the imaginative conservative logo

musical educationIn the second part of this series, I introduced the theme of Creativity as perhaps the most persistent of the ideas inspiring the reformation of our institutions of higher music education. The fact that “music study has long been predicated on the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance” masquerades as an accusation—or at least as weighty criticism. And it’s hurled as thoughtlessly as it is effectively because we rarely question the assumption that hides behind the mask—if we even notice that it’s there at all. If we do question it, we’re generally at a loss for an answer. Is it a bad thing to subordinate creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance?

As the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds said in his presidential address to the Royal Academy when it opened in 1769,

I would chiefly recommend that an implicit obedience to the rules of art, as established by the great masters, should be exacted from the young students. That those models, which have passed through the approbation of ages, should be considered by them as perfect and infallible guides as subjects for their imitation, not their criticism. I am confident that this is the only efficacious method of making a progress in the arts; and that he who sets out with doubting will find life finished before he becomes master of the rudiments.… Every opportunity, therefore, should be taken to discountenance that false and vulgar opinion that rules are the fetters of genius. They are fetters only to men of no genius….[1]

The discipline and pursuit of technical proficiency, of course, is not antithetical to creativity and was the rule throughout the periods of history that produced our civilization’s greatest art. Juliette Aristides notes that, “Historically, the practice of master copying was a central component in the methods of training painters; it started at the very beginning of a student’s training and often lasted long after the individual had reached mastery.”[2]

‘Copying,’ [Eugène] Delacroix wrote, ‘herein lay the education of most of the great masters. They first learned their master’s style as an apprentice is taught how to make a knife, without seeking to show their own originality. Afterwards, they copied everything they could lay hands on among the works of past or contemporary artists.’[3]

musicIt was the same, of course, for the musical training of history’s great composers. “Interpretive performance,” a form of “copying,” has been the central component of a musical education from the very beginning. And there is one more, very important reason for that fact: music, unlike art, only exists when it is being performed. It is not like a painting, which only needs to be painted once in order for us to experience it fully. The composition of a painting never changes; when we come back to it, it is always exactly as it was, and only we change. But music only exists when we are hearing it. It must be “copied” again and again and over again; and every copy is different like every human fingerprint is different. It changes and we change, each time we hear it. And if we cease to play Beethoven’s symphonies—or if we fail to cultivate in the next generation of musicians the skills and the love necessary to faithfully “copy” them—then in a very real sense they will cease to be.

What the revolutionaries and reformers, in their zeal, also seem to forget is that the vast majority of musicians—that majority they profess to have always in mind—even in Bach’s, Beethoven’s, Mozart’s, Liszt’s, or Schumann’s time, were interpretive performers. Though they’d like to imagine it otherwise, we can safely say that virtually none of us are born with creative powers even remotely equal to those of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. In fact, we’d be lucky to have one such genius in our midst during the course of an age. And I think that even today, most of the students who enter our conservatories do so, not because they believe they are in line to be the next Mozart, but because they love performing the music that has found its way into our canon—and the time and energy they’ve invested in learning to be worthy of playing it attests to that fact. It’s part of the great miracle of classical music that the preponderance of musicians who have come and gone throughout the long course of its history were interpretive performers inspired to play “repertory created in, and for, another time and place”—overlooking for the moment the sophistry already mentioned, and taking that phrase to mean instead “music composed before one’s lifetime”—because if they weren’t, we’d know little or nothing about the music of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart today. Perhaps that’s fine with the Modernists, but I think the rest of us would object loudly.

It seems to be a triumphal bit of amnesia that confidently injects the modern reformer’s rhetoric with that “false and vulgar opinion” that “the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency” is somehow a detriment to the development of a student’s creative genius. But it’s an argument that is as popular as it is unexamined. A former music critic who is now one of the Internet’s most popular bloggers on the future of classical music—and who admittedly would “like to run a music school”—weighs in:

Music schools don’t encourage creativity.… I’m not saying that their teaching might not be on a high level, but mostly it’s on a high level of doing what the rest of the classical music world does, making music the way your teachers, your chamber music coaches, and the conductors you play for expect it to be made…. But art students, I’m going to guess, are doing varied, original things, because that’s what they see in the art world.

We are invited over and over again to compare our conservatories to our art schools. And it’s a useful comparison, though not in the way the reformers think it is. Art schools already and thoroughly made the mistake that the musical academy is being encouraged to make:

In our arts climate, historical education and art training are often considered antithetical to genius. Rising artists are frequently expected to tap their knowledge directly from the ether, disconnected from history and labor. However, when the instincts of the individual are elevated above education, the artist can become stuck in a perpetual adolescence where his passion outstrips his ability to perform. A far more powerful art form is created when artists seek to first master the craft of art and then use it to express their individuality.[4]

But it is hard to convince us of this because we really want to believe that technical proficiency—which concerns itself ultimately with Beauty, Truth, and Goodness—is a dictatorial grey area eclipsed by the shining genius of innate creativity. And after all, if four and a half minutes of silence can stand next to one of Bach’s fugues as a work of creativity, why do we need to bother with technical proficiency? Of course, when faced with this absurdity, we realize that there is something that precedes creativity, just as we know that there is a way for creativity to reach beyond technicality. Sir Joshua Reynolds described it this way:

How much liberty may be taken to break through those rules, and, as the poet expresses it,

‘To snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,’

may be an after consideration, when the pupils become masters themselves. It is then, when their genius has received its utmost improvement, that rules may possibly be dispensed with. But let us not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building.[5]

The problem is that the project of our art schools, and the project of reforming our conservatories, has become rather to raze the building.

Art Schools and the Alter Movement

art schoolThe critics are not wrong about the differences between our academies of art and of music. Music conservatories have until now largely resisted the impulses that have so effectively reformed our art schools. And the nation’s very best music schools continue to ignore the din and still reliably produce the world’s top musical talent.

But art schools long ago succumbed to the delusion that sets creativity and originality ahead of discipline. Long ago, they embraced the widespread cultural rebellion against tradition in all its forms; generations ago, they rejected the practice of “teaching as it was taught to me.” They have effectively broken with the past. They’re even wildly successful at turning out entrepreneurs: modern artists are now rolling their “art” off of assembly lines straight into museums.

Alexander Gorlizki is an up-and-coming artist… [whose] work has been displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Denver Art Museum and Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, among others, and sells for up to $10,000. Mr. Gorlizki lives in New York City. The paintings are done by seven artists who work for him in Jaipur, India. ‘I prefer not to be involved in actually painting,’ says Mr. Gorlizki, who adds that it would take him 20 years to develop the skills of his chief Indian painter, Riyaz Uddin. ‘It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency,’ he says.[6]

We don’t have to squint to see where this road that our reformers are rushing down ends. Indeed we are fortunate to have such an explicit example to study. Before we bid our conservatories follow our art schools into the great modern experiment, then, we ought to ask ourselves—and consider carefully—whether or not the experiment has been successful.

There is a growing movement of students and artists who are convinced that the answer is no. And they are flocking to ateliers that continue to spring up all over the world. The modern atelier movement is the correction to the art schools that first abdicated their responsibility to teach technical proficiency and tradition—and subsequently lost the ability to do so altogether. But if the art schools themselves are responsible for the rise of the ateliers, they are not at all to thank for the possibility that they could even exist. Modern ateliers exist because,

Against all odds and facing ridicule, a handful of artists who were still academically trained managed to preserve the core technical knowledge of Western art and to continue the process of teaching another generation. There is now a growing movement of artists demanding to be taught the classical methods. They are part of a new Renaissance that has brought the atelier method full circle and back into the art world of today.[7]

atelierThe atelier is an artist’s workshop, set up much as it was 150 years ago and with its roots in the guilds of the early Renaissance. It is the place where a student trains for many years under the careful, meticulous, and demanding eye of a master artist. Often, only a handful of promising students are accepted at any one time, and they are immersed in the intensively slow and steady process of acquiring technical proficiency, of mastering foundational principles, and of realizing the historic artistic achievements upon which the tradition of Western art has been built. Juliette Aristides was trained in an atelier and now trains her students the same way:

The atelier movement attempts to rebuild the links between masterpieces of the past and our artistic future. As such, it sets a different course than the one prescribed by the arts establishment of the modern era. By reinvigorating arts education we can give the next generation of artists the tools that have been lost or discarded over the last one hundred and fifty years.[8]

As serious students of art begin to realize that they do have the option of learning the tradition and the disciplines that art schools cannot—or do not—offer, art schools in turn are starting to realize that serious art students are willing to forego the accredited college degree—along with the possibility of a university career, a steady salary, and tenure, to say nothing of the approbation of the art establishment—in exchange for the opportunity to learn the craft, to master technical proficiency, and to spend their time tediously copying history’s masterpieces. Their ambition is fired by love for, not resentment of, the canon and its creators—and by a burning desire, which perseveres in the face of failure, to participate in the long and living tradition that is our Western heritage. As Peter Trippi, Editor-in-chief of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine points out,

[A]telier enrollments have continued to soar nationwide…. These enrollments have slowly been “stealing” business from mainstream university art departments, so some are now responding by creating their own programs in this vein.[9]

It is very possible that the music academy, if it harkens to the shouts echoing all around it and proceeds in the proposed march toward reform and “progress,” will pass by the art academy as it hastens back to that crossroads where it took a wrong turn. It is very possible that, by chasing “relevance,” our conservatories, like our art schools, will make themselves irrelevant.

Can we say, then, that all is well in the world of higher music education on this side of the pond? For now, we continue to produce an ample supply of musicians that rank among the world’s best, with the technical proficiency, confidence, and maturity to faithfully perform the great works that were handed down to us. Occasionally—no more often than we might expect it to happen—a creative talent rises visibly from the cohort, perhaps one day to join the canon and the masters at whose feet he studied.

music schoolIf our music schools are in danger, the danger is a knowable one that rumbles predictably and pharisaically. The course of man, like the labor of the student, was always fraught with mistakes. But the tale of higher art education is ultimately a hopeful one. For there will always be those students who, hungry to participate in that transcendent experience that is the miracle of classical music, will seek out and heed the advice of Cennino D’Andrea Cennini, imparted to us in Il Libro dell’Arte at the dawn of the 15th century—ever as fresh as the day he inscribed it:

You, therefore, who with lofty spirit are fired with this ambition, and are about to enter the profession, begin by decking yourselves with this attire: Enthusiasm, Reverence, Obedience, and Constancy. And begin to submit yourself to the direction of a master of instruction as early as you can; and do not leave the master until you have to.[10]

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Future Symphony Institute.


[1] Sir Joshua Reynolds, “A Discourse Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, January 2nd, 1769, by the President”, published in Seven Discourses Delivered in the Royal Academy by the President (London 1778) 13.

[2] Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008), 6.

[3] Quoted in Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008), 6.

[4] Juliette Aristides, Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2006).

[5] Sir Joshua Reynolds, “A Discourse Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, January 2nd, 1769, by the President”, published in Seven Discourses Delivered in the Royal Academy by the President (London 1778) 14.

[6] Stan Sesser, “The Art Assembly Line” in The Wall Street Journal (June 3, 2011). Accessed 9/28/15: here.

[7] Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, in his Foreword to Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008).

[8] Juliette Aristides, Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2006).

[9] Peter Trippi, “Ateliers Today: A New Renaissance?” in Fine Art Connoisseur (November/December 2012), 79.

[10] Quoted in Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008), 1.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. Excellent and thoughtful article. It’s worth expanding the argument to include its relevance at primary school level; if our children don’t have the basic tools of literacy, they are unable to break the rules to make a point in communication a particular idea, because they don’t know what the rules are.

    The other parallel is drama where an absence of the skills necessary to present a character convincingly is equally destructive, but more immediately absurd in its consequences. Fortunately at the moment that art is still heavily commercial; there is less prospect of demands for creativity undermining it because Hollywood and Broadway continue to demand basic competence.

Leave a Reply