The Fine Arts; Friends, Family or Incestuous Bedfellows?
The Fine Arts in American Universities: Commonwealth or Competition?
Leo Segedin | August 8, 2012 | Print this essay
Although the traditional Fine Arts in American universities are grouped together within the Humanities because they are assumed to be common areas of study, efforts to relate them intellectually have always been problematic. There are many reasons why this is so. First, the Visual Arts, Music, Literature, Theater and Architecture are distinct and separate disciplines. With the exception of theater, each has always had its own department and often, its own building. Each was first established in different colleges at different times for different reasons and, therefore, each has its own history. Consider also that, today, the Fine Arts can include, not only theÊtraditional Fine Arts, but also 'dance, performance, photography, printmaking, graphic design, assemblage, conceptual art, calligraphy, installation, art and music education and ceramics'. This presumption of commonality persists also in the development of the Humanities since WW II, but the Humanities now include, along with the Fine Arts, modern languages, history, philosophy and religion. And, according to Wikipedia, they can also include the 'social sciences such as anthropology, technology, communication studies, cultural studies, law and linguistics'. Other than to maintain that these are subjects than a liberally educated person should know, as they are generally taught, they have little intellectual commonality. In fact, so many disparate disciplines are now included under this title that the Humanities appear to be what semanticists call a 'disjunctive category', in which the only commonality is the title.
Not only are the Humanities disparate disciplines. Unless they are defending themselves against the increasing influence of the Sciences, collaboration between its departments is infrequent. Even within the Fine Arts disciplines, there is a reluctance to cooperate even though practitioners of these Arts have always worked together. In fact, there are art forms which are inconceivable without such relationships. Opera, musical theater and film obviously require writers, actors, composers, musicians and many different kinds of visual artists. Dance and ballet are based on musical rhythms. Religious rituals depend on the power music gives to words. Composers have been influenced by paintings and novels; painters are motivated by music and literature. Composers have been painters. Painters have written poetry. But try to get professors in an art or literature department to explore relations with those in dance or theater, or in any other department in the Humanities, and you usually have a problem – practitioners of the Arts can cooperate, but Arts professors don't. Artists, composers, musicians, dancers, poets, writers, choreographers, even architects have had no trouble influencing each other by working together, but university educators in these disciplines are likely to reject the idea. Why?
I propose that the reason for this departmental separateness is – at least initially – political, in that the Fine Art departments were introduced into the Humanities, not because of their presumed humanistic content, but rather as the result of separate, bureaucratic struggles for institutional recognition. They really are the products of pressure on university administrations by advocates of these disciplines – by innovative deans, influential professors, 'young Turk' faculty and outside civic and cultural organizations. Private endowments and bequests supporting particular disciplines encouraged some additions and expansions. Special interest groups with professional agendas were other factors. For example, studio art courses in the Visual Arts at the University of Illinois were accepted, not because the university administration may have recognized the importance of creative activities, but as service courses for teaching drawing to engineers, architects and farmers. The Music Department at Harvard was introduced, not because of belief in music's cultural value, but as a reaction to the demands of influential, Boston choral societies. Thus, traditional administrative connections between the Fine Arts departments in the Humanities do not reflect intellectual connections. Even the idea that the Humanities disciplines are related because they teach you 'what it means to be human' is a relatively recent definition motivated by political rather than intellectual concerns. This grouping together of areas of study such as Fine Arts, philosophy and history in the 1980s was intended to strengthen their disciplinary independence and to counteract the growing influence of the science and business disciplines.
Other factors contribute to this separation. Since departments must maintain themselves by competing for essentials such as budget, credit hours and space, the primary function of a discipline becomes, not only to teach its subject, but also to protect and perpetuate itself. Such a competitive environment does not promote cooperative, academic relations. Also, such relationships might be intellectually challenging. They might require disciplines to perceive themselves from outside points of view. This can be enlightening, but any attempt to do so might also require their members to rethink their own assumptions. It can, therefore, be iconoclastic. As a result, any effort to connect disciplines, or even to explore the actual content of their courses, can be seen as a threat to their integrity. Such challenges can cause apprehension and insecurity, even professional paranoia, not only because they can be seen as potential threats to academic freedom, but also because they threaten long standing patterns of thought. Thus, such efforts are usually responded to as 'attacks' on the traditional disciplines or on professorial independence. They are suspected of being instigated by misguided administrators or 'outsider', political 'factions' proposing some ulterior agenda (which, of course, they might be). Regardless of the idealistic goals of new administrations or revised language in syllabi, professors continue to teach their courses as they always have.
Northeastern was founded with such an outsider agenda and with the same predictable result. The philosophy on which Northeastern (then Chicago Teachers College North) was established in 1961 was that traditional departmental structures of the Humanities did not reflect contemporary social needs and, therefore, they should be reorganized on a more up–to–date basis – or eliminated entirely. Our first Dean, Dr. Roy Jarvis, decreed that, instead of being faculty in the Humanities, we were all members of the 'Division for the Interpersonal Communication of Ideas'. Rather than being a concern for 'what it means to be human', the organizing principle – the new commonality – was that the subjects of these disciplines were all forms of communication. Thus, this academic category included Mathematics, Linguistics, Spanish, Russian, (and projected, Mandarin, Swahili and Hindi) Speech, Reading and Technical Media. Literature, Music, Graphic Arts and Drama were in a subdivision called the 'Creative Arts'. While maintaining the integrity of our disciplines, we were also expected to integrate our courses. To this end, a 'Committee on Integrated Courses' was established. This committee decided that all entering students taking Creative Arts courses would attend a series of lectures in the Auditorium before establishing their Majors. So, a 'Subcommittee on the' Introductory (Pre–integrative) Phase of the First Courses in the Arts' was established. The subcommittee consisted of Marilyn Ziffrin, Jackie Krump and me. We recommended topics for six, 50 minute 'integrating' lectures. How did we consider the commonalities between the Fine Arts in 1961? These are topics we developed for the 'pre–integrative' lectures:
- Problems in approaching the Arts
- Parallel developments in the Arts
- The intellectual and social developments in the Arts
- The artist and his subject
- Materials into form; music and the visual arts
- Materials into form: literature and the theater arts
- The Fine Arts are equally significant
- They have parallel, related histories, for example, there are Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods in all the Fine Arts.
- They have parallel, formal structures and language, borrowing terms from each other. Music uses terms like composition, line, color, texture, tone, volume and shape from painting; painting describes a work of art in terms of rhythm, harmony and movement.
- They are experiential. They teach people to see and hear as well as understand.
- They reflect the highest achievement of cultures.
- They are critical, creative and require skill.
Interestingly, in the history of the Arts, the issue of what the Fine Arts had in common, with which the members of the 'Creative Arts Subdivision' wrestled, is a relatively recent concern. During classical antiquity, the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, it did not exist at all. Songs were sung, poetry recited and dances danced to music, but there was no notion that any of these 'Arts' together were “Fine”, let alone part of any philosophical or educational system. There was a tentative, ancient link between painting, sculpture, poetry and music in so far as they were assumed to imitate nature (not a compliment), but painting was still considered to be primarily decoration for buildings and, along with music, part of ritual and dramatic practice.
Artists were admired for their skill in realistic representation, but were still considered low status, manual laborers. Although musical education in Plato's Republic included both poetry and the dance, in performance, they were considered problematic because of their irrational, emotional power. The visual arts were not included. There were Muses for poetry, music and dance, but none for painting and sculpture. On the other hand, Roman poets and rhetoricians used painting and sculpture as analogies in describing their work as well as sources of inspiration.
This disinterest regarding commonality continued into the medieval period. Visual artists were still craftsmen; painters and sculptors belonged to guilds along with the saddle makers. The visual arts were still included among the practical skills. Aquinas included painting and sculpture, as well as music and poetry, with shoemaking, cooking, juggling, grammar and arithmetic. Music continued to support religious and dramatic activities. As inherited from Roman times, it had some status in the Liberal Arts curriculum at medieval universities, but not because of its emotional power in performance. The Liberal Arts curriculum then consisted of the Trivium – grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, – geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. Music was included in the quadrivium because of its basis in mathematics.
(This association of music with what would later be identified as the sciences lasted until well into the 17th century. In fact, the conflict between the theory and practice of the Arts continued for the next 2,000 years. It was still an issue in the establishment of Fine Art disciplines in the 19th and 20th century. Art history was acceptable by the 1870s, but degrees in Art studio subjects were rejected until the 1930s. I was in the first class to receive the Masters degree in Fine Art in painting at the University of Illinois in 1950. Even as recently as the late 1970s, when I was recommended for promotion to full professor, the first such proposal in the studio arts, a member of the science department protested to the president because he thought the practice of the visual arts lacked sufficient status.)In the performance of music, medieval choristers, composers and instrumentalists were taught in guilds connected to religious institutions. Saint Cecilia was the patroness saint of musicians and Church music. St Luke was the patron saint of painters. He was a physician who was also the patron saint of 'bachelors, bookbinders, brewers, butchers, Capena, Italy, glassmakers, glass workers, gold workers, goldsmiths, Hermersdorf, Germany, lace makers, lace workers, notaries, sculptors and stained glass workers'.
Poetry, on the other hand, was considered to be a product of the mind and, therefore, had no connection with manual labor. Along with rhetoric, as part of the Liberal Arts, it had high status during the Renaissance. Because of pressure from increasingly influential artists and their powerful patrons, the Renaissance elevated painting and sculpture above the crafts by calling attention to their perceived similarity to poetry. The 5th century BC Greek poet, Simonides, is supposed to have said that 'painting is mute poetry and poetry is painting that speaks'. Using such ideas, Painting soon achieved poetry's high reputation. The Renaissance theory of art, based on such assumed classical sources, was called 'ut picture poesis'. Painting and poetry were referred to as 'sister arts', with the common goal to imitate (now a compliment) and then 'perfect' or idealize nature. They were said to have 'a single birth, and, although different in means, were almost identical in fundamental nature, content and purpose'. Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying that “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen” and tried to elevate painting above sculpture by emphasizing its closer relation to poetry. At the same time, Leonardo, who wrote and played music, argued that, “The poet ranks far below the painter in the representation of visible things, and far below the musician in that of invisible things”. Michelangelo, known primarily as a painter and sculptor, was said to have a poetic spirit and poets were described as painting images with their words. Michelangelo wrote beautiful poetry. While artists learned their craft in the studios of master artists, they now often hobnobbed with poets and philosophers.
Music became more secular. Renaissance composers were influenced by the way Greek music supported drama and poetry. They wrote happy music for joyful songs and sad music for words of grief. Madrigalists used a declamation technique known as “word painting” to make musical notes illustrate word meanings, literally trying to paint visual images with sound.
In the 17th century, the neo–classical painter, Nicolas Poussin also saw similar, formal relations between painting and music. He based his paintings on Greek, Classical, musical modes as interpreted during the Renaissance. For him, each element in a painting had a specific emotional power. The feelings expressed supported the usually moralistic or political subject matter of the painting; they belonged to the formal aspects of the painting, not the artist's personal emotions. By this time, the status of the Visual Arts had risen sufficiently so that, while some painters were successful enough to exhibit and sell their work privately, most were taught in government sponsored academies and exhibited their work in government sponsored Salons. By the 18th century, secular music conservatories were training musicians and composers. Thus, the Visual Arts and Music were products of increasingly separate and independent institutions.
In the 18th century, as equal, autonomous entities, the Visual Arts, music, literature and, occasionally, architecture were for the first time classified together as the 'Fine Arts'. They also, for the first time, began to develop a chronological history, were categorized and analyzed in terms of periods, styles, influences and formal characteristics. They were now appreciated for their own sake, rather than their social content. The experience of the Fine Arts was described in the philosophical literature as primarily 'aesthetic'; its goal was pleasure. Their manual aspects were minimized; the creation of the Fine Arts now required genius. Although each had their own clearly identifiable characteristics, they still followed the Classical idea that Poetry and the Visual Arts imitated and idealized nature, 'nature', in this sense, also including human actions and passions.
In the 19th century, the Romantics personalized such ideas. Poetry and painting became the personal expression of the artist, rather than the creation of beauty. The English art critic, John Ruskin, wrote, “Great art (painting and poetry) is produced by men who feel acutely and nobly, and it is in some sort an expression of this personal feeling”. By the beginning of the 20th century, in high brow Salons in Vienna, artists, composers, musicians, writers, philosophers, scientists and others would gather to discuss the common intellectual and psychological sources of the arts. And, at the same time, in the studios and cafes in Paris, new ideas about the making of art were being explored. As a result, the authority of the Academies weakened. Private art schools and later, universities replaced them as the primary institutions for the teaching of the Fine Arts. Separate Fine art departments began to appear. By the 1960s, the departmentalization of the Fine Arts as academic disciplines was firmly established.
While this departmentalization was occurring, however, the Fine Arts were again being re–conceived, not only affecting the content of the disciplines, but also radically transforming the idea of commonality. In the Visual Arts, in the 1950s, the notion of artistic 'essence', as proposed by the art critic, Clement Greenberg, had come to dominate the visual art world, and eventually the other Arts. What was a work of art's minimum requirement to be itself? The search for essence ultimately led to the conceptualization of the Arts in which the various Arts were reduced to their underlying assumptions and, by the 60s, even those assumptions were challenged. John Rauschenberg destroyed the distinction between art objects and everyday objects. Must a painting be flat or rectangular or hang on walls require form or even use paint? Any material – pickled sharks and soiled beds, even empty rooms – ultimately became acceptable. Experimental electronic and computer music competed with traditional instrumentation. John Cage developed the idea of indeterminacy in music. Ambient sound and silence became the content of music. Merce Cunningham introduced the idea of chance into dance.
Also, radical changes occurring in the intellectual world created a new kind of 'commonality' for the Arts. Structuralism, post structuralism, neo–structuralism, deconstructionism and cultural studies now determined the theory underlying the Fine Arts. As a result, aesthetic concerns became irrelevant. Context became more important than content and form. The Arts were reduced to symbol systems in which the Visual Arts, musical scores and dance routines were discussed along with architecture, dramatic scripts, maps, diagrams, and models. A work of visual art could now involve, not only painting, but also 'photography, film, television, computers equipped for graphics, games, word processing, information storage, computation, and general design (programming)'. Thus, Art became, not only philosophy, but also sociology, anthropology, semantics and semiotics.
In addition, the traditional categories of the Fine Arts were attacked for being elitist and Eurocentric. The economic, racial, gender and class basis of the Arts were emphasized. Except in the art market, where status determined price, the distinction of a work of art being 'Fine' was demolished. The Popular Arts, the work of ethnic and racial minorities, of children, the insane and the untrained, and of non western cultures were given a place of status. As the Humanities became more 'democratic', standards became more 'egalitarian'. All Arts were determined to be equal. Now cultural interpretations, rather than the physical and perceptible qualities of art objects, determined what made a work of art. Disputes about the classification of the Fine Arts were seen as disputes about social values and what art ought to be rather that what it is and has been.
One result of these redefinitions of Fine Art has been that often the intended idea of a work, its content, became an end in itself and the form of the work, what traditionally makes it a work of art, was lost. Or the means became the end and the meaning of the work was lost. Painting, as a form of expression, in competition with all the new media, has become only a minor part of an Art Department's curriculum. In literature, the content of great novels dissipates into vague, abstract theorizing. Novels and poems became 'texts' to be understood in terms of more encompassing 'texts'. The reader rather than the author (or professor) determined what the work is about.
In spite of the theoretical issues affecting the content of the Fine Art disciplines, however, the relations between the departments did not change. In accommodating the popularization of higher education and to attract people who were newly eligible to attend college, new courses and departments were established. There is some effort by universities to cross the borders between disciplines, although, as far as I know, not in the Fine Arts. Universities now offer interdisciplinary programs. Even BA degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies are available, but they are all designed to appeal to the new student's family needs and personal lifestyles, rather than to any intellectual goal. They are generally hodgepodges of student selected courses. The courses themselves are still taught separately and, of course, departmental integrity is maintained.
Even though the revised Fine Art courses may have profited by reflecting contemporary thought about relationships between the Fine Arts, I believe that much of value has been lost by these changes. In my opinion, the major negative result has been that the significance of traditional art forms in all the Arts is ignored. I have no problem with the idea that works of art are forms of communication, that they are symbol systems or that they serve social functions. I have taught courses called Art in Society and Sociology of the Arts. But, the Fine Arts are more than their social context. Such approaches should expand the meanings of work s of art, not replace them. As an artist and museumgoer, as a reader, as a concert and theatergoer, I still believe in the integrity and values of the traditional Fine Arts. I believe that paintings, novels, plays and symphonies are meaningful in their own right and that some works really are more profound than others. Great works of art cause transformative experiences, and, as subjective as such experiences are, they establish the ultimate criteria of great art. Regardless of how they are dissected and contextualized, in spite of the fact that they have been judged masterpieces by elitist, white, Western men, the works of Michelangelo, Beethoven and Shakespeare remain great human creations. I think it is still worth exploring why this is so and what these works have in common. I still think that this is best accomplished by professionals in the different disciplines working together. As in the past, however, the creation of new courses which reflect such approaches will require political pressure from motivated faculty, not administrative directives. Such concerns, however, may not only be naïve, but also passé. Those who still believe in such ideas apparently are limited to nostalgic, retired professors. As an elitist, white, male retiree, I am not very hopeful.