Community Suppression of Art Knowledge

What happens when an art community suppresses itself?

Self-Portrait of Piet Mondrian

Types of Community Suppression

When I was 14, my classmate, who I will call “D” and I completed a science project together and have been good friends ever since.

D’s great-grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Greece almost the exact same year that my great grandparents had immigrated from Germany. And although there were active and robust Greek and German communities for many years in our town, by the time D and I met, the cohesiveness of the German community had almost entirely dissolved while the Greek community was still very much active.

I remember feeling very jealous that D spoke some Greek, that his mom made the most amazing baklava the world has ever witnessed, and that he was in close contact with his distant relatives in Greece.

In contrast, I spoke no German, the Oktoberfests that used to be ubiquitous festivals in our town had disappeared, and I had no contact with anyone in Germany.

As an adult I realized that there was a very  obvious reason for these contrasting 3rd generation immigrant experiences. Being German was a very unpopular identity to be during and after WWII in the United States. The German-American community found it expedient to self-suppress its culture so as to create as much separation as possible between themselves and the U.S.’s enemies in Europe.

As this family history illustrates, self-suppression is astonishingly successful when instigated internally by a community. And this kind of self-suppression is what caused the loss of an enormous amount of information in the visual arts community throughout the last century.

Self-Suppression of Artistic Knowledge

In art, an ideology took root around the turn of the last century that in hindsight is quite extraordinary.

The control of the Salon system, largely responsible for both training and awarding careers to artists, had become unbearable to many artists by the 1880’s.

Some were upset at the lack of appreciation of the new color theory being employed by the younger Impressionist painters. Some traditionally academic painters felt slighted by the Salon for only accepting an ideologically narrow swath of primarily narrative pictures into their exhibits.

One of the first major break aways from formal training, and the hundreds of years of inherited artistic information that it represented, came with the Salon de Refuses which eventually upended the art establishment of its day.

This dislike of the official Academies and their control lead artists to create less formal organizations for learning, like spending the summers painting with Monet and other small ateliers.

The growing and continuous dislike for the control of the Academies was directly proportionate to the increasingly extreme backlash ideologies.  While the struggle to create careers and sell artwork without the help of the official Academies persisted, the hatred for the Academy system grew within the minority artist community.

What started as a revolt against the narrow control of the Academies over style and subject matter became a revolt against everything the Academies stood for.

The Academies became so unpalatable to some artists by the 1880’s that any hint of formal training became viewed as an encumbrance to authentic expression. As students purposefully purged centuries of knowledge from their artistic educations, the self-suppression accelerated.

The Rise of Artists as Special Prodigies

By the 1920’s, knowledge and training became outright taboo in many artist circles, less it infect the innocence of true artistic expression.

Unfortunately, there was also a lot of duplicity by artists purporting a system of “no training to be a real artist” but who then had extensive training themselves. Artists who are often praised in art history textbooks for their “innocent” visual depictions were actually quite well-trained.

Picasso’s father, for example, was an atelier-trained artist that trained his son. And even Mondrian was classically trained before shedding technically-advanced skills for painting squares.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Artist’s Mother, 1896

Unfortunately, many 20th century artists that had some of the inherited artistic knowledge of previous generations of artists chose not to train the next generation of artists. This could be out of fear of ruining their creativity, following the philosophy that was in vogue at the time.

However, I would argue that these artists who had training also had a monopoly on knowledge that by that time hardly anyone else had access to. What started as a steady decline of the Academies due to Salon de Refuses dissidents became nearly complete destruction of their knowledge by the end of WWI.

Deaths of the Academy leaders due to old age (and in some cases the war itself) destabilized both the knowledge and politics of these centers of learning. Artists who acquired Academy knowledge during this highly unstable time were quite lucky and few and far between.

Picasso and Mondrian in particular continue to be exulted by art gatekeepers to the status of geniuses largely from the lack of even remotely comparably-trained artists. There was not much incentive for these artists to admit they learned their craft by teaching others what they were taught and relinquish their “genius” status.

Few Places Left to Acquire Atelier Knowledge

It is clear that there were many events that converged that lead to the self-suppression of skills in the visual arts by the artists themselves. These include a belief that training would ruin artistic creativity, a lack of places to get training as an extreme anti-training ideology took root and closed down the places that had previously offered it, and artists that had the training themselves that refused to share their knowledge with others.

Additionally, two major world wars literally and figuratively killed technical artistic training as a mainstay in the visual arts. Artists died fighting in these wars, and the demoralization of a battered populace after witnessing horrors previously unknown made the idea of beauty as an ideal in art unbearable to many.

Today, however, there is a Renaissance afoot of bringing technical knowledge in art back from the brink of extinction. Ironically, the counter-cultural movement in art is now to acquire the nearly-lost skills the last century of artists purposefully hurled aside.

But the movement does not seek to go backwards in art. Rather, the Atelier Movement works to provide skilled training to artists so that truly new ideas can be brought forth. As in other subjects, it takes a solid understanding of what is already known to truly be innovative.

Why do you think technical art knowledge ebbed in the 20th century? Let me know in the comments below.

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