Personal Expression Versus Classical Training and How Contemporary Art is Killing Every Other Form of Artistic Training and Practice
This editorial has been in the back of my mind for quite a while. It began during several sessions whilst completing my Diploma of Visual Art and has been brewing as I have visited exhibitions, galleries and events during the past three to four years. The whole thing has come to a head as I have been attending interviews for university in the past several weeks.
For those that may not know about my art, I produce paintings and drawings that fall somewhere between Realist and Modern Impressionist genré. I have been called an observational drawer, as I am a believer in the more formal idea of arts training, in that we learn to observe and translate or transcribe via the medium of drawing. We learn to observe, then we learn to translate.
Many of the artists that I admire the most first had formal training in one form or another and gained skills in drawing, colour theory, composition, perspective, materials and practising as a professional artist. The tradition of apprentices training with a master artist, to gain all the skills and training to become masters themselves and in turn pass on their learning to the next generation was where we see the works of artists from history arise. There have also been very respected arts academies in the past where artists of the time taught and encouraged the next generation.
A Brief History
You may have heard of the French Academie des Beaux Arts or the Royal Academy in London, and whilst it is true that the Impressionists of the time were in the most part rejected by these institutions, many of the Impressionists in the beginning had most of the skills required for what we may call formal art training.
In Russia around the time of the Cultural Revolution on China, much of the formal training techniques from Europe were taught in the universities. Just at the time when many parts of the west were rejecting this training, it took off in the East producing a generation of master artists. (BTW: I can see the irony in this type of art education coming out of these two countries at this particular time in history)
When it Changed
Somewhere around the end of the second world war, movements such as Abstract Expressionism which had its roots in Germany around 1920, began to take over. The sensational began to replace the traditional, expression rather than training began to be the norm. These were quickly followed by Surrealism, Neo-Expressionism and Performance Art. Amid all the self expression and experimentation, the “art for art’s sake” of creating work as either self therapy or for sensationalism (the fifteen minutes of fame mindset), the dedication to taking the time to learn the basics so that any experimentation could be on a solid foundation, seems to have slipped out of view.
Why it is Being Killed
Go to any university in Australia today and you will be confronted with what I was. “We only teach Contemporary Art here”, “you will need to be ready to change and be confronted”, “how do you handle critical comments of your work?”. Nobody said anything about being confronted by preparing to learn and train with dedication, the basics of how to produce fine art. I would have liked to heard things like “are you ready to research, learn the history and development of art and how to apply it to YOUR methods and style?” or “we will teach you about the basics through to involved technical concepts of fine art production”.
What I also heard was, critical assessment by your peers, self guided training and very little detailed involvement and teaching of methods and materials from mentors and teachers.
There is a whole industry based around the concepts of Contemporary being the art of today, even though many of the methods in use are now from the last century, IE: 20th Century. Start digging into where it starts, where the money is, and who supports it and we see a type of “cartel” that dismisses anything that doesn’t fall within their genré as passé, naive, irrelevant or amateur and as such not worthy of their attention or a place in the “big end of town” art world.
Suggested reading or research about this could be:
- “Art as Therapy” Alain de Botton (book)
- “Why Modern Art is So Bad” Robert Florczak (video)
Why is Classical Training Important?
I have questioned graduates from Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees about their work. The lack of basic knowledge was very disturbing. The evidence was in each painting, sculpture or drawing I investigated. The responses or lack of them from the people who produced them, was what told me a lot.
I will give some examples:
- Question: “Tell me about your process of planning a painting” Answer: “I don’t have one”.
- Question: “Do you have a set palette, or plan one for each work?” Answer “I just grab colours and slap them on and most of the paint ends up on the floor, and do that until I give up”
- Question: “Do you do any drawing, life drawing or observational painting?” Answer: “No, I can’t draw, I just paint”
- Question: “Do you have subjects that you like to paint?” Answer: “Not really, I just paint whatever I feel like, or do things that I think will shock or confront people”
- Question: “Do you plan a body of work, or series?” Answer: “No, not much, I just go in and start painting to see what happens, if it’s crap it doesn’t matter, after all what’s crap anyway?”
- Question: “Do you paint with a market or buyer/audience in mind?” Answer: “No, I just make what I want”
Even abstract paintings have ways of being done that make them work. Balance, composition, colour theory all work together to make them interesting, inciting to the viewer, asking them to investigate and roam around the piece to see what they can find in them. All the things that make a painting or drawing work, come from understanding the basics, how colours relate to each other, why certain colours shouldn’t be put in a painting together, how good composition guides the eye around a work and helps the viewer to enjoy the experience. A good artwork RELATES to the viewer in some way – they connect. They make you linger in front of them, they make you want to have them as a part of your life. They invite you to want to have a personal relationship of some form with the artist. That is why we often hear “oh I love that person’s work” or “they are amazing”. The vehicle of the art has connected the art lover to the artist.
What is the Trend for the Future?
At the moment, like some others I do not hold out much hope for a wholesale or major return to traditional teaching or promotion of anything other than contemporary art. There is a tiny movement starting in parts of the united States and Europe, but this may take years. Meanwhile the attention, teaching and pubic money is mostly going to the “Contemporary”. Those artists that wish to have formal training must go outside of the government run institutions as I have.
I have heard from reliable sources that the standing of Australia and it’s universities is falling in the eyes of potential overseas students and their teachers. Our arts training is seen as something to be left alone in preference for the better alternatives in other countries. My personal decision as I can’t afford to move, is to obtain the qualification from an Australian University and at the same time, gain the knowledge and skills from overseas and Australian respected and highly qualified artists and tutors who will help me to build up a successful and professional arts practice.
Making your art relevant in the 21st Century and marketable, especially in the higher end of the market is getting difficult to see clearly. This is something I don’t get. We still go to see plays and operas produced in the last 200 years, we still listen to music based in last 50 or more years and produce it, we still build buildings with classical architectural elements. We also go in thousands to see the works of artists from the Renaissance on. We may give them a new perspective, or a slightly more modern feel but when we go to see a performance of Fiddler on the Roof for example, it is still Fiddler on the Roof even if the stage props are a bit more modern. We don’t throw out as irrelevant or passé, creative masterpieces, we keep them and reinvigorate them, we introduce them to a new generation.
My hope is that in my lifetime, we will start to bring back what we have lost. An appreciation of and return to teaching the basics, understanding of the involved and technical information that an artist needs to create great art, art that stands the test of time and shows the professional heritage of the masters of the past. I hope, but I do not expect.