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31 December 2009


If the end of the year, or the beginning of another, is a typical time to take stock and make resolutions, how much more so is that true on the cusp of a new decade? Being both an artist and an architect, and a classicist in each case, I’m aware of what’s happening in these two related (yet so distant today) disciplines. And, this being a blog, it is an opportunity to make statements of a loosely substantiated nature unwelcome elsewhere. What I’ll address, then, is the state of education in art and architecture for those pursuing classicism, and where the practice of each seems to be headed as we leave MMIX.

Starting positively, there is an abundance of art schools and ateliers teaching in the realist tradition (wiki realist ateliers). This is an unqualified good thing, even if I wish there were more (any?) places teaching real classicism. I’ve said elsewhere that “classical realism” is an oxymoron, and while many realist schools teach the drawing of classical casts, they mostly do not impart the knowledge necessary to invent new work in the classical tradition. In any case, I believe this decade will see realist artists recapturing the field from so-called conceptual art. We can thank heaven, therefore, for a whole new generation of artists who can actually represent, but for a true renaissance of classical art we’ll need the architects to step up and recover the figurative arts as integral parts of classical buildings, since it was always “history painting,” and especially large scale mural work, that defined the aspirations of classical artists.

This, though, is where the problem is. The teaching of classical architects is effectively confined to two institutions, the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame (where I teach) and the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA); while the latter’s regional branches mimic something of the spontaneous generation of the artists’ ateliers, there is in architecture less of a clear focus on which skills to acquire. Supply and demand thinking suggests the two centers of classical training represent all the market will bear. And perhaps the artists have it easier in seeking simply to recover the skills of representation (something architects, in a certain sense, take for granted, since all architectural drawing is by nature representational); but since artists are also interested in beauty, their acquisition of skills is held to a higher standard than the mere competency with which architects are too often satisfied.

Why are architects aspiring less highly, or fewer are seeking classical training, than the artists? Here’s a controversial speculation: art, by nature, is aspirational—it seeks some notion (whether personal or “classical”) of the best, and it is probably true that most young people labeled “creative” have some natural proclivity for representational drawing. Architecture, on the other hand, is practical: it satisfies itself with sufficient beauty, enough to do the job, and a building has many other jobs to do. Architects make lots of excuses for their mediocrity—clients, the building trades, building codes, the economy—whereas artists can only blame themselves. Thus, artists more often seek to improve themselves, whereas architects congratulate themselves with what, in the Warholian sense, they can get away with.

Two final observations, then: if artists really want to match the Old Masters, they can not satisfy themselves with mere representation, but must know both classical architecture and the invention of the idealized figure; and if architects want to catch up with artists who are transforming our visual culture in ways yet to be fully appreciated, they need to think of themselves as artists, as pursuers of real beauty.

Buon Anno

04 December 2009

On Reading History

I’ve found more often than not lately that the new books on art history I pick up wind up being an awful slog to get through—generally because the author has some sort of big, unwieldy axe to grind, or else too narrow a wheel to grind it on. I won’t name names, in part because they are each merely symptomatic of a growing, relentless trend, fueled by the ever-narrowing focus that the field encourages in its scholars, and by scholars without the generosity of spirit once the hallmark of the humanities. I’ve taken, as an antidote, to picking up copies of older scholarship, written by humanist historians who were also truly authors (today, instead, we have scholars who can not write counterbalanced by popularizing disseminators of history who are not scholars).

The reason all this matters a wit to anyone interested in the contemporary renaissance is that we depend absolutely on historians for what we know of the great artists of the past (the artists being long gone, and generally inarticulate in anything other than their visual medium). As historical writing in the arts becomes more and more unreadable, where are young aspiring artists interested in the Old Masters going to find new scholarship to fire their inspiration? It may be, in fact, they must read the same authors I read when I got started a quarter century ago— Ackerman, Blunt, Coffin, Hibbard, Lavin, Levey, Millon, Panofsky, Penny, Rykwert, Shearman, Wind, and Wittkower—since their writing makes their ideas (even if in some cases superceded by more recent research) infinitely more vital, alive, and compelling. The intervening generation of scholars, who bear a portion of the blame for the opacity of their students’ writing, are themselves excellent, and these include Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall, Joseph Connors, and John Pinto. Many more recent writers seem to celebrate the gulf between themselves and their subjects of study, and if it was the rare historian who actually practiced the art they studied, they at least benefited from the rudimentary instruction in drawing that once formed part of a decent general education. Which is why someone like Rudolph Wittkower could write so credibly and economically about the artistic hand of a Bernini or Baciccio, but so many recent authors cannot.

What we will perhaps see, if we are lucky, in the coming years is knowledgeable artists and architects who have recovered the practice of classical forms writing insightful analyses of the work of the Old Masters. To be credible, these future authors need to be informed about scholarship of the last half century, and if there is a weakness in the current revival of interest in the human figure and the classical orders, it is that the practitioners seem mired in nineteenth century historiography, or suspicious of history and historians generally.

What we lack, therefore, are scholarly artists and artistically-minded historians. No doubt there is a cause and effect dynamic in play here; and if both or either is to be corrected, a recovery of the mind and manner of an Erwin Panofsky would be a welcome thing indeed.