from the book, Why Art Cannot Be Taught – A Handbook for Art Students by James Elkins
Teachers Make Idiosyncratic Pronouncements
All criticism-and some would say all discourse, including science-depends on “interpretive communities.” A group of people who think along the same lines form a “stable interpretive community” meaning they will be likely to agree among themselves. It may seem that the ateliers of the French Academy were such communities, because it appears to us that they agreed on a single kind of art. We might imagine that typical atelier contests would not provoke heated discussion, that people would either agree on what works were best or else disagree in predictable ways . It seems that situation is no longer true today. There are many ways to judge postmodern art, and many different short-lived schools and styles. As a result , we have “evanescent interpretive communities,” and no one kind of art is valued for very long. But we need to be careful in assuming that there is more disagreement today than there was in the Baroque, or even that standards of judgment change more rapidly now than in the past. The passage of time collapses nuance, and it is not true that more people in the eighteenth century agreed more of the time, or that standards of taste took longer to change. Then, as now, the judgment of artworks depends on a consensus of like-minded people.
In a critique it sometimes happens that all the panelists agree. In that case, the critique panel comprises a stable interpretive community-stable, at least, for the duration of the critique. Standards of taste or quality will remain reasonably constant. When two panelists do not agree, it can mean that they are “representing” two disparate interpretive communities. To take an artificial example: one might like Andrew Wyeth, and another Joseph Beuys. If the panelists are affiliated with two such radically different ideals , then you can expect many of their statements to disagree, and in addition you can expect them to disagree in some predictable ways. In such a case the panelists are like ambassadors for absent interpretive communities.
One difference between the Baroque and contemporary art worlds is that today there are many more points of view. There are more movements, more “isms” , in the early twenty-first century than there were in eighteenth century France. The art world appears to change rapidly and contemporary artists can be pluralistic and work in a variety of media; but as a matter of practice, it is often fairly easy to decide what affiliation a faculty member has.
“The practices that are now called painting and drawing are entirely different that what they were in past centuries. Painting has died – its central techniques have been lost- four times in the history of Western art: once when the Greek paintings and textbooks were lost, again in the sixteenth century when Jan Van Eyck’s method was lost, again in the late eighteenth century when Venetian Renaissance technique was forgotten, and a fourth time in the early twentieth century when painting alla prima ( wet in wet) definitively replaced the more systematic Baroque techniques.
Renaissance painting was done in many stages, with each layer drying before the next coat, and the images were constructed: that is, planned in advance and brought to completion in a more or less systematic and deliberate manner. Different emulsions were used within a single painting ( a typical sequence was tempera, followed by oil and then glazes and varnish.) Nowadays artists paint all at once, alla prima, in a single thick coat. Even Romantic painting at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was definitively different from what is done now. the change happened as early as Manet and the Impressionists.
It doesn’t help to look in old texts, because Jan and Hubert Van Eyck kept their methods secret, and there is no Renaissance source that says how Titian executed his glazes. Nor does it help to turn to contemporary chemical analyses, because what is important about the technique – such as ultra-thin paint layers – cannot be adequately studied in infrared, X-ray, or thin section. Some German texts, written around the turn of the twentieth century, record attempts to recapture Renaissance methods-but even they have become hard to interpret as the traditions of reconstruction have died out. the fact is that oil paintings is a lost art several times over, and what we call oil painting bears very little resemblance to what past centuries knew by that name.”
Why Art Cannot Be Taught – a Handbook for Art Students- by James Elkins
” After I had worked every day for one month on a four-foot statue, the armature suddenly broke. I watched in shock as a foot fell off…. part of a hip…the gluteus maximus…. one arm… a month of seeing, studying, analyzing forms and muscles. It was a baroque pose- the rectus abdominus twisted and extended from the upper right to the lower left of the torso. Half the piece was lost. I felt ill.
My husband, Bob, and a visiting friend, Renee, held it up while I frantically tried to reinforce the armature, in order to salvage what was left of the piece. I put in an emergency call to Donald Kennedy, a sculptor and friend, who came like a doctor in the night. The intense hear of the past few August days, combined with the heat from the studio lights, had dangerously softened the clay. Donald arrived with ropes, hoists, blankets, wooden wedges for propping, and a giant toolbox filled with turnbolts, elbow joints, wrenches, and screws. We cooled the piece down with icewater and propped it up with wood, wire, and ropes. Thus it was stabilized until a new armature was built. The sculpture was now standing, partially salvaged. I couldn’t work for several days; heartsick, I couldn’t walk into the studio. When I was able to resume, I re-created the statue in three days. It had taken one month to understand the pose- to interpret the forms, the twists and curves, the muscle attachments, the skeleton. The time was spent in the struggle to see. That having been accomplished and committed to memory, I could quickly reproduce the exact pose even without the model’s being there.
The mind retains thoroughtly comprehended information, and it can be called upon at any time.”
Art and Soul – Notes on Creating by Audrey Flack