Can Institutionalized Art Retain a Romantic Spark?


The notion of what it means to be an artist has always carried with it some type of reverence or sense of awe. We admire and respect the vision and gifts that a true artist can bring forth from within their being. However, the cultural idea of what it means to be an artist has changed significantly over time and is currently in the midst of a very large transformation.

Art has its roots in the idea of the craftsman. It wasn’t until the late 18th century and early 19th century that the idea of art with a capital "A" came into being. Romanticism ushered in an emphasis on the emotional extremes. At this time artists, unlike their former role as logical craftsman, began to take on a more inspirational role. Turner’s tumultuous seas painted with a whirlwind of color and light were a far cry from the realism that was typically found in painting previously.

When one looked at the artwork of Goya and Friedrich there was an emotional resonance that sparked something within the viewer that had been absent in the works before.

While the craftsman based the arts on the foundation of the everyday, this new type of artist took the message within the work to much loftier heights. The artist became a dreamer, someone in touch with the heart rather than the head. Eventually with the conceptual art movement art became so far removed from craft that concept completely usurped function and any remaining sense of tradition was diminished. Today there are a myriad of approaches to art, often striking a balance between honing one’s craft and getting across an authentic concept.

Once upon a time when arts and craft were intrinsically linked one would learn their trade from another master craftsman. They would hole up in a studio somewhere, create their masterpieces and wait for the world to catch up! Today art has become institutionalized and many go to school seeking degrees to become an artist. And parents hope that degree will lead to a job in the arts rather than the actually "being" an artist. A scary starving artist picture flashing in many a parent's head when the degree Bachelor in Fine Arts is uttered from their child's lips. Now all of this degree / art job stuff may sound a little clinical but I do have some observations from my years of teaching that can bring some of the romantic spark back into the notion of the contemporary artist.

Let’s start by saying, one does not “become an artist” by gaining a degree. One hopefully hones their craft this way but I’m not entirely convinced that being an “artist” can be taught. This may sound odd coming from a former professor so let me explain. Students inevitably come in seeking a degree in art because they feel they are interested in or drawn intuitively to the arts in some way. With that said, only some come in with the minds and hearts of artists. There is a difference between art appreciation and being an artist. Art can be taught in terms of principles of design. You can also teach ways to expand creative thinking and expression. But having the drive and passion, the longing and need to create, and to continue creating under any circumstances outside of the classroom, is something that comes from within.

Some people may have that drive unlocked within an academic setting, but for those people it was there lying dormant all along. Trained through a degree program or from a master craftsman working in his or her trade, either way the romantic notion of the artist can live on if you believe that the soul of the artist was a seed planted in times before our knowing, only blossoming in certain individuals when in the right conditions to grow. Now with that said, a solid grasp on the principles of design can allow individuals to move on to successful careers as designers with a commercial application of their fine art degree. The Art and Craft can be fused together or teased apart within a fine art degree program, depending on the individual.

Many artists pursue several creative projects that fall in and out of the commercial realm just to support themselves. Luckily the digital arts is extremely open to this type of venture. The trick here is to not tip to out of the fine arts and lose oneself in the commercial sea of money. Staying true to one's heart can be tricky at best but it is possible when you have the drive mentioned previously. Some people are just artists - period - whether they practice it full time or not. Because being an artist doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be creating the next great masterpiece, it means that you are consistently striving to create at all costs and that what you create is genuine. The role of the artist in society is definitely transforming to become something of a creative entrepreneur but those that are artists will always retain their romantic spark - it's embedded in their souls. That is one thing the market just can't change.

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