Making/Teaching Art: A Case of Schizophrenia?
What the Universities Have Done to Painting
Leo Segedin | November 4, 2010 | Print this essay
I have been a maker of art - a painter - and a teacher of art - for over 60 years. I began as a professional artist in 1949 - when I was an MFA candidate at the University of Illinois - in an exhibition called ‘Artists of Central Illinois’. I won Second prize. I had my last gallery exhibition at the Byron Roche Gallery last year - and had a great show here at the Ronald Williams Library last November. I gave my first university art lecture in 1948 at the University of Illinois as an assistant instructor - and my last as a professor at Northeastern in 1987. I quit teaching to become a full time painter.
These, then, are my credentials for considering this question - was I a painter who taught - or a teacher who painted? Had I been some sort of professional schizophrenic during all those years? Did I suffer from ‘identity conflict issues’? At night, did I dream of department meeting agendas or unfinished canvases? Are there incompatible presumptions - irresolvable conflicts - between painting and the teaching of painting? Was it possible to work at both - to be good at both - without neglecting either? When I began teaching art all those years ago, it would never have occurred to me to ask such questions. I had no doubt that I was a painter who taught. What has happened in the history and teaching of Art since then that would create such uncertainty today? Rembrandt taught painting and I am sure he did not ask himself such questions; why am I?
I doubt that any serious painter starts out with the ambition to be a university art teacher, but - since most painters can’t make a living from the sale of their art work - many reluctantly end up teaching. Even during the late 1960s - when graduates of the Chicago Art Institute like the ‘Hairy Who’, were doing very well - only six percent of the Fine Arts majors who graduated from the Art Institute during that time were still supporting themselves in the Fine Arts 18 years after graduation. I know artists who became bartenders, construction workers and carpenters to keep their art separate from their income and others who depended on their parents or spouses for support, but among all possible kinds of employment, teaching art was the most natural and personally rewarding for an artist. At one time, it was also the most secure and lucrative.
Thus, there has been an often necessary connection between being an artist and being an art teacher, but - although there are successful artists who manage to maintain both careers - the conflicting demands of the professional art world and on a university art teacher can make it difficult to do so.
If tenured, of course, artist/teachers have financial security. With their pensions - even their old age is secure. But - equally important - as artist/teachers - they are also psychologically secure. They can paint whatever they want without fear of rejection. But - most destructive to a painter’s career - they don’t have to paint at all.
In addition to tenure - a university creates this sense of security by structuring a teacher’s life — classes, department meetings, office hours, deadlines for grades, reports, proposals, requests, syllabi…when and where he eats lunch. And if he takes his work home - it even structures his personal and social life.
Within this circumscribed environment, however, teaching art can be creative. It certainly is involving and - when students learn - very gratifying. In spite of its limitations, therefore - the danger for artists is that teaching becomes more fulfilling than the uncertain rewards of making paintings. Unless artists are determined to continue to paint in spite of the satisfactions of teaching - teaching art can become an end in itself. In fact, what often happens is that - since they must teach - artists become teachers who teach other artists - who become teachers. This creates a self-contained - self-fulfilling process, with uncertain connections to the profession for which this education was supposed to be preparation.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when such a conflict could not exist. One hundred years ago - painters taught painting - and there were no professors of painting - no university Art departments - no university art degrees. Even 60 years ago - university degrees were not required to teach painting. As late as 1948 - when I was a student at the University of Illinois - none of my painting professors had college painting degrees. They had been hired on the basis of their competence as artists - as were all art teachers ever since the first professional art academy in the United States was established in 1825.
In 1949, as an assistant instructor with a Batchelor of Fine Arts - given to me by degreeless professors - I was on the committee that gave one of them his BFA. In 1950, I was in the first class to receive an MFA in Painting at the U of I. Afterwards, most of my professors went back to college to earn art degrees. Now most artists and university art teachers have MFAs.
In 1948, the teaching of painting was the dominant function of a university art department. At the University of Illinois, the art studio teaching staff then consisted of 26 faculty members and - although not all of them taught painting - they all were practicing painters. That year, the first annual, national, contemporary American art exhibition was held at the university. It consisted entirely of paintings. I remember that as an assistant instructor - I was responsible for uncrating the paintings for the exhibition. I remember the reverence with which I handled those works of art. They were precious objects - they were ‘icons’ of the Fine Arts. Not even sculpture was shown in those exhibitions until 1953. But, following that year - the annual became bi-annual and, after 1974 - as painting lost its status in the art world - it was disbanded entirely. In 2008 - out of about 60 faculty members in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois - there were only eleven members of the painting department - and not all of them were painters in the traditional sense. Out of about 89 BFA graduates represented in that year’s exhibition catalog, - only eight were painters. That year, at the Whitney Bi-annual Exhibition of American Art in New York - no paintings were exhibited. It is ironic that Painting - which had been the dominant Fine Art in the Western world for over 300 years - finally gains status in universities - only to lose it in 30 years.
There are many explanations for painting’s loss of status in the art world and in university art departments. First, and foremost - if we accept the idea that the Arts - the media as we now call them - create our sense of cultural reality - then it is through popular film, video and computer images (let alone Ipods, Iphones, Droids, etc) that we now envisage our world. Painting and drawing as the primary means of representing this reality have been replaced by technological media. We tend to forget that one of the original justifications and functions of an Art department in a university was to give service courses in representational techniques for curricula elsewhere on the campus. Painting as a Fine art had low status - not only because it required manual skill - It also was not intellectual and had no practical function. Art department studio courses were justified - not because they developed professional artists - but because they taught drawing to future architects. Now - being computer literate has replaced proficiency in those skills.
In the art world outside the universities - by the 1960s — the enthusiasm for the last real painting - abstract expressionism - was waning. Artists - searching for new motivation - began to exploit popular media by appropriating it as legitimate subject matter. Not only did technological images become the subject matter of painted images in the work of Pop artists. Real objects joined technological images as part of such artworks. As a result, by the 70s - while Fine Art paintings themselves became multi-million dollar collectibles - the distinction between works of Fine Art, Popular art and everyday objects began to disappear.
At this same time, the art museum as a repository of great works of art was being co-opted by the idea that its function was public entertainment. To raise money - major art museums like the Art Institute - increased attendance by turning its traditionally ‘high brow’, quasi-religious aura into a popular attraction. Well-advertised Blockbuster exhibitions of the works of famous artists, historical periods and non-western cultures gave African Senufo fertility fetishes the same status as Picassos and Gauguins. Functional objects — pots and silverware - were exhibited with the same aesthetic aura as Fine Art paintings. In fact, any man-made object - regardless of its original function - became a work of Art in museum displays. Explanatory, printed texts on walls - audio on earphones - and video presentations — turned the most profound and subtle works of art into easily accessible information. And, in ever enlarging gift shops - on posters, T-shirts and shopping bags - they became - decoration.
Other factors contributed to painting’s loss of status. In the 1950s - in reaction to what was happening in the international art world - to developments in psychology - and to interest in the arts of non-Western cultures - the idea that art was ‘expression’ rather than the making of beautiful objects became dominant. The assumed meanings of an art object and the intention of the artist in making it became more important than what it looked like or how well-crafted it was. Because of the psychological, subconscious sources believed to underlie the making of art - the interpretation of painting became a basis for understanding personality - for diagnosing mental ills - for psychoanalysis and other psychological theories. Art as therapy became a new profession.
As a result, Art education in the elementary schools in the U.S. began to stress ‘creativity’ at the expense of drawing and design. Skill and technical discipline were no longer necessary because they were thought to inhibit the creative development of children. Divergent thinking, self expression and originality became its goals. Since all sincere creations were equally expressive, nobody could fail. Everybody won 1st prize. And since ‘process’ was more important than ‘product’ - ‘explore materials’ and ‘look, touch, feel’ became mantras in university art education classes. Anything could be materials for making art.
Art was not only good for the development of children - adults could also profit from it. Art became a leisure time activity - a means of relaxation - for stressed businessmen - it filled the time of retired elderly and was even assumed to contribute to the solution of inner city problems. What mattered was the emotional well being of its participants.
Since skill was not required, every American was a potential artist. According to a recent AARP article, all old people (over 55) are “untapped, unleashed geniuses”. To help them realize their full creative talents as citizens - they were, therefore, entitled to federal support. By the 1970s, Congressional representatives were promising that public art programs in their districts would receive government funding. NEA grants began to go to community centers with such programs rather than to professional artists. The distinction between professional artists and everyone else was disappearing.
But, I propose still another reason for the minimizing of painting in contemporary art exhibitions and art department curricula - one that is most important for understanding the contemporary relation between painting and the teaching of painting. It is very noticeable - but seldom acknowledged - that - as more artists earned MFAs and taught in university art departments - fewer paintings were produced and publicly exhibited. I will argue that the introduction of painting into university art curricula was ultimately one of the causes for painting’s demise.
After World War II, the GI Bill brought many American artists into colleges. Refugee European artists had already spread their new, often contradictory ideas about form, expression and the subconscious. By the late 40s, artists had integrated these ideas into primarily abstract-expressionist forms of painting. Because no one at the time was buying their work - not only were they free to create heroic myths about the self-expressive and spontaneous artist creating a new American Art. They soon were supporting themselves by teaching - first in art schools and — increasingly - in fast growing universities. University art departments were hiring. — They had more status than art schools - and paid better. Consequently, painting as a Fine Art more and more acquired academic validation. BFAs in painting had been offered before the war - but by the late 1940s - MFAs were introduced and a few efforts were even made to offer PHDs. Courses in the humanities, the social sciences and even the physical sciences became part of a painter’s curriculum.
All these academic curricula, of course, required intellectual as well as visual and technical skills. For art teachers - graduate theses about painting - academic papers - tenure and promotion documents - memos and meeting minutes - all involved being verbally literate.
Also - because painting now had to justify itself as a new, legitimate, academic subject - it was forced to examine and explain its presumptions. As a result, Art became self-referential — The subject of Art became Art. Since such explanations required words as well as images, language soon became more important than vision and feeling. Painting had already eliminated the necessity for representational subject matter and composition, but - did it have to be flat - rectangular - or hang on walls? Was permanence necessary? Did painting have a fundamental essence? If so, what was it? Ultimately — these theoretical artists asked - if the idea behind a work was most important, was an art object even necessary? Eventually, Art became ‘dematerialized’ - Documentation replaced original works. You may remember Conceptualism, Minimalism and something called “Art as Idea as Idea”.
By the 1960s, then, Art had rejected its previous subjective emphasis and was becoming conceptual and philosophical. In this new, academic environment - the role of the artist and the theoretician became interchangeable. Courses and programs in art theory were offered - often taught by non-painters. Northwestern even has a Department of Art Theory and Practice. Desperate for new material - PHD candidates in art history and philosophy - and art professors seeking tenure, promotion and reputation - developed obscure theories about the nature of art in increasingly abstract, academic language. Art curricula were sustained by books and articles in impressively incomprehensible magazines, which disseminated "post-modern", deconstructionist definitions of art. (For example, explain the difference between ‘opticality’ and ‘objecthood’?)
During this time, also, Feminist and, to a lesser extent, Black critiques, confronted the white, male bias of the art world and introduced nontraditional objects into the pantheon of the acceptable. Ultimately, anything could be rationalized as a work of art — rocks, cigarette butts and - at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - dead sharks in formaldehyde.
In an article last month- “When the shrouding is removed from Lever House’s lobby at Park Avenue and 54th Street, viewers will confront a veritable Noah’s Ark of roadkill — 30 dead sheep, one dead shark, two sides of beef, 300 sausages, a pair of doves — that the British artist Damien Hirst describes as his most mature piece”.
By the 80s, since anything displayed in an art museum or gallery was interpreted as a work of art - there no longer was a dominant philosophy of painting - no one art style or movement. Therefore - in spite of the fact that thousands of artists continued to paint in many different styles - as far as the art world was concerned - paintings had become one of many kinds of art objects and had, for all practical purposes - disappeared as an independent art form.
Painting - which had begun as a practical, manual craft - raised to the cultural heights as the creation of spiritual, almost holy objects — was now defined as mere philosophical tokens. It went so far that, by 1985, scholarly books - all written by professors of art history and philosophy and published by university presses - began to appear - declaring the end art history - the end of art - and even the end of the art world as we have come to know it.
Thus - I maintain - universities contributed to painting's loss of significance.
Where does the fact that paintings are seldom seen in national art exhibitions leave me as a painter? Although as a teacher, I have been concerned with contemporary art issues - as an artist, I am not. I am aware of the contributions of video, installation and performance art to visual expression, but I know why I became a painter and see no reason to change.
For me, painting is not a philosophical activity. I am not interested in defining art or in pushing its boundaries. I don’t believe in progress or in breakthroughs in the Arts. I don’t believe that my subconscious has anything especially profound to offer and I don’t want to explore materials, express my emotions or demonstrate my creativity and originality. I am not an entertainer, a decorator or a producer of commodities. I still want my paintings to be about my experiences in the world, not about itself. I still think that it requires skill, knowledge, experience, maturity, perseverance … and, of course, creativity.
I still believe in quality. I want to make the best paintings I can. Judging paintings may not be the same as selecting the sweetest peaches on a Jewel fruit counter - but some works of art really are better than others.
I see my painting as the making of meaningful objects, in the same way that novels, poems, plays, films, TV presentations and symphonies are meaningful. An individual painting, of course, may not have the range and complexity of a novel or a film — but - in its own way - it articulates experiences which are not accessible to these other media. Through painted images - we have access to the thoughts, feelings and values of peoples for whom we have no written record. From the paintings on the walls of the caves at Lascaux and Altimira - to the tombs and temples of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and China - the stained glass windows at Chartres cathedral - Michelangelo’s murals in the Sistine Chapel and beyond - images have served as a means for man to give form and value to his world. In this sense, contemporary painting is part of a 35,000 year old history of image making. Although it has no dictionary - it has its own language. By understanding this language - we learn to see the world. We apprehend the power of religion - the evils of society - and the psychology of people - as we do through any of the other Arts. The works of Monet, Michelangelo, Goya and Rembrandt can hold their own against any media. In this sense, also, painting can never disappear as a legitimate, contemporary art form any more than books or movies can.
Serious painting may be hard and demanding work - but its personal rewards are great. Painting is still potentially significant enough to regain that former status — albeit not with traditional Fine Art’s high-brow, spiritual aura - or as revelations of the artist’s psyche - or as theory - but rather with relevance to contemporary concerns. I understand that at the University of Illinois recently - the number of art students graduating with an MFA in Painting had gone from two to six. If this is true - perhaps a trend? Since I intend to continue painting as long as I can — perhaps - if I live long enough - as painting makes a comeback - I will be considered avant-garde, rather than an old reactionary.
I hope that other artists and art students find painting as important as I do - who see it as the best way to express ideas which require paint on canvas rather than words on paper or images on a screen. Perhaps - if they develop confidence in the significance of their own work, - painters will create meaningful works of art, while - if they have to teach - being successful art teachers. The Endowment in painting has been established with that hope in mind.