The New Renaissance Won’t Start in a Classroom

I recently met with a group of educators who are the core team for a new Catholic university. Eager to make their university a center for the arts, they have lofty plans to create a creative educational environment for young Christian painters, musicians, singers, actors and filmmakers to integrate their lives of faith with mastery of their respective art forms.

Studios, Not Classrooms

More and more religious colleges and universities are jumping on this bandwagon, spending millions of dollars to create arts programs that are competitive with the best secular schools. As one Ph.D. noted to me about his college’s plans to build a large new art center building, “We want to spark a new Renaissance!” It’s a good sound bite, but probably not a good strategy. The urgency to be competitive with the best secular schools shouldn’t blind us to the fact that even their classrooms aren’t producing great artists.

Two of my sisters have advanced degrees in music. I myself went to graduate school for cinema, and I have spent the last five years teaching writers on both the graduate and undergraduate level. The main thing I have learned in the art classroom, is that classrooms have little to do with the creation of beautiful works of art. The achievement of a Master of Fine Arts in whatever discipline, from even a top university, says nothing at all about whether an individual is an artist or even a competent craftsman.

The way to foment a second Renaissance is to recreate the origins of the first. The Renaissance flowed out of studios, not classrooms. Its patrons were princes and pastors, not professors.

I am not sure for what kind of life university classrooms really prepare young people, but they certainly aren’t Petri dishes for artistic talent. If anything, the impersonal, pragmatic environment of contemporary academia — anonymous rows of young people, most half awake, subjected to long cycles of monotonous lectures in sterile rooms — seems calculated to crush the passion for life and color and texture and sound that is the seed of the arts. The most that can be achieved in a university art classroom is a disconnected handing on of the history and theory of the art forms, and possibly some rudimentary technique. The main value that one might find in a university art classroom is a community of artists. Community and art have a necessary connection.

But the one thing essential to the production of beautiful art is never going to happen in a classroom. That is, no teacher is ever going to say to a paying student, “You don’t belong here. You don’t have any talent.” Universities are necessarily remote from the student, who is basically a consumer paying for services. Unable to make talent-judgments, university classrooms do a huge disservice to everyone involved.

Formation of the Artist’s Soul

The primary victim of the democratization of the classroom is the untalented student who moves through an expensive art program regardless of the fact that he does not have the chops to make a professional go of it. The second level of injustices is suffered by the talented student whose work cannot be elevated at the risk giving offense to those who are mediocre. True genius will find no challenge in the leveling mediocrity of the institution, and the gifted end up with an inflated sense of their untested talents. Next, the professors of this system are victims of the futile task to try to teach art without actually cleaving to any aesthetic standards lest they be labeled “fascist.” Ultimately the whole society is victimized by the dreadful art foisted upon it, as mastery of craft becomes less and less of an ideal.

There is nothing egalitarian about artistic talent, a fact that is an ongoing source of outrage to the melancholic Marxists who hold sway in pretty much every Humanities department at the top universities. I remember one of my grad school professors becoming enraged at me when I asked if she thought any of my class’s final projects were ultimately any good. “How dare you hinder the right of self-expression by asking that kind of question?” Having already gotten my grades for the term, I shrugged back, “How dare this university charge me $30,000 for a transcript of meaningless grades?”

The art classroom reduces the artist to a technician, and negates the sense that art proceeds from a whole person. Paraphrasing our Lord: “From the abundance of the heart, the artist expresses.” Art comes as much from the broodings of the heart as it does from the manipulation of the brush or chisel. A song begins in the soul, not on a keyboard. Artists need formation, not merely education, and formation can only happen in a one-to-one relationship.

For all these reasons, the classroom model is not what produced Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci. Part of our journey to renew the lists of great artists in the Church will be to rediscover and then renew the methods that ultimately produced the most beautiful art of human history. Principally, we must restore the master-apprentice model of handing on the arts, not merely studying them.

Great art comes out of community. It was in the little community gathered around the master painter, Perugino, that Raphael’s talent was first revealed and then nurtured. At the age of fourteen, Michaelangelo was sent by his father to apprentice with the famous artist, Domenico Ghirlandaio. Mozart was mentored by his father, himself an accomplished violinist.

The Way of the Old Masters

The masters of old perceived themselves as having an important place in the society. They were charged with preserving and handing on beauty-making techniques by mentoring the next generation. “Pay attention now. I am going to show you my great-grandfather’s secret for making a mosaic glitter in that special way…” Renewing this tradition will require that our older artists start seeing themselves back in the heart of the society, and not on the fringes as has been the story of the 20th century. We must ask that that they bravely let go of the isolated misery that they have been clinging to in the name of defining self-expression.

The apprentice-master model of the first Renaissance carried a built-in means to preserve excellence. Beyond the simple civic sense of the masters, they were also intent on extending their own creative legacies through the work of their students. Thus they were rigorous in the demands they placed on their apprentices, and rarely wasted their efforts on those who had no talent. The life of the apprentice was grueling, humbling, and on those few days that made all the others worthwhile, exhilarating.

In the long hours of the studio, the young artists learned much more than technique from their master. It would be the lessons in between the craft pointers that would form them most in their vocation as artists. “I remember the awe I felt, the first time I was ever paid for one of my statues,” the master would relate with a glint of remembrance. There would be the lessons about creativity: “Whenever my well runs dry, I know it is time to go in search of water in other places…” There would be lessons about the artist’s life, “Sometimes, the patron will want less from you than you can give. Be better than they demand…” The intimate lessons of the studio addressed the artist’s soul, a place inaccessible to a university classroom.

It is good that the People of God are finally looking to address the problem of the dearth of beauty in our cultural landscape. But we need to do some careful thinking before we jump on academia as the solution to the problem. You can’t graduate “an artist” any more than you can really graduate a doctor or a priest.

Barbara R. Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood program. You may email her at [email protected].

This article reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register © 2004

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