Ralph Fabri, in the introduction to his 1970 textbook Artists Guide to Composition, said, “The term (composition) is easy to misunderstand as it has eighteen definitions in a complete dictionary of the English language, from, ‘the art of combining parts or elements to form a whole’ through, ‘an aggregate material formed from two or more substances, and, ‘a short essay written as a school exercise’ to, ‘the mathematical process of making a composite function of two given functions’” (Fabri x). Composition is a term used across a variety of media including dance, music, art, and writing to describe the elements that comprise and the process of creation. Whether textual, visual, aural, pictorial, or structural, principles of composition define every artist's framework.
Composition theories exist in multiple waves or iterations including current-traditionalists, expressivists, neo-Aristotelians, and new rhetoricians. Theorist James Berlin writes that expressivist theory is “an unteachable act, a kind of behavior that can be learned and not taught” (Berlin 263). In this theory “writing is seen as a creative art through which the self is discovered” (Babin 172). Birthed in the 1960s as a response to current-traditional theory, expressivists pedagogically guide students towards finding an authentic voice where “truth is always discovered within, through an internal glimpse, an examination of the private inner world” (Berlin 145). Historically, composition theory has been dominated by current-traditional pedagogy that reinforces the tradition of academic writing as a method for teaching critical thinking and writing “concerned solely with the communication of truth that is certain and empirically verifiable—in other words, not probabilistic” (261). James Berlin defines expressivist theory as a direct reaction to the objectivity that current-traditionalism requires calling for a pedagogy where “language must rely on original metaphors in order to capture what is unique in each personal vision” (263). No matter the camp—current-traditional or expressivist—communication and critical thinking are composition instructors’ primary objectives.
As composition scholars reflect on composition study's history in academia, and as they seek to define composition as an existing tradition of multimodal creation, it seems prudent to call on art history as a model for studying composition. French impressionists, much like expressivists, were innovators who were able to create, balance, and incorporate both academic training and personal exploration into their pictorial compositions. Though artists work in fewer modalities,though in a variety of media, impressionism was defined by its ability to incorporate traditional faculties of academic training into their experiential compositions to create a dialogue between artist and audience using paint as a medium for arriving at truth in a way that informs the ideologies of, and consequent debate among, current-traditional and expressivist composition theorists. Whereas composition theorists remain divided regarding the constraints and affordances of current-traditional and expressivist pedagogies, the impressionists were able to blend current-traditionalists’ objectivity of form and expressivism’s authentic voice. In doing so, this group of composers achieved the longevity and success that still inspires artists today.
Impressionists believed that oil painting was an ideal vessel for depicting the reality of La Vie Moderne, a time in Parisian history from approximately 1860-1890 when access to commercial goods coupled with an abundance of leisure allowed even the most simple citizen to access once unattainable commodities. This period of extravagance is captured in paintings such as Renoir’s Dejuener des Canotiers or Luncheon of the Boating Party, Degas’ Ballerina, and Manet’s Le Bar aux Folies-Begère and Olympia, where canvases reveal the public’s enchantment with Sunday leisure parties, extravagant concerts in lush halls, dancing girls at folies, and elegant prostitutes. Impressionists sought to separate themselves from traditional subjects such as portraits of famous persons, religious icons, historical scenes, and classical nudes. While the traditional subjects served as the basis for much of the impressionists’ academic training, the impressionists sought to capture life beyond canonical renderings and translate La Vie Moderne onto canvases.
The founders of the impressionist movement—Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Pissaro—were trained to paint under the direction of traditional and academic schools such as l’Académie des Beaux-Artes and l’Académie Suisse, yet the men and women of impressionism sought to fill a void in the perception and possibilities of art as a social tool. Impressionism began as “new painting,” an offshoot of traditional painting that concerned itself primarily with capturing pedestrian and bourgeois subject matter as if it were a still life. The movement used natural light, exaggeration, quick strokes, motion, and illusion to emphasize the value of the artist’s impression of a subject. Traditional painting schools taught the importance of academic style—portraying idyllic scenes with impeccable precision—as a method of capturing life as it could be, but impressionists were more concerned with life as it was. State-sponsored salons served as an impetus for this pedestrian shift in ideology as the new painting movement sought to eliminate standards associated with academic formality and replace them with natural authenticity.
As is the case with many radical movements throughout history, impressionism was born from a time of discord and unrest. French politics were at odds after two separate empires under the direction of two separate Bonapartes failed. Centuries of political unrest left French citizens nervous about their republic’s future, and it was the impressionists who sought to lend themselves as mouthpieces of republican ideals to a listening plebian ear. As the group of painters and writers grew, impressionists gained both confidence and an unabashed sense to rectify centuries of marginalization as they struggled for their radical ideas to be heard. But any revolutionary would say, change takes time. Over a span of twenty years, the impressionists became increasingly influential as politicians and citizens alike began to listen to and adopt impressionists’ once radical ideas.
Compositionists might tell a similar story, though theirs takes place approximately a century after the impressionists set themselves apart ideologically, aesthetically, politically, and institutionally. Composition begins—and in many ways remains—a discipline that is traditionally and academically taught. Over the past several decades as the process movement has gained momentum composition studies has shifted pedagogically towards emphasizing the writer and his or her experience as a primary vessel for teaching and producing effective composition. This move towards process and expression including a move towards embracing the organic nature of writing and its pedestrian qualities—as made famous by the impressionists—is perceived as reaction to form and emphasis on product set forth by current-traditionalists. The impressionist resisted the notion that painters must rely only on their academic training to have a relevant point of view about cultural, political, and social issues. Though the movement’s most notable contributors attended painting academies, impressionist artists longed to harmonize what they had been taught academically with their own natural instincts, abilities, and social context.
In expressivist classrooms instructors encourage students to choose their own subjects, to write from their experiences, and to freewrite and journal. Composition theorist Peter Elbow, in Writing Without Teachers, suggests current-traditional pedagogy relies on “academic” writing, a genre that relies on the imitation of conventional styles and denies the writer a creative space. He calls on instructors to give students agency to write about subjects that interest them suggesting freewrites and journaling as effective methods for engaging students in the act of composing. This shift from current-traditional to expressivist pedagogy reflects a La Vie Moderne in composition studies where students are encouraged to draw from everyday actions and pedestrian achievements as themes for arriving at truth through composition.
In his book Elements, Richard Young details a list of historical expectations that modern compositionists might seek to redefine: “the emphasis on the composed product rather than the composing process; the analysis of discourse into words, sentences, and paragraphs; the classification of discourse into description, narration, exposition, and graphs; the strong concern with usage (syntax, spelling, punctuation) and with style (economy, clarity, emphasis); and so on” (Young 31). For Young, the rules that define composition as an exploration of canonical texts are revised to reveal a process-based pedagogy that places students and creation at the center of composition. This approach to encourages explorative writing and requires instructors to evaluate students’ writing based on their personal journeys and assess individual student achievement.
Over the past 50 years the pages of College English and CCCC record debates between composition theorists as ideologies and pedagogies have changed. As proponents for current-traditional and expressivist composition seek to define and redefine each other’s contributions, and as these proponents dialogue with one another, it becomes evident that the 50-year-old conversation between expression and writer-centered classrooms is still actively engaging composition theorists.
Since the 1960s, many composition theorists have supported expressivist pedagogy as a way of teaching, evaluating, and assessing writing. As the struggle to define “expressivist” continues to challenge compositionists, through this research project it is my desire to place composition alongside impressionist ideology in order to compare art and composition in a way that challenges compositionists to view expressivism as a modern strain of French impressionism. Through this lens impressionists and expressivists are situated as activists for a similar approach to composition where, though separated by 100 years, common methods and ideologies emphasis the artist or writer has his or her own authentic voice.
As the history of impressionism—the movement, artists, and implications—unfolds, expression and impression play an increasing role in the development of its ideas and posits the movement as culturally relevant to the work compositionists do today. Many compositionists have sought to shift the writing paradigm away from academic writing, which is described by current-traditionalist David Bartholomae as characteristically “stuffy, pedantic, the price of a career; …pure, muscular, lean, taut, the language of truth and reason; …language stripped of the false dressings of style and fashion, a tool for inquiry and critique” (Bartholomae 1). As the impressionists were able to meld their academic training with personal style so might compositionists find a method for incorporating the genres of academic with expository writing.
Impressionism and expressivist-based composition, as noted in Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, rely on writers as primary creative tools. It is only through exposure to social and global ideas that artists and writers can rely on sensory studies to accurately characterize a place, person, or space. These studies are artistic prewrites, allowing artists to interact with and envision composing in stages and from multiple perspectives. Impressionists’ “studies” are well documented in diaries and sketchbooks as drafting records that reveal an artist’s process. Much like impressionism, expressivist pedagogy calls on writers to consider composing as an experience and to explore one’s physical and metaphysical senses in order to achieve understanding in freewrites and journals. Similarities between impressionists’ studies and writers’ freewrites reinforce the connections between artist and write since both studies and freewrites rely on personal perspective to reveal intellectual growth.
This research project seeks to extend on perceptions of composition by aligning the history of expressivist composition with French impressionism, complicating both movements by placing them alongside one another.
The parallels between impressionism and expressivist composition are most effectively traced through theory. Expressivist pedagogy is defined in the work of Peter Elbow, Wendy Bishop, and Donald Murray among others. In particular, expressivist Elbow engaged in a very public CCCC’s debate with current-traditionalist David Bartholomae regarding expressivism’s constraints, affordances, and misconceptions. Donald Murray joined the discussion with A Writer Teaches Writing, a text that further complicated the understanding of the expressivist movement as a social activity influenced by workshop and community. As the expressivist movement became increasingly reliant on the writer rather than on the instructor, many compositionists responded to expressivism’s hermeneutical oversights.
Expressivism is not unique in its controversial nature. The impressionists used the non-conventional application of traditional techniques to communicate their personal relationships to social, political, and historical trends. Classical academies constructed artists’ traditional interpretations of form and composition by deconstructing canonical forms. These theories of aesthetic design and beauty, including invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory, were influenced by the Greek philosophy set forth by Plato and Aristotle in canonical texts such as Poetics. The impressionists sought to ideologically separate themselves from the idyllic traditional forms that were emphasized in the academy finding that these forms failed to represent the everyday citizen and their own artistic perspectives. As the artists who would become the impressionists left the academy, universal forms were replaced by the artist’s unique point of view. By defying their traditional training, the impressionists paved the way for the modernist movement in art including expressionism, surrealism, minimalism, and abstraction.
Through close examination of the contexts that led to impressionism and expressivism as responses to particular historical climates, indicators point to numerous ideological similarities. Though impressionism and expressivism originated in two different histories, the theory that situates them as relevant historical and philosophical movements are remarkably similar and demand comparison. Therefore, I want to use the impressionists and their ideological union of academic and personal forms to examine the relevance of the expressivist style in composition theory.
Primary texts are an invaluable resource for any historical approach to research. As the history of impressionism unfolds, the parallels between the context, history, and philosophy of expressivism and impressionism are impossible to ignore. Diaries and sketchbooks from artists such as Manet and Renoir situate impressionism firmly as an artist-based movement and depict first hand the ideological and aesthetic struggles artists endured as they separate from tradition. These resources will prove invaluable as I seek to connect the context of impressionism with current trends in composition.
As I continue my research, seemingly inconsequential notations in primary texts have proven to be central arguments for expressivism. For instance, in some of Manet’s earliest diaries, he records his interest in and infatuation with Japonisme, or the influence of Japanese themes on French life and culture. Manet’s interest in portraying Eastern culture and the impact of La Vie Moderne seem to reflect an increasing sense of globalization as the Paris-based impressionists were exposed to heterogeneity. A similar movement is reflected in expressivist composition, as one of its tenets is that “the private apprehension of the real relies on the metaphoric appeal from the known to the unknown, from the public and accessible world of the sense to the inner and privileged immaterial realm, in order to be made available to others” (Berlin 263). Both movements rely on revelations made in the external world to inform the internal self.
The bulk of the historical materials utilized for this study are texts describing and recounting the history of impressionism. The texts I have selected focus on pre-impressionism, French economics in the 1860s (the decade when impressionism began), post-impressionism (1890s and beyond), salon reception (specifically l’Académie des Beaux-Artes), biographies of impressionists (Cézanne, Renoir, Seurat, Sisley, Manet, Monet, Pissaro, etc.), and critics of impressionism (Emile Zola, Edmond Duranty, Philippe Burty, Théodore Duret). These texts and these historical accounts will situate my research in the context of impressionist history. The biographies will provide first-hand accounts of impressionism’s origins, while the criticisms will provide insight into impressionism’s critical reception and social impact.
Through these texts, I want to situate composition within the impressionist movement and correlate significant events and ideologies alongside similar strides taken in composition studies. The history of impressionism is set in place. I can see its origins, its progression, its situation, and its legacy. If composition were in any way replicating the path of impressionism, it would be possible to make assumptions about composition and its future based on the alignment of theories in composition with those that established impressionism as one of the most influential and pervasive movements in modern art history.
Relying on history to guide my research has its own limitations. As I review the historical situation that enabled the impressionists to develop their ideas and create their masterpieces, I am limited to the recorded information that is available. Since I am dealing primarily with the impact of visual arts in relation to current composition trends, I am able to use visual records as first-hand insight into impressionists’ points-of-view. The impressionists pointedly desired that their work serve as an impetus for discourse on political, social, and physical issues as they played out in 1860s-1890s French life. Artists such as Renoir and Manet diligently recorded their thoughts and methodologies concerning art and process creation. This insight will afford me an insider’s perspective into the impressionists’ motivations, and will allow me to compare composition theorists’ motivations towards their own process theories.
Though it is indeed a limitation that I am not able to access the impressionists directly, and although I cannot sit with Degas and Zola in the Batignolles quarter as le juene école debate the movement’s importance and impact, the impressionists and their philosophy has been discussed in great detail in a plethora of texts. I will rely on these texts to guide my research as I compile my own bibliography that includes texts on pre-impressionism, impressionism, post-impressionism, salons, impressionist art criticism, composition in art, current-traditional composition, expressivist composition theory, and composition in writing.
As I seek to place composition alongside impressionism, I first want to identify the diverse interpretations of the word “composition.” “Composition” is used across media to mean a variety of actions, yet there are similarities among the definitions. It is important to distinguish “composition” in art from “composition” in writing in order to understand the limitations and affordance placed on the word in each discipline. This seems best achieved by using instructional texts in both art and writing to identify the standards of both. Artists view composition through the lens of visual creation where a composition means both the arrangement of forms on or within a space, as well as to describe the elements of design (line, form, color, tone, etc.) that define a work. Writers use composition to represent the elements of writing (style, voice, tone, genre, modality, etc.) arranged into a readable text. In either sense, composition is a term used in reference to both the process of creating a product and to the completed product itself.
One limitation of this project is working with non-quantifiable data. Because I am using primary and secondary sources for the bulk of my research, I will have fewer opportunities to define my research in figures and data. Fortunately the impressionists were often called on to voice their political opinions and share their social ideologies in newspapers and literature, thus leaving a lasting record of their motivations and thoughts.
Similarly, movements in expressivist composition have been recorded in journals such as College English and CCCC. These records provide insight into the discourse of and response to changes in pedagogical theory placing theorists in direct dialogue with one another. In particular, I want to frame my research through expressivist Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers and current-traditionalist David Bartholomae’s “Writing with Teachers” debate. The Elbow/Bartholomae debate will situate my understanding of the conflicting ideologies present in expressivist and current-traditional theory as primary examples of composition’s history, impact, and influence.
Traditional artists’ texts such as Composition: An Analysis of the Principles of Pictorial Design for the Use of Students, Art Schools, Etc. and Artist’s Guide to Composition have been used by art schools and art students to educate artists in the traditional techniques of composition. Composition has been used since 1927, and is a staple in art classrooms as a definitive resource for teaching the artistic processes. For this research project I will look closely at these traditional resources and align composition principles with those of impressionism.
Similarly, influential groups such as CCCC and National Council of Teachers of English have defined “composition” in written statements. For this research project I will examine how these two influential groups define composition, and the way composition has been historically defined before and after expressivist theory. Further, I will examine the way composition is defined and in art.
By comparing traditional texts on artistic composition with institutional definitions of composition in writing, I hope to understand the relationship between composition and history. I hope to find historical evidence that composition as a term is malleable and is changed to suit the needs of those who use it. In art, composition is a medium. In writing, however, composition is a method. I project that the relationship between “composition” and the disciplines that use and define it will shift in both impressionism and expressivism as the progressive ideologies that define each theory become integrated into each discipline’s history.
This project is centrally located in history and scholarship, both of which are heavily recorded. I will not be dealing with quantifiable data, but rather with the information available in relation to impressionism and expressivist theory.
As the discipline composition continues to grow, I envision my research defining composition as the creation of text—textual, aural, visual, and pictorial—where the theories and ideologies of which enable it to be viewed as a writer-centered, but academically informed, discipline. The incorporation of technology and multimodal elements into composition classrooms has changed the face of composition studies providing a space where traditional writing techniques can unite with the changing face of the modern writer. As compositionists continue to debate the relevance of expressivism in relation to current-traditional methods, perhaps the impressionists successful navigation of a similar ideological climate will inspire a comparable shift in composition. Placing composition alongside impressionism should emphasize the two movements’ similarities and incite a conversation about composition’s past, present, and future as seen through the lens of one of art’s most successful movements.
The impressionists, as classically- and academically-trained artists, were situated as influential members of their communities and, more importantly, of their time. While these men and women were progressive in their artistic approach, the significance of their work in relation to expressivist composition may be less about their political ideas and social activism, and more about the ways in which they integrated their traditional origins and academic perspectives into their avant-garde painting. The impressionists were products of the most revered artist academies, showed their works at the most popular salons, and participated in the bourgeois lifestyle they portrayed. Their ideas garnered respect because the impressionists were steeped in tradition. They knew the ins and outs of the medium and techniques they reinvented including lines, forms, colors, and light. They knew the restraints and limitations of traditional composition, but, unsatisfied, the impressionists sought to create a space for themselves that would better the art community, as well as the greater populace, and represent their authentic artistic voices. As I follow the impressionists’ history, the expressivist movement echoes the impressionists’ path.
Much as the impressionists began in one tradition and created another, the compositionists who first proposed that pedagogy and writing assessment should focus as much on the writer as on writing where trained in current-traditional composition. These theorists knew the limitations of their own craft, and sought to advance perceptions of writing by focusing as much on how writing was made as on what writing was made. The implications of aligning impressionists theories, motivations, and successes with current composition theories will provide compositionists with insight into how a group of abstract thinkers were able to successfully campaign for their craft to be envisioned from a different, non-traditional perspective. Connections between the impressionists and expressivist compositionists are too similar to ignore, so if we listen closely to the impressionists’ stories and look carefully at their work, perhaps compositionists, too, can successfully campaign for a space where their voices represent the art they create.
Further, the connections drawn should encourage compositionists to view their craft in association with an artistic movement that achieved longevity by creating a space for intelligent and fruitful discourse. Expressivist compositionists may view themselves as reactionary as they push against the grain of tradition in order to mark their space within the academy and within their own departments, however 100 years ago the impressionists created the framework for the expressivist movement to achieve status as an addition to the foundation presented in current-traditional composition.
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