When self-expression meets the classics

Should we teach art students to recognize, understand and dissect classic works of art - or should we encourage them to explore creative self-expression, apart from the cultural context?

If beginners are taught to internalize the classics before finding their own voice, won't they be nudged to conform to expectations and tempted to stay inside the box of what has gone before? Are they wasting time learning how others express themselves rather than learning to do so themselves? Will stepping in the shoes of the masters cause them to avoid pursuing ideas outside of the norm? 

Unconventional artists and visionaries have often been shunned by peers - only later to be revered by another generation. If these craftsmen had conformed, if they had stifling their inner voices, they might not have stepped out of the crowd and we would have never had the chance to appreciate their genius.

However, if we teach students to venture out on their own, aren't we just treating them like toddlers, telling them to go play in the paint - without guidance? Failing to study the masters means missing the opportunity stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and to see further down the road. Keeping them away from the classics could mean failing to grasp the value of the great works that have stood the test of time. How can students understand where their own feet are planted in history unless they know about others who have struggled and flourished.

Perhaps we need both sides and the danger lies in slavishly taking one position or the other. Perhaps we can learn the rules before breaking them and avoiding simply mimicking the masters. Perhaps we can tap into the echos of their inspiration rather than plunging into our own narcissism.

Asking, "Am I creating to please myself or to please others?" may bring clarity. If you are creating to please yourself, then diving into what’s culturally hot may take you away from your goal. But if you have decided to create for the crowd, then knowing what is already valued seems like a reasonable starting point.

Stephen Goforth