Géricault Rails Against the Modern MFA

September 7th, 2004 · 3 Comments · Education, Writing

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of Medusa, 1819

Good ol’ Géricault — I have always liked this guy; I mean, The Raft of Medusa? Genius! The composition, the colors, the human emotion spilling out on those dark waters. The creepy cannibalistic narrative. The corpses! It’s got all the grotesque thrill of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, but the painting depicts an actual horrific event that Géricault crafted into an astute critique of the elite class. Its controversial subject matter served to fan the flames of pre-revolutionary France.

Turns out the work itself was not Géricault’s only method of fanning flames. I was interested in picking up his essay, published post-humorously in 1842, “On Genius and Academics,” which condemns the method in which art was taught during his lifetime: primarily, through a vast network of government-funded Academies run by the leading French painters of the day, namely, David. Substitute “MFA Program” for Academy (not such a big stretch), and you’ve got quite the anti-MFA treatise.

Géricault articulates a viewpoint that I have long held about educating artists, and this essay, in its entirety, is the best argument for the ineffectiveness of MFA programs (of all sorts) that I’ve come across. I tried to find an online version, but I could only find it here, in French, at a rare book dealer’s, for $250. I’m reading a xeroxed copy from an out-of-print anthology, so I’ll have to highlight the best of his argument for you:

“The Government has set up public schools of Drawing, open to all young students, and maintains them at great expense. Frequent competitions in these schools generate tremendous public interest, and at first glance these institutions seem to be not only of great use, but also the surest means of encouragement which could possibly be given the arts. … But since their creation, it is with some sorrow that I have remarked that the effect they have produced is quite different to the one expected. Indeed, rather than being to the public good, they are perhaps a major inconvenience; all they have done is create thousands of mediocre artists, and they cannot in any sense boast of having formed the most distinguished men amongst our painters, since these distinguished men were rather the founders of the schools, and were at least the first to preach the principles of taste.”

“David, clearly the most important artist working in France today, and the rejuvenator of the French School, owes the success which has brought him to the attention of the whole world to nothing but his own genius. He owes nothing to any school; on the contrary, the influence of a school might have been extremely detrimental to his talent if his own taste, at an early stage, had not shielded him from such influences and inclined him instead towards a complete reformation of that monstrous and absurd system…”

“What then, could be the origin of this tremendous dearth of talent, at a time when we have the Priz de Rome, the constant awarding of medals for excellence, and regular competitions at the Academie? … The lure of the Prix de Rome and the facilities of the Academy have attracted a whole crowd of competitors who would never have become painters for love alone, but who would have been worthy additions to many other professions. They pass the time of their youth in a quest for a prize that will inevitably pass them by; thereby wasting precious assets they might have employed in a manner far more profitable to themselves and their country.

The man who truly has a vocation has no fear of obstacles, as he is sure to overcome them; they often provide themselves the means to overcome them. The fever they provoke in his own soul serves a purpose, apt to become the cause of the most astonishing productions.

It is towards such men [men with a true vocation] that the attentions of a well-intentioned government should turn, for it is by encouraging them, appreciating them, and employing their faculties to the full that the glory of the nation will be assured; and it is through such men that the century which discovered them and put them in their rightful place will be remembered.

Even if one supposed that all the young people admitted to the schools were blessed with the same talent, would it not be dangerous to see them study together for years on end under the same influence, copying the same models, and following in some fashion the same path? How can one hope after this that they might conserve some spark of originality? Will they not, despite themselves, have exchanged the particular qualities that they might have had, and fused together into a confused unity those unique means by which, more properly, each of us perceives the beauty of nature?

Any nuance which might survive this group experience becomes imperceptible, and it is with genuine distaste that ones sees every year ten or twelve compositions, of almost identical execution, whose every stoke is painstakingly perfect, offering no germ of originality whatsoever. …everything we see in these, the sad products of our schools, seems to come from one source… “

“I would add to this that although obstacles and difficulties frighten mediocre men, they are the necessary food of genius. They cause it to mature, and raise it up; if the way is easy it withers and dies. … These are the men that a nation must strive to produce — men who allow nothing, not poverty nor persecution, to stand in their way. … The Academy, alas, does too much: it extinguishes the sparks of this sacred fire, it smothers it, not granting nature the time to allow it to catch. A fire must be nurtured, yet the Academy throws on too much fuel.”

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)

That pretty much sums up how I felt about Art Center‘s recent Supersonic exhibition.

Category: Education · Writing

3 Comments so far ↓

  • Micah

    “post-humorously”? 🙂 I think Gericault actually is kinda humorous. 😉

  • Meg

    Argh! Leave it to you, Monsieur Editor, to catch that one… yeah, so, in my former life, I used to be a copyeditor… : )

  • ryan

    I thought i was the only one that truly loved this as one of his personal favorites….. i mean i also love Eugene Delacroix’s liberty leading the people…. but he learned from him and i gues there is something bout one person having there hand up, if its in greif or in pride…..
    but yeah great piece of art work…
    I was lucky enough to see it while i toured europe… and went through the louvre for a day or 2…..

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