Larry Witham on the religion of art school

Witham observed students at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

In books like “The Measure of God,” “A City Upon a Hill,” and “Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion,” Larry Witham examined religion in the United States from an analytical, erudite point of view.

But his latest — “Art Schooled: A Year Among Prodigies, Rebels and Visionaries at a World-Class Art College” — is an exploration of perhaps the most profoundly secular enclave in American society: the fine arts conservatory.

Unexpectedly, Witham ran into plenty of parallels between art students and churchgoers.

“Contemporary art is kind of its own religion. Sociologists will tell you this,” says the former Washington Times reporter. “You’ve got to know the language, the rituals, the art theology and — just like any religion — if you’re not familiar with these things, you don’t feel like an insider.”

Witham embedded himself at the revered Maryland Institute College of Art, attending classes, gallery events and administrative meetings. But he spent the majority of his time with individual students, tracking their work and play, as well as their developing zeitgeist.

“I realized that over the last 30 years, being an artist is more about a way of life and attitude. And skills have become somewhat secondary,” explains Witham. “There’s a definite style, attitude and scene that young artists are attracted to — and it can provide access to the art market, though it’s no guarantee.”

Tradition vs. tech

Witham noticed a growing  divide between the traditional art student and a new breed: the graphic
design/IT technophile.
   
“Some people can make it just by knowing the technology, but other artists still have to make it by mastering a skill — by being able to do something very traditional very well,” explains Witham.


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