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The Ecole des Beaux-arts
One of the more notable attributes among artists, especially younger ones, is a mistrust of "the establishment" and often a cool disdain for the academic hoops and hurdles they must negotiate in order to "pay their dues" in becoming whatever it is they have chosen to become. Of course this attitude gradually changes as these young artists become not-so-young-artists-anymore. They wish they'd studied harder, or they laugh about the academic absurdities that were, in fact absurd, or despair at having forgotten so much they were taught and never thought they'd need. In time, these same artists fully migrate across the fence to the role of upholders of timeless truths regarding the arts and art practices, railing against those who, like themselves a hundred years before, find many of their teachings, rules, rantings, and ravings, just plain "dumb".

The archetype of the academic establishment for all time, and to a great extent, the model for art schools even today, was the French Academy's boot camp, the Ecole des Beaux-arts. When art historians write about it, they often as not speak of it disparagingly. Words like stilted, conservative, dictatorial, dry, and (worst of all) "academic", come to mind. It was, of course, all these things, but to give credit where credit's due, for over three hundred years it has also been the bastion of the best art education money could buy. It was slow to change, but not immobile. It was demanding but not unreasonable. It was the best the art establishment had to offer at a time when art was so important to a nation and its people that an art establishment was equally important, if not vital. It provided some order to chaos even though the chaos of change in art was just as vital.

Today, art academies offer the best of both worlds. They offer traditional, "academic" art instruction modelled surprisingly like that of the Ecole des Beaux-arts, but with no established style or norms to defend, there is a constant emphasis upon self-discovery and individual problem solving using the academic tools they provide. If there is any criticism to be made of fine arts colleges today it is, perhaps, that they sometimes emphasise these "creative" aptitudes at the expense of solid, academic, learn-to-paint-and-draw training, largely because this type of training is so tedious and time-consuming while brainstorming, group discussions, critiques, and such are more fun and intellectually stimulating for the students, but especially for the instructors. Individual hands-on instruction in painting and drawing is often available only to those students who demand it of their instructors and everyone knows that just means a lot more hard work than they need for the moment to get by. Thus an art education, now as in the past, is no different from any other educational pursuit; you get out of it in direct relationship to what you put into it.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
1 August 1998

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