I find myself often wondering how an artist ought to be educated. The old masters had workshops. You wanted to learn how to paint — you go hang out with the local guy who paints. If the local guy isn’t teaching you as much as you want, you find another artist to study with, someone who has a reputation for being the “it” guy. Thus Rembrandt found his way into Lastman’s studio.
Well, for a while. Someone like Rembrandt doesn’t really need a teacher in the ordinary sense — or rather, let’s just observe that he needs a really, really good teacher. The teacher he needs might not be alive, as indeed was the case. Rembrandt studied with da Vinci, Raphael and Rubens, and others.
Today artists go to university. That has certain obvious advantages. You learn to become technologically savvy. You make the acquaintance of professors who expect you to read a lot of books (these are usually professors in other departments). And if you stay on the straight and narrow, they give you official recognition in the form of a degree (something the old masters never had).
Whether the university art department has something valuable to offer: that’s another question and varies greatly from place to place. We could call it the Rembrandt factor.
Today art is supposed to be about what’s hip and happening now. Press this idea a little and you see that many artists fully embrace the concept of planned obsolescence. Let’s face it, if the old masters have as their over-riding fault the fact that they are old, then certainly one’s own art (regardless how hip it was in its moment) will someday (perhaps in a week or so) be old too. What’s the point?
Or, art is supposed to be about doing something no one has ever done before (to accept this notion it does help to have been born yesterday, quite literally). We’ll call this the Guinness Book of World Records approach. Guy who has eaten the most worms. (Yuk) First artist to make a picture out of styrofoam. First artist to paint with ketchup, and so on through many heady firsts!
The problem with the Guinness artist is that it’s hard to see exactly why the young art student’s parents should be paying all that hefty tuition just so that junior can do what cannot be taught. If, after all, you are boldly going where no one has ever gone before — how is someone to teach you? Isn’t the thing that can be taught, by definition, academic? And isn’t the academic approach the icky route to be assiduously avoided?
What the young artist needs clearly, and this is especially true for the hipster crowd, is a garret. But garrets are lonely places and if you’re making stuff out of old car parts the last thing you want is solitude. It helps to have a few fellow enthusiasts around to cheer you on — especially with the obsolescence thing biting at your heels.
[Top of the post: An Artist at his Easel, by Rembrandt. This post originally appeared at Art Writing Bold Drawing.]