You Say You Want a Revolution? – by Mandy Theis
Imagination is imperative to the artist. The artist’s objective is to conceive a vision, and then create it in tangible form from the mind’s eye. This is why artists have historically been at the forefront of social and cultural shifts: they are able to imagine what cannot yet be and help shape a direction for what can.
In order to bring about the cultural change the atelier community would like to see in the arts, we must first conceive of what that change looks like. And then we must execute, collectively, the steps necessary to create the change we imagine.
For the last century, the atelier community in the West has struggled to salvage vestiges of thousands of years of inherited artistic knowledge from the brink of extinction. Due to the diligence, passion, and devotion of artists including William Paxton, R.H. Ives Gammell, Nerina Simi, Pietro Annigoni, as well as the artists they trained, the atelier movement is the most sound it has been in many years.
Despite this progress in a more visually literate direction, there is still much work to be done. It is a common lament in the atelier world that there is a lack of support amongst curators, collectors, and other patrons. But how can these practitioners appreciate the skilled work the atelier community is making when they have no similar training themselves on how to see in a nuanced way? When skilled artwork was last in favor, observational drawing was broadly taught as a necessary subject. An engineer, for example, was expected to accurately depict ideas in drawings. The atelier community has not yet been successful in regaining societal respect and patronage for realistic artwork in part because society at large has also lost access to skilled artistic training. It is not just artists who are deprived of quality art instruction; it is also the dentists, bus drivers, and practitioners in all professions who lack the ability to communicate subtle information visually.
As the 21st century progresses, we are faced with mass visual illiteracy. Access to the level of drawing training the average student had as a matter of course 100 years ago is barely accessible to artists who spend years seeking it out today. As skilled artists, how do we convince a society that is happy in their visual ignorance that learning to see in a nuanced way can benefit their existence?
This isn’t altogether a new problem; it has been solved before. There was a societal turning point where learning how to read transitioned from the prerogative of a privileged few to the expected level of knowledge of all. There is no reason why visual literacy can not have the same level of success when a concerted effort is applied to its achievement.
Imagine a world where learning how to carefully observe complex shapes, delicate lines, and barely-perceptible increments of color are considered necessary to becoming a well-educated adult. Imagine a world where people can collectively see the gesture of a leaf, the color movements of warms and cools across a sky and the unity of lights and shadows on a well-lit form. Imagine a world where people recognize that a bridge must be beautiful in order for it to have the strength to last the tests of time, and that scientists must train their eyes in order to be great observers of their experiments. Imagine a time when visual literacy is valued because it enhances human capabilities.
How does the atelier community achieve this imagined alternative? How do we help society become visually literate?
It appears to be a matter of education. If the atelier community wants patrons, museums, governments, family members, and the average person off the street to recognize skilled work, we must first teach those people how to see. Visual literacy must be integrated into the education system with the same emphasis as reading literacy.
As overwhelming as this task may seem, it is perfectly within the capabilities of the atelier community to create the necessary catalysts for change.
Below, I have outlined how atelier-trained artists can help society become visually literate.
1. Teach the art teachers. Many people in our community feel cheated that they did not learn atelier skills in grade schools and colleges. Let the anger go. Art teachers can only teach what they know. We can help them learn and teach atelier skills so that the next generation of students has access to the training that most of us fought so hard to acquire as adults. Not only that, but the next generation of patrons, curators, and collectors will also be visually literate when it is uniformly integrated into classroom practice.
Every state hosts an art education conference where most art teachers in the entire state gather. Submit proposals to these conferences that introduce what atelier training is, an art demonstration, or a workshop that teaches a hands-on skill such as a Bargue plate. You can find information about your state’s conference and submit proposals here: https://www.arteducators.org/events/state-regional-conferences
While at these conferences, connect art teachers with atelier resources in your community. Inform them about schools, workshops, or artists in their state that teach atelier skills. Volunteer to teach in their classrooms. Share with them the free lesson plans that The Da Vinci Initiative has on their website (www.davinciinitiative.org). Encourage art teachers to attend the Summer Teacher Atelier in the NYC area in order to get in-depth training during their summer vacations: http://www.davinciinitiative.org/summer-teacher-atelier.html
2. Recruit allies. Learn how to effectively talk to people who do not know anything about atelier training. This means promoting the value of skilled work. Do not enter into discussions about contemporary art being bad, as it only creates an unnecessary obstacle to overcome in order to gain an ally. As a community, we only need to prove that skills are good, not that something else is bad. Many artists in our community have endured a lot of abuse, neglect, and ignorant criticisms for pursuing skills, but if the community wants to gain societal support efficiently, we need to put those conversations aside when advocating for skill-based art.
3. Correct common misconceptions firmly but politely. Below, I have outlined common questions I am asked while advocating for atelier training, and the responses I have found to be most effective.
a) Will teaching skills ruin creativity?
No. The most creative students are the ones with the skills to execute the ideas exactly as they envision them in their heads and their hearts – without compromising because they didn’t have the technical abilities to achieve their visions as they were conceived.
b) Can art be taught?
Yes. The best way to counteract this misconception is to teach the questioner something about art that they didn’t know. Often when asked this question, I will quickly teach a simple ellipse concept or something of that nature. For bonus points, ask the person after you teach them an art skill if it ruined their creativity. It’s an effective way to disabuse them of the notion that learning skill ruins creativity.
c) Aren’t you trying to take art backward?
There is nothing progressive about purposefully withholding knowledge and then making students continuously reinvent the proverbial wheel. Real progress moves forward when what is already known is efficiently taught so that artists can move beyond what was done before them. Few people believe that teaching students how to count is taking students backwards, even though it is a skill that has been taught for a very long time. Learning the ABC’s did not prevent Maya Angelou from writing inventive poetry, it gave her skills to use to help create her art.
d) Isn’t what you are advocating for very Euro-centric?
Like mathematical knowledge that’s been passed down for many generations, visual art concepts come from many cultures and traditions. Just as math incorporates an Arabic number system and the Pythagorean Theorem from the Greeks, visual art has many sources of knowledge. One example is how the influx of Japanese prints during the turn of the last century affected the body of inherited artistic knowledge. These prints share knowledge about how to represent depth in a 2D picture plane in a completely different way. The European way to solve the problem of pictorial space up until the turn of the last century was to use perspective. The contemporaneous Japanese approach used the softening of edges to show depth. Both concepts are now part of the greater inherited lexicon of artistic training.
4. Infiltrate the art establishment. Join the boards of your state art education association, local art organizations and museums. As a former Co-President of a board myself, I am often surprised at how easy it is to shape a direction and agenda of an organization. There are many decisions to be made that may not be particularly important to most members of the board, but make a big difference to the atelier community. These opportunities often include suggesting atelier-trained artists for shows, speakers, etc.
HOW TO JOIN A BOARD
a) Find a board you want to be on.
b) Contact all the people on the board you can find e-mail addresses for and tell them you are interested in becoming involved in the board. Ask when and where their next meeting is.
c) Go to their meetings. For most local art boards I know, it is just a matter of time before they invite you onto the board.
5. Communicate. Invite local newspapers to every art show you or other atelier trained artists you know holds. When speakers on podcasts and other media outlets discuss art, write and call in to provide atelier viewpoints. The more places and times the general community hears about atelier training, the more likely they are to subscribe to its importance. I remember when I was quite young my older sister was able to read before I learned. Tagging along behind her, I was in complete awe of her ability to magically pull knowledge and meaning out of thin air by understanding how to read words.
The power of being visually literate is no less awe-inspiring. But society cannot support what it does not know. It took a concerted effort to convince a 19th century populace to invest in reading literacy, and it will take an equally strong push from the atelier community to weave visual literacy into mainstream values. I invite you all to join me in the effort.