After all the flattering attention of the modern tutorial system today's student couldn't possibly fathom the humility required for such tasks. Anyone who tries to work diligently in an art school, especially on a picture, will be hounded for it. An often-heard comment on a painting a student has barely begun is "leave it there". Their only rule for painting, as far as I ever saw, is that the haphazard lay-in is always better than a finished work could ever be. In articulation, they believe, all spirit is lost.
During my term of printing I made an aquatint etching, but I had miscalculated the strength of the acid and my final print was almost black all over. It was a term's work, so I had to present it, along with the diagrams I had used in making it, all annotated with timings for the acid bath. First the teachers took the usual step of proclaiming my workings-out as the real art, much more interesting than any actual picture I might finish. My print should have shown a light filled room, but my teachers then challenged me to recognise that this black print was in fact the best thing I had ever done. I protested that the work was a failure, and that I would never present an accident as my final work; part of the fascination of art comes from what I think of as a morality of realising intentions. A teacher replied: "How can you even talk about morality when we are at war with Iraq?" Such willingness to accept accident as worthy of contemplation is typical. Human traces, even human stains, are more interesting than thoughts; every work they approve could, in effect, boil down to "I woz ere". The contemporary art market tends to treat artists and their products as freakish specimens, but so do the artists themselves. During six years in and out of art schools, I was never once encouraged to visit an art museum, unless it was showing contemporary art, but it was often suggested that I visit anthropological collections. To the modern artist it is no insult to be treated as an anthropological curiosity; it is a compliment, because he takes it as proof of his validity, his specialness. In 1866, in what Gombrich would call the "formative document" of modern art, Emile Zola wrote: "that which I seek above all in a painting is a man, and not a picture..." He went on to declare that "art is... a human secretion". But he could not have guessed where, eventually, his thoughts would lead.
In his sixth discourse, given to Royal Academy leavers, Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote:
Do this justice, however, to the English Academy; to bear in mind, that in this place you contracted no narrow habits, no false ideas, nothing that could lead you to the imitation of any living master, who may be the fashionable darling of the day. As you have not been taught to flatter us, do not learn to flatter yourselves.
This is, in every clause, precisely the opposite of what our modern art schools promote. We have already seen the flattery and the false ideas; but there is more.
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