Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students

Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students

by James Elkins

ISBN: 9780252069505

Publisher University of Illinois Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Study & Teaching

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Sample Chapter



Is there anything worth knowing about art schools in past centuries? It is worth knowing that art schools did not always exist, and that they were entirely different from what we call art schools today. This chapter is an informal survey of the changes that have taken place in art instruction during the last thousand years. I have stressed curricula — that is, the experiences a student might have had from year to year in various academies, workshops, and art schools. It's interesting to think what a typical art student of the seventeenth or nineteenth century might have experienced. It shows how different art and teaching once were, and how we've invented much of what we take for granted.

The main development is from medieval workshops into Renaissance art academies, and then into modern art schools. Art departments, which are in the majority today, are less important from this point of view since they take their methods and ideas from art schools. Throughout this book, I refer to "art schools," but what I say is generally applicable to any art department in a college or university.


Though we know there were art schools (or workshops) in Greece and Rome, we no longer know what was taught. By the fifth century B.C. in Greece, art had become a complicated subject, and there were technical books on painting, sculpture, and music. According to Aristotle, painting was sometimes added to the traditional study of grammar, music, and gymnastics. But almost all of that is lost.

In general, the Romans seem to have demoted painting within the scheme of "higher education," although it appears to have been something done by educated gentlemen. One text suggests a nobleman's child should be provided with several kinds of teachers, including "sculptors, painters, horse and dog masters and teachers of the hunt." Thus the history of the devaluation of painting, which we will follow up to the Renaissance, may have begun with the late Romans, especially the Stoics.


The idea of a "university" in our sense of the word — "faculties and colleges and courses of study, examinations and commencements and academic degrees" — did not get underway until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There was much less bureaucracy in the early universities than we're used to: there were no catalogs, no student groups, and no athletics. The curriculum was limited to the "seven liberal arts": the trivium, comprised of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium, which was arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. There were no courses in social studies, history, or science. Mostly students learned logic and dialectic. Logic is seldom taught now, except as an unusual elective in college mathematics or philosophy departments; and dialectic, the study of rational argument, has virtually disappeared from contemporary course lists. Medieval students did not take courses in literature or poetry the way we do in high school and college. Some professors admitted — even boasted — that they had not read the books we consider to be the Greek and Roman classics.

Before students went to a university, they attended grammar schools, something like our elementary schools, where they learned to read and write. When they arrived at the university, sometimes they were allowed to speak only Latin, a fact that panicked freshmen and prompted the sale of pamphlets describing how to get along in Latin. As in modern universities, the master's degree took six years or so (students did not stop for the "college degree," the B.A. or B.S.). Those who studied at medieval universities meant to become lawyers, clergymen, doctors, and officials of various sorts, and when they went on to professional study (the equivalent of our medical and law schools), they faced more of the same kind of curriculum.

A typical course used a single book in a year. In some universities, teachers drilled the students by going around the class, and the students were expected to have memorized portions of the book as well as the professor's discussions of it. It is not easy to imagine what this regimen must have been like, especially since it involved "dry" texts on logic and little original thought — which is precisely what is required in modern colleges from the very beginning. Today the medieval kind of rote learning occurs in Orthodox Jewish classes on the Talmud, in Muslim schools that memorize the Koran, and to some degree in law and medical schools — but not in colleges, and certainly not in art classes.

It is interesting to speculate about the differences between such an education and our own: certainly the medieval students were better equipped to read carefully and to frame cogent arguments than we are. From the medieval point of view, being able to memorize and to think logically are prerequisites to studying any subject: a student has to learn to argue about any number of things before going on to study any one thing. That's very different from what happens in art instruction. The closest analogy, which I will consider a little later, is the strict copying of artworks, a practice adopted during the seventeenth century, essentially during the Baroque period. But in general, modern college curricula do not require memory training, rhetorical (speaking) skills, or dialectic (logical argument), and those omissions are not made up for in graduate schools. You don't have to be a conservative defender of "cultural literacy" or a Eurocentrist to wonder just how different education could be with the kind of rhetorical and dialectical training that was the norm in parts of the classical world and during the six or so centuries following the institution of medieval universities.

Artists were not trained within the medieval university system at all. They went directly from grammar school into workshops, or from their parents' homes straight into the workshops. Students spent two or three years as apprentices, often "graduating" from one master to another, and then joined the local painter's guild and began to work for a master as a "journeyman-apprentice." That kind of work must not have been easy, since there is evidence that the young artists sometimes helped their masters in the day and spent their evenings making copies. Many of their tasks would have amounted to low-grade labor, such as grinding pigments, preparing panels, and painting in backgrounds and drapery. Eventually the journeyman-apprentice made a work of his own, in order to be accepted as a master.

Though painting remained outside the university system, beginning in the twelfth century there were various revisions aimed at modifying or augmenting the trivium and quadrivium. Hugo of Saint-Victor proposed seven "mechanical arts" to go along with the seven liberal arts:








Strangely, he put architecture, sculpture, and painting under "Armor," making painting an unimportant subdivision of the "mechanical arts."

It is often said that Renaissance artists rebelled against the medieval system and attempted to have their craft (which did not require a university degree) raised to the level of a profession (which would require a university degree), a status they eventually achieved by instituting art academies. But it is also important to realize how much medieval artists missed out on by not going to universities. They were not in a position to formally learn about theology, music, law, medicine, astronomy, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, logic, philosophy, physics, arithmetic, or geometry — in other words, they were cut off from the intellectual life of their time. Though it sounds rather pessimistic to say so, much the same is true again today, since our four-year and six-year art schools are alternates to liberal arts colleges or universities just as the Renaissance art academies were alternates to Renaissance universities. The situation is somewhat better in the case of art departments, because students in liberal arts colleges have more classes outside their art major than art students in four-year art colleges; and at any rate modern art students aren't as isolated as medieval students were. But there is a gap — and sometimes a gulf — between art students' educations and typical undergraduates' educations, and it often delimits what art is about. (Conversely, it marginalizes art that is about college-level scientific or non-art subjects.) Much can be said about this, and I will return to it in the next chapter.


The first Renaissance academies did not teach art. Instead they were mostly concerned with language, though there were also academies devoted to philosophy and astrology. A few were secret societies, and at least one met underground in catacombs. In general the early academies sprang up in opposition to the universities, in order to discuss excluded subjects such as the revision of grammar and spelling, or the teachings of occult philosophers.

The word "academy" comes from the district of Athens where Plato taught. The Renaissance academies were modeled on Plato's Academy, both because they were informal (like Plato's lectures in the park outside Athens) and because they revived Platonic philosophy. Many academies were more like groups of friends, with the emphasis on discussion among equals rather than teaching. Giovanni Giorgio Trissino, a poet and amateur architect who tried to reform Italian spelling, had an academy, and so did King Alfonso of Naples, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, and the aristocrat and art patron Isabella d'Este. After the Renaissance, Queen Christiana of Sweden described her academy in Rome as a place for learning to speak, write, and act in a proper and noble manner. Poems were read, plays were put on, music was performed, and what we now call "study groups" got together to discuss them.


Leonardo da Vinci's name is associated with an early academy, probably a group of like-minded humanists. Academies became more popular and more diverse after the High Renaissance. (By 1729 there were over five hundred in Italy alone.) After the turn of the sixteenth century, mannerist taste tended to make the academies more rigid, less "informal and loose," and the idea of the academy began to merge with that of the late medieval university. Academies specifically for art instruction began in this more serious atmosphere, which lacked a little of the enthusiasm and experimentalism of the earlier academies. "Renaissance academies were entirely unorganized," according to Nikolaus Pevsner, but "the academies of Mannerism were provided with elaborate and mostly very schematic rules." Not only were there rules, there were odd names: the Academy of the Enlightened, of the Brave, of the Passionate, of the Desirous, of the Inflamed, the Dark, the Drowsy.

The Florentine Academy of Design (Accademia del Disegno) was the first public art academy. Its original purpose was rather morbid: to produce a sepulcher for artists who might die penniless. In 1563, three years after it was founded, Michelangelo was elected an officer (one year before he died). The setting was still informal — lectures and debates were held in a Florentine orphanage, and anatomy lessons at a local hospital (the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Ospedale of S. Maria Nuova, respectively; they can both still be visited). The Florentine Academy was an early "urban campus," spread out among existing buildings rather than cloistered in its own campus or religious compound.

(Incidentally, the distribution of buildings in an art school or university inevitably affects the kind of instruction carried out there. I teach at an urban campus, in a half-dozen buildings scattered around the Art Institute in Chicago, and our instruction is decidedly more involved with the art market and urban issues than the art instruction at the cloistered University of Chicago — the site of the story I told in the Introduction. The University of Chicago's studio art department is on the far southwest corner of its campus, as if someone had tried to push it off into the surrounding neighborhood. Cornell University used to teach drawing in the Fine Arts Building and also in a building that was part of the agriculture quad, and the instruction in those two places was quite different. Berkeley's studio art department shares a building with anthropology — an interesting affinity for art students. Duke University's studio art department is a small house set apart from other buildings, in a field behind one of the campuses. If you're studying in a building remote from the rest of your campus, or remote from a big city, you might consider the strengths and limitations of your location.)

The teaching in the Florentine Academy was mannerist in inclination, meaning students looked at statues (later called simply "the antique"), studied complexities of geometry and anatomy, and learned to make intricate, "learned" compositions. This was the opposite of earlier Renaissance taste; as we know from drawings, students in the fifteenth-century workshops drew each other, and it seems there was significantly less interest in drawing from "the antique" or in bookish learning.

When they first entered the Florentine Academy, students learned mathematics, including perspective, proportion, harmony, and plane and solid Euclidean geometry. The idea was to get away from the empirical, haphazard kind of learning that artists had faced in workshops, and to substitute theories. Artists, it was thought, need a good eye and a good hand, but even before they develop those they need mental principles to guide them: so "measured judgment" and a "conceptual foundation" must come before manual dexterity. This is our first encounter with an idea that was absolutely fundamental in art academies before the twentieth century: the notion that looking and working are not enough, that art requires a balance between theory and practice. It is an idea worth pausing over. Often, I think, ideas in history are easy to understand — easy to write down or to explain — but difficult to "take to heart," as if they were your own. There are two aspects of this idea of theory and practice that I think are particularly alien to current ways of thinking:

1. The Renaissance educators had in mind a balance. Today we rarely conceive art as a matter of balance. Instead we look for extreme effects: the phrase "middle of the road" shows how little we care for works that try to blend properties we've seen before. Renaissance and Baroque academicians conceived art as a subject that inhabits the middle shades of gray rather than the black or white extremes. The operative word here is decorum, indicating a kind of art that does not stray too far from the middle for the sake of effect. It seems to me that modernism and postmodernism are so bound up with dramatic effects and innovations that the Renaissance way of thinking is nearly inaccessible. Imagine trying to make art that has no special effects and that achieves a measured calm and fluency by considering and balancing the moderate and compatible aspects of previous artworks. Harshness, stridency, excess, shock value, crudity, monotony, enigma, radical ambiguity, hermeticism, fragmentation, impatience: all the things we love were once excluded in the name of decorum. How could a well-balanced, moderate work of art possibly be more expressive than a weird, ambiguous, bizarre one? In today's art world, old-fashioned decorum would be essentially a waste of time.

2. Academicians balanced the real and the ideal. The two extremes that the Renaissance and Baroque academies sought to balance are alien to our thinking: they advocated that each painted or sculpted figure should display a knowledge of ideal forms, along with selected peculiarities of the live model. This concept of "ideal forms," derived from the Platonic Ideal, is not a concept that seems real today. When a contemporary artist looks at a model, she does not compare the model's body to a perfect form, seen only in her mind, and she does not contrast that imagined perfection against the imperfect, mundane form that the model actually has. In other words, we no longer conceive drawing as a mediation between the Ideal and the Real. The Platonic approach seems especially strange when we consider that the Ideal was colored with ethics and theology. The Renaissance Neoplatonists sometimes equated the Ideal with the highest ethical good, and called it "Venus," "love," or Christian love, agape. These ideas are easy to teach in a classroom — there are books on Neoplatonism, and translations of Renaissance Neoplatonic texts — but they are dead as ideas, because it is impossible to translate them into art practice. (It's always possible to invent classroom exercises that employ historical concepts. I can picture an assignment in which students drew Ideal and Real forms of objects and read texts on the Neoplatonic Ideal — but that would be artificial. Contemporary drawing practice no longer requires that kind of philosophy.)

Excerpted from "Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students" by James Elkins. Copyright © 2013 by James Elkins. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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