Brian Curtis, artist,painting, oil painting,narrative painting, drawing,narrative drawing, charcoal drawing, digital imaging, narrative digital images, oil pastel on paper, drawing from observation, introductory perceptual drawing, introductory perceptual drawing text, drawing text, how to draw, observational drawing, renaissance drawing, observational drawing, drawing what you see, drawing essentials, drawing technique, drawing mechanics, drawing materials, intuitive gesture, intuitive perspective, clock angle, clock angle drawing tool ,positive/negative shape ,perceptual grid, x/y axes, Mondrian Grid, Mondrian tool, alberti's veil, gesture drawing, extended gesture drawing, proportion, Golden Mean, Sacred Geometry, Golden rectangle, Pythagoras, Phidias, Great Pyramid of Cheops, Stonehenge, Solomon's temple, pentagram, mandelbrot set, cross-contour, cross contour, atmospherice perspective, flag drawings, foreshortened circles, circles in perspective, ellipses, cirkutcamera, imaginary birdhouses, biomorphic form, schema, tree drawings, chiaroscuro, continuous-tone, continuous tone drawing, Akhenaton, Mach bands, simultaneous contrast, visual field, visual world,linear perspective,scientific perspective,monocular cues,alternative perspectives,one-point perspective,two-point perspective,three-point perspective, fixation point, brunelleschi, vanishing point, picture plane, cone of vision, birds-eye perspective ,composition, gestalt principles, principles and elements ,symmetry, picture plane dynamics, visual power of proximity, emphasis by contrast, emphasis by isolation, visual weight of depth, rule of thirds, rule of odds, thumbnails,viewing frames, drawing assignments, asymmetry, fibonacci sequence, the parthenon, brian curtis resume, artist statement, figurative painting, figurative drawing, observational drawing, conference presentations, CAA conference presentations, F.A.T.E. Conference presentations, SECA conference presentations, MACAA conference presentations, n'artWhy N'art ani't Art, Academic art, modern art, postmodern art, postmodern practice. contemporary cultural practice, Critically thinking critical theory and contemporary cultural practice, Leonardo's Legacy,

I am here to discuss Marcel Duchamp’s unfortunate influence on art pedagogy that has culminated in art programs dedicated to the de-skilling and dematerializing promotion of concept-driven cultural practice. While instilling visual sensitivity and providing skill-based studio instruction remains a constant refrain from proponents of contemporary cultural practice, in reality, neither the teachers nor the students at the majority of art programs are behaving as if these are meaningful goals. What we do see, as described by Steven Madoff, former editor of Art News and contributor to ART SCHOOL: Propositions for the 21st Century, are programs constructed around the notion that:

“….art is the outward sign of an idea manifested through any sensorial means, using any object from any precinct of production as its instrument, with its concept claiming priority over the making or appropriation of the optical thing, or the sign itself.”

Call it what you will, contemporary cultural practice, post-studio art, postmodernism, post-retinal art, post-Fordian (post-industrialization) art, post-literate art, post-conceptual art, situational aesthetics, or, as I prefer to call it, N'art, the intertextual, trans-disciplinary, cross-cultural, hypermediated, intersubjective, technology dependent pedagogies that privilege concept, context and process over the intuitive experience of direct sensory aesthetic pleasure are so pervasive that they appear on course to eradicate hands-on studio training within a generation. This, unfortunately, is the legacy of Marcel Duchamp.

In the pursuit of this Duchampian “end-game,” a disturbing number of high-profile programs are systematically resorting to indoctrinating students with anti-Enlightment intellectual provocations by front loading their foundations program with vaguely constructed courses of non-hierarchical, experimental, contextualized, interdisciplinary, integrative, theory dependent, multi-cultural, issue oriented, community sensitive, multivocal, transmedia studies that privilege digital technology and conceptualization over hands-on studio training in specific media. It should come as no surprise that the admitted goal of these “innovative” foundations programs is to pressure entering students to “unlearn” their “naïve” understanding of what constitutes a work of art (specifically: the need to disavow retinal, skill-based, quality oriented, media-driven art forms). Two such indoctrination programs at high-profile programs are described by Dr. Jodi Kushins in an article in FATE in Review for 2008 – 2009 in an article titled Brave New Basics where she documents the fact that hands-on training in traditional media has been replaced by conceptually driven approaches using ‘new media’ (she specifically mentions sewing and baking) that, according to their proponents, help students develop critical awareness of the relationships between concepts and context. Dr. Kushins goes on to acknowledge that these curricula are continuing Marcel Duchamp’s denouncement of craft, his assault on good taste and his adamant rejection of “retinal” art.  Kushins then quotes a faculty member from one of the profiled institutions who unhesitatingly refers to their innovative curriculum as “deprograming,” by which incoming students are “forced to let go of their previous notions about art making” while being taught that to be an innovative artist demands a wholesale rejection of the longstanding reverence for visual aesthetics and craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, this trend is not restricted to high-profile professional art schools. At SECAC in Richmond this past October I encountered this identical trend at the FATE session titled Busting the Boundaries in Foundation Drawing. The call for papers read as follows:

This panel will investigate moving beyond those boundaries of foundation drawing as observation by presenting assignments and methodologies that cover, but are not limited to, Collaboration Among Students, Architectural Drawing, Drafting, Cartooning, Drawing Science and Nature, Mapping, Representing Popular Culture, Illustrating Fashion and Ornamentation.”

The presentations themselves addressed issues of collaboration, pop-culture metaphors, creative writing, and paid lip-service to critical thinking with each stating that an innovative conceptual focus was needed at the foundations level because Millennials find observational drawing to be boring and crave relevant content and team oriented projects. While I do not have time to address these misguided claims about the restricted learning styles of Millennials, I can report that the student drawings examples that were projected during these presentations clearly exhibited a consistent lack of understanding of visual thinking as related to dynamic pictorial composition, of the techniques that allow for depictions of coherent spatial relationships, and, perhaps most disturbing of all, of a practiced understanding of the inherent expressive characteristics the media that were used to record and preserve the movement, energy, rhythm, excitement, and “feel” of the drawing process. Language based concepts were plentiful but the importance of something as essential as heightened sensitivity to sensory experience was nowhere to be found. What makes this oversight so unfortunate is that receptivity and responsiveness to sensory stimulation are base-line indicators of the fullness and profundity with which a human being engages life.

Sensory experience is at the core of art training. Peter Kaniaris, a professor of painting at Anderson University in South Carolina, reflected on the importance of direct sensory experience in a paper titled The Visual Impulse: A Lost Metaphor:

“Rooted in the practice of art is an ancient metaphor: that art is (at its core) an irreducibly visual experience; its “language” and knowledge are unique; its outcomes are like no other outcomes; its value is intrinsically bound to its means. It is a foundational experience that has its origins in the visual impulse, the innate human desire to communicate through visual means. It is the ancient metaphor at work, as old and deep as the paintings of Lascaux.”

Drawing attention to and fine-tuning a student’s receptivity and responsiveness to sensory stimulation is what traditional studio training is about. Franklin Einspruch, a painter and a remarkably precise writer on art has made some penetrating observations about the shortcomings of exchanging trendy concepts for serious skill and sensitization training.

“We’re witnessing an effort, a hundred years in the making, to legitimize ever-increasing kinds of objects as art, starting with a bottle rack and culminating in a shared meal. This is a kind of freedom, a freedom of possibilities, maximized to an absurd scale that moots a discussion about traditional media training. But it’s a dissipated freedom that gives rise to artworks as lethargic as their titles.

But where there is only freedom of possibility, there is effectively no freedom at all. There’s another kind of freedom that we need to address as teachers: the freedom of ability.

Against a background of freedom of possibility, which is more or less given, one has to develop freedom of ability by dint of practice— physical repetition of skills with the desire to produce a particular outcome. We should recognize that we are dealing with an entirely different sort of freedom here.”

Promoters of concept driven approaches conveniently ignore our innate need for direct experience of sensory pleasure and replace it with a pop-culture compulsion to jettison everything old in favor of anything new. This is the dictatorial commandment of the avant-garde. Old is bad, new is good. Innovation has become the most popular word in contemporary foundations education. I would go so far as say it is an obsession. However, the term innovation, despite its current ubiquity today as a synonym for improved, actually only means “new” or “different. Not better. Perhaps some of you will have heard of the Hindenburg, the Edsel automobile, New Coke, Thalidomide as a sedative for pregnant women, the insecticide DDT, Betamax video format, cold fusion, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Certainly you are all old enough to remember the Dot-com bubble, Microsoft VISTA operating system, pre-emptive war in Iraq, financial de-regulation of Wall Street, exorbitant executive compensation, sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps, and most recently, the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer. Innovations all.

To further complicate matters, the curriculum innovations that are being adopted at art programs across the country are most often based upon popular-media hype, unsubstantiated facts, poorly reasoned premises, and/or arcane philosophical abstrusiosities. Since history clearly illustrates that innovations can be disastrous it behooves us carefully weigh the importance of what is being sacrificed before rushing headlong into “innovative” curricula. It is a dangerous misinterpretation of the maxim that “those ignorant of history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past” to suggest that history is only a repository of failed ideas. A corollary maxim reminds us, “those ignorant of the past are condemned to an infinite loop of having to rediscover the wheel.“

Because all humans inherit a common central nervous system at birth it is of utmost importance that we structure foundations curricula around our shared perceptual mechanisms so as to provide our students with a understanding of the design elements, principles, and manual skill training that constitute a well-balanced studio foundation. This pedagogical model is rooted in the understanding that you don’t need words to think. “Making is thinking.” Such a course requires a student to look deliberately, look intensely, seek meaning in experience, and pursue a state of complete awareness of what it is that they are accomplishing. From a Darwinian perspective, as outlined by Denis Dutton in his book, The Art Instinct, the above pedagogical model springs from an innate human predisposition to value objects that provide direct sensory pleasure, require specialized skill, require a decoupling from practical concerns, logic, and rational understanding, and acknowledge their place in the traditions of art. He goes on to describe art as:

“CHEESCAKE for the mind – delivering a megaWHALLOP of agreeable stimuli concocted to push our pleasure buttons wired in the Pleistocene era. “

Unfortunately, however, the intellectual provocations of Marcel Duchamp that severed the link between visual perceptual experience and the inherent value of a work of art have become the foundation of contemporary art school curricula. Although this “sterilization of the visual” has roots dating back to Plato’s idealism, the current antagonism between visual and verbal forms of knowledge is Duchamp’s legacy. As you might recall from the 2004 survey of 500 British art world specialists, Duchamp’s Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the twentieth century. A curious icon for a bloated, overpriced world art-market that is packed-full of cult-like practitioners of concept oriented cultural practice and one that is incestuously intertwined with our perverted capital markets. Curiously, the original urinal no longer exists because Duchamp threw it in the trash to demonstrate that he had absolutely no interest whatsoever in the value of the object. Duchamp’s influence on contemporary cultural practice becomes even more ludicrous when you consider that he clearly stated that his goal was to “de-deify” the artist and that he was unequivocally opposed to art as a commercial venture.

One common characteristic of the majority of pro-Duchampian, anti-Darwinian N’artists is their distain for using their own hands to create their work. This dismissive attitude originates with Duchamp himself who stated that he considered the execution of his ideas to be a boring activity. From the early 60’s when Warhol began his excursions into Neo-Dada, we can trace a long history of postmodern artists outsourcing the execution of the work. While some might find this Duchampian anti-art provocation to be entertainingly rebellious, it has, in fact, led to a wholesale de-skilling of the artist and a dematerialization of the art object and, as such, is utterly antithetical to the cross-cultural definitions of art traceable back to the Pleistocene era.

Let me close with another quote from Franklin Einspruch.

“As for ideas, we ought to encourage a love of reading, writing skills, and articulate presentation. These three virtues self-evidently correlate to broad-based conceptual skills, whereas the willy-nilly introduction of pop culture and politicized issues into studio syllabi promises nothing of the sort.

Technique, understood correctly, is a form of freedom.

If we mostly stick to teaching technique, we stay away from the question of what a student should be doing, which frankly is none of our business, and keeps us on the task of maximizing the student’s capabilities, which is.”

University of Miami Faculty Webpage
last updated 6/14/11