Wednesday, June 09, 2004

A NEW RENAISSANCE?

Here is a snip of my next column for the National Catholic Register...

Two of my sisters have advanced degrees in music. I myself went to graduate school for cinema, and I have spent the last five years teaching writers on both the graduate and undergraduate level. The main thing I have learned in the art classroom, is that classrooms have little to do with the creation of beautiful works of art. The achievement of a Master of Fine Arts in whatever discipline, from even a top university, says nothing at all about whether an individual is an artist or even a competent craftsman.

The way to foment a second renaissance is to recreate the origins of the first. The Renaissance flowed out of studios not classrooms. It’s patrons were princes and pastors, not professors.

I am not sure for what kind of life university classrooms really prepare young people, but they certainly aren’t petrie dishes for artistic talent. If anything, the impersonal, pragmatic environment of contemporary academia – anonymous rows of young people, most half awake, subjected to long cycles of monotonous lectures in sterile rooms - seems calculated to crush the passion for life and color and texture and sound that is the seed of the arts. The most that can be achieved in a university art classroom is a disconnected handing on of the history and theory of the art forms, and possibly some rudimentary technique. The main value that one might find in a university art classroom is a community of artists. Community and art have a necessary connection.

But the one thing essential to the production of beautiful art is never going to happen in a classroom. That is, no teacher is ever going to say to a paying student, “You don’t belong here. You don’t have any talent.” Universities have a remoteness from the student, who is basically a consumer paying for services. Unable to make talent-judgments, university classrooms do a huge disservice to everyone involved.

The primary victim of the democratization of the classroom is the talentless student who moves through an expensive art program regardless of the fact that he does not have the chops to make a professional go of it. The second level of injustices are suffered by the talented student whose work cannot be elevated out of sense of giving offense to those who are mediocre. True genius will find no challenge in the leveling mediocrity of the institution, and the gifted end up with an inflated sense of their untested talents. Next, the professors of this system are victims of the futile task to try and teach art without actually cleaving to any “fascist” aesthetic standards. Ultimately the whole society is victimized by the dreadful art regurgitated on it, as mastery of craft becomes less and less of an ideal.

There is nothing egalitarian about artistic talent, a fact that is an ongoing source of outrage to the melancholic Marxists who hold sway in pretty much every Humanities department at the top universities. I remember one of my grad school professors becoming enraged at me when I asked if she thought any of my class’ final projects were ultimately any good. “How dare you hinder the right of self-expression by asking that kind of question?” Having already gotten my grades for the term, I shrugged back, “How dare this university charge me $30,000 for a transcript of meaningless grades?”

The art classroom reduces the artist to a technician, and negates the sense that art proceeds from a whole person. Paraphrasing Our Lord, “From the abundance of the heart, the artist expresses.” Art comes as much from the broodings of the heart as it does from the manipulation of the brush or chisel. A song begins in the soul, not on a keyboard. Artists need formation, not education, and formation can only happen in a one to one relationship.

For all these reasons, the classroom model is not what produced Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci. Part of our journey to renew the lists of great artists in the Church will be to rediscover and then renew the methods that ultimately produced the most beautiful art of human history. Principally, we must restore the master-apprentice model of not studying the arts, but handing them on.....

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