Panorama view of exhibition in Jedlitschka Gallery, Zurich.

Panorama view of exhibition in Jedlitschka Gallery, Zurich.

10 November 2013

The Academy; Academicism in Art Now

Originally published July 4, 2006


Since the pejorative use of the words academy and academic (and most accurate academicist) will continuously pop up in our Shark attacks,, in particular in mine, this lapsed art historian would like to lay the source of these terms clearly out in the open, since it has come to my attention in recent discussions with other artists that many weren't certain as to what the words referred. Pedagogic Mark presents a work of history. Any resemblance to persons dead or living is purely intentional.



The first Academy of Art, called the Accademia del Disegno, was founded in Florence in Italy in 1562 by Giorgio Vasari . Vasari is the founding father of art history due to his monumental Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, a gossipy, rambling collection of anecdotes concerning creators. Vasari himself was an exceedingly mediocre painter, very much in the heart of Mannerism with his attempts to glean the "best" devices from each of the Renaissance masters and combine them into an artificial whole, with the heaviest weight of his hero-worship resting on Michelangelo. At this academy, students studied the "arti del disegno", a term coined by Vasari. This included lectures on anatomy, geometry and an emphasis on piecing together derivative aspects of technique. Disegno, originally meant drawing, but came to include the concept of plan or composition, as the idea the artist had in mind before beginning to carve or paint a work. It later offered the source for our modern term design.

Another academy, the Accademia di San Luca, named after the patron saint of painters, St. Luke, was founded somewhat later in Rome. The Accademia di San Luca was most concerned with art theory, perhaps the first such institution in the world. It, and many later academies, were founded in an effort to make, or create, a position for artists as men (sic, historical sexism) "who were gentlemen practicing a liberal art" as distinguished from "mere" craftsmen, who were engaged in manual labor. This began the historical antagonism academies have had to autodidactic creators and the academies' accompanying disdain for technique and preference for verbal validation.

The Accademia di San Luca later served as the model for the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture founded in France in 1648. The French Academy used their own notion of the term "arti del disegno," calling it the "beaux arts", from which is derived the English term "fine arts."

The painter Charles LeBrun (1619-1690) is the most (in)famous Academician. He was the director of the French Academy. Le Brun saw himself as painter, theorist, arbiter of taste and school director. He was the dominant artist in 17th century France, due to his position of power, not to any inventiveness of his art, which it thoroughly lacked. All that was done in the royal palaces, all important public commissions, were directed and controlled by Le Brun. He was the virtual dictator of the arts in France. From this situation comes the standard pejorative use of the term "academic" in modern art and art history. When one wishes to compliment a knowledgeable scholastic researcher or professor nowadays, the replacement term is usually that of scholar.

Typical for any academy, in the French Academy works of art were examined according to established, systematized categories which students had to memorize. Famous painters were even "graded" from 0 to 80 according to how well they "performed" in composition, drawing, color, and expression. Drawing was held to be superior to color; color was seen as simply an addition to drawing. Drawing, it was claimed, appealed to the mind, color appealed to the "inferior senses." A frequent illness of every academy has been the disdain of sensuality in favor of a rather middlebrow conception of intellectuality.

In the academies, certain " classical" art models were identified and enforced as prototypes artists had to study and emulate if they wished to succeed. A successful showing at the salon, the huge, florid exhibitions organized by the Academy, was a seal of approval for an artist, making his work saleable to collectors and giving the artist the chance to be considered for public commissions. William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Léon Gérôme were the leading figures of this academic art world. Style, and ideology, thereby became closely associated with the ruling academic elite, with patronage and even with the state.

Academic art, in whatever form, has thus inevitably come to be linked with the power-structure and the power-relations of society and its artworld(s). Academic art contains a hardly veiled regulation of values, usually having some relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power, even if only within the artworld, yet this may reach into the educational system and government, especially as younger academicians are usually recruited from the ruling classes.

French academic art enforced the production of large paintings called "grande machines" which were manufactured of mock emotion through collaged, patchworks of memorized clichés, contrivances and strategies, all derived from a prescribed list of possibilities.

During the 1860s, the Impressionists, Realists and a few other artists concluded that academic art was formulaic and artificial. The Modernists, as they came to be called, were innovative in their subject matter and painting techniques, often using forms and choosing subject matter which were considered trivial or degenerate by the Academy. Juries, dominated by Academicians, inevitably rejected the artists' paintings and sculpture. These artists thought that if their work was exhibited well, it would gain acceptance. They sought favorable viewing conditions by creating their own exhibitions, seeking out their own critics, in short creating their own alternative to the academic artworld, over which they eventually triumphed.

Special thanks to Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, the source of much information on the academy.

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