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.