You call this art? Did you grin from ear to ear when you learned that a fire at the Saatchi warehouse in London burned this to a crisp?

In a must-read essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hofstra University art professor Laurie Fendrich explains how it came to be that modern art turned from craftsmanlike painting and sculpture into self-righteous self-promoting social commentary of the most cheesy and obvious sort. It’s the fault, Fendrich says, of the art schools and college art departments, which over the past few decades have essentially stopped teaching studio crafts and skills such as painting or working with charcoal and started indoctrinating students in how to be “avant-garde and self-expressive.” That is, they began to teach aspiring young people not how to be artists but how to achieve an “artistic identity.” Instead of teaching art history and art criticism, the schools steep their students in postmodernist theory, which tells the students that the past is oppressive and irrelevant and that art is a mere social construction.

Writes Fendrich:

“The result is that art education….has become a hodgepodge of attitudes, self-expression, news bulletins from hot galleries, and an almost random selection of technical skills that cannot help but leave most art students confused about their ultimate purpose as artists….

“The heart of the problem lies in the fact that ever since the birth of modern art 150 years ago, all artists — no matter what their visual style or theoretical intention — have been riding the great wave of Romanticism, which has been rolling across the arts for almost 300 years. With Romanticism, the autonomous self as the basis for all knowledge trumps everything. And even though the Romantic, ‘authentic’ self of Odilon Redon or Lee Krasner has been adulterated by postmodernism and turned into a constructed, artificial self, today’s artists remain exactly like their early modern counterparts. Deep down, they consider themselves to be morally superior to nonartists — more intensely emotional and sensitive — and pitted against a cold and corrupt society.

“Artists justified the esoteric nature of modern art with the idea that if something came from an authentic artist, it didn’t need orthodox social justification. Modern artists defined their work as worthy, and themselves as special people, simply because they were artists. The audience for modern art long ago gave up expecting or wanting skills, talent, or beauty from artists and willingly acceded to the idea that an artist is a creative outsider whose usefulness lies mainly in being critical of everything. Think ‘court jester’ without the humor.

“Before modern art, though, artists had to take account of the larger society because they were forced to, by either the limits of patronage or official censorship. Since the advent of modern art, however, few if any artists consider the larger society beyond the art-world cognoscenti. To do so would mean either selling out to some version of Thomas Kinkadian aesthetics or, equally frightening, assuming a massively difficult chore.”

Yet teaching young artists to “consicously consider their audience” is exactly, what art programs must do, Fendrich insists. Her suggested methodology: steeping students in the great treatises on art: Leonardo da Vinci’s treatise on painting, Lessing’s famous essay “Laocoon,” passages on art and society from Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” and fiction about artists by Balzac and others:

“If you really want to wake up 18-year-olds, discuss with them why a mole located very close to the mouth (an actual Lessing example) makes so many people squeamish. Talk with them about the risks artists take in using visually disgusting subject matter (which Lessing also writes about) without historicizing Lessing into an ‘example’ from the Enlightenment. Talk about, as he does, the natural limits imposed on the arts by our sense of smell. Point out to them that so-called risky contemporary artists like Paul McCarthy, who uses bloodied meatlike figures in his art, or Karen Finley, who notoriously smeared chocolate over her naked body in a series of performance pieces, implying all the while that she was smearing excrement, are actually not that risky. Both are merely simulators of the disgusting.”

As Fendrich writes in her conclusion to her fine essay:

“In any event, the most crucial job at hand is to steer art students away from the self-congratulatory, self-indulgent deconstructionesque platitudes that increasingly guide their educations. After all, why major in art just to become a half-baked social scientist?”