The Atelier Concept by Robin Buick

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The Atelier Concept

by Robin Buick

Our visual culture was enriched because the European classical tradition taught us to see, and moreover to see in an enhanced way. If we return to primitivism, as modern art is directing us, then that advanced culture which lasted five hundred years will be lost. This happened in the past in the great swing against Classicism in the early centuries A.D. It did not begin to recover until the Italian Renaissance and it took until the time of Bernini for the skill of the ancients to be equaled.

I am a sculptor, and my primary concern is for sculpture, which always seems the poor relation of painting. The sculpture excavated from the Greek and Roman world was essential to the Renaissance. Plaster casts of the antique and the old masters are still the foundation of academic drawing. Painters are taught to see by drawing sculpture, and they should also learn to model in clay; it helps them to understand structure and the translation into two dimensions.

For me, classical sculpture is the royal road to enhanced seeing, which, sixty years ago, was the common experience of the culturally educated mind. It was the visual language of our civilization, and artists played a leading role in maintaining it. If it ceases to be nurtured and taught, then it cannot be deciphered, and falls into obscurity; and this has happened. I find myself in a difficult area here, because nobody wants to be told that they are visually illiterate, especially if they have qualifications from art school or in art history. In fact they can be quite offended. However, one can be visually literate in Modernism and read its message, and be visually illiterate in Classicism, and this is the nub of the problem.

I base this knowledge on my own experience. In the early seventies, the primitive style of Giacometti seemed an easy solution to an emerging figurative sculptor like myself. I started with that, but soon abandoned it because I did not like what it was saying. The sculpture of Bernini attracted me through its passionate utterance. His sculpture is incredibly accomplished, but its technique was not being taught. I wondered if I could even begin to master its range within my life time. However I started on the path of academic study. Of course, I only made tiny progress but that study allowed me to see art more intensely and helped me develop critical analysis.

We, as the viewing public, read art at many levels, many of which are accessible without the classically trained eye. We have a natural sensitivity to body language, which is mostly a language of the emotions. It is in the facial expression, and the entire body, especially when it is nude. These are, desire, fear, etc.; they can be complex and subtle. Without traditional art, this language of the body has been largely ceded to the photograph, cinema, video, and computer graphics. This makes the retention of the classical language important and it is especially important that artists know it. The trained classical eye confers the ability to analyse. We have to know how these things work and how the artist can use them consciously and creatively.

Classical form is the grammar and syntax of the classical visual language. It is a language one learns in the hand and mind, and in one's spatial perception. I could compare it to the task of learning a foreign language and tuning the ear to the spoken word. I am teaching two young sculptors at present, and one of them was teaching me French, or rather reviving my school French. I was trying to decipher a news broadcast on TV. We had it recorded on video. With my teacher's help I wrote down all the words, and gradually, when it was played again, the confused sound became words and I could follow two or three minutes of spoken French. It was amazing. She compared it to what was happening in her sculpture. I made her see things she could not decipher because I had the power of analysis. It was a marvelous moment for me to realize that I could teach others to see classical form, which without my help, appeared only as undifferentiated shape.

The classical language is therefore something that has to be nurtured if it is to be enjoyed. It is the visual equivalent of classical music. It should be taught as one of our cultural treasures, but unfortunately instead of being taught in our universities it is actually condemned. We are not going to appreciate it, or make masterpieces in it, until we have reversed this. The number of professional classical artists who have an adequate knowledge of their craft is dangerously tiny; most are painters, and the number of sculptors is one tenth of that again. These people are extremely precious in our effort to save this culture.

The Modernist movement set out to destroy the classical vision, and it did just that. It has been one of the most successful revolutions in history. In order to promote primitivism as a revolutionary innovation, artists like Picasso and Giacometti, had to make a crossover with the classical. It gave their theories credibility with their academic peers and the intellectuals. They claimed they were going beyond the classical. The next step however was to abandon the academic training altogether. Without this training future generations of artists could no longer read the classical visual language. They could not even see that it underpinned early Modernism. They were reduced to primitivism and could not see what they did not know. It was a major step toward the overthrow of the academic authority. Modernism has affected two generations of thought, and taken complete control of visual art education. The visual illiteracy it has spawned is of the worst sort, the sort where one feels superior for being ignorant. Unfortunately it is in the highest places in our art establishment.

I try to be fair to my colleagues who are involved in modernism and who speak excitedly to me about this or that contemporary artist. A woman artist told me, the other day, how much she was moved by Giacometti and Francis Bacon. She mentioned other names that I have not kept up with. I found this enthusiasm confusing and thought-provoking. I have to accept her involvement as genuine. I know this person had no background in classical training. I did not dare say that I could see Giacometti in a way she did not see him. In other words I can see the classical form that underpins his work. I still do not care for him. I am not interested in existential despair or in alienation. I love beauty and I want to reflect that in my art. This is where the philosophical divide really is. It is a rebellion and disillusionment with the old order and the old value system. People have a right to rebel. It is part of the process of the interregnum, but I feel we must not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Modernists believe that because untrained artists can make a crude traditional design, the academic tradition is alive and well. Now we have a wave of folk art that is amateurish pastiche. I have been amazed by the glaring lack of knowledge in it. Yet people of respected opinion and position have acclaimed it. Are they really not seeing any more? Is the classical cannon so completely negated that this can happen? We have indeed a figurative revival, but my fear is that we have so lowered our sights that it will actually inhibit academic study.

My blueprint for saving the classical visual tradition is through a multiple system of ateliers which give an apprenticeship to about six artists. They learn from the master craftsman. Painters and sculptors like myself have to hand on what we know to the younger generation. I find a receptivity there that was not there a few years ago, but the concept is still being blocked by those in power who can prevent the system being viable. Such an atelier would have to be funded, but here one runs into difficulties. I find my opinions silenced and rubbished, you cannot even get access to the media to put the case for sponsorship which I would need.

I am continually looking for ways to do it. Classical art would require an equivalent level of investment to classical music. Classical music has created a niche for its survival and there is a lucrative career structure for top artists. However there are no classical visual artists being promoted at that level. If there were it would make a great contribution. There is no reason why a classical artist could not earn from the mass market through photographic reproduction. I have nothing against mass reproduction in sculpture, even in miniature, and we have the technology to do it. I believe, if anything, it would enhance the value of the original from the artist's own hand.

We must therefore do something about making the Atelier concept work. A cultural reservoir of trained talent is the first cause of a living classical heritage and the linchpin of its visual language. These artists are indeed the arbitrators of what constitutes excellence and virtuosity. When there are no artists in this calling, then the culture dies.