plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

If you want to be a scientist, you really should study at a university and get a Ph.D. If you want to be a doctor, you should go to medical school. But if you want to be an artist, will art school help you? Only about half of the successful artists I know went to art school; furthermore, of those who did go to art school, their formal education seems only incidental to their success. What do you think? Is art school a good investment?

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In the Renaissance, an artist apprentice received training from a master by working on the master’s projects. In the most important art how-to book of all time, Cennino Cennini wrote “submit yourself to the direction of a master for instruction as early as you can; and do not leave the master until you have to.” The master had a strong incentive to teach, because good assistants were essential for fulfilling a major commission. Teaching was thus not separate from the master’s own creative work. Instead, it was critical to the productive success of the studio. The result was that apprentice and master collaborated in the process of artistic discovery.

A related method is used for teaching at the highest levels of education today. For example, a graduate student in biology will do research in a specific laboratory, under guidance of a recognized scientist. Only a small part of the student’s education comes through classroom teaching. The scientist has a strong incentive to teach the craft of working in the laboratory to a select group of students, because a group effort is necessary for major research projects. When scientists complain about the burdens of teaching, they are referring to teaching in the classroom. Good scientists know that teaching in the laboratory is essential to success in research. Graduate students thus learn to be scientists in the laboratory, collaborating in the process of discovery.

Art education today is a different story. Artists get paid to do “classroom” teaching at art school. But teaching in this mode does not contribute directly to the artist’s own work. Instead, it becomes an impediment. In art, professors and students do not generally collaborate in the process of creation and discovery in the same meaningful sense as they do in science. The reason probably has to do with our modern notions of artist: the artist (and therefore, the art professor) is supposed to be a loner in the process of creation. Scientists are not burdened with this notion, any more than were artists of the past (which is to say, of course the issue of credit is important, but it is not debilitating to the field).

I did not go to art school, but I had a valuable art education in my high school with one of the most remarkable art teachers in America — Walter Bartman. In his classroom, and on frequent painting excursions, there was an exhilarating sense of collaborating in a process of discovery. An interview with “Mr. Bartman” will appear soon [is here] on Art & Perception.