LTE: VCUarts Painting Program Critique

Dear Editor:

Allow me to outline the outrageous state of affairs in art.

The state of affairs can be seen on the first Friday of every month. It can be seen in art galleries around the country. The very blueprint can be found on VCU’s campus. For the first time since it’s inception, art has become incomprehensible to the educated public. If there is any distinguishing feature of modern and contemporary art, it is that the lion’s share is met with bewilderment by those who remain frank with themselves.

For those who humor their pride with feigned contemplation for the sake of public appearance, it is not your fault. The artistic community has contrived an elitist program that insists that a viewer’s lack of appreciation must be due to a shallow notion of art or an insufficient intellect. One of the most enduring qualities of art has been its transcendent universality, its ability to speak to viewers without explanation. But in this moment, our moment in history, we are failed.

It is our instructors, the architects of our educational system, who are failing us. For us, the youth, we can only hope to identify their insensitive systems before we slip into thousands of dollars in student debt for an “education” that will certainly fail us both financially and spiritually. And so allow me to address the elephant in the room: the painting program at VCU.

U.S. and World Report ranked VCU as the number one public, fine-arts school in the country — a fact VCU proudly displays. As they should, it is a fine accomplishment. I weep to think of how much more depraved and lost the other schools must be. For of the collegiate painters I know, nearly none are able to paint realistically. Sloppy and undisciplined, they slip in impastic disasters that owe a great deal to the Expressionists of the 20th century but lack every bit the psychological depth and intellectual rigor.

Greenbergian philosophies of flatness prevail in hollow forms of its intended aims. Outdated Minimalist principles and concepts of the non-finito are abused by the lazy and uninspired. And above all, hasty executions of Color Field proudly dominate, the inspirations of which certainly have Rothko rolling in his grave. Like students studying how to take tests, the painters only learn to have thought provoking critiques. This promotes insincerity and competition. For those who are competitive they will strive for increased ostentatiousness and those who aren’t they will alienate their works in order to disallow comparison. Both are ruinous. But who is to blame when they are allowed only a month to complete a work of art?

Fundamental practice at a young age is as pertinent to a life devoted to images, as learning the alphabet is to a life of letters. One cannot skip lessons in grammar to write poetry or forgo syntax, opting into the exciting world of creative writing. Furthermore, without an education, no person who values their time will read or bother themselves with such productions.

Illustration by Skye Lim
Illustration by Skye Lim

The unintelligible phonemes of infants are also enigmatic and filled with the essence of human thought, yet remain unheeded until language is grasped. Aside from the pipedream conversations held in every critique or the occasional short reading assignment, these students effectively can only, honestly, boast a high school level education. Those teaching them appear not to be their intellectual superiors but simply older. These adults teach pupils to think, to critique and to conceptualize artistic concepts. In doing this, the professors are first rate. In fact, great artists are philosophers but are also craftsmen who require education in handiwork. In teaching technique, the professors are absentee.

To speak of the canvas, our artistic education values color above line. Color and its appeal to emotion dominate the program. Line, and its appeal to the intellect is nowhere to be found. Before modernism, in the nineteenth century, young artists would be required to spend up to a decade practicing drawing, ideas of contour, modeling and form before being allowed to paint. This fundamental aspect of what distinguishes artists from craftsmen has been forgotten, and paint is allowed to anybody with enough credits, ready or not. When I raised this concern to my professors and classmates (i.e. the 400-year-long debate of the Poussinists versus the Rubenists), not one set of eyes held a trace of recognition on the subject or an understanding of how it might possibly apply to their own artistic careers.

And so, cavalier expression is valued over restraint and discipline. One requires training and mature patience; the other is what students of our age are naturally inclined to do. So, while one is fascinating and descriptive of youth and vivacity, the other shows what potential the human mind has for transcending our baser tendencies. Both are wonderful to behold, but only one should be taught, one should be paid for and one should come before the other. Picasso was a formative legend because he was first classically trained, and he relied on this for his more masterful expressions. A ceiling is met when concept outpaces skill, and it is this frustration that lays ahead for any who think linear discipline is a thing of the past.

Paradoxically, originality is unfairly expected of young students in this late age. This encourages the novel instead of the timeless. And like any novelty, it quickly grows old. Sadly, it is thought that every notion of the infinitely complex human condition has already been expressed in the realm of two-dimensional realism. That human tendency to ravenously advance our perceived status has damned us yet again. The frustrated productions that most find so aesthetically unattractive are simply the regrettable by-products of a broken system and an unsatisfied soul yearning for truth and beauty in art.

–Samuel Bordley, Art History Dept., Class of 2017

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