of lyric poetry and other forms of drama, and then prose writing and then the novel. And while we can look at the novel and see that it is a kind of literature and bears many similarities to poetry, we can also see that they are quite distinct and can simply coexist without one being seen as the replacement for the other.

Geoff said...

1. It certainly is possible to maintain higher standards than universities so now, but I doubt "weeding out" is feasible for most art schools these days without some dramatic restructuring of university financing. Art schools are generally tuition-driven, and flunking out 1/3 of the class will hurt the bottom line. Law schools used to flunk out 1/3; now they can hardly manage to flunk out 1-2%.

2. I would hope at least some art schools have shared values and standards. Many seem committed to what's chic in contemporary art, which is okay, but we've got too much of that. We need more accredited, degree-granting BFA and MFA programs that are committed to honing skills: drawing, values, composition, color, etc.

3. That's a great question about music. The difference in standards reflects the culture's broader attitude toward contemporary music vs contemporary art. Modern art flourishes in the fancy New York galleries, but in music, Mozart and Chopin still rule the roost.

4. I take art workshops, and certainly my fellow students (and I) are too preoccupied with technical questions, as if switching brush manufacturers will transform their art. But I'm not sure this is a peculiarly American preoccupation. International students behave much the same way.

5. I have spent a fair bit of time with ZBrush doing digital sculpture, and I think it's helped my drawing skills. But honestly I think I've learned more about figure drawing from animation (using Poser, mostly).

Lynnwood said...

Many perceptive and interesting comments, obviously born of experience.As a " self taught" artist,I would like to offer some comments I think are relevant.These are quotes from artists/ teachers I admire who are(or were..) more eloquent than me!First, Henry Casselli ,who I think.can communicate more with a pencil than anybody."When parents today ask him how to nurture an interest in art in their children,Casselli advises them to make sure sketching materials are always available.'That child will go to art school soon enough and then spend the rest of his or her life undoing all of that education, trying to get back to the feeling and honesty behind those first marks,' he says." If the honesty of effort and desire are truly there, the artist within reveals itself.'" ( discussion question 4) and from "The Art Spirit" "No matter how good the school is,'the art student's' education is in his own hands. All education must be self education."..and.." The best advice I have ever given to students who have studied under me has been just this:'Educate yourself,do not let me educate you- use me do not be used by me'" - Robert Henri.( disc question 1)..and from "The Natural Way to Draw" Kimon Nicolaides- I never concern myself with how much talent my students have.I believe that nature is lavish with talent just as it is with acorns- but not all acorns become oaks.Talent is something that developed or appears as you work"..and.."The job of the teacher as I see it,is to teach students,not how to draw,but how to learn to draw .They must acquire some real method of finding out facts for themselves lest they be limited for the rest of their lives to facts the instructor relates.They must discover something of the true nature of artistic creation- of the hidden processes by which inspiration works.",I'm suspicion of anything called a " school" as much.as I love the idea if a repository if learning... It always comes with the danger of stifling conformity.Just a conundrum of being a human being I guess :)) By the way James,you are a helluva teacher!There is so much power derived from your gentleness,humor and generosity with your thought processes!

nmsgwatercolors said...

It seems as if now a days there are two paths an aspiring artist can take - the fine arts path and the manga/anime path. I probably don't have enough experience in either to judge, but it seems to me that the manga/anime path offers a good grounding in the basics, whereas the typical fine arts path does not? Does this seem true? And also, these days, there are so many books and talks about creativity and how to achieve it. Do any of them suggest the atmousperic approach of surrounding the student with art and working artists?