The Weimar Bauhaus was founded in 1919 on the premise that art “cannot be taught and cannot be learned.” Art is not “a profession which can be mastered by study,” wrote Walter Gropius in the school’s first program; rather, it blossoms “in rare moments of inspiration” by “the grace of heaven.” That Gropius launched what would become the most influential art school of the twentieth century on such contradictory grounds underscores the problem implicit in the teaching of art. Gropius was not the first to claim that art cannot be taught, and its corollary, the ideal of the “born artist,” runs long and deep in the current of Western civilization. Pliny the Elder asserted in the first century that the Greek sculptor Lysippus “was no one’s pupil”; Albrecht Dürer, in the sixteenth century, praised the Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans as “truly a painter in his mother’s womb.” The tradition continues into the present with the art historian Robert Pincus-Witten’s description in the early 1980s of David Salle as a “painter born.” And yet most artists from Lysippus forward have been someone’s pupil; David Salle’s Master of Fine Arts degree is only the latest way that the title of artist is bestowed.
From the early Middle Ages, young artists apprenticed in workshops. Some of them were based in a monastery or a palace, but most belonged to the bottegas [studios] of individual masters. Guilds set the terms of apprenticeship and decided when the students were skilled enough to work as journeymen, and then as masters—professional artists—themselves. Karl van Mander, who recorded Dürer’s tribute to Geertgen, clarified in his 1604 Schilder-Boeck that Geertgen had been a pupil of the painter Albert van Ouwater. Dürer, too, was a pupil, apprenticed for three years to a painter named Michael Wohlgemuth, and before that, to his own father, a goldsmith. Like many artists—most notably the elder and younger Pieter Bruegels and the Hans Holbeins—Dürer was born into a family of artists and skilled craftsmen. His artistic lineage speaks less to the imaginary genetics at play in the womb than to the economics of his family’s business, passing on from generation to generation its recipes, tools, and representational types.
The founding of the first academies in the sixteenth century and their flowering in the seventeenth under state sponsorship proceeded from the idea that there is more to be taught, and more to being an artist, than practical training. Insistent upon the separation of art as a cosa mentale from the manual skills of the workshop, the academies were in fact founded to produce that difference. Bottega apprentices worked for and on a master’s products—grinding paints, preparing grounds, laying in backgrounds or compositions according to existing models or templates. The academy’s students studied the principles of art. “Study first the science, then the practice born of that science,” Leonardo da Vinci advised in a treatise circulated in manuscript that intended to elevate painting above the mechanical arts and to raise the artist above those artisans with whom he had shared his guild membership. Leonardo’s first principles were not manual or material, but rather those of disegno: point, line, surface, and the body enclosed by that line.
The first official academy was Giorgio Vasari’s Accademia del Disegno, founded in Florence in 1563 with the support of the Medicis. Drawing was the core of its teaching. Accompanied by lectures in the new sciences of anatomy and perspective, the posed nude came to define the academy and what was meant by “fine art” for the next three centuries. The French Académie Royale, the strongest and most influential academy in Europe, was founded in 1648 with the exclusive right to pose the nude model, and académie came to mean both the institution and the drawing that was taught there. Two hundred years later, in 1863, when new generations of theorists threatened to bring practical studio classes on painting, sculpture, architecture, and engraving into the Académie’s École des Beaux-Arts, the academician Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres argued that the École “teaches only drawing, but drawing is everything; it is the whole of art. The material processes of painting are very simple, and can be taught in eight hours.”
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