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Old Versus New

ART TIMES March 2008

SOME YEARS AGO when teaching graduate painting, I had a Chinese student. He was from Mainland China and only recently in this country. His personal story is remarkable, not one I relate here but may in an introduction he has asked me to write for a book on his art planned to be published in China. He is currently a tenured associate professor in a major American university and teaching in its large MFA Program.

In our correspondence he describes a problem in his department that he finds deeply disturbing and one in which he often finds himself a victim. Of the problem described I’m perfectly familiar. I saw it when I began teaching in art schools, indeed, before that as an art student and at every university art department I have visited since.

It has various forms: old versus new, tradition versus modern — in my former student’s school it is figurative versus abstract. Whatever the form, at its heart is some ideological dispute. In a letter my friend asks, “…why do my colleagues hate observational drawing?” You see, he received a rigorous art training in China during the Mao-era in a school modeled after the European academies of a century ago. Drawing was the preeminent discipline, observational skills central to the painting of the figure — and painting the figure was painting.

Now I don’t know how my friend defines those teachers he calls abstract though I imagine in a big department they include conceptual artists, perhaps appropriationists, performance, installation people — certainly artist-teachers who have no great need of drawing nor do they mind steering students away from the figurative teachers’ courses. However, this is an ancient tale.

The Neo-Classic history painters of the 18th century academies sneered at the still-life, genre, and landscape painters, calling them practitioners of a “low” art. When I retired from teaching, I left behind a younger and very liberal faculty busily dismantling the remaining remnants of Bauhaus art education. In most respects they were probably right — a different art world demands different skills. University art training has but four to six years to equip an artist and still few will become successful.

The issue my friend confronts is a question of what should be taught? If an art student wants traditional knowledge do you tell him to transfer to the art history department? Or tell him to forget about it — he will be better off making outrageous political statements in pasta and old socks?

These quarrels notwithstanding it is not likely we will ever return to the great periods of figurative art — nor return, for that matter, to the equally great periods of abstraction.

P.S. Our esteemed editor might address this issue, funny old conservative that he is.

(Funny old conservative editor’s note: I do — in almost every issue, in fact.)