EDUCATION IN THE ARTS

THEORY AND PRACTICE[1]

 

Jean Charlot

 

While I was waiting for my curtain call, I was in the room of the Old Masters downstairs, down those stairs, and while looking at the best pictures, I was quite silent.  I couldn’t imagine how anything that I felt looking at those pictures could be said in words.  Of course, it was not a new experience.  I think experience very well teaches that fact that the most essential things in the arts cannot be said in words. 

I think it was in Washington at the National Gallery in the rooms of the Italian Primitives that there were two people talking in front of one of those pictures.  One said, “This is a Cimabue.”[2]  The other person said “How do you know it?”  “Because in front of a Cimabue, I never say anything.” 

It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to see original paintings and to enjoy them; and however much we may talk and write about them, nothing can get to the center of the matter.  But we can talk and write about them.  So I am very glad we have this topic, “Education in the Arts—Theory and Practice” for discussion. 

When Mr. Wilder[3] wrote me and asked if I could speak here, he told me to please speak in the name of the practicing artist, and that sounded a little like the gong that tells the boxer to go in and fight.  It happens, however, that a percentage of me is an art critic, and I have written a few little books on the subject; and the other side of me is a practicing artist vs. the art critic, and I have to fight with myself.  I think, being what I am, I may be a little harder on the critic than on the artist, and I hope that the critics present will forgive me. 

The subject of the quota of art-making and art-speaking is something that is easy in theory.  The difficulty comes from the personalities that teach in the art departments.  I don’t know if all of you have lived or not within an art department, but it is not an unusual experience.  It is like living in a big family; they have the same squabbles, the same troubles.  Usually the friction comes between art critics and practicing artists.

I am reminded of one time when I was in the jungles of Yucatán.  There was a little group of white people cooped up with hundreds of natives.  Things went along pretty well for a while, but somehow rubbing elbows every day distorts the point of view.  In my work with art departments, I have had a little bit of the same feeling that I had in the jungles.  But I think that feeling should remain in the jungles, and if we want to get better things in art education, we should try to bring peace among the teachers of art. 

There is in an art department, we could say, the equivalent of rich tyrants and poor parents: those who plot the policies and then the other people who are called in and asked only to give their classes.  In many departments, I must say that the people who speak and write on art are at the top, and painter and sculptor are the underdogs. 

I will use an approach to the subject that was set up long ago by St. Thomas Aquinas, in which he states that one must state first that which is contrary to what one wants to prove.  That is, I will not say what I think, not things as I would like them to be, but first the contrary point of view.  We should refer first to what critics think about artists and what artists think about critics. 

Critics usually love artists when they are dead.  They don’t know what to do with the live painter, and frictions result.  I am reminded of a Mexican proverb that says, “Ni esconderle la vela, ni ignimarle al Santo” ‘Do not hide the candle that is in front of the image of the saint, and do not light it so near to him that he will take fire.’  The living artist sometimes has the feeling that the critic hides the candle from in front of him and brings it so close to the Old Masters that they are in danger of burning. 

I was speaking once with a critic who is a great expert on Spanish art, also a teacher in one of the better colleges, and we were talking about Goya,[4] and I realized then and there that the attitude of the critics sometimes spills over from the living to the dead, even the great dead, as Goya is now.  We were talking about Goya’s wonderful set of etchings The Caprichos, and there exists in Madrid a manuscript written in the hand of Goya in which Goya purports to explain the subject matter of each of the etchings.  When you look at the etchings, you are sure, of course, that the ideas of Goya were of the strongest and most biting kind.  It is social and political and moral cartooning of the strongest type.  When you read this text, it is something that is goody‑goody and merely apologizes for the drawings and attempts to explain how each one of them has really a nice purpose.  I was suggesting that was the point of view that the practicing artist can bring to art history, because it is easy for him to put himself into the skin of the Old Master.  Probably Goya was interested in selling the etchings to the state, that particular set of etchings, because he wanted a fellowship to further his son’s education.  Incidentally, he did sell the etchings to the king, and he did get a fellowship.  And I suggested that he made these phony texts to present to the different officials who passed upon the sale, and of course, he had to show them that nothing in his etchings was subversive or a ridicule on official happenings; that is, nothing in them was “un-American.”  And this critic looked at me with a pitying smile, and he said, “No, no, that is not it, but rather––as you should know––the artist did not know what he was doing.”  Well, of course, I couldn’t agree with him on that, and we separated. 

What does the artist think of the critic?  Somehow the artist does not like the critic because the critic does not like the artist.  There is a famous cartoon by Hogarth,[5] made around 1780, and it portrays a rich patron—another of those personages that figure sometimes in satirical paintings––and the painter is a young Englishman who has just come back from the Continent (just then these young men were beginning to bring back to England some of the early Renaissance paintings).  And we have there the young gentleman showing the critic the painting he has brought back, and the critic pontificates, and he says, “This is in the second and best manner of Baldovinetti.” 

Hogarth was an artist who was purely English, I would say, the same way and with the same toughness that Thomas Benton is American, and he makes at least a show of living mostly on the roast beef of Old England[6] and did not commune with the thin leanness of the early Renaissance painters.  So for him, in that cartoon, he had a great belly laugh.  It is interesting for us and humbling that Hogarth was not right.  It shows you that the practicing artist is not always right when he criticizes critics.

Another man who also had his say on critics is Daumier with his series of lithographs.[7]  He has a beautiful series.  At that time there were no private exhibitions, and artists had to show their pictures at the salon, so it was very important for them––it was a question of life or starvation––to have good reviews of their paintings.  And Daumier presented all the facets of the relationship between critic and artists.  In one lithograph, the critic comes into the salon with side-whiskers and high hat, and the artists around have no hats on or else old shabby ones.  Those who have hats take them off, and all plead with the critic, and he ignores them all.  He is dictator of the show.  Another lithograph shows the same man with a magnifying glass (in the same style that we see Sherlock Holmes use), and he looks at a tiny picture, and stares through the glass, and says to a friend, “Well, really, when you look better, you see that the colors are not bad.”

And, of course, this humor is tragic also, when we think that Daumier was one of the great masters of the nineteenth century, and that critics never recognized him as an artist, and that he had his first show at the age of sixty-five, and that it was a flop. 

These little stories between artists and critics I have related because I want to show you that the evil we want to erase is real, and we have to do something practical to bring harmony to our art departments. 

In education, those purely personal frictions are illustrated by the way art departments are run.  I know, for example, a number of universities where the critics and the historians have the whip handle, and of course, they start to build the departments first with the idea of nice lecture rooms, where the painter cannot enter.  They make wonderful stands, screens, slides, etc., and put all those things in the best rooms with a north light, and have to condemn the windows.  Some go so far as to install all kinds of push buttons that do things and even speak for the speaker.  I remember one of those places where I spoke, and I was shown the buttons, but still I didn’t quite know which buttons to push, and when I pushed the button to change the slide, the screen would roll up with a bang.  After the lecture rooms have been installed and libraries (and some of them are very good and wonderful), then they would remember that somewhere, somehow, they have to stick in the classes in painting and sculpture.  Well, there is always the basement.  So the heating apparatus and the water pipes are painted a nice grey, and the poor painter has to give his classes there.  In one such college department, they were going to start the class in advanced painting for the first time, and they informed me that I was to be the teacher, and I was very flattered.  And when I arrived, they showed me a certain room for my class.  The room had a good light, but the only entrance was through a private photographic studio.  The door was all blocked up with photographic apparatus, and when the time came for the class, we couldn’t get through it.  We were very forceful, though, and finally made it wide enough by making a large hole in the wall.  But in so doing, we made noises and wrecked many a lecture and disturbed the peace of the library.  It is a good illustration of the danger—from a certain point of view—of introducing the practice of art, although it be called fine arts, into the quiet of an art department. 

There are other places where the practicing artist is the upper dog, and then things happen that are not dissimilar, only in reverse.  To be quite fair, I must state both cases. 

I was very taken by the attitude of Grant Wood, who in my opinion was a great painter and teacher.  He had strong ideas on painting and would say, “When you want the boys to play football, you don’t lecture to them on the history of football!”  There is no answer to that. 

To be more constructive now, what would we do to bring together the practical artist and the historian?  But it isn’t very difficult.  We just have to look at the whole world and see how few are the people who have for their main interest—Art.  So that is where lies an answer.  Even when we squabble, we are huddled together as one big family.  It is like the husband who said to his wife, “The world seems mad to me, my dear, but you sometimes only a little queer.” 

I think that tradition, which after all is the subject of the history of art, is the thing that can link both the practicing artist and the writer on art.  We have to remember that tradition, even though it is in books––and there is a wealth of references to it in lectures––is really a living thing without which the artist cannot do.  It does not mean he has to memorize dates, but it means that somewhere in his training, he has to look at good originals and gather and absorb through those originals the living tradition of the Old Masters.  I think the biggest difficulty for an understanding is the split that is made between the living artist and the dead artist.  Not only is it rather unjust, but it is false. 

To understand what the history of art is about, we can take examples that are not too far in the past.  The men of the Impressionist movement, for example, were known to my generation.  We take a man like Pissarro,[8] for example.  He starts in the morning, puts on his boots, takes his walking stick, and starts out with a pack on his back containing paints, easel, palette, etc., and sets forth, all strength and muscle.  He would go in the country, choose a spot, sit there, and he would commune with nature.  And the moment he looked at the clouds or the water and started working, there started between nature and his eye a dialogue that was represented by the movements of his arm and wrist.  And then in the evening, he would go back home with all those things and his new picture too, and he would sit down and take his boots off.  He was tired but happy.  As Cocteau said, he had shot a landscape.  Well, this painter who was very much alive and who probably spoke badly of critics and historians is already enshrined.  He has become an “Old Master.”  And it is right, because those men, even though they wanted to go against tradition, were following the same line the Old Masters have followed.

All great masters have been revolutionary, and they happen to be mentioned in the history of art when thousands of “safer” people were forgotten, because they broke loose, because they hoped to go against tradition, because they did what the Impressionists had done.  I think it is very important to study the Old Masters, to study tradition, to acquire an understanding of the historical landscape and social setup that those men were living in.  For example, a man like Giotto, when he was fighting against all the set rules of Byzantine art, was as much of a revolutionary as Picasso is in our day.  If art history presented Old Masters in such a way, it would be very different, and practicing artists would love to go to art lectures. 

The touch of true scholarship is to be able to recognize in our day which of the men of the present will be the Old Masters of the future.  And when I told you that one of the tendencies of the critics was to leave the living artist severely alone, I think it comes from the fact that this judgment passed on contemporaries is very hard to do right.  When we read what critics said fifty or a hundred years ago, we are astonished at the magnitude of wrong guesses, so perhaps it is safer for them to shut up.

I think the example of introducing the practice of art into learning should come from the higher-ups.  An establishment like, in Princeton, The Institute of Higher Learning is not ready yet to accept the artist as a man of higher learning.  I was speaking with one of the members of this very exalted institute and suggesting that perhaps they could try—and that it was not more than reasonable to do so—to invite to consort with all the people there that can read and write, an artist, who perhaps couldn’t read and write so good, but who, through painting, would make his own investigation of the world.  Art is not something that is a frosting on the cake.  It is really a way of investigating the world, and we know that the report that the painter makes of the universe is fully as important as are the reports made by great scientists.  But this gentleman was against it.  There we do have a gentleman who writes very well on Dürer, but if Dürer came and knocked at the door of the Institute, they would close it in his face.  We must think that any institution that would have saved Van Gogh[9] from an early death and allowed him to live by giving him a salary would certainly have given to the world a treasure of pictures of which we have no idea at all.  When we look at a late Rembrandt, we see how he became a greater artist as he grew older.  Van Gogh too would have grown further had he lived to an older age. 

I could finish on a note of harmony—I don’t know why I have so little harmony in me today—and compare the critic and historian on one side and the artist on the other to Martha and Mary of the Bible.  We always insist on the fact that Martha and Mary have very different temperaments, and we know that Martha remained in the kitchen pottering with pots and pans, and, of course, she is the image of the practicing artist rolling up his sleeves and dirtying his hands.  And we know that Mary preferred, shall we say, the drawing room and that though she was apparently doing nothing, she was really doing something and something great.  And I should end by saying that unlike what happened in the Biblical story, I don’t know whether it is the art critic or the artist who has the better part. 



[1] Delivered at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado, September 1947.  Edited by John Charlot from a transcription. 

[2] Giovanni Cimabue. 

[3] Mitch Wilder, director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1947–1953. 

[4] Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes.  Los Caprichos, 1797–1798. 

[5] William Hogarth. 

[6] William Hogarth, O the Roast Beef of Old England, etching and engraving, 1749. 

[7] Honoré Daumier.

[8] Camille Pissarro.

[9] Albrecht Dürer.  Vincent Van Gogh.