Academicism - The Tradition of the Old Academies
Throughout the twentieth century, prominent artistic movements drew out the attention from the precise observation of the material world and the goal of acquiring great technical skills (which are the basics of the classical art) to a point where the common artistic thinking became extremely fragmented by the need of individual expression (which is one of the foundations of modern art). In modern schools, universities and art academies today, dominates a type of teaching that is focused on originality-at-all-costs and “minute ideas”, which, I believe, do not support a long-term cultural identity.
However, with the increasing revaluation of classical artistic ideals and the recognition of technical skills of the Great Masters of the past (especially from the post renaissance period) that we have experienced in this beginning of the century, we notice a proliferation of traditional art academies, in all continents, which focus their teachings on technique, with rigorous methodologies. It is a philosophy of education that demands a return to discipline in art, to timeless standards of beauty, and the study of nature as the foundations for good painting. Studies in these academies focus on the importance of drawing as a way to achieve perfection in painting and sculpture. In particular, the human figure is quite exalted. Through intense observation, students can achieve visual precision, which make them able to interpret human values in their work, and ultimately produce works of universal relevance.
This type of education came up with the traditional academies in Europe, starting on the fifteenth century, which were born to supplant the corporate and traditional system of medieval guilds of artists. As far as we know, the teaching of drawing, specifically, emerged as a byproduct of calligraphy in monasteries of the Middle Ages. Its original purpose was to illustrate texts with small drawings included in manuscripts. However, on the fifteenth century, the artists, who until then were regarded only as artisans, abandoned the monasteries, galleries and guilds to gather at workshops and also at the palaces of their patrons. It is then that drawing starts to be used and to be considered as a way to graphically express concepts or projects, culminating in art schools and new educational centers. Arises an education system that considers the drawing as the basis of any artistic education, and it spreads rapidly across Europe. These centers, or academies, had as a basic premise the idea that art can be taught through their systematization in a body of theory and practice, still fully able to communicate, minimizing then the importance of creativity as original and individual contribution. They valued the emulation of true masters, venerating the classical tradition, and adopted collectively formulated concepts that had, as well as an aesthetic character, also ethical origins and purpose. This philosophy was called Academicism. The academies were important to raising the professional status of artists, separating them from artisans and bringing them closer to the intellectuals.
But concepts have evolved to the point that the art was no longer considered as a mere trade. Drawing and painting become something more personal and free, beyond the limits set by the curriculum of the academies. These concepts, which change over time, can become antagonistic, from strict rules to absolute freedom, thus creating duality between art dependent on criteria and art set free of any coercive approach.
So from the late eighteenth century, accentuating in the mid-nineteenth century, the traditional academic system, which had been one the main promoters of the new ideas and vanguards, and the arbiter of all art, did not seem to have connection with the concept of art as expression, and came under vigorous attack by practitioners of Realism and Impressionism, whom accused it of being dogmatic, conservative and opposed to the expression of individuality. The system entered in decline. On the beginning of the twentieth century, the old academic method collapsed with the rise of Modernism, who fought all forms of artistic tradition and gave privilege to intuition, creative independence and expression free of pre-existing rules.
This artistic, conceptual and technical freedom, a teaching model that still exists today, especially in big universities, resulted in the loss of technical knowledge, highly valued before. The new artistic concept influenced and created the current education model, and today we can see the repercussions (bad art, really).
But, defying the modern ideas of the twentieth century, the newly emerged Academies of Traditional Art try to resume to the ideas of Academicism. However, unlike in the past, they try not to discourage individual creativity, which is consistent with modern ideas of expression. The programs at these institutions provide students with the opportunity to explore different aspects of their chosen subjects through considerable development of draftsmanship, the study of the works of the Great Masters, and a deep, practical understanding of materials and methods of the artists. This way, and also by identifying clear artistic goals, students gain creative confidence, visual understanding and powers of precise description.
In other words, the traditional Academies transmit to their students the knowledge about the materials and the techniques, giving them the ability to produce works of high quality, leaving to the student the task of, once having learned the concepts, to use them as they wish, using the individual creativity. Academic art of today is not an end in itself, but a learning stage for artists where they strengthen their basic knowledge and control so that in the future they may create figurative and realistic visions, which may as well include modern and contemporary trends.