Lessons from the Bauhaus
Eugen Batz.  Exercise for color-theory course taught by Vasily Kandinsky.  1929-30. Tempera over pencil on black paper. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

Eugen Batz. Exercise for color-theory course taught by Vasily Kandinsky. 1929–30. Tempera over pencil on black paper. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

The exhibition Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity finally comes to an end next week. As a final event of the various public programs we have offered in conjunction with the exhibition, we will present a symposium this Friday, January 22, entitled Before and After 1933: The International Legacy of the Bauhaus. The event will bring together a vast array of international scholars to talk about the remarkable diaspora of Bauhaus intellectuals that, following the school’s closing in 1933, spread throughout various parts of Europe, the Americas, and even Africa, contributing to the establishment of a modern design style and branching out into various pedagogical models and practices that to this day lie at the core of the curricula of art and design schools worldwide.

Here at MoMA—both among staff members and those who came to the related public programs and workshops—we are also left with plenty of food for thought regarding the enduring legacy of that famous school. For me, some of the most interesting questions regarding the Bauhaus legacy have to do with the notion of the professionalization of the artist in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In his 1919 Manifesto and Program, Walter Gropius famously declared that “art is not a profession which can be mastered by study,” and that “there is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman,” finishing with a call for a “new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise the barrier between a craftsman and the artist.”

For all of us familiar with art education, we know that many art schools’ first-year programs are indeed rooted in the integration of the visual arts that was once proposed by the Bauhaus curriculum, but that these schools also openly break with Gropius’s pedagogical philosophy to “professionalize” the visual artist. Many scholars like Howard Singerman have explored the notion of what it means to educate a “professional” artist (and what it means, for instance, to obtain a PhD in studio art). At the end of his book Art Subjects, Singerman argues that art schools essentially teach students a “self-aware” practice, where the “artist is both the object and the subject of university training”; in other words, students learn a much-needed language to address their own specialties. In this sense, it would be impossible to go back to the flattening of the field once proposed by Gropius, as art making is now a historicized and self-aware practice. Still, when we look at the utopian spirit that fueled those Bauhaus parties, those collaborative efforts, and their extraordinary creative result, and when we compare it to the career-oriented programs that center on self-promotion and other strategies to rise in the art market, one can’t help but wonder if we have overdone it in the professionalization camp. What kinds of boundaries or territories should we be exploring now to revitalize the art profession in the same way the Bauhaus did ninety years ago? Even if one agrees with the current mechanisms for the professionalization of the artist, it doesn’t hurt to ask.