Special Forces: Is Specialization Killing Art Today?

The 18th century French Neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres played the violin well enough to hold his own with “Sold His Soul to the Devil” good musicians such as Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt. Ingres took that intimate knowledge of music to add a different kind of beauty to works such as The Turkish Bath (from 1862; shown above). That little piece of trivia came to mind as I read an interview with The Moderna Museet’s new director, Daniel Birnbaum, in the October 2010 issue of The Art Newspaper. “Specialization is a problem of our time,” Birnbaum complained in response to a question regarding his interest in literature and philosophy as well as art. “There are many artists who work in different fields. A big museum such as the Moderna can tear down the walls between art and literature, for example, and I want to try such things.” What is the cost of specialization today, when art schools prepare artists who may know the techniques of their discipline but little else? How do we get back to the “good old days” of Ingres? Have artists today sold their souls to art schools at the risk of never being “true” artists?

I recently found myself receiving prolonged exposure to a group of aspiring poets and novelists with MFAs on their way to PhDs. It was staggering to experience just how limited their experience was. I couldn’t fathom how people who hoped to write poems and novels had little interest in the great poems and novels of the past. With laser-like focus, they centered their “art” on their lives and little else, with no context of their art. The result was a stunningly sameness to their writing—all of which dealt with the trials and tribulations of being an MFA on his or her way to a PhD.

A similar phenomenon happens in art schools today. In the name of maintaining a “purity” of style, young artists refuse to sully their minds with the great art of yesterday—either from the visual arts or other disciplines. The result is that same kind of stunning sameness, but rather than a biographical blandness, an abstract aberration of emptiness—Pollock without the funkiness. Even young artists working in the figurative tradition seem bland, slavishly copying a favorite model but putting on blinders to all else. The idea of tapping into the energies of other disciplines—especially literature and philosophy—seems impossible for them.

William Blake’s double threat of literature and art created a combination that still fascinates fans today. In the generation following Blake’s own, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood followed his lead in linking literature and art, especially Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who also illustrated his own poetry as well as that of others. Of modern artists, William Kentridge, the South African playwright—artist, comes to mind as an example of such a winning combination, but I struggle to think of many others of note.

As important and rich as the literature link seems, the philosophical connection to art seems even more fruitful and even more missing today. Barnett Newman studied philosophy in college and then painted that philosophy in his spare, moving works. Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky, and Robert Henri (among others) expressed in words the thoughts behind their painting and added volumes to the centuries of philosophies of art. It’s difficult to think of an artist—philosopher today. “Artist’s statements” proliferate at every gallery opening, but most seem shallow posturing or even shallower mimicking of the thoughts of the past. Too much modern art is discount brand Duchamp, whose ghost lingers among the battlements of art silently calling for someone to avenge him.

This curse of specialization affects all aspects of modern life. We each confine ourselves to a single specialty that we never stretch ourselves to embrace any other. Sure, Ingres saw his music as a hobby or sideline, but that sideshow informed his art in a way that makes it more memorable and meaningful than if he had never learned an instrument. As schools eliminate more and more “nonessential” programs in the name of making budgets, we should fear a future of robotic specialists who master one field but lack the imagination and vitality of testing other parts of the brain and the soul.

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