Anja Flower left a couple of comments on
Art is not about having skill in representational drawing (or being able to play a passable *Fur Elise* on the piano, or perform basic ballet steps, or sing an aria, or carve a well-proportioned human face out of marble). Art is about many things, including self-expression, deep feeling, critical thought and, yes, process. Ideally, it is radically fulfilled creative work; if that work uses virtuosic skill of some kind, if it is imbued with a sense of craft, that’s great. Putting the skill before the essential creative work, though, is putting the cart before the horse. I love many artists who possess substantial or even astounding skill in something – electric guitar, technical singing techniques, naturalistic drawing of the human figure. That’s not the *reason* why I like them, though, I’m not going to stop liking Jackson Pollock or Adolf Wölfli, or listening to Swans or Sunn O))), no matter how many times you point out that they don’t have what you define as “skill.”
It’s interesting how narrowly the field of valid skill is defined; Pollock, for example, had pretty incredible abilities in design and layout, in the creation of visual movement and guiding the eye around a canvas. Many people, though, seem unable or unwilling to notice that; they’re too invested in the idea that all artistic skill, more or less, can be measured by an artist’s ability at (or interest in) drawing “realistic” human figures, or buildings, or dogs.
There are many people who are skilled to some degree at creating “realistic” human figures. Some create great works of art; others create Liberty Meadows.
The idea that art has always been well and specifically defined throughout time and space, and that “realism” is that definition, is laughable, culturally chauvinistic and downright insulting, and represents the argument employed by bigots that queer people mustn’t marry because the institution of marriage has *always* resembled an idealized version of a 1950s patriarchal hetero nuclear family. The very idea of “art” has been and is a very flexible and circumstantial one around the world and over time; the very idea of “fine art” isn’t that old and is quite culturally specific. Many of the things we contemporary first-world Westerns like to consider “radical” in art are in one way or another not new at all. Picasso was influenced by very traditional African masks; process art and various impermanent art forms were preceded by Buddhist sand mandalas; land art was prefigured by earthworks, barrows, henges, temples, hill figures and so on, a kind of creative work that predates civilization itself. Minimal and conceptual modes of working were being employed by students of Zen long before they were being taught at art schools. Egyptian tomb painters and Chinese scroll painters were producing sequential story art long before Töpffer or Hogarth. I don’t mean to say that “nothing’s new under the sun,” strictly – a Picasso painting is not the same thing as an African mask – but rather that these things are not completely new or without precedent. Art history as dominated by highly codified “realism,” illusionism, perspective drawing and so on is a specifically Western phenomenon, not one applicable to all of art history worldwide. Even the fairly Eurocentric and traditional Gardner’s Art Through The Ages admits as much.
I’m as suspicious of the idea of “inborn talent” as anyone; art, great or minor, is created through lots of hard (and hopefully satisfying) work. That’s true whether it’s Caravaggio, R. Crumb, John Zorn, Akira Kurosawa, Earl Scruggs or Keith Haring. Skill is created that way, too, but skill is not the same thing as art.
And here’s the second.
Sean – Mind you, I’m not saying that traditionally-defined skill is a bad thing, or that it shouldn’t be taught. I could benefit nicely from some training with proportion, frankly, and some drafting instruction. It makes me spitting mad to see how deprived art departments are at K-12 schools, to see really high-quality art instruction relegated to extremely expensive private schools that seem designed to keep people out of the art world as much as to let people in. Art should be something open to everyone, and everyone should *know* that.
I’d like to see the concept of art instruction treated broadly, though, in a way that embraces concept, process, different media and so on as well as teaching figure drawing. Elementary layout and design, especially, seems to be as much of elementary importance as anything – and as much as some artists of the 20th Century and now have indeed suffered from poor drawing skills, how many traditional Western figurative artists suffered from inability at design?
I really don’t think that realistic and naturalistic approaches to visual art are going away any time soon, anyhow, and neither are technically complex music or traditional and highly ritualized forms of dance. People continue to gravitate towards those sorts of art forms, whether in more traditional forms like illusionistic, naturalistic figure painting or in newer ones like heavy metal guitar.
People shouldn’t have to swim upstream culturally or educationally to get to the resources they need for *whatever* form of art they’re doing, though. They shouldn’t be duped into thinking that any one mode of production, whether figure drawing or welding televisions together, can be a replacement for the internal, highly personal process of art making *per se*. They shouldn’t be duped, either, into thinking that they’re only worth anything as a producer of visual products for financially privileged people to buy, whether through the “fine art” world, the video game industry, fashion, or any other capitalistic outlet.
Oh, by the way? I know this is cheesy as all hell, but thank you for spending time as a high school art teacher! Totally fucking heroic thing to do (frustrating too, I’m sure). You rock!