Monday, March 21, 2011

The problem with Barnstone, History

I was wondering about how Barnstone supports his rigid view of geometry in design, etc. Aside from the usual thoughts on that (that Barnstone is dogmatic), I have some new insight into how one does arrive at such dogmatic views. And it goes like this...

When I was in New Orleans, I went into this used bookstore and picked up two cheap used books on art. One of them was this book called "The History and Philosophy of Art Education". The title turns out to be misleading, as it is primarily about the growth of art education in England. The book is actually quite boring, as it details one historical fact after another. The only thing that makes it possible keep reading, is that one can find in these details, a direct correspondence to the present day. The other thing that emerges is a cultural blueprint of the British mentality to art and life. This is the Barnstone connection.

The book beings by acknowledging that England was never really an art culture. English artists would go to France or Italy to receive training, though this represents an insignificant minority of British people, so there was really no professional art education in England prior to the late 1700s (when the Royal Academy was founded) There were also no museums open to the public, as it was considered below the commoners station in life to view works of fine art.

This seems odd, as I always think of the English as being a craft-centric people. But whatever level of craft the English do possess, they do not equate it with fine art. Craft is for the working man.. the artisan... the tradesman, etc. The fine arts are for the upper class. And the two do not intermix. This dichotomy between art and craft in England seems to stem not from a philosophical dispute over the nature of the two, but on the sociological connections of art and craft to the social strata which they inhabit.

In the late 18th century, the Royal Academy is founded in England, whose purpose is to advance art and design in England. That rather democratic mission statement doesn't come to anything, as the Royal Academy quickly becomes an exclusive organization dedicated to establishing and preserving the social and business interests of a select few British artists. Most British artists in the Royal Academy are trained in France or Italy, and they return home to become members of the Royal Academy... or "Royal Academicians"... to have the knightly "RA" placed after their names... and to thereafter have access to the members of the upper classes from which they will receive portrait commissions.

The school of the Royal Academy approach teaching by way of rigid copying "From the flat", and then "From the round" (casts)... and from architectural ornament... from sculpture, etc. This approach is NOT the approach that was used in France and Italy. In the academies of those countries, the students engage in life drawing fairly quickly, and work from life and from natural observation. The British do not. Though the Royal Academicians were trained this way, when they have the opportunity to set up their own schools, they do not teach that way. They fall back (I suppose) into a more deeply seeded mentality... a mentality of structure, order, and system.

Another influence on their approach to teaching, is the British obsession (especially at that time) of classical culture. The British are in love with Greek and Roman classical antiquity. Their higher education system is based around learning Greek and Latin. The consider Greek and Roman models (in all fields) to be indisputable, perfect examples of beauty, not to be deviated from. Rigid and obsessive copying from Classical models was considered to be direct contact with perfection.... such that any deviation from it was to fall into corruption.

In this view it is clear that working from life, or working from an individual perspective... is simply to discard the history of perfection, and to sink into barbarism. Joshua Reynolds, as president of the Royal Academy, is noted for asserting that the key to creativity is complete adherence to copying. Of course, copying as and educational method is not invalid, but it seems clear that in the hands of the British mentality, it goes from being a means... to being the end.

In the early 19th century, there arises in England a problem... the English merchants are importing (at great cost) the majority of their designs from France, as the designs from that country are known to be far superior to anything being produced in England. This fact is the catalyst for a crusade to establish art and design schools in England, in order to wean the country off their dependence on French design. This crusade is led by the noted history painter Benjamin Haydon (trained in France), who is also an opponent of the cultural death-grip that the Royal Academy has on art training in England. His crusade succeeds in eventually establishing an art school in London and Manchester. However, social politics raises its ugly head again, as the administration of the schools is given to Royal Academicians, who move quickly to establish very strict training regiments, whose purpose it is to make sure that fine art is not taught in these schools... but rather, only art as related to industrial design.

The artisans and tradesmen who attend classes after their work day, are not considered of a high enough class to partake in fine art. They are subject to rigid drawing instruction that is more akin to mechanical drawing and drafting, the idea being that industrial design is a mechanical and scientific pursuit. The students are required to sign a document, where they promise to only pursue a career in industry, and to not attempt to be fine artists (a station they are considered unfit for, at any rate).

These schools are come into existence in the 1830s, and over the next 30 years nothing but debate rages over how to train the students. In actual fact, the schools are failing, since they fail to produce designers who can compete with French design. As it turns out, French designers are trained as artists. They go through the same basic training as fine artists. In France, they awareness of art, and of art training goes much deeper into the social fabric. It is not connected to social class the way it is in England. The pervasiveness of aesthetic sensibility comes through in the manner of life of the French vs. the English. The English are stiff upper lipped administrators, who can run a global empire, but the virtues of administration cannot support the required state of mind required for the development of fine art.

Despite the continued failure of the government art schools, they continue to grow.... as their cause is taken up by one ambitious upper class opportunist after another. Of course, those who "run things" in England are from the upper classes, and thus from the same conservative mindset, and set out to cure the problems by ever more rigid means.

Throughout the mid 19th century there are produced many many "drawing method" books, officially sanctioned descriptions of how to teach drawing. They are circulated amongst the schools. They are programmed instruction, relying predominantly on copying from the flat... on copying outlines of greek columns, of architectural ornament, etc. They are also geared to the perceived needs of industry... of design. The schools attempt to model themselves on the German schools of the time (early for-runners to the Bauhaus idea of a unification of art and craft). However, the English taking up the German model is more about the English preferring a system that focuses on craft. The Germans were not trying to avoid fine art training... the English are obsessed with it.

One last observation… the English believed that the teaching of art could be reduced to a sequential series of steps, learned in the manner that one might learn science. The "method books" mentioned above are a product of this belief in the ability to record (in language) the abstract ideas of art. This helps explain (to me at least) the overwhelming analytical approach that exists in art books (from the 19th century, or early 20th century) that we read. For instance, "The Practice and Science of Drawing" by Harold Speed is in this vein. Though it isn't one of the "method books" referred to above, it stems from the British practice of conceptualizing and ordering things.

And so the history of all of this staggers forward through the 19th century. I haven't read the book all the way through, but several things stand out to me regarding Barnstone's attitude to teaching.

1) Barnstone went to art school in England. That fact means a lot. Barnstone's imperious, domineering, rigid attitude either came from that (or more likely) was reinforced by that. I'm sure he partnered with it very well.

2) Barnstone is obsessed with the idea of the golden section, which is a product of classical antiquity (a British obsession).

3) Barnstone see's art as something that can taught systematically by way of rigid assignments that allow of no deviation ( a British mentality outlined in the book)

4) Barnstone teaches drawing by using orthogonal perspective (vs linear perspective). This focus on orthogonal is an architectural focus... which is a designer focus (not fine art)…. and it is also a classical antiquity focus. But even at that architecture traces it's roots NOT so much to Greek humanism, as it does to systems of geometric measuring and abstraction going back to the Egyptians. You cannot build a temple or a pyramid without a plan, and the plan must be based on a geometric system. Architecture also requires 'a priori' planning. You must know what you are building ahead of time… so you must define everything up front. The building doesn't emerge from a process of building, but the from a plan.

5) Barnstone's (aforementioned) orthogonal drawing assignments begin with a bottle. A BOTTLE!!! Barnstone revels in manufactured items, and he often talks about the beauty of a the bottle. However, the beauty of the bottle is quite different than the beauty of a natural form. Since it is man made, it's conception must arise in the mind, and must reflect ordered thought...i.e., some geometric basis. The beauty of manufactured items is also an industrial design focus, a industrial focus... which is the focus forced on the art schools of the English by the establishment (as outlined in the book).

6) Barnstone's cap-stone drawing assignment in the first drawing class is to draw a plant. This echos the British love of botany, particularly in the Victorian era. Every description of drawing instruction that the book mentions has a large part of it reserved for drawing plants and architectural ornaments based on plants. Barnstone's approach to drawing the plant focuses on aligning all the natural tendencies of the plant (it's edges, clumps, stalky-bendings, etc) to some aspect of the geometric armature of the rectangle. Nature is contained and ordered by an 'a priori' system of enclosures and partitioning of space, as if the image plane is a plan view of a building.

7) Barnstone's color class proceeds from a system of color mixing. The system is exceedingly conceptual, and requires the artist set up and maintain a complex palette. The impracticality of this approach, and the dubiousness of "a priori" assumptions about palette (before you even begin painting) seem to me to be classic a classic British approach to art education. Heavy on theory, indifferent to the needs of the actual work of art. It strives for a conceptual control at the cost of application.

The perfect as the enemy of the good, finds expression in such a mindset.

The question of how Barnstone would defend his commitment to geometric design wasn't meant to invoke a history lesson like this, but rather to invoke an answer based on the truth or falsehood of some relevant facts. But the problem is that Barnstone's worldview is seems so deeply entrenched in the types of biases that I outline above, that there is no way for him to really have that fact based conversation. He might throw a few fact based ideas out there, but if pushed by a capable intellect, he would fall back to asserting cliches like.. "Without design there is no art". Such an utterance doesn't prove anything, but in Barnstone's mind it validates the analytic and conceptual worldview completely, and gives him carte blanche to assert design abstractions without being questioned. Of course, since he lectures to the the uncritical and (art historically) untrained in a school that he dominates, he lives completely insulated from critical reproach.

In reading this book, I was blown away by the correspondence between British educational theory and Barnstone's approaches. To see the effect of culture and ideas on how art is taught is a real lesson on how human knowledge can be so completely dominated by cultural attitudes, to the degree that a person is not even aware that they are operating under it's influence.


  1. Found your other articles - Barnstone series. Thanks for sharing you point of view.

  2. Barnstone cannot teach you to draw, from what i have seen he's a fraud by promising he has the best "how-to-draw" course. He lives in a world of geometry, more specifically a world where the golden ratio is everything. His lectures where he breaks down a pictures into geometric relationships are at best interesting. But if you want to draw, i mean become a competent draughtsman, his teachings are not even relevant. The truth is drawing requires the same effort as learning a musical instrument, it is all about hand eye coordination, practice practice and incessant practice is the only true teacher.

  3. hey there, thanks for the reviews- they are your point of views which I respect but I think the way he teaches; makes you aware of angles, compositions and the games you can play with the viewer, it is good for all that but for drawing I found Glen Vilppu very helpful, his video lectures on Anatomy are one of its kind, plus he has complete control over the subject- so one can study his course in combination with other drawing courses- well It is just my opinion!! thanks and keep contributing :)

  4. You seem like the kind of guy who takes whatever is of merit, and ignores the rest... or is unconcerned with the rest. That's cool. No doubt you will glide through life with way less stress than me. I am not so inclined. I take seriously all the non-meritorious bullshit that people spew, and hold them accountable. This stresses me out. You can judge me on that. Maybe I shouldn't care. But I do, at least in regard to the bullshit Barnestone inflicts on the many young and/or naive minds that he presumes to educate. Perhaps in time I will learn not to give a shit. But as of today... I still kind-a do... and so I remain committed to what I have written.

    If you want to reduce Barnstone's enormous conceit to simply a few useful lessons on this-or-that... then fine... but the negative affect of what he does slides right past your view.