There’s a famous saying that goes: ‘those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.’ In the art world I’ve recently encountered two different applications of the maxim. In the last post I wrote that through humor we crease the harsh edges of truth, lubricating our cultural forgetting.
The maxim applies also to our understanding of challenges faced by 20th century art forms, including Modern Art, Jazz Music and Modern Dance.
Ever since I began dancing (in the 1990’s) “modern dance” has been stumbling over what to call itself – part of a larger struggle to figure out how to maintain the soul of a reactionary art form now integrated into the mainstream. (Can something I just created be “modern” if something modern was created a hundred years ago? )
The American composer William Billings once wrote that “every man should be his own carver.” The revolutionary spirit embodied in that statement is incompatible with the maintenance of the arts industry, and we don’t do ourselves any favors pretending that it isn’t. Artists are/need to be trained. Agrippina Vaganova, famous for founding ballet’s Vaganova Technique, was exceptionally attuned to the importance of well-rounded study. Juri Slominsky in his 1945 article “The Soviet Ballet”, described Vaganova’s insistence that,
“Prospective ballerinas and their partners study the history and theory of the theater and particularly the ballet, they become familiar with the history of painting, delve deeply into every style and epoch…. What is demanded of the ballet dancer today is a standard of culture that would permit him not only to independently solve choreographic and scenic problems in the spirit of historic and artistic truth, but also to actually take part together with the authors in the creation of the performance, to assist them in their tasks and to perceive their blunders and fallacies if such there be. To do all this, the dancer’s knowledge must be on a level with that of the choreographer and the author of the libretto. He must be able to understand perfectly the tasks put before him by the choreographer and not only dance well in the traditional style.”
Technique and composition are best taught alongside history. Too many of our teachers lack the training to do this. As we lament falling audience attendance we should consider how arts education, at every level, has failed to adequately encourage the growth of perceptive artists, and audience.
We’re best served working within the system, but if we’re not prepared to challenge today’s failures we encourage a race to the bottom that fails the artists of tomorrow. As with education reform in general, preserving players within the system is less important than ensuring that a system exists to truly serve students.
In the portrait at the top of this post the subjects are seen only distantly, in the mirror at the back of the room. The painter himself, their children, dog, and attendants are more clearly in focus. Finished works of art are indistinguishable on the walls. All this to say that in the art world those who don’t study history are unable to repeat it; the next generation of Velazquez’s can only emerge from a system that values truly rigorous arts education.