The College Art Association and Parnassus

by James F. Cooper

Today we are overwhelmed with imagery and influences. We leave so many [art] exhibitions today with a sense of emptiness, a lack of substance…as all these new technological multimedia flashes take over…it is difficult to find work that has any kind of the richness of experience that the past has given us.                                       

—Will Barnett

In early February 2011, members and acolytes of the College Art Association gathered in New York City to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the CAA at the Hilton Hotel. For four days, some 6,000 scholars, educators, artists, curators, authors, publishers and thousands of networking graduate students seeking employment, connections and book deals, jammed into a hundred or so spaces throughout three floors of the hotel’s convention center, for talks and slide presentations delivered by several hundred scholars, professors, political and gender activists, artists, university deans and foundation chairmen. There were 180 two-to-three-hour panel discussions, with a half-dozen speakers each, presented simultaneously at the rate of fifteen per hour. The fourth floor of the hotel was devoted to book publishers and art supply manufacturers advertising their latest wares. 1

The mood this year seemed more upbeat than in previous years, more self-congratulatory, less hostile and more professional, more willing to allow a few dissident voices to challenge the paradigm that has dominated the CAA since the 1970s. The national economic downsizing most conspicuously affected the publishing houses, which offered far fewer art publications, but it may also have contributed to the smaller number of flamboyant subjects than in previous conferences.

Another noticeable difference was the presence of an alternative arts symposium, held only a few blocks away at the venerable Art Students League. The League was founded in 1875 by a breakaway group of teachers and students from the National Academy of Design, established in 1825 by Samuel B. Morse and Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. The influence of the League and the Academy, in their championship of traditional figurative arts education, waned in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In contrast to the great number of meetings hosted by the CAA this year, there was only one event at the League, held in the large lecture room on the second floor. The gathering, filled to overflowing, offered a remarkable contrast to the events at the Hilton Hotel, although there were a number of visitors wearing green CAA identification cards. The contrast between the two was not limited to size alone. The high walls of the lecture hall at the League were covered with innumerable studies of the human figure, executed in a variety of mediums on paper: Conté, chalk, charcoal, pencil, ink, watercolor. They were not the usual glib, “sophisticated” studies that have become the norm during the last fifty years at traditional arts schools. These were very astute, hard-worked studies, as if the students were seeing the human nude for the first time. The emphasis in these drawings was not on graphic flamboyance, but on thoughtful observation and study. 

Robert Liberace, Male Figure Throwing Ball, 2003, Courtesy Arcadia Gallery, New York City

Installed across the top of one wall is a large bas-relief reproduction of part of the Parthenon frieze. Long a fixture at the League, it now seems newly appropriate and relevant. The League has been experiencing a remarkable change in leadership and focus. What had long been regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant—the traditional classical approach to the human figure, exemplified by the anatomy lectures of Robert Beverly Hale at the League during the 1940s and 50s (Hale was also curator of American Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)—has taken on a purpose-driven new life for students and faculty disenchanted with postmodern education. Nudged by the growing success of small ateliers founded by gifted classical artists such as Jacob Collins, Stephen Gjertson and Harvey Dinnerstein, traditional art academies have rediscovered the classical tradition. Juliette Aristides, instructor at the Gage Atelier in Seattle, Washington, documents this trend in her latest book, Lessons in Classical Drawing: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier (Holt Rinehart), which will be available October 15, 2011. The quality of contemporary draftmanship is demonstrated by Robert Liberace’s Conté crayon motion study Male Figure Throwing Ball (2003) and Aristides’ own accomplished drawings, such as James, 2010.

There was also striking evidence of promising change in the League students’ figurative studies. So many of them are beautiful in a formal sense, using aesthetic standards one normally applies to great works of art. However, the primary motivation of the students is not simply to create attractive work, but to understand how to translate a complex three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional drawing. It requires study, hard work, to comprehend the structure, volume, anatomy, proportion and movement of the human figure. The fact that the end result of the exercise appears pleasing to the viewer’s eye is a symptom, a by-product of the intelligent diligence required of the artist in pursuit of his quarry, which is to learn. Some of the most successful works of the Renaissance were merely studies or thumbsketches, preliminaries to help the artist create a finished work of sculpture in marble or a narrative painting in oil.

Nevertheless, while beauty remains one of the primary objectives of the artist, the goal here is knowledge. The speakers at the League, chaired by instructor James Lancel McElhinney, emphasized the studio skills and educational process of figure study. The sequential acquisition of knowledge and artistic skill is a life-long educational process that should be encouraged from the earliest age. However, many in the arts establishment continue to reject this idea. Topics advanced at the CAA conference included “Foundations in Art: Theory and Education: Introducing Postmodern Thought in Duchamp’s Legacy: The De-skilling and Dematerializing Promotion of Current Driven Cultural Practice” and “Infusing Post modern Thought into Foundation Courses.” I served for three years inWashington,D.C., on the President’s National Committee for Standards in Arts Education K–12, which included highly intelligent, successful corporate leaders, museum directors, educators and United States congressmen. I can attest that the primary educational objective for many members on the visual arts committee was not the sequential acquisition of studio skills, but rather something closer to political or social studies, postmodern de-skilling and dematerializing. Drawing as a process and craft is considered anathema by many former members of the National Committee for Arts Education, as is the subject of aesthetics. Another typical topic at the CAA conference was “The Minimal as Spectacle: Contemporary Drawing and Installation Art.”

Harvey Dinnerstein, one ofAmerica’s best contemporary figurative artists and an instructor at the League, believes that resolving the conflict between the two approaches is not a simple matter of turning back the clock to an earlier academic style. Rather, we need to rethink the universal properties of the classical idiom so that they apply to contemporary themes. As a young student many years ago, Dinnerstein recalls, the traditional figurative classes he encountered were too often focused on the superficial aspects of the academic tradition. Lost was the emphasis the old masters placed on rigorous construction and research of the human form. The implied separation of form from content resulted in a pale imitation of the distant past. Dinnerstein’s solution was (and still is) to go to museums and study the works of the great masters. His advice to students is to work from life and always carry a sketchbook. Life is the great teacher, not theory, he cautions.

For centuries, apprentices learned to become artists by studying the masters and working in their ateliers. A teen-aged Leonardo da Vinci painted an exquisite angel in the lower left foreground of the masterpiece The Baptism of Christ (1470−73) by his teacher, Andrea del Verrochio, a sculptor, goldsmith and painter employed at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence. According to Vasari, young Leonardo’s angel was so superior to the rest of the painting that Andrea resolved never to touch the brush again. The story may be apocryphal, but the lesson is clear. Leonardo learned his craft at an early age, hands-on, working in a studio, not in a lecture hall listening to abstract theories about art. This is no reflection on the talent of Verrocchio. By our standards today, he is still a master. The big difference then was the method of study employed, the intelligence and taste of the patron (after all, it was Lorenzo de’ Medici) and the cultural milieu of the Renaissance, which demanded excellence and commitment. Verrocchio and young Leonardo were both beneficiaries of the sophisticated iconography of their time and place. They knew what to paint. Talented as many artists and sculptors are today, they—and their audience—lack a common fund of relevant subject matter, narrative, historical, spiritual and mythological content. Several of the speakers at the League emphasized that artists need an expanded visual iconography enriched with historical and symbolic references.

Ironically, contemporary postmodern artists possess a lot of narrative and political references. But since they cannot draw and have not been instilled with a sense of craftsmanship and aesthetics, their work has little more significance than a newspaper headline. Indeed, many of their supporters and teachers claim that classicism and beauty are intrinsically elitist, fascist and imperialist. How can these two camps communicate with one another to the benefit of both? This is the real challenge for the CAA. Does it possess the potential to address broader issues? Do the League and other similar academies have the potential to open their programs to content? How can we help realist artists to be more culturally literate? Can postmodern theorists set aside their now-dated agenda, which deconstructed not only the arts and popular culture, but the educational institutions of theUnited States?

There are some artists who bridge the gap. Odd Nerdrum began his career as a Romantic classicist and evolved into one of the century’s great contemporary existential modernists. Will Barnett, an important instructor at the League, began his career as a traditional, academy-trained classical realist. His latest paintings, shown at the AlexandreGallery, are totally abstract. Although many would disagree, I could demonstrate how his abstract work contains many classical elements of proportion, harmony and form. (The podcast with Will Barnett can be accessed on the Newington-CropseyCulturalStudiesCenter’s website: )

Juliette Aristides, James, charcoal on toned paper, 2010, Collection of the artist

One of the more promising signs at the CAA conference was the increased number of discussions on developments in Art History and higher education. Of particular interest was a discussion on the merits of raising the educational bar for Studio Skills to a Ph.D. The premise of such an undertaking, suggests James Elkins of the Art Institute of Chicago, undermines the very nature and process of developing skills in media, paint or marble. However, history courses, even limited to art history, could provide an opportunity for today’s content-starved realist artists, who can draw beautiful figures but cannot incorporate the figure into a meaningful narrative. What if Ph.D. candidates and teachers at the CAA could be enlisted to develop an iconography and historical narrative for artists and sculptors? Art schools and ateliers are notoriously unprepared to explore literary content. The result is a national shortage of meaningful content in public works of art, architecture and memorials. Several panelists at the League commented on this deficiency in students’ work: “We have taught them how to draw, but not what to draw.” In contrast, educators at the CAA conference advocate the questionable benefits of obtaining a Ph.D. in Studio Skills, where the emphasis is primarily on theory, not the acquisition of sequential developed skills. Here, then, is the most striking difference between the two schools of thought. One is focused on ideology, often reductively polemical; the other, on craft, much copied from nineteenth-century portraits and still lifes. What is missing is dynamic contemporary content, combined with first-rate craftsmanship.

For the time being, too many lectures and slide demonstrations focus on contemporary postmodern art, as at the CAA, revolving like the endless permutations of a kaleidoscope. One shape slips into another, and another, changes colors and tones, but never seems to arrive at any destination. There are endless variations, engineered almost mindlessly by computer software and digital video programs, but they strike no empathetic connection with the viewer. Occasionally, one image may evoke a response, but it is quickly forgotten as the next permutation evolves. Unfortunately, this approach has also tainted the creative process in popular culture. We see it in the declining quality of motion pictures, produced by an industry obsessed with recycling and building franchises.

Several speakers at the League spoke glowingly about the sensuous pleasure of moving a pencil or pen nib through the rich tendrils of paper, flushing out soft shadows that define the massive blocklike pectorals in a well-developed male or the gluteus medius and iliac crest of a voluptuous female form. Van Gogh’s rapturous responses to the painterly qualities he achieved by drawing with sharpened reed pens, harvested from the fields surrounding Arles, was a major breakthrough for the artist. After a torturous year experimenting with every type of drawing implement, Vincent had rediscovered one of the favorite drawing instruments of Rembrandt.

The absence of this personal, tactile involvement in artmaking undermines postmodern sculpture, painting and drawing. Unfortunately, many Americans have become acclimated to spaces and objects that are sanitized and empty. This introduces a larger issue, one that appealed to leaders of great civilizations of the past—which gave Western civilization the Parthenon, Pergamum, Chartres, the Sistine Ceiling, the Brooklyn Bridge and Washington National Cathedral. It is good to note the appointment of Anne-Imelda Radice to the CAA Board of Directors. She has a deep scholarly interest in cultural issues and standards. In the early 1990s, she was appointed Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, when President Bush fired John Frohnmayer for mishandling the controversies that arose over government funding. Frohnmayer, a retiredOregonlawyer, chose to defend the objectionable NEA grants on legal grounds, citing free expression, as defined by the First Amendment. He ignored aesthetic issues, and the mandate of the NEA charter, which directs that artistic “excellence” be its primary criterion. In contrast, Radice correctly identified the real issue as funding “mediocrity” and cancelled the grants.

Another encouraging sign at the CAA conference was the panel on “New Life for Memorials on the National Mall,” chaired by Judy Scott Feldman, president of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. For the past ten years, she has fought a valiant battle, against powerful federal and city agencies, to establish one unified conservancy that would develop long-range plans to address the Mall’s national importance and continuing evolution. The fifty-year delay in creating an acceptable design for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial on the National Mall—and the disappointing final result—is one obvious symptom. Artistic vision was lost amid the machinations of special-interest politics.

During the past fifty years, the theorists have largely succeeded in separating the present from the past. The cultural elite at universities and public schools have so thoroughly deconstructed history, writes Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in The Disuniting of America, “that it threatens the American identity…replacing assimilation by fragmentation.” Several scholars, including Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations), concur with Schlesinger: the debate about culture is a debate about what it means to be an American. What we were left with was a culture that lacked beauty, while embracing mediocrity, kitsch, irony and desacrilization. How can we restore what has been lost—not only the physical artifacts, memorials and architecture, but the educational process and traditional standards that form the core of Western civilization? Since the age of Aristotle and Plato, through Schiller and Ruskin, the West benefited from scholars and leaders who connected the progress of civilization with the arts.

Today’s resurgence in the traditional arts is a natural development in response to the basic human need for beauty, but we need to take the process a step further into the realm of meaningful communication. When I first began thinking about this essay, the split between the academic theorists of the CAA and the practical traditionalists of the Art Students League seemed to yawn like a chasm. But there are encouraging signs of bridges being built, between scholars and artists, between art specialists and the public, between past and present. In peak times of cultural achievement, Periclean Athens, the Italian Renaissance, the American Renaissance, great ideas are translated into great art. The word academy can be used to describe a consortium of scholars or an atelier for working artists. Ideally, both kinds of academy should be collaborating to rebuild our culture.  


American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2011, Volume 28, Number 2