The Art Education Problem (1994)



 If we are looking today for a general level of art of serious purpose, art with profound content supported by significant aesthetics, we will not find it. Contemporary art has failed.


 If we are satisfied with superficial, artificial art that manipulates aesthetics for empty abstract, decorative effects or formularistic "realism" of various kinds, then we truly live in a "golden" artistic age...for this kind of art is everywhere.


 The degree of present-day artistic collapse, compared to the height of past artistic achievement, can be seen in the velocity and extent of precipitous decline during the 20th Century, increasing since World War II.


 In the 19th Century, Van Gogh made stirring color statements of landscape and human destiny; Cezanne timeless still-lifes exploring the spiritual meaning and expressive importance of density of form -- all painted from deeply-felt visual observation of nature and reality.


 In our time, artists mechanically -- and temporarily -- scribe lines on museum walls, spread debris on museum floors (perhaps it is merciful that such works are not preserved for posterity), and make metal video robots that may wonderfully tell us how dehumanized we have become, but offer no suggestions on how to reverse the process.


 Van Gogh and Cezanne will last as great artists, as will Monet, Renoir, Degas, Lautrec, and others of the relatively recent past, because they had something serious and important to say, and said it extremely well. Most contemporary artists will not last because they express the superficiality and artifice of the age, unable to tap deeper reservoirs of human feeling and experience.


 We lost our connection with principle and enduring greatness in art (and life), when we lost connection with nature and with our own spiritual, poetic, artistic dimension. We lost connection with each other and with ourselves when we were overwhelmed by technology and the forces of societal and personal dehumanization. Our values -- artistic, spiritual, societal -- are in disarray. One aspect of this tragedy is that many don't even realize what happened to us and our art.


 We hope for better things, more understanding, insight and integrity from future generations. But, unfortunately, the future continues to be corrupted by the present and recent past.


 Young, would-be artists are subjected to the stale, dead, often perverse contemporary art ideas propagated by too many teachers of the day. Too many college and art school professors have lost their own way as artists, have little idea what genuine art is, and mindlessly espouse the distorted values, the fashionable cliches of contemporary art...


 ...depersonalized design without character; theoretical, esoteric color and drawing; ritual gesture and mechanical relationships; meaningless formulas devoid of significant connection to the deepest thoughts and feelings of student-artists, unrelated to the meaning of life or to the visual and emotional reality of the world.


 Too many art school graduates are ill-equipped to see the "art" in everyday life as did great artists of past centuries. They don't have the knowledge, insight or drawing and painting skills to create art from reality, to significantly translate their experience of life into art.


 They have not been taught to dig deeply within themselves, to ask what they really need from art to fulfill themselves as artists and human beings, then use that awareness to excavate the raw material of the world. As far as they know, art is a closed narcissistic circle that does not include other human beings or the world. Art is aesthetic masturbation without communication.


 Tragically, most young artists don't realize they are clones of limited teaching unless they have an instinctive reaction, a sense that something isn't right even if they can't put it into words. How can most students tell a cliche from a timeless principle? It takes time and effort to earn that understanding. Or, if finally fed up with this educational process, they may react like the outraged college student who threw a wadded drawing in the face of the instructor who, when asked for help in drawing still-life ellipses, replied, "We don't worry about ellipses around here."


 How many students give up in the face of non-information, disinformation and sometimes outright hostility from their teachers? A certain college art department could not understand why they had so few students, why their numbers were declining yearly. The answer was clear. The art professors were bitingly critical. Most of us would agree that such an attitude is not teaching, anymore than the passing on of degraded and degrading art fashions. To teach is to support the students, give them solid skills, do everything possible to awaken them to timeless art principles, the miracle of art, fill them with a passion for art they can build on for a lifetime.


 There are obviously good art teachers. But the general impression of the college and university art educational system, based on the art produced by both students and faculty (like contemporary art itself) is decay.


 Young artists need to be taught organic, vital, biting, powerful, personal drawing and painting. They need to draw and paint rutted cabbages, twisted tree roots, muscled forearms, aged heads, rocks, onions, rotten apples, cow pelvises and a hundred other things, and do it with character and strength. They need this more than they need the slick, clever, unfelt line and shape, the commercial swish and stain of brushwork unrelated to any reality, that are hallmarks of contemporary draughtsmanship and painting.


 They need to be taught to see, to study an object so intensely they become one with it; the forms, color and character of reality and the world revealed to them. They must be given the aesthetic means to significantly express these timeless truths, each young artist responding in their unique way.


 We will remain rootless as artists and art lovers if we thoughtlessly continue trying to build upon the insubstantial aesthetic mannerisms of contemporary art. We need to rediscover the foundational principles of great art when it was still in touch with life, not to copy past styles, but to learn from genuine artists, be inspired by their example, commit ourselves to the search for styles, forms and subjects expressive of our own time and worthy of our humanity, now and for centuries to come. This is what the great artists of the past did.


 The only way to build an artistic bridge to the future is to re-construct our link with the past that was destroyed by the pain, passions and corruptions of the 20th Century. Obviously, artists should do what they feel they must do, but almost anything else will result in a continuation of the present empty aesthetic floundering.


 The rediscovery of the world and foundational principles in art involves as daring and revolutionary a search for the very nature of art and life as the Renaissance discovery of the world after a thousand years of medievalism. There is nothing more innovative and difficult that any of us have ever faced. But we need to do it...for art, for ourselves, for our self-respect, and for future generations of mankind.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms