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The Education of Painters
originally written for my Artweek
column Art and History,
Spring 1990


There was a conference, The Education of Painters: A Symposium, sponsored by the Alliance of Independent Colleges of Art (AICA) in its New York Studio a couple of weeks ago.  About 75 artist teachers from thirty eight art schools and departments talked with New York critics and dealers, historians and philosophers about what we (I was one of the artist teachers) teach in relation to what the New York art world thinks we should.

There was a keynote address by Robert Storr, panel discussions with Paula Cooper, Donald Kuspit, Richard Martin, Arthur Danto, Carter Ratcliff and Roberta Smith. There were “Working Groups” meeting in nearby artist studios to hassel issues like “The acquisition and value of studio skills,” “Should students be encouraged or discouraged from studying contemporary theory?” and “Has painting been upstaged by the political?” followed by a reception at the Holly Solomon Gallery, and a summing up. The following is a collage of what I remember of what people said.

Robert Storr spoke of the Academy as an avant garde movement begun 400 years ago by the Caracci brothers when they were Young Turks in their 20's... nowadays, it has become the captive of, but may be breaking away from, the conception of art history as a history of formal innovation. He said the new Academy should teach a history of institutions in their socio/economic/cultural setting; a history of painters where you would read what they read and wrote, discovering thereby from their own words that each artist had an intellectual, social, sexual and political life; a history of criticism, of aesthetics and ideas which would reach far out into the other humanistic disciplines; and a history of how art education has been done in other societies, and what it means about their conceptions of artists' social roles in contrast and/or confirmation to ours. Storr emphasized especially how the Feminist impact on art history has led to the reevaluation of art history's structure, content and place in the curriculum. Particularly, how Feminism re opened the received history of modernism with so many new artists and ideas, how that re-opening let in so much more that is not from the Feminist perspective, and how the resulting new vision and use of modernism is Post Modernism.

Of the traditional uses of the formalist art history, he mentioned its tendency to look at art history as “cause and effect;” he remarked of Marxist and much deconstructionist criticism, that “Thou shalt not commit social sciences,” and that “so many artists have made themselves stupid by talking smartly in imitation of their professors who took Lacan’s jokes for truths,” and that “Language is power, the power to name.”  He said that painters “have been dispossessed from their history; it is time to repossess it.”  He spoke of professionalism, that “to be worldly is to take the world seriously, but not to bore or bully;” and he spoke of “marginalization...that it's not so bad, you're not boxed in the way you are in the middle.”

Someone asked Paula Cooper what students need to know for the art world to come. She said she did not know, except that “It will be a greatly different world in 5-10 years, because we are living through the end of the Great American Empire... and when America is no longer the greatest empire, American art will no longer be what it has been.”

Donald Kuspit spoke of Duchamp's distinction between the physicality of paint and painting's recreation of ideas. He said that Duchamp's emphasis on ideas over physicality might derive from his psychopathology about sexuality and touch. Kuspit then spoke of the contemporary critics who denigrate the substance of painting in favor of the artist’s “ideas,” that “Those critics don't like the sensual dimension of painting, but, that’s their hang up.” As for Kuspit, he’s into the “Dionysian surface."

Kuspit spoke of education, too, using Howard Gardiner's distinction between the Chinese style of “approved creativity” in the training of artists by copying models, “and the Western style of ‘revolutionary creativity’ where you take them very young and tell them to do something new and original when they know neither what has been done in the past nor how to do anything now.” The example he gave was Eric Fischl who had told him, “I don't know how to paint.  At Cal Arts my instruction in painting consisted in my throwing something off the balcony into a pool of paint... the splash marks were the originality.” Kuspit went on to say that what we need in art education now is the acceptance of the need for skills based on known masterpieces “a broad, horizontal, non-hierarchical range of great works of drawing and composition used the way Michelangelo copied a Giotto. We need to teach students how to be influenced... We are at the end of the Nietzchean road of the artist as a solitary Superman; ‘education’ means to ‘lead forward.’ Learning tradition and skills requires patience and apprenticeship, requires a change in the developmental model of the artist, requires a model in the older mode of early, middle, late instead of our present quick sprint to breakthrough, seven years of glory, followed by a lifetime of oblivion.”

Arthur Danto wondered how the New York art world of 1990 will look, art historically, a hundred years hence, the way you can look at Paris in 1890. He said that he thought New York City is now art historically undistinguished and uninteresting. “This year had no special moment or location in a historical narrative, but it was an extraordinary season with some marvelous, interesting shows.” He mentioned exhibitions of Rockburn, Bartlett, Sherman and Tansey.

Danto talked about the pluralism of the present and “the history of art criticism as the search for essentials and the history of intolerance,” that pluralism makes “essentializing notions of art untenable,” and so, there may be (and is) “distinguished work in a time that has no essential distinction of its own.”

As the days of the symposium passed, we all talked in the imperial capital in what might be its late days. I remembered twenty years ago when I stood on the processional steps in the imperial palace of Persepolis in Iran. On the sides of the steps were carvings of all the peoples of the empire of Cyrus, Xerxes, and Darius. They carried gifts to the Emperor from their distant homelands. All of us at The Education of Painters: A Symposium brought gifts from the homelands of our experience as artists and teachers. We brought them as tribute to lay up in a storehouse as at Persepolis, brought tribute to the Emperor Painting who dwells in the Persepolis of the art of our time.

Detail from the procession at Persepolis, before 4th C. bce.