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20 October 2019

Dr Great Art Podcast Episode 56: Academicism in Art

Dr Great Art podcast, Episode 56: Academicism in Art. An 'academicist' in the arts is someone who over-idealizes the art academy; one who follows the precepts taught there and insists others do so as well. Here is a short history of academicism and thoughts about the problem now.
#arthistory #academicism #postmodernism


Academicism in Art

Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the 56th "Dr Great Art" brief podcast. I hope you enjoy it and come back for each and every one.

Today my Artecdote concerns Academicism in Art.

Since the pejorative use of the words 'academy' and 'academicism' have and will continuously pop up in my discussions and podcasts, I would like to lay the source of this clearly out in the open, since it has come to my attention in recent discussions with other artists that many weren't certain of what the words referred to. Pedagogic Dr Great Art presents here a work of history. Any resemblance to persons dead or living is purely intentional.

First, let me separate the words 'academic' from 'academicist'! At least at their best, an academic is simply someone who has studied a subject deeply. A person who holds advanced degrees, such as a PhD, and often works as a professor or researcher at a university or other scholarly institution. A scholar.

An 'academicist,' on the other hand, in the arts, is someone who over-idealizes, worships, the art academy. Someone who follows the precepts taught there and insists others --- artists, critics, etc. --- do so as well. Thus, they are conformists or conventionalists in art, literature, etc., usually pedantic in relationship to form and content, generally while proclaiming themselves to be precisely the opposite. The added '-ist' suffix makes a huge difference.

This is a major problem right now once again in Postmodernism, as in most weak, transition periods.

A little history. 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 and eminently readable book Lives of the the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. It is a gossipy, rambling collection of anecdotes concerning creators. Vasari himself was a very good architect, draughtsman and more, yet an exceedingly uneven 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 artists, St. Luke, was founded somewhat later in Rome. The Accademia di San Luca was mostly 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, yes this is historical sexism) "who were gentlemen practicing a liberal art" from "mere" craftsmen, who were engaged in manual labor. This began the historical antagonism academies have had to autodidactic creators and their accompanying disdain for technique and preference for verbal validation.

As an intellectual myself, I am thankful to Michelangelo and most of all Leonardo who made room for artists such as me. HOWEVER, not ALL artists need be so and it cannot be forced.

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" (boʊˈzɑːr), from which is derived the English term "fine arts."

The painter Charles Le Brun (le bron) (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 'academicist' in modern art and art history. When one wishes to compliment a knowledgeable academic, a 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.

Artists NEED to learn. From one another and from great teachers. Ones who help them discover themselves, not memorized rules or styles. Thinking only of success, not content or value or truth, is called sophistry. A real desire to learn is the opposite of that. Thus I support and applaud innovative art schools and programs and teachers, as well as the teaching of the basics of technique, creative thought processes, art history and philosophy. But not sophistry or rules.

In the academies, certain so-called "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. (Think: art fair.) 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 academicist elite, with patronage and even with the state.

Academicist 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). Academicist 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 even 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 1840s -1860s, the Impressionists, Realists and a few other artists concluded that academicist 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 academicist artworld, over which they eventually triumphed. It goes without saying that women were largely ignored by all, but Academicists most of all.

How does this apply to us now? I discussed this somewhat way back in Dr Great Art podcast number 9, "Mannerism is Now." Yes, we are in a manneristic, academicist, transitional cultural period, in Postmodernism. I could also have called that podcast "Academicism is Now." Most artists now come from Art Academies, Universities or Hochschulen., where they are taught to disrespect ability and technique and over-respect elaborate explanations. Yet only a tiny percent are actually intellectuals. Most become "Schwätzer" / "blatherers" and eventually give up art altogether after producing bodies of Late Minimalist Neo-Conceptual or Bad Painting clichés.

Academicism was overthrown by Modernism. The Modernists rejected memorized rules, sought an aggressive purposefulness, a vigorous independence. Artists made works that were more individual, less abstruse, more corporeal, even more playful. And they did it by uniting into mutually supportive groups, and by taking themselves and their creations seriously, NOT just their "careers." At least until the end of Modernism as the hegemonic notion, circa 1979. Shortly before that, Late Modernism had become an "almost Academy." Postmodernism after 1985 fully reified this, becoming INDEED a New Academicism. Thus, we now need to rethink — and openly discuss — the invention of fresh artistic techniques, to re-examine the "problems of the artist" with critical eyes and minds: composition, context, presentation, subject matter, content, surface, facture, most of all perhaps societal connection — in short every element of artistic creation.

That was Academicism in Art.

Thanks for listening. Podcast number 56. If you wish to hear more cool, exciting and hopefully inspiring stuff about art history and art, come back for more. Also I, Dr Mark Staff Brandl, artist and art historian, am available for live custom Performance-Lectures. In English und auf Deutsch, with Performance-Paintings!

I take viewers inside visual art and art history. Entertainingly, yet educationally and aesthetically, I analyze, underline, and discuss the reasons why a work of art is remarkable, or I go through entire eras, or indeed through the entirety of art history, or look at your desired theme through the lens of art history. The lectures often take place with painted background screens and even in my painting-installations.

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