Rembrandt's actual "The Return of the Prodigal Son"

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may study mathematics and philosophy … in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music and architecture.”

John Q. Adams said this, the son of John Adams who along with John Hancock and other luminaries founded our very own American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the middle of a Revolution. They hoped America would continue the European tradition of formally supporting art, science and scholarship.

When that didn’t happen, an exodus of art students fled to Europe until private and state universities took up the slack more recently.

I’ve been notice noticing how American universities have worked as traditional academies of art for a long a time, but was this a good idea or a cultural disaster?

Ever since a conversation with an artist-academic ended with her repeated, patronizing edict, “You cannot say that,” over some minor, politically incorrect trespass, I’ve been a bit sulky over the entire university/art shtick – a reasonable response to arrogant instructors who mistake the entire world for their little oyster and all dissenters as wee bits of sand.

Some modern, democratized incarnation of “The Royal Society of Arts” was needed here, and a bazillion schools and public universities were sucked into the vacuum. Artists required a place to learn their craft and an opportunity to be critiqued by others. In the best situations they find true mentors and encouragement. Critics and historians must likewise prove their stuff, and both professions are closer to academic studies anyway. Pieces of impressive paper always help.

It’s hard to say how well this giant networked “Academy” is working, because it’s so loosely knit and no one represents all the artists in the process. But how would someone like Rembrandt fare in the average, highly politicized art school of the 21st century? Not so well I think.

First there’s the fact that he was a fervent Christian believer, and many of his subjects were biblical. Talking about that isn’t prohibited – it’s just extremely not encouraged.

Imagine the scene. Rembrandt is painting “Return of the Prodigal” and has found an Orthodox Jew for a model. Outside his small studio space in a New York university, the walls are plastered with calls to boycott Israeli products and calls for destruction of the “fascist Zionist state.” From the window they hear Mohammed Hafiz Khan, allowed by the college to rant against U.S. Christians, all Jews and the American military – with a megaphone. Rembrandt and Abe are doing their best to ignore it, but he includes one of the hate posters in the background of the painting, just for authenticity.

Later in a group critique session, Rembrandt is asked about his “The Return of the Prodigal Son”:

“How does this scene speak to competing and dualist belief systems?”

“Touching, but entirely patriarchal scene. Wouldn’t it would be stronger if all authority figures and family archetypes weren’t male?”

“This clearly reflects starving Proletariat masses returning to beg at the feet of powerful Capitalists in times of famine and civil unrest.”

Rembrandt is speechless. Good thing he speaks only Dutch, at least as far as they are concerned.

"New" and "improved" Rembrandt

Considering the free-spirited nature of Americans, it’s no surprise our artists didn’t fancy courting permission and currying favors from Powers That Be. Europe’s artists deserted their academy in droves over rigid controls of style and content a century ago. Many rejected the concept of “authority” entirely, especially of the state and identified the old academy with the unjust oppressive orders of the past.

Now the new “Art Academy” (public and private U.S. schools combined) have come full circle, or more specifically, 180 degrees to the other side with the same attitude, but very different politics and ethics.

An almost unbearable political correctness envelopes so many institutions like a cloud of mustard gas, and it is particularly noxious to the arts. Virtually every field of study is filtered through screens of required Marxist, feminist, queer, anti-imperialist/patriarchal, deconstructed and post-colonial nonsense like they were sifting for gold. Fortunately, this isn’t always the case, and students still manage to learn basic composition and theory in spite of the best efforts of crusading leftist professors.

Ironically, while ridiculing the constraints and proprieties of neo-classical art academies, they’ve re-created a hybrid Frankenstein with a diploma. The rotted remains of dead tradition form the resurrected academy – but only the left side now. The new academics have zero tolerance for cultural deviants. The “questions which must not be voiced” are equivalent to Victorian “unmentionables,” and the strident nationalism of the original academy is replaced with enforced “diversity” or else.

Correct answers lead to the promised land of matriculation, so best learn your anti-Western lessons and mind your post-Letitia Baldridge manners, particularly if you’re reaching for a higher degree. That’s where candidates start dropping like flies if their worldviews are incongruent with the institution. Most universities or art schools would never admit it, but I have letters from instructors bemoaning the political intrigue they slog through all day hoping not to be singled out or attacked for their conservative views.

Just as kings sponsored Royal Art Academies in both England and France, art schools today are subsidized by public funds and wealthy patrons. This is actually a great thing for students who have no archdukes to grease the gates of an academy. Open enrollment for at least the undergraduate art student is a particularly American way of thinking, where class, gender and income aren’t taken into much consideration at the start. If we could just keep it nice and simple like that.

Yet at the graduate level, the mindset is more cloistered and rarefied. Here future instructors who will influence generations are groomed in art, often amid an attached progressive philosophy that is entrenched but not immutable. Lenin forecast future victories in education with “give us the child for eight years, and it will be a Bolshevik forever.” Given that the average Ph.D. takes about 8 years with total immersion in many institutions, the commies are apparently serious and have their positions all staked out.

Some of the fiercest political battles in this nation rage in the academic world under the radar and untelevised, decade after decade. This isn’t how artists should be educated in a free nation, but it will be up to students, voters and donors to make it change.

Once artists were considered humble craftsmen who only had to worry about art and avoiding starvation, but the Renaissance changed all that. Painters such as Raphael and Michelangelo became huge, social phenomena, raising artists to the status of philosophers, poets and other valued intellectuals.

Whether the respect artists enjoyed over the last few centuries is actually helpful or just ensnaring us in endless political and social fratricide is a matter of debate. There seems to be no turning back, so why not rethink how we run the American ‘academy’? This time for artists, not ideologues.

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