Studying Representational Art is Weird

Hiya Waypoint! Long post ahead. I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot so I got many much words.

I recently decided to take some time off from grad school for a bajillion reasons, one of them being a weird conflict I’ve seen in every art program I’ve been in, but one that is particularly overwhelming in the grad school I’ve been attending. I study representational art, but more specifically I’m interested in classical art.

I don’t know how familiar people are with this weird corner in fine arts so maybe some context and definitions are needed? Skip this paragraph and the next if not. Classical art has a bunch of definitions, art historians might be referencing the classical period, or specifically greek and roman sculpture, but more commonly it refers to western fine art (and some decorative art) from the greeks up through the 1800s and anything bearing a resemblance. It’s a broad and bad usage and I hate it, but that’s what I’m talking about here. Representational art is used to describe any art that is trying to depict an aspect of reality and that term becomes useful when you have Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock sitting at the same table.

Ok so the canon of representational art is mostly classical art. Historically in the west, if you wanted to learn the trade, you either apprenticed to a master and worked in their workshop or later you’d go to one of the many academies in Europe. It seems like much of the training was by mentorship by word of mouth and experience and the highly idiomatic styles of classical workshops/schools suggest each had very defined methodology. This is pretty standard trade stuff, but unlike say in classical music where there’s oodles of surviving literature and theory, there isn’t a whole lot of useful technical documentation from those days for visual art (There’s like an entire subset of representational art based on one surviving technical manual from the french academy, and it’s weird). So with the one two punch of photography and modernism, representational art in the historical sense lost its place in academic institutions, and that educational through line was largely severed, with parts of the remaining technical information propagated in other visual fields.

With that out of the way here’s some stuff I think.
1: Historically, a lot of people were really good at drawing and painting stuff and had a more holistic understanding of design as a result of the training they received.
2: The historical usage of representational art as a tool of hegemonic power places it directly at odds with postmodern discourse endemic to academic institutions. This isn’t to say that I think the two are fundamentally incompatible, just that the scenario has placed them against each other.

I would go deeper here, but this post is gonna be long, and I wanna get to the stuff I wanna get to. If anyone wants to talk about those claims more we can. I’m just gonna say that nearly every art student I’ve seen comes in with a technical goal in mind and compromises that goal by the time they leave to better suit the discourse.

Maybe that process would be ok in a different market? But the fine art market demands a certain amount of self-flagellation from representational artists for associating with a historically problematic aesthetic, and the compromise that many artists reach is either blandness as to not offend anyone or tactical ugliness to make sure that they’re not deifying the aesthetic. This is all to serve a self conscious elite, who want to recognize high skill as monetarily valuable, but don’t want to be seen as perpetuating a historical power dynamic. Ironically I feel this harms everyone involved. Without the technical knowledge and ability to make their aesthetic decisions robust, people inevitably fall back on their personal experience as a shield from criticism, regardless of the aesthetic product they purport to reach from that experience. Without a legible aesthetic, viewers unfamiliar with the history are excluded, and that exclusion isn’t framed in the classist terms it’s actually occurring in but instead on an interpersonal level. A viewer who doesn’t understand a contemporary piece supposedly doesn’t understand the artist’s soul, or has faulty empathy. That’s trash, but it’s the narrative of so much high art, and it leads people to totally disengage.

I want to be clear that I don’t think abstract art is bad or that all contemporary representational work is bad, but I lament how little of it is legible or attractive to the public. Maybe I just need to come to terms with the idea that not all media has to be for everyone, but it makes me really wonder what the point of having a graduate level institution for representational art is.

Representational art is like Divekick. The rules are surface-level which means you get quick access to the meta. This isn’t to say that playing Divekick well is easy, just that the surface is not opaque and you can more easily recognize the decisions players are making on a higher level. Representational art’s strength is its legibility. We are so intimately familiar with our bodies and our vision that we need hardly any context to engage with a depiction of reality, so the barrier for aesthetic development and personal voice is far lower. The artist and the viewer are already equipped to understand deviations and decision making, even subconsciously. You don’t need to reinvent anything to communicate! < not bitter

So often it seems to me like Representational art wants to be less Divekick and more King of Fighters. As if more rules made it a more important game. I think the urge to do this comes from institutional pressure to push representational art further into abstraction to appease the market as well as a lack of understanding historical methods that solve for a lot of basic technical issues.

One of those things needs to give, and for me anyways I think it’s the responsibility of universities and academies to at least provide a higher baseline of training before throwing artists into the discourse. But one step further, how is representational art supposed to move forward if institutions that are supposed to be the cutting edge aren’t developing technical theory? A thesis paper at this school can be a short story, a treatise on soup or a thematic investigation in the works of Shakespeare. It’s just sort of a given that it isn’t going to be a thorough exploration of how Art Nouveau used composition, or something contrasting the gothic design form style against the pre-Raphaelites or whatever. Like, that stuff sounds dry, but practical knowledge is not extant, it needs research from a technical perspective.

In the meantime, there are so many weird things that come out of this scenario. There’s people who literally think alchemy is the solution to make paintings look good, there’s a set of schools based exclusively on a technique developed in the late 1800s to mimic cameras, there’s painters who set up entire scenes in 3d modeling software and then paint those scenes down to the pixels.

Maybe Divekick is a bad example because Divekick doesn’t have an ancient manual that said god was in the correct ratio of diving to kicking.

Anyways, cheers if you made it through! If anyone has thoughts on this I really wanna hear.


I feel like you have conflated the general public and the art market, though by public you might have meant the fine art market. While it might be hard to move representational art in the fine art market, the general public eats that shit up. At least that’s been my experience as an artist and an artist’s assistant. You have to remember that the general public doesn’t have any idea of the historical connotations of representational art. They don’t know anything of the conversation that is art. The fact that they can even get a read because the barrier to entry to a representational work is lower is important for the general public. Though they won’t pay as much so you have to rely on producing a soul sucking amount of volume.

As for your main point about academia. While a Fine Arts program might not focus as much on the technical skill of representational art, it is not like those skills are not present in academia at all. These skills have found new homes where they have been continually improved. Programs such as medical illustration and technical illustration. There are programs that involve these skills too, like architecture, design, and even fashion. Drafting and rendering are still important skills. That might all just be drawing, but you can combine those skills with the ones you do learn in a fine arts program to get the results you want. However, having never been trained in academia, I can not really comment on what a fine arts program thinks of all of that.

I hope I don’t come off as confrontational. That is not at all my intended tone. I was just trying to add my perspective since it comes from a different position than yours.


I didn’t get a confrontational vibe at all, no worries. I think I probably didn’t explain myself super well, I pretty much agree with everything you said. The frustration for me comes from the fine arts market and the general public not being aligned, and I was trying to describe the way in which school seems to perpetuate that problem.

The only dispute I have is that because high level technical training isn’t consolidated, a student has to spend time in another discipline and that requires more resources and that sucks. Additionally if you learn a technique in a different discipline, the technique has likely been made hyper specific to that discipline, and it would take some documentation/research to extract the underlying logic and make it applicable in other fields, which is the kind of thing I think a grad school in representational art should be doing.

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It’s a shame that that’s where Fine Arts education is, especially since contemporary art’s lineage can be traced back to some modern artists who were classically trained in realism. At least that tradition isn’t wholly dead though, I have a friend who just graduated from the Florence Academy of Art. They are currently having difficulty navigating the misalignment between the art market and the general public.

It is a shame that art education is inadequate. I recognize that I was lucky enough to have the privilege to take AP Art History, but most people are lucky to even get art classes in high school. The priorities of public education haven’t changed much in the past sixty years.

Despite this, the real cause of the disconnect between every day people and the art market is the conflict between two facts: the separation between high art and low art eroding in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the inherent need of high art to have gate keepers and be inaccessible. High society needs to distance itself from the common people in order to maintain the identity of being high society. So it benefits the art market to maintain the misalignment between them and the general public. It’s what allows some artists to sell art for hundreds or thousands of dollars instead of tens of dollars. So it benefits academia to cater to the fine art market because it will attract more students and also wealthy donors. So several systems interact to continue pushing things in one direction and away from the general public.

This is at least my perspective, which is from an artist on the outside who mainly does art for the general public. I am primarily a printmaker and the conflict between high and low art is particularly relevant to my medium. I’d be interested in hearing the perspective of someone who has done actual academic study on this, more from yours (or anyone elses) perspective from experiencing academia, and from other artists of other backgrounds.

This was really interesting! I’m not in academia or from a fine arts background, but I’m freelancing + studying illustration at university rn. In my experience there’s a lot of emphasis placed on ~discovering your unique style~ which will, of course, just happen to be similar to the style of the prof that’s teaching you. And the attitude towards more realistic or representational art is a kind of “oh, well, i guess you can draw, but this isn’t as meaningful as it could be :(”

Which, hey! Not to sound bitter, and I have had instructors who were really helpful and constructive, but I’ve seen a lot of people burn out or become really underconfident because their natural style tends towards a more “realistic” look.

Without a legible aesthetic, viewers unfamiliar with the history are excluded, and that exclusion isn’t framed in the classist terms it’s actually occurring in but instead on an interpersonal level. A viewer who doesn’t understand a contemporary piece supposedly doesn’t understand the artist’s soul, or has faulty empathy. That’s trash, but it’s the narrative of so much high art, and it leads people to totally disengage.

I want to be clear that I don’t think abstract art is bad or that all contemporary representational work is bad, but I lament how little of it is legible or attractive to the public.

I think the divide between more abstract/obscure art vs easily legible art as a way of defining class is really important to note. It’s a way for people to create cultural artifacts, but then lock them out for anyone who isn’t willing or able to read a huge sidebar about ~the artist’s intentions~. And I just end up thinking about how Roy Lichtenstein ended up building a career out of ripping off comic artists’ work, without any meaningful changes to their compositions, and without crediting them or paying them royalties. Like, what is the line there that makes the original pencillers and inkers and colourists not be fine artists, but makes Lichtenstein be a fine artist? Someone can make a whole story using comic panels, and that’s not worthy of cultural significance, but taking one panel out and making it big is?

Anyway! I hope your academia stuff goes well, regardless of what you do with it later! Personally I’m too frightened by the concept of the Art Discourse to even think about doing that as a major part of my life, kudos on your bravery.

I get the feeling that that kind of orphaning of representational art is a regional thing and specifically a ‘western’ thing, as someone who lives in lithuania, a country that is in constant flux about where it wants to go in terms of our artistic output. In drawing classes we’re shown gorgeously lifelike charcoals by students and professors from russian academies as examples of what to strive for technically, but then every other professor harps on academic drawing so much that most people with a knack for it end up doing video installations or whatever for their bachelors thesis. it could be a bit of a generational thing I guess - the people at the helm of artistic education and cultural programs grew up in an academic environment that placed a huuuuge emphasis on representation, and it feels like kind of a backlash against that. maybe in 20 years there will be a big seing back, but most likely not.

and because there’s not a giant amount of theoretical/technical writing on those practices it kind of turns into an erosion of knowledge, since there is a sort of “passing-down” lineage to say, academic drawing. my professor drew like his professor, and his students draw kind of like him, but what happens if none of them have students of their own? idk.

hopefully I’m not rambling! this is a cool but complicated topic but I figured it’s better to contribute even if my thoughts are half-formed

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So this is interesting to me because in the U.S. it’s almost the opposite. The previous generation of representational artists who hold the higher spots in academia came up during a period where figurative fine art was highly stigmatized and deeply associated with fascism. It’s often the case that professors from that generation treat their subjects extra dogmatically because the knowledge that they latched onto over their education and careers ( however true or false that knowledge is ) was so hard won. It also pushes a lot of them to be elitist in a really gross way, I imagine because of how hard it was to claim legitimacy as a figurative artist in say the 80s.

In my opinion this already happened, and what’s being passed down now is largely half information and dogma. The Russian academies you mentioned are the grey area for me, cause they’re doing real legit work to raise the bar of technique, but hardly any of that knowledge is disseminating into the rest of the world, and I’m also sure a lot of that knowledge is couched in a historical fetishism that stifles a lot of creativity in students. Like repairing the situation is a really fine line to walk cause specializing in any way takes assumptions and the assumptions you make when studying classical stuff can cross into dogma really easily.

I guess all the postmodern discourse conflict I mentioned in that wall of text is really unfortunate, because postmodern discourse is exactly the thing you’d use to get your priorities straight. Like if you get students with Russian academy level training and a healthy amount of discourse, then you get really conscious artists who are intimate with their priorities and how to execute on them. Hypothetically.

I don’t think you’re rambling btw. If you’re rambling I shudder to think what my post would be called.

yeah, that for sure is the case wrt creativity. a lot of people with that kind of training end up being incredible concept artists but in terms of fine art there’s not really a lot of thoughtful stuff coming out of there.