Why Most Student Art Is Terrible

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Admiration_(1897)
A painting by Bouguereau who mastered the artistic skills most art students are now taught to disdain.

I happened yesterday to stop into the art gallery of a local college. On display was work from a student that, like almost every student art show I have ever seen, evinced a desire on the part of the artist to be perceived as artistic, rather than to be artistic.

Pieces at shows like these routinely consist of found objects, assemblages of random junk, and “abstract” art that has no significance to anyone but to the student artist, and which seem significant to him only because they allow him to fulfill an assignment in under a quarter of an hour.

To judge by the quality of work I routinely see at these shows, it seems that the most popular sort of artist with college art departments is the con artist. Who else could bilk thousands from young adults in exchange for an education that fails to equip them with any of the critical skills that traditional art depended on?

All this came to mind upon reading this post by Douglas Wilson. Wilson says there are two approaches to art. The first, “the death trap” approach:

makes everything depend on the will of the artist. Art is defined as whatever an artist does. If an approved member of the guild produced it, then it is a work of art. Nothing determines what is or is not art apart from the intention of the artist. And however reluctant this community of artists might be to pour out accolades on others for this kind of thing, it is the price they have to pay in order to get theiraccolades when it is their turn.

And this is why the layman’s critique—“my five-year-old could do better than that”—falls on deaf ears. That five-year-old, whatever his other merits, is not a member of the guild. The layman is appealing to a standard that was abandoned by the illuminatiover a century ago. The standard is no longer how good you might be (for good is a meaningless term now), the standard is rather what group you belong to. Are you a member of the union?

Most student art, even at Christian schools, is terrible because these departments are preparing students for membership in this “death trap” union. One would expect that, at least at Christian schools, art departments would strive to keep alive the aesthetic tradition that emphasized values like rhythm, balance, order, unity, good composition and beauty. But, any department who attempted that would be branded as impossibly retrograde and probably have some hard questions to answer when accreditation time rolls around. It’s much easier instead to tell student artists whatever they make is art and that anyone who questions that is a Philistine whose presence and opinions are best avoided.

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