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Artists Must Make Peace With the Academic Life

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It is said that when the Italian Renaissance artist Verrocchio saw the work of his student, Leonardo da Vinci, he decided to quit painting since he knew that his work had certainly been surpassed. The story is apocryphal -- it is also told of Ghirlandaio when he first saw the work of Michelangelo, of Pablo Picasso's father and of a few other pairings of artists -- but the idea of a teacher selflessly stepping aside for the superior work of a pupil makes one's jaw drop.

More likely, many artists who teach today would tend to agree with Henri Matisse who complained during his teaching years (1907-09):

"When I had 60 students there were one or two that one could push and hold out hope for. From Monday to Saturday I would set about trying to change these lambs into lions. The following Monday one had to begin all over again, which meant I had to put a lot of energy into it. So I asked myself: Should I be a teacher or a painter? And I closed the studio."

Most artists fall somewhere between Verrocchio and Matisse, continuing to both teach and create art but finding that doing both is exhausting. Giving up sleep is one solution.

"My schedule was very tight," said painter Will Barnet, who taught at the Art Students League and Cooper Union in New York City for 45 years and 33 years, respectively, as well as over 20 years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. "It was tough to find time to do my own work, but I could get along on very little sleep and was able to work day and night on weekends. Also, I never took a vacation."

Many, if not most, of the world's greatest artists have also been teachers. However, between the years that Verrocchio and Matisse were both working and teaching, the concept of what a teaching artist is and does changed radically. Verrocchio was a highly touted fifteenth century painter and sculptor, backed up with commissions, who needed "pupils" to be trained in order to help him complete his work. Lorenzo di Credi, Perugino and Leonardo all worked directly on his paintings as the final lessons of their education. It would never have occurred to Matisse to let his students touch his canvases. In the more modern style, Matisse taught basic figure drawing rather than how to work in the same style as himself.

Teaching now obliges an artist to instruct others in techniques and styles that, at times, may be wholly opposed to his or her own work. Even when the teaching and creating are related in method and style, instruction requires that activity be labeled with words, whereas the artist tries to work outside of fixed descriptions -- that's the difference between teaching, which is an externalized activity, and creating, which is inherently private and personal. Additionally, teaching is inherently an analytical activity - taking something apart to show the various strands of thought and technique and how it all works -- whereas creating is a synthetic process, pulling a number of different ideas together. Bringing things together after one has been tearing them apart all day is perhaps the largest challenge for the teaching artist. It may be that the current freighting of contemporary (meaning, progressive) art with vast amounts of theory represent the academic artist's effort to combine the two aspects of his or her working life.

Teaching, which has long been held out as the most sympathetic "second career" for artists who need a way to support their principal interests, may work insidiously at times to destroy or undermine an artist's vocation. "The experience of teaching can be very detrimental to some artists," said Leonard Baskin, the sculptor and graphic artist who taught at Smith College in Massachusetts between 1953 and 1974. "The overwhelming phenomenon is that these people quit being artists and only teach, but that's the overwhelming phenomenon anyway. Most artists quit sooner or later for something else. You have to make peace with being an artist in a larger society."

Artists make peace with teaching in a variety of ways. Baskin noted that teaching had no real negative effect on his art -- it "didn't impinge on my work. It didn't affect it or relate to it. It merely existed coincidentally" -- and did provide a few positive benefits. "You have to rearticulate what you've long taken for granted," he said, "and you stay young being around people who are always questioning things."