The Laws of Nature

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Academic World

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles & Orland

I am the product of academic training: three universities for fine art and two for earth sciences. Naturally, I became an academic and served as a college faculty member for many years. Therefore, Chapter 7 "The Academic World" interests me. But, before I delve into it, I'd like to acknowledge the fact that no academy or professor succeeds unless the students are willing and eager to learn.

A great example of this is my most recent student, Carolyn Abrams. She began private painting lessons with me last October and stepped over an important threshold as an artist when she completed her first full-scale triptych last week. Please take a look and read her wonderful statement about this piece, the first in a series, here. Carolyn achieved a great deal because of her desire to learn, her refusal to give up when it became difficult, and her innate ability to unleash her creative spirit with passion and intelligence.

So, what do Bayles & Orland have to say about The Academic World? First, they acknowledge that academic training doesn't always result in a positive outcome, or even the desired outcome. But, they do find usefulness in it. Beginning with faculty issues, the authors note that artists who teach at academies often succumb to spending less time creating art and more time in teaching and academic service. This is true, although I've known many professors who protect their creative time and are productive in art. On the positive side, these academics do teach and inspire budding artists and serve as a role model. This is a powerful influence.

And then, there's the student perspective. Universities don't prepare art students for careers, except for teaching art. As the authors point out, the M.F.A. was created to provide the credential necessary for teaching fine art in the academy. I was once invited to guest lecture a college class about the business of doing art because no course existed in the curriculum to teach it. Throughout their tenure in college, students gain technical skills in artmaking and a strong background in art history and theory in addition to a wide spectrum of courses in other disciplines. This is a valuable education, indeed. But, students aren't prepared for the challenging art world outside the university setting where they're nurtured and protected.

Next, Bayles & Orland turn their attention to art books, one of my passions. They write that when we read about the works and lives of other artists, what we really gain from artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared - and thereby disarmed - and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. Isn't that true? Further, they write: nothing really useful can be learned from viewing finished art. At least nothing other artists can usefully apply in making their own art. The really critical decisions facing every artist - like, say, knowing when to stop - cannot be learned from viewing end results. For that matter, a finished piece gives precious few clues as to any questions the artist weighted while making the object.

Personally, I love reading art books because they do answer a lot of questions. I do learn about technique, I can learn from the finished work, and I am inspired by the life-long struggles and challenges faced by other artists - especially if they succeeded in overcoming them.

Many people question the necessity or even relevance of academic training in fine art. I don't think it's necessary since many of our finest artists never set foot in an educational institution. And, the credential is somewhat meaningless if you're not planning on teaching art. Furthermore, I'm offended by people who wave about their credentials in an elitist manner as if to suggest that it sets them above other artists. Although I gained a great deal from my own academic experience, I also gained just as much outside of it. Creativity isn't bestowed by universities upon their students. We're born with it, and there's no set formula for how to develop it. That's the good news!
What are your thoughts?


Carolyn Abrams said...

Hi Kathy, thank you for your comments about my studies. Having a great teacher has certainly helped and the line from the book "courage by association" is perfect. Just hanging with you here and in lessons made it possible for me to cross over that line!!

Stan Kurth said...

No set formula! That is good news. I struggled in the academic arena at times because I'm such a rule breaker. I think I mentioned this before about a professor who insisted that I not smear the pencil marks in life drawing (I hated crosshatching and could never be an engraver). I smeared anyway! Repetition and discipline served me well though, kind of a battering of the brain on composition, color, value, line, texture, shape, variation, illusion, etc., etc., etc. However they do it, I believe artists must acquire certain disciplines and have to at least be aware of the rules before they can break them, then thet have a feel for when and where to plaster their rebellion (expression).

Stan Kurth said...

Oh, I must mention that Carolyn's work is superb! The triptych is awesome. The color and value composition, work very well for me. I see it as abstract figurative and I love the integration of shapes.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Sometimes we feel that what we missed is more important than what we have. If nothing else, I suspect academic training instills confidence.

On the other hand, maybe artists are never confident and always trying harder. We are loved by book publishers.

Ann said...

Great post! I agree as I know I have gained just as much if not more once I left the university environment. And although my education in art was mostly valuable to me I don't believe that is the only road to being a successful artist. And yes, all children are born with creativity but only some manage to withstand the public schools' need to beat it out of them, where the goal is conformity, not creativity, unfortunately.

Mark Sheeky said...

"nothing really useful can be learned from viewing finished art. At least nothing other artists can usefully apply in making their own art."

Is completely wrong. Every image is a result of a bank of previously seens and regurgitated images, eye food. Seeing good images is an essential part of the creation of good images.

Regarding formal art education, I've never had any and don't regret it. I imagine that the biggest benefit is the social aspect and not the knowledge aspect. Good governments should remember that the primary purpose and primary benefit of school is social not educational.

Anonymous said...

Carolyn- your work is truly magnificent!! You set a goal, you worked your behind off to get there and now you have this beautiful triptych and a wealth of knowledge and skill! You and Kathy collaborate well.
I too take issue with the idea that nothing can be gained from viewing finished work. On the other hand, I gain tons from hearing about how other artists overcome struggles and issues in their own work.
Education is always valuable- no matter how it is obtained. Experience is one of the best teachers- but I've found learning from others makes the experience teacher less formidable.
My word verification is "balking"- so I'll stop talking.... :-))

Unknown said...

Hi Carolyn - it's been my privelege to be a part of your development as an artist. Thank YOU!

Hi Stan - I'm glad you smeared your pencil marks! Imagine what would have become of your art had you not rebelled. I agree that most artists need to acquire the skills and principles of this discipline before breaking the rules. And - I agree with you about Carolyn's work!

Hi Hallie - you've identified both sides of this coin, and I agree. Thank you!

Hi Ann - it's truly unfortunate that the institutions that are supposed to train our children to think and reason mostly teach them to be thoughtless conformists.

Hi Mark - I, too, disagreed with the authors on that point (as noted). There's so much that we can glean from a finished work of art. It's my hope that government supported education is about socialization and also imparting skills in critical thinking and foundational knowledge.

Hi Pam - So true! I agree that we can learn from anything and everything. Living is one big lesson.

Sharmon Davidson said...

Oh, boy. This brings up a big sloppy stew of issues for me. I have 3 art degrees, and have been a graphic designer as well as an art teacher. Academia, in my experience, can be just as hurtful as helpful. I gained most from being with other artists- "courage by association" is a great description. The other positive about studying art in universities is that you are forced to practice, which is really the number 1 criterion for becoming a proficient artist, or anything else, for that matter. PRACTICE!

Unfortunately, the flip side of that university education is that sometimes academia's preconceived notions about what constitutes good art can cause them to smother creativity in their students. If your ideas are different from the chosen "style" the university promotes, they can make your life pretty rough. I don't know why this should be, because you would think that art would be one discipline where the "different" was welcome or even encouraged.

Dan Kent said...

I think this is a great post. When I read the quote: "What we really gain from artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared - and thereby disarmed - and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits." And my thought was that this wonderful willingness to share of professional artists in our online community - the sharing of stories, anxieties, troubles, triumphs, and all, especially (for me) in this blog - has been wonderful for an amateur like me. I hope one day to be armed with much of this knowledge and take it into the real art world with much more confidence than I would have had otherwise.

The second thing that struck me about this post was your comment questioning the necessity of art training. From my perspective (the perspective of one that has none), I know that I can self-train myself well in some things, with time, but I feel the lack - and I see the benefits of academic training in the works of many artists. (Although I also see the pitfalls of conformity).

I also once met an excellent sculptor who complained of having trouble getting her works accepted in the art community because she had no credentials.

And Carolyn, your triptych made my jaw drop. It is excellent! Congratulations on a magnificent piece!

-Don said...

I send out an e-embrace to all my kindred spirits who have already left such great comments. I've gained as much over the past two years of blogging and interacting with you guys and gals as I did in my 4 years of college and 15+ years of graphic design. We've shared our fears and have shored each other up in moments of weakness and doubt. I consider my education ongoing...

Carolyn... Your triptych is outstanding. Congrats on a job well done!


Unknown said...

Hi Sharmon - you're correct in saying that practice is critical and the academic setting forces developing artists to do it. I experienced what you describe in the second paragraph of your comment. When I first studied art in the 1960's, universities stressed abstract expressionism as an art form and discouraged us from doing anything else. It was a great disservice to us.

Hi Dan - Indeed, there's much to learn when artists open up and share their experiences. That's why I keep blogging. I'm learning along with all of you. As for academic training, I am for it but don't think it's a requirement, and I'm really put off by anyone who thinks you need a credential to be an artist.

Hi Don - Amen!

Eva said...

First I want to say how wonderful I think Carolyn's work is. I can see what I believe to be your influence but yet her work is uniquely her own.
As for the academic world I agree with Stan and Sharmon. My training was both a blessing and a curse for me. I still have nightmares of one of my professors volumes of assignments.Letting go of all the rules continues to haunt me.I think it's why I prefer abstract painting.

Unknown said...

Hi Eva - thank you for commenting on Carolyn's fine work! As a teacher, it's important to me to help my students find their own voice. Therefore, I don't allow them to imitate me since it would be a disservice to them. I'm glad you found a way to successfully overcome some of your academic training so that you could break the rules to express who you are!

Casey Klahn said...

I think something comes from the liberal arts part of even an art education(matriculated). I do wonder greatly about the art part - I never experienced the blessing of university art training. Your personal example is one that sheds grace on the system, IMO.

Among many good comments, I feel akin to Stan (smear, baby!) and Don - I'm getting some education from blogging, but probably more so because I know how to study independently, thanks to my college degree.

The contemporary atelier system attracts me, but the practitioners are rather fundamentalist. It does seem the opposite of the university system, though. Lots of easel time, versus lots of course work and what not.

Here's a thought. All artists do well to study with whatever means they've got at their disposal.

Carolyn Abrams said...

I like Casey's last line. "All artists do well to study with whatever means they've got at their disposal". That's pretty much how i have educated myself through the years. Books, classes, workshops, other artists, museums, etc. etc. If I only glean one new lesson from each exposure I am happy!

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - I, too, am interested in the contemporary atelier system and have thought about opening one of my own some day. However, it wouldn't be for the sole purpose of resurrecting Renaissance techniques. Something to think about.

Hi Carolyn - I've found that you learn like a sponge!! Whatever you're doing, it works :-)

Carolyn Abrams said...

I love learning anything new so that helps!

What is a contemporary atelier system?

Unknown said...

Hi Carolyn - "atelier" is a French term that means "artist's studio." Typically, the atelier is a way for students to get private instruction either in a noted artist's studio or private space. The students often learn traditional methods of painting, especially in the style of realism.

Casey Klahn said...

Wow, Kathy! That idea floated through my mind, too. An atelier for those influenced by art since Impressionism/post-impressionism/modernism. Or, something like that.

That gives me shivers.

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - I guess great minds think alike ;-)