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Monday, March 17, 2014

Mind Over Matter

The journey from mind to matter.
All art begins in the mind. Truth be told, most art stays there. Only an artist's best, most worthwhile ideas make the transition from mind over to matter. I once did a painting of a young boy of about ten, clad in gym shorts and tank top standing in front of a full-length mirror lifting weights, straining his scrawny biceps in an effort to reach some pre-adolescent ideal of physical perfection. I titled it Mind over Matter. Ideas are not art. They are merely the seeds from which art grows. The mind of the artist is the hotbed in which these seeds germinate, from there to be transplanted and nourished to fruition in whatever media the artist finds most appropriate. Thus, it is this hotbed that, for the young artist, becomes of prime importance, from whence comes every work of art created, from potboiler to masterpiece.
Baccio Bandinelli's Studio, 16th century, Enea Vico--
art factories where learning was a by-product. 
Over the centuries, various cultures have formulated methods and means of preparing the fertile soil of this hotbed. From medieval times until the establishment of government supported schools of art, such preparations took place in what were, in fact, small art factories, little sweat shops--what we would today term, "on the job training." This factory life was harsh, training methods crude, skills taking precedence over creativity, and (to employ a trite phrase) only the strong survived. Most became long-forgotten journeymen. Only the exceptional ones such as Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and what would seem to be a lengthy list, but really isn't, rose to historic excellence.
Paris' Ecole des Beaux Arts main entrance today, flanked by
the busts of Pierre Puget (sculpture) and Nicholas Poussin (painting)
Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the apprentice system may have been, by the 17th century in Europe, the minds of would-be artists came to be seen as too valuable a commodity for such a haphazard method of cultivation. Painting, sculpture, music, architecture, all came under government patronage, largely replacing that of the church. Because of that, there developed an "official" art. Art and artists were deemed too important to be entrusted to a few self-serving "masters" driving a ragtag crew of "art slaves," a system in which art training was a mere byproduct of art making. In 1648, the French Ecole des Beaux Arts was founded in Paris by a Cardinal Mazarin (church and state were largely inseparable at the time). It wasn't until over two-hundred years later that the school was granted independence from the French government. Perhaps in reaction to the previous rampant informality of the apprentice system, this new training of young artistic minds became more formal. In fact, over the next 250 years it became very formal.
Life class at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris ca. 1900.
(The women had their own, separate classes.)
Art has rules. Granted, many of them are made to be broken. However, even today, art instructors insist that young artists must first learn the rules before even contemplating breaking them in the name of creativity. As western art evolved, so did the rules governing its creation. Moreover, the idea of breaking these rules is a development of Modern Art, little more than one hundred years old. The academies (virtually every major European nation had one or more) were the makers and enforcers of the rules. They were enforced most harshly in the studios and classrooms (above), and then later, in real life, through the institution of the various Salons (below) and other international competitions.
The first of these Salons, held in 1725 in the Louvre (then a palace), was basically an art contest for recent graduates of the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

The Paris Salon of 1787
Gradually however, the annual Salons became a venue for all working artists to display. The work was juried; and once more, "only the strong survived." Acceptance into the Salon each year became a prerequisite for royal patronage and success in general as a professional artist. The number of artists, and thus the number of works submitted, was all but overwhelming, numbering well into the thousands. The jurying process was harsh, efficient, fast, and furious, with friendships, grudges, politics, and personalities having as much to do with who got "hung" (and who didn't) as the quality of the work involved. In any case, the juries were made up of only the staunchest supporters of the academic rules; and thus, even long after students graduated from schooling, the rules were enforced upon their work with an iron economic fist.
Academic Art, Paul Delaroche, Hemicycle mural (central section), 1841-42.
Artist's minds, despite all the rules imposed by academicians, have a rowdy streak. When you pile too many rules one atop another they become top heavy and eventually unenforceable. They topple. Modern art was born first in the minds of realist painters such as Corot, Manet, Courbet, Daumier, and a few others, then nourished by the impressionists, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot, and again, a few others. Their work was considered "weeds" by the academicians, who did their best to cull it from the mainstream of French art. For some 30 or 40 years they were successful, until the academy masters had the misfortune of dying. By 1900, even the impressionists' Impressionism was dying, to be replaced by the polyglot of styles and movements we lump together as Post-impressionism. The "seeds and the weeds" ruled. The minds of artists (and those who bought their work) were forever changed.
Black Mountain College, Studies Building, 1940-41 (under construction).
The "academic" flowering of the seeds and weeds of Modern art, came not in France, but in rural North Carolina, at Black Mountain College during the 1930s through the 1950s amid the liberal, free-thinking, anti-establishment, back-to-nature climate of Depression era America. This flowering followed the academic model pretty much in name only. Producing art became secondary (almost irrelevant) to the creative processes, a 180-degree turn from the apprenticeship system and at least a 90-degree swerve from any existing academic art training at the time. The inter-relationship of the arts became the dominant element. Music, drama, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, even poetry and literature, merged into a single art entity. Before Black Mountain, such unity had, at best, been given only lip-service.

Between classes,
Black Mountain students
literally built the school.

Black Mountain was an idealistic extreme (above). It served its purpose and went the way of most such enterprises. Today, nothing like it exists. Yet something like it exists in the mindset of every art training institution and every art trainer. Rules are important. Breaking them intelligently is, perhaps, even more important. Producing art is important, but the creative mind, the creative mindset is even more important because, without the latter, the former is as empty and as stifling as three centuries of mythological nudes mass produced from minds warped by the stifling rigidity of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. All of which brings us to YOUR mind. Have you learned the art rules? Have you every broken any? Should you have broken them? What happened when you broke them? Why did you break them? What did you learn when you broke rules? Are you still inclined toward breaking rules? Why? Why not?

Self-portrait, 1819, Gustave Courbet
--breaking the rules, should I or shouldn't I?'


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