Should biography be used to teach vocation?

Personal narrative, a kind of informal autobiography, has become a popular and useful framework for approaching the subject of vocation with young people. Personal story-telling which aims at inclusion and belonging is a common technique in first-year-experiences courses. This strategy for approaching vocation can be enriched by supplementing first-person reflection with meaningful examples pulled from more formal biographies.

Biographies may be part of an essential reading list in vocation, and reading biography might feel especially natural to our time because we give priority to the individual and to our own importance as individuals. In the arts, since the Renaissance—and more recently, through Romanticism—individual genius and an expectation for individual originality are requirements brought along in almost every artist’s training, and they have become codified in the academy through the studio art major.

I have a special interest in biographies of visual artists—mostly painters, and mostly painters whose output inspires my own or serves as examples for my students. My hunch is that if you read biography, there’s a good chance its subjects are from the spectrum of your own domain or professional interests. While reading biographies of people from inside our domains may help us show young aspirants the vocation of our domain, we must also be aware of the limitations of relying too heavily on biographical narratives to teach vocation.

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1968. Private Collection.

Source: Paul Laster, “Philip Guston: A Life Lived Through Art,” Art & Object (July 21, 2020).

I recently developed an “Introduction to Visual Art” course that serves general education students and studio art majors alike. In this course I include a module on the vocation of visual artists, and share an abbreviated biography of American artist Philip Guston (1913-1980), to show students the aspects of vocation which are peculiar to a visual artist. I am careful not to oversimplify the complexities of Guston’s person or to pose the sensational aspects of his biography as being normative. But it is a good example because the Guston biography moves away from the familiar mental images we have for artists, it keeps us interested by its twists and turns, and it ultimately leaves important questions open to speculation.

Giorgio Vasari was the first author to write biographical studies of visual artists when he published The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Artists in 1568. His biographies are part history, part gossip, and part fiction. When I lecture and write on the subject of vocation in the visual arts, I like to reference Vasari’s account of Cimabue, for its telling of the kind of veneration artists have rarely received since the Proto-Renaissance:

(Cimabue’s) work so astonished the people of the day, since they had seen nothing better until then, that they carried it with great rejoicing and with the sounding of trumpets from Cimabue’s home to the church in a solemn procession, and Cimabue himself was greatly rewarded and honored.

Vasari, writing about Cimabue

Can you imagine any artist today receiving the kind of public adulation and notoriety described by Vasari? The cautionary tale for young artists is that, minus systems of patronage and public appreciation, they will spend their careers in obscurity, unnoticed by a “people of the day” who are too hurried and too easily distracted by pop culture.

My most recent biographical reading includes that of the French painter Paul Cezanne (1839-1906.) In my office is a poster I designed that has Émile Zola’s admonition to his friend Cezanne when they were both young: “Either become a proper lawyer, or become a serious painter, but do not become an undecided creature in a paint-spattered robe.” I’ve had numerous advising conversations with young scholars who are pondering a major outside of trending career pathways, in which I use a softened or nuanced version of Zola’s advice.

Cezanne’s biography is mostly kind of dry, although several writers (Alex Danchev, John Rewald, and Ambrose Vollard, for example) have rewarded readers with excellent versions. As is true of most biographies and most biographies of artists, Cezane’s story is vocation-ally instructive and vocation-ally challenged. Let me highlight instructive aspects first and challenging aspects second.

Cezanne’s formation to become an artist was similar to what many young artists experience; there were supports and pressures both positive and negative. His buddy, the writer Émile Zola, encouraged him, and his businessman father discouraged him. Young artists can admire Cezanne’s “holy enthusiasm for painting” (Rewald) and his single-mindedness about making art once he answered the calling in his early 20s to be a painter. Young artists can seek mentorship, as Cezanne was generously mentored by another, older painter, Camille Pissarro. Young artists can emulate his patience and independence: Cezanne experienced much rejection as an artist—his artwork was viewed as being vulgar and as resulting from insufficient talent—but he pressed on, aiming at the truths he regularly viewed in the Louvre Museum.

Cezanne’s biography also reveals what is true of most biographical subjects—he was an excellent talent, living at an exceptional time, and receiving extraordinary opportunity. Most of us possess average-to-good talent, we come from quite ordinary situations, and we manage our vocations according to measured means. Cezanne’s superlative genius is unquestioned by a consensus of artists, critics, and historians. Cezanne lived during the modernist era, in close proximity to many great artists and to Paris, which was the center of the Western art world. Cezanne received a monthly allowance and later an inheritance from his father, which allowed him to practice his vocation without financial considerations common to almost all artists.

Finally, Cezanne lived a life marked by its moral ambiguity, and his failings of character or lack of social virtues can be viewed as problematic. Cezanne was described as being moody and difficult and awkward by family, friends, and strangers. Some things about his behaviors may be excused by the destabilizing effects of diabetes and depression, but he became increasingly reclusive as his asocial habits and isolationism hardened. He broke off friendships and remained unavailable to his wife and son.

The biography of earthly giants—celebrities, superstars, or icons in their domain—can challenge vocation in a foundational sense: Is my calling single-minded, all about me and my needs? Does my enthusiasm for a calling excuse me from certain ethical responsibilities to other people?

Biography’s most important contributions to an understanding of vocation may be that it takes us from the theoretical and makes us wrestle with the practical. Most young people have not accumulated enough experience to fully appreciate the practical, so biography may be a crucially meaningful introduction to a life lived in the domain.


Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. For other posts by Paul, click here.

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