Genius cannot be taught, but skills can. And even the wildest and most visionary artists trust the techniques they were taught. If you want to make digital art, you need to learn to code. A film training will help with the art of the moving image. So much is obvious. But today we are enslaved by an empty romanticism that insists that artists are born not made.
The first modern artists rebelled against a style of art education that had become muffling 150 years ago. The tradition of “academic” teaching that developed in the 18th century forced all aspiring artists to learn the same rules and habits: drawing from a calculating, naked perspective. The likes of Monet and Cézanne broke with this academicism, and by 1913 artists like Duchamp were putting bicycle wheels on stools, making collages, and doing many other things that no teacher had ever taught. Now we have art schools that teach Duchamp readymade to children who discovered collage in elementary school. But what if, after all, there was something in the old art education based on drawing?
“Poor is the student who does not surpass his teacher,” said Leonardo da Vinci. He surpassed his own teacher, Verrocchio, when as a teenager he added a brilliant angel to his elder’s Baptism of Christ. That’s great. However, Leonardo’s originality was made possible by a medieval art education. The Vinci boy joined Verrocchio’s workshop in Florence as an apprentice when he was 17 years old and was constantly working on drawing and painting. He probably also studied sculpture at an academy founded by Lorenzo de ‘Medici.
The disciplines Leonardo gained from his education gave him the freedom to design flying machines and paint the Mona Lisa. Therefore, teaching refined skills to young artists does not necessarily destroy creativity. This is true in all the arts: having a warm house as a child gave Mozart the knowledge to compose Don Giovanni, learning Latin in school helped Shakespeare write Hamlet.
They were boys, of course. Education was much less available to women in the past and the tradition of learning in the visual arts was exclusively male. Women rarely had access to art education. Artemisia Gentileschi was taught in the early 17th century by her father, an artist friend of Caravaggio. When he was 17 he was so skilled that he painted a canvas of Susanna and the Elders that is perfect and personal. He continued to use his ability to paint visceral scenes of suffering and strength.
However, it is not just as students that artists learn. Artists who constantly revolutionize their art watch and study their entire lives. Paula Rego and Lucian Freud are examples of artists who develop as they age: Rego took to pastels and learned a completely new technique in his later career, while Freud gradually learned to paint like Rubens with a grandiose and fleshy freedom. Titian, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt also improved as they got older, perhaps because they learned to use their youthful abilities more freely.
We would not want to go back to the fixed rules of the past. Art can be anything. But what we need is an arts education system that allows children to emulate both Leonardo da Vinci and Marcel Duchamp.