Loooove your work...
June 4, 2005 4:47 AM   Subscribe

“Could you cut four inches off to make it work?”.... how to talk to an Artist.
posted by R. Mutt (46 comments total)
Iiiinteresting... Have to think about Jenny Liu's categorization of artists for a bit. Inspired Creative Originators and Intellectual Art Producers. Feeling vs thinking, hmm...
posted by scheptech at 5:30 AM on June 4, 2005

Often, being quiet in front of a work is the best response; it indicates that you’re looking carefully and are thinking about what you’re seeing.

Wow, this is great. So one of the best ways to talk to an artist is to not talk to an artist at all?
posted by afroblanca at 5:47 AM on June 4, 2005

Artists should have day jobs so as not to have to make a living by selling their art.
posted by jfuller at 5:53 AM on June 4, 2005

A moment of genuine attention/interaction and a cordial "thanks" is all that art ettique dictates. Trying to stuff the conversation with niceties and other inanities is what lead to the painful gaffes mentioned in the article. An artist just wants your attention, first and foremost.
posted by DaShiv at 6:27 AM on June 4, 2005

Seems like pretty good advice, but I fear I might have said some of these.
posted by planetkyoto at 6:37 AM on June 4, 2005

I am a sensitive artist. Nobody understands me becauses I am so deep. In my work, I make allusions to books that nobody else has read, music that nobody else has heard, and art that nobody else has seen. I can't help it because I am so much more well-rounded and intelligent than everyone who surrounds me.

/King Missle

Speaking as an artist, I thought this article was pretty funny. I also think that most artists need to stop taking themselves so goddamned seriously.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:44 AM on June 4, 2005

I remember an artist in one of those brilliant Art Safari documentaries by Ben Lewis (while we're dropping names - ow my foot - I actually met Ben and he's really cool) who, when asked questions he didn't consider answerworthy, just didn't answer. No nod of understanding, no hmm of disapproval, just no words, same look on his face as ten seconds earlier. Otherwise, he was very talkative by the way. It was very odd and a bit disconcerting to see, but it seemed like a good way to handle these things.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:51 AM on June 4, 2005

Good stuff, R. Mutt. I Love Your Work.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 7:52 AM on June 4, 2005

Artists should have day jobs so as not to have to make a living by selling their art.
posted by jfuller at 5:53 AM PST on June 4 [!]

People who make statements like that should hang nothing on their walls, and have no sculptures or color or movies or fabrics in their life.
posted by yoga at 8:01 AM on June 4, 2005

My personal favorite... From family that should know better.
"That looks almost professional"
spoken with a slight mixture of awe and surprise to a man who's been doing this for a living over twenty years...
posted by cccorlew at 9:04 AM on June 4, 2005

People who make statements like that should hang nothing on their walls, and have no sculptures or color or movies or fabrics in their life.

Yeah! That'll show them! Brutes!
posted by c13 at 9:05 AM on June 4, 2005

> People who make statements like that should hang nothing on their walls, and have no
> sculptures or color or movies or fabrics in their life.

Well, you got me, sort of. I do have original drawings and paintings hung up. On the other hand, all but one of these pieces was obtained by barter for pieces of my own. I really do think it's sad and contaminated to see artists pimping their creations for money, in galleries or on the street. It's not that it's really impossible to serve two masters--render unto Caesar, and all that--but it's very bad to have to render unto Caesar things of the creative spirit that should not be Caesar's. Causes fundamental contradictions in artists' lives and makes 'em drink.
posted by jfuller at 9:26 AM on June 4, 2005

posted by jfuller at 9:28 AM on June 4, 2005

My favorite line: "It's very decorative."

Great to use when browsing the local "arts" & crafts show.
posted by Ayn Marx at 9:28 AM on June 4, 2005

Artists should have day jobs so as not to have to make a living by selling their art.
posted by jfuller at 5:53 AM PST on June 4 [!]

People who make statements like that should hang nothing on their walls, and have no sculptures or color or movies or fabrics in their life.
posted by yoga at 11:01 AM EST on June 4 [!]

Jfuller, you misunderstood yoga. What I believe he meant was that one should paint-or sculpt, or in my case write songs-for the love of it, and without having to take marketability into consideration. In my own life my best creative endeavors whether artistic or musical came when I was NOT thinking about having to sell the work later. The times when I consciously set out to make paintings for sale, all I came up with was crap.

Of course if you are able to make a living at it, it's gravy. But most artists really would not rather compromise their work just so it sells.

I'm surprised the article didn't mention the people who go shopping for art that will match the colors of their couch.

On the other hand, buying a painting then planning the rest of the decor around it rocks. Really.
posted by konolia at 9:30 AM on June 4, 2005

The most jarring artistic realization that I've had, so far, was that:
No matter who buys your work and no matter where it's installed, the instant it leaves my studio, it becomes "decorative."
People decorate their homes with art, dealers decorate their galleries and collections (and themselves, really), and museums decorate themselves also (although subtly.)

No matter what ones artwork is really about, if someone likes it enough to buy it, that means that they see something "pretty" about it and gravitate towards it.

I found that notion to be really freeing, actually. Since I tend to use patterns in my work and allude to other traditions of decoration, I used to feel really self-conscious. Like I wasn't making something serious, or that people might misread the work as simply pretty things.

On another note,
I totally agree with this article.
"Interesting" is my favorite. It's the word that we use when we can't think of anything nice to say. It's the polite code word for "I don't understand what you're trying to do and the work is so poor that I'm not even remotely compelled to search for it's meaning."

If it's actually interesting, we'll say exactly what's interesting (ie. "Wow. This work really raises questions of x, y, z!" etc.)
posted by Jon-o at 9:55 AM on June 4, 2005

No matter who buys my work and no matter....

posted by Jon-o at 10:00 AM on June 4, 2005

I'm surprised the article didn't mention the people who go shopping for art that will match the colors of their couch.

I've actually had people tell me that they really like my work but aren't going to buy it because it doesn't match other things in their house.
I wanted to punch them. Or vomit. I couldn't really tell.

But it pissed me off.
posted by Jon-o at 10:03 AM on June 4, 2005

It doesn't seem at all shameful to me that an artist should want his or her work to sell for a great deal of money. If you've created a masterpiece, it's reasonable to treat it as a marketable creation. So some schmoozing and marketing is called for. It's not really "holy" to eschew all material gain, and it says nothing about the quality of your work. For every Van Gogh there's a Picasso, Dali, or Warhol who capitalizes on every scribble he draws.

And Jon-o, that does suck, but what can you expect them to do? They can't be forced to appreciate your one artwork all the time, divorced from its aesthetic qualities.
posted by NickDouglas at 10:43 AM on June 4, 2005

I've actually had people tell me that they really like my work but aren't going to buy it because it doesn't match other things in their house.
I wanted to punch them. Or vomit. I couldn't really tell.

Do you expect them to rearrange their whole house? Is your work really that good?
posted by c13 at 10:47 AM on June 4, 2005

Actual bit of a conversation from a party last night: "I got it at a garage sale for $30. It's big, but it fits right over my sofa, and the colors match the room. I saw the same one at Linens and Things for $299."
We left early.

That's why I perform. Just try to hang THIS in your living room, Philistine!
posted by Floydd at 10:48 AM on June 4, 2005

It's *perfect* R. Mutt, thanks! I'll never forget a dinner party some time ago where I was the only non-artist. I felt like I was walking on eggshells, not wanting to accidently offend someone.
posted by 6:1 at 11:27 AM on June 4, 2005

Artists should have day jobs so as not to have to make a living by selling their art.
posted by jfuller at 5:53 AM PST on June 4 [!]

Same for politicians.
posted by Balisong at 11:51 AM on June 4, 2005

Why was it bad to buy a painting from a garage sale? That sounds much more interesting than buying one from "Linen and Things"? Unless Linen and things is an ironic name for an art gallery I've never heard of, and not a decoration store.

I found the article a bit arrogant. There was nothing in there about how an artist should talk to his customers. If you want to sell art, it's a two way street, just like writing or acting or any act of creation. If you can do exactly what you want to, and still find people who agree with you to buy it, that's wonderful. But that's rare - and art made to suit other people is no less valuable than art made just for yourself.

Actually, I can't think of any writers who work without editors (at least, to produce good work) - why do artists try to work without editting? Maybe cutting off part of a painting to fit under a couch is a stupid editting choice, but hey, I have a wonderful academic book on my shelf whose power was eviscerated because the publisher of the series refused to have footnotes. There are stupid editors everywhere.

I would never lie to an artist - I might try to be polite to their face about their art, but only by omission of whether I think it's crap or not. I have very strong tastes - I've spent a lot of time in galleries, and I've made some good sculpture, and I know that I don't like all art, and I won't like art just because it's "meaningful" or the artist tells me it's "significant". There are a lot of great books I don't like either; that doesn't make me illiterate, just shows that taste is personal.

I like my visual art to be visual. I want to see someone playing with space and image, whether two dimensionally or in three. Textual art usually just doesn't work for me - maybe it could work, but good visual artists are rarely good poets as well. On a really personal level, I'd rather see level that either delights in form (all the way to abstract), or goes for a powerful emotional meaning - striking portraits, scenes, etc. Images or sculpture that does both are very good. Referential or ironic art is lost on me - I find it emotionally dead. I think I already have enough cynicism in my life.
posted by jb at 11:55 AM on June 4, 2005

Sorry - I have no idea what that "level" in the last paragraph means. I think I meant to write "work".
posted by jb at 11:57 AM on June 4, 2005

Well, the thing is there are decorative artists and "serious artists." If one does a serious work of art (to be differentiated from a generic seaside/mountain/landscape with livestock/ floral/ stilllife piece) it really does rankle to have someone equate one's serious work with something that could indeed be purchased at Linens 'N Things.

Kinda like comparing Anna Karenina with a Barbara Cartland novel.
posted by konolia at 2:26 PM on June 4, 2005

But the person in the story didn't buy the art from Linen and Things - in the choice between garage sale and Linen and Things, they went with garage sale. I doubt that they would have ever considered buying "serious art" and wonder whether it was even in their budget. I would have that the choice between the garage sale and Linens and things would be more like the choice between a Barbara Cartland novel and a used Barbara Cartland novel. Not that I would dismiss anyone for reading a Barbara Cartland novel, though I might not borrow many books from them. (Actually, who is Barbara Cartland? LIke Danielle Steel?)

But I think there is a false dichotemy between serious art and "generic seaside/mountain/landscape with livestock/ floral/ stilllife piece". Turner made some amazing landscapes that were both decorative and serious.

There are divisions between highly skilled versus less skilled (in composition and idea, as well as technique), and avant garde versus more traditional, less avant garde. I have seen very avant garde art which I nonetheless thought was very low skilled (sometimes in technique, something in composition and idea), highly skilled art in technique which was bland and boring in composition and idea (aka Thomas Kinkaid), some art low skilled in technique and not at all avant garde, but still striking in compostion and idea - both my great-grandmother and my grandfather have some paintings like this. For both of them it is more a matter of luck (and for my grandfather source material - he will paint from other images, etc, so it's not original), but the end result is very striking.

What you are really saying is that it's not the subject matter, but that the generic paintings may be skilled in technical execution, but are not skilled or orginal in composition, nor striking in content. In other words, they are just as much art, just not very good art by some measures (originality being a big one).

But it is also a social reality that many people today are not looking for art to be intellectually stimulated, but to decorate, to make their home more pleasant. That's been true for much of human history. Sometimes art has other purposes - to signal social class and taste, to be devotional material, to confirm patronage relationships (okay, maybe the last is more a 16th century sort of thing - people would buy and display portraits of important people for all sorts of social reasons :). But I can't think of any period in which art was prized by the majority of consumers for just its creativity or intellectual expression (there are notable exceptions, of course, among many artists, art critics and collectors).
posted by jb at 3:29 PM on June 4, 2005

Somebody out there put a lot of heart and soul into designing that couch. Somebody out there put a lot of thought into the wall color. Somebody out there put a lot of passion into how the window sunlight fills the room.

All of these somebodys are probably well respected in their fields, who have as much emotion invested in their art as yours.

Your piece of art isn't all that special or unique.
posted by Stan Chin at 4:12 PM on June 4, 2005

As a beginning writer, it pisses me off to see an art world filled with intellectually satisfying but aesthetically sloppy work. No writer can afford to write articles with brilliant points but wretched structure and style. What I mean is that modern art tends to focus on the concept at the expense of technique. The masters managed to push the boundaries of both. Each famous statue of David conveys its own meaning about the story of David and Goliath -- David as a hero, David as a man unsure of himself, David as the epitome of humanity taking swift action against the dangers of the world -- while meanwhile demonstrating a staggering knowledge of human anatomy and a stunning ability to translate that knowledge into concrete expression.

Now we find these traditions split into incomprehensible artworks that surely are saying something grand but look like piles of trash, and gorgeous sidewalk chalk drawings that make us marvel at their planning but communicate no timeless meaning.

But I'd argue that film (e.g. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and comics (e.g. Neil Gaiman's Sandman) have managed this double excellence (other fields too, of course, but I'm focusing on aesthetics), and deserve the respectable level of critical and even popular acclaim that they've earned.
posted by NickDouglas at 4:17 PM on June 4, 2005

Your piece of art isn't all that special or unique.

But that's precisely the point. It apparently IS. And if people are unwilling to admit that and arrange all other things (including, presumably, other art works) around yours, they are just stupid consumeristic heathens with no sense of beauty or taste.
posted by c13 at 5:09 PM on June 4, 2005

I think that when buying art, it seems natural to me to prefer decorative-that-fits over intellectually-stimulating. Maybe it's just me, but a work is not going to intellectually stimulate me for long, much like how a movie has limited replayablity no-matter how crammed with stimulating stuff it is. But something that makes the room look nice will sit there and still make the room look nice a year from now. Something that looks good and is intellectually stimulating is obviously better still, but when it comes down to which quality is more important, I don't see much contest. (I've worked as an artist, have a Fine Arts degree, etc, but I guess I gravitate more to the commercial arts :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 6:12 PM on June 4, 2005

I've actually had people tell me that they really like my work but aren't going to buy it because it doesn't match other things in their house.
I wanted to punch them. Or vomit. I couldn't really tell.

But it pissed me off.
posted by Jon-o at 12:03 PM CST on June 4 [!]

I'm surprised the article didn't mention the people who go shopping for art that will match the colors of their couch.

On the other hand, buying a painting then planning the rest of the decor around it rocks. Really.
posted by konolia at 11:30 AM CST on June 4 [!]

This is why most people don't "get" artists.

Why is it so offensive for someone to want to find a GOOD piece of art, that also happens to match their decor?

Would you rather them go find some crappy lithograph for $29.99 that matches their couch?

Shouldn't you be glad they are looking at "real" art for any reason?

I just don't see what's wrong with:

"Well, we need something for over the bed. We have mostly dark rose and gold colors, so let's go to several art shows and artist supported galleries and see if we find something we like that would fit".

How is that offensive? I did that very thing and found a lovely work from a senior citizen, displayed at the local senior community center, that I think is outstanding. I'm truly appreciative of the piece, and personally thanked the artist as well as paid her.

How does the fact that it matches the rest of the room invalidate the entire experience?
posted by Ynoxas at 8:03 PM on June 4, 2005

I've actually had people tell me that they really like my work but aren't going to buy it because it doesn't match other things in their house... [I]t pissed me off.

Well, it got under my skin because all of my paintings are miniature and you can sneak them into any context. It just came off as a bad excuse. I would have rather heard, "It costs too much."
But really, I'm totally comfortable with the fact that as soon as my work leaves my possession, it instantly becomes an object of decoration. Hell, that transformation occurs as soon as somebody considers buying it. It's liberating, in a way. It's like having a scapegoat (in the original, blood sacrifice meaning). I can infuse my work with whatever personal content that I want and then just send it away...

it pisses me off to see an art world filled with intellectually satisfying but aesthetically sloppy work.

Y'know, I hear that sort of statement rather often and I think that it's a common misconception that many people have about the art-world.
I've found that most art is aesthetically satisfying but intellectually sloppy.
I can't think of a single example of a work of art that looks bad but is really smart. That is to say, smart work tends to reflect that pretty well.
I can, however, point to countless examples of art that looks nice but is completely vacant. (Just go to the newsstand, pick up ArtNews or Art In America and look at the ads placed by galleries. Good looking stuff, totally bland.)

Your piece of art isn't all that special or unique.

Speak for yourself.
posted by Jon-o at 11:42 PM on June 4, 2005

With regards to artists getting pissed off at customers who want work that matches their home. The artist needs to work out who they are doing the work for- themselves, or other people.
I think the instant you put your work on the market you are entering the realm of the "commercial artist" and should be subject to all the critiques that other commercial artists(filmmakers, designers etc) have learnt to deal with. Some painters and sculpters are such whiny premadonnas, they need to grow a thicker skin.

I can relate to the sentiments of NickDouglas. I sort of feel its true sometimes, sometimes not.. I often see work that I think is conceptually great, there just doesnt seem to be much craftsmanship gone into it, I realise thats highly subjective. I rarely find work in galleries and the like to be aesthetically satisfying, maybe I just have higher standards in that area, and probably lower in others :) I love lowbrow art.

\commercial artist
posted by phyle at 3:43 AM on June 5, 2005

I can't think of a single example of a work of art that looks bad but is really smart.

What, you've never heard of Martin Kippenberger?
posted by R. Mutt at 5:33 AM on June 5, 2005

Oh, that's not what I mean. Of course, there's plenty of great art that's not "beautiful."
When I said "looks bad," I meant unconsidered, lazy, ill-crafted, disinterested, etc...
Clearly, Kippenberger hits his mark and "looks good" in his own way.
Francis Bacon is another example. His paintings are both fabulous and hideous. Still, very smart.
posted by Jon-o at 8:30 AM on June 5, 2005

I plan on -eating- the Elohim.


I like art...I enjoy being drawn to a piece of effort that someone has made for the simple pleasure of being drawn to it. I will view or listen to art that is made to evoke a response (positive or negative) and accept that response as intentional.

However, when some artist claims that the buyer should have the art placed in their space that the buyer is not comfortable with (4 inches too big or whatever), well, I want to tell the artist to get stuffed. It's the buyer's space, not yours, and if the buyer wants to buy your painting and trim off a few inches, that's their choice...the question about which 4 inches can be answered by them just as easily as the artist.

That being said, even art not meant for a buyer can suck monumentally. No one has ever given me a good reason that Voice of Fire is worth a penny, nevermind worth calling 'art'.


Now...I go back to my fictional writing.
posted by Kickstart70 at 6:06 PM on June 5, 2005

if the buyer wants to buy your painting and trim off a few inches, that's their choice... Actually its not, (at least its not without consequence) in some countries the artist has the legal right to remove authorship (and the implicit $ value) from an altered work. That is, you can't buy my painting, hack off four inches, and maintain that it is painting by me - thereby maintaining that I approved of the existing (hacked) painting. (This issue also arose recently in the case of a dvd player that removed "offensive" content without the input/consent of the filmmakers. )
posted by R. Mutt at 7:42 PM on June 5, 2005

As soon as my work leaves my possession, it instantly becomes an object of decoration.

Oh good, you've discovered the plight of every other fucking working person on the earth.

"I just don't feel satisfied as a ditch digger. As soon as my work is done, someone fills it with sewage."

"I'm not appreciated as a grocery stacker. As soon as my food leaves the market, people can miscook it, spill it on the carpet, all sorts of things I don't want them doing."

Any of us who gets paid for just expressing themselves -- we're fucking lucky. We're allowed to please ourselves with our work more than anyone but a whore. Don't ever forget it.

But okay, yes, if you can't get used to people treating your work as a decoration, you owe it to yourself not to sell that work. If you don't want to see your script for Godzilla turned into shit, you fight for that original version tooth and nail, and when they still fuck it up, you give them hell and vow to get better treatment. And if no one's mistreating your work and saying it'll never go huge, then you're fucking up. You're right. You're still a step above a whore as long as you still love your work -- not necessarily the process, that involves tons of shit, but the final product. You know that you're good. And that's what makes any job worth it.
posted by NickDouglas at 10:27 PM on June 5, 2005

No one has ever given me a good reason that Voice of Fire is worth a penny, nevermind worth calling 'art'

I can give you a good reason why it's worth calling "art" - the word "art" does not mean something automatically has worth or merit. Really bad art can be entirely lacking in merit, (or more to the point it's bad because it's meritless). That it lacks merit doesn't mean it's not art, but it sure as hell means it's not good art :-)

"Art" is the correct English word for meritless works displayed in a gallery for appreciation. In different contexts, "art" might be used to imply merit (eg "His pleading was so eloquent it was art to the ears"), but when you're talking about actual artworks, while you might hope there is merit, even assume it, it doesn't necessarily need to be the case for the noun to still be the correct one.

An artwork can be total rubbish. There is no contradiction there.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:51 PM on June 6, 2005

Harlequin, I've had to make the case you just made against my friends for ages. As wary as I am of incomprehensible or poorly executed art, I'll still call it art. No linguistic manipulation from this corner. Well, none intended.
posted by NickDouglas at 9:33 PM on June 6, 2005

We could get all pedantic and say anything made my human hands is art - or an artefact or artiface or ...

yeah, that would be very silly.

I like the Seven Liberal Arts and the Seven Mechanical Arts - listed here, but you have to scroll down. Apparently "weaving, blacksmithing, war, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and the ars theatrica" don't rate their own article, even if they did eventually add "dancing, wrestling, and driving".

Oh - this is interesting -
The classical idea differed from
ours in at least two respects. First, it was concerned
not with the products of art but with the act of pro-
ducing them and in particular the ability to produce
them; e.g., it pointed to the skill of the painter rather
than to the picture. Second, it embraced not only
“artistic” ability but any human ability to produce
things so long as it was a regular production based on
rules. Art was a system of regular methods of making
or doing. The work of an architect or a sculptor an-
swered to this definition, but so did the work of a
carpenter or a weaver, for their activities belonged in
equal measure to the realm of art. Art by definition
was rational and implied knowledge; it did not depend
on inspiration, intuition, or fantasy.
From the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Poetry is excluded because "Poetry was supposed to lack the characteristic trait of art: it seemed not to be governed by rules; on the contrary, it seemed to be a matter of inspiration, of individual creativeness. The Greeks saw a kinship between poetry and prophecy rather than between poetry and art. The poet is a kind of bard, while the sculptor is a kind of artisan."

Though today I would say that the visual arts no longer follow "rules".
posted by jb at 10:06 PM on June 6, 2005

Sorry, that's "made by human hands" : )

But yes, anything by my human hands would be very silly.
posted by jb at 10:08 PM on June 6, 2005

What i wanna know is "What really IS art?" you know?
posted by Satapher at 10:33 PM on June 9, 2005

An interesting article by an art professor from the Chronicle of Higher Education - Chronicle review (June 3, 2005). Copied below, as the Chronicle is very flakey with allowing access to its pages.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mess


For centuries, aspiring artists got their starts by observing and practicing what professional artists did inside their workshops. After mastering enough skills, they would then head off on their own. Modern art, starting in the middle of the 19th century, changed all that by calling into question what constitutes a work of art. Art began manifesting two things in tandem -- radicality for its own sake and self-expression. Aspiring artists no longer needed to go to workshops or studios to become artists because being avant-garde and self-expressive did not depend on learning crafts, techniques, or studio methods.

For 100 years, from the mid-19th century up to World War II, artists flocked to Paris in droves, absorbing the spirit of the avant-garde in bars, cabarets, theaters, and salons, and developing their styles either as loners in their ateliers or as members of various bohemian groups convening over absinthe. But after World War II, when the center of the modern-art world shifted to New York, the education of artists began to take place more and more in colleges and universities. In the United States, part of that was due to an influx of government money, much of it disseminated through the GI Bill. Many artists who were perceived as avant-garde, and who therefore couldn't support themselves through their work, found that they could support themselves by teaching in academe. Ambitious young art students gravitated toward college art departments where these avant-garde artists were teaching, if only to hang around other artists and pick up their bohemian attitudes.

Although plenty of solid teaching and learning has gone on in art schools and in colleges and universities, by the 1990s, as Howard Singerman argues in Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University (1999), art education no longer demanded the acquisition of specific skills, but instead became simply a shortcut to an artistic identity.

Now, however, a tug of war is going on over what exactly constitutes an artistic identity. The result is that art education (by which I mean the education of artists for the professional contemporary art world, as opposed to the education of high-school art teachers, which is an entirely separate matter) 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.

This mishmash approach has been going on for so long that it amounts to an orthodoxy. It dominates the education of artists both in colleges like my own and in such art schools as the Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, and the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn. In this aleatory orthodoxy, it falls to first- and second-year "foundation" courses to provide any meaningful link to art of the past. Those courses -- "Basic Design," "Beginning Drawing," and so on -- teach line, tone, shape, form, proportion, color, and some fundamental "hand skills."

On the opposite side are what are sometimes referred to as "post-studio" programs, which are growing increasingly popular. They, too, offer "foundation" courses, but instead of studying techniques and studio skills, the would-be artists, often fresh from high school, study ideas and concepts -- the putative social, cultural, and theoretical issues having to do with art. This kind of program is the visual-arts equivalent of the liberal arts' "critical thinking." Its premise is that only by shaking off the dust of the past can students become either viable commercial artists or successful gallery artists in the 21st century; it directly transfers what's trendy in the galleries or advertising agencies onto the plates of undergraduates. Its overriding assumption is that although 21st-century art may contain some keystroking and button-pushing references to old-fashioned, handcrafted beauty, most of it will be otherwise engaged.

The seeping of more and more theory as well as "critical thinking" and new technology into traditional studio-art courses makes sense if art is seen as the product of a conceptual education rather than the result of the acquisition of creaky 19th-century skills that are attached to now-defunct ideas about beauty. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, for example -- where I did my graduate work in painting in the late 1970s, when video art had just been added to the M.F.A. program -- the revised first-year program instituted last year requires all incoming undergraduates to purchase a laptop computer. Students are even given special lockers for their computers that, in effect, pre-empt space that otherwise would be designated for such messy art supplies as paint or charcoal.

What happens at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago matters: It is one of the nation's oldest and largest art schools and is therefore seen as a leader in art education.

One of the two required first-semester courses in the new SAIC program is "Core Studio Practice," whose catalog description begins: "Core Studio Practice is an interdisciplinary investigation of technical practice and conceptual and critical skills common to various areas of creative production." The description of the other required first-semester course, "Research Studio I," begins this way: "Research Studio I offers students an opportunity to explore creative research strategies used by artists and designers."

The words describing those courses jolt old-school art professors like me who are oriented more toward drawing and painting than theory. Keep in mind that as late as the 1990s, Art Institute first-year students were required to take 12 hours of drawing.

Because much of the de facto curriculum at the Art Institute is determined by what individual instructors decide to teach under the loose rubric of course descriptions, there is no way of knowing for sure exactly how much development of studio skills goes on. But by using such terms as "creative production" instead of "creativity" and "critical skills" instead of "skills," and in citing drawing as just one among several "notational systems," the catalog descriptions make the practice of skills appear to be a very low priority. The first-year curriculum seems to promote a Web-oriented workplace full of computers, where students work antiseptically and collaboratively with others, behave like wannabe public intellectuals, and develop "concepts" that borrow heavily from the vocabularies of sociology, computer science, and government bureaucracy. Within this matrix, artists develop "research methods" for their "studio practice." Whatever odd tool is deemed necessary for their "practice" (formerly known as "work of art") -- whether it is colored plastic bags, city-sewage-system diagrams, LCD displays, Webcams, or, however unlikely, a piece of drawing charcoal -- is picked up and used without benefit of prerequisite courses that teach specific skills with a specific tool.

Instead of students individually observing art and life, steadily focusing within an art discipline, and working toward developing a signature style marked by self-expression, the "studio practice" has its practitioner busily collecting data, working in groups, constructing theoretical systems, and participating in interdisciplinary projects. "Studio practice" and "creative production" are conveniently nebulous terms -- it is unclear, in fact, if they even need to culminate in a work of art.

As uncomfortable as I am with this sort of curriculum and "practice" of art making, I recognize how attractive it probably is to 18-year-olds who have grown up with the ubiquitousness of computers and an industrial-strength popular culture. By patting their most facile drawing protégés reassuringly on the back, art professors cannot really protect the foundation-skills courses that they profess to love. There are, after all, some aspects of the new programs that will prove useful to the next generation of artists, who will grapple with an even more digitized world than our present one. Besides, in a short time many of the same fine-arts students nurtured in the foundation courses offering traditional art skills will invariably turn around and metaphorically slay their old teachers by making their professional debuts not with tenderly painted easel paintings but with sexy video installations or cool interactive Web sites.

On the other hand, educators who love traditional art but who, out of fear of being left behind, are jumping onto a theory-driven bandwagon are marching off to a land ruled by dilettante sociology, bogus community activism, and unrigorous science and philosophy. The notion that there could be a fusion of "studio practice" with old-fashioned artistic skills that would yield a wondrous hybrid in the same way that African and Western music together produced jazz hasn't panned out, at least not yet. The reason? Whereas African and Western music, for all their differences, were both about how things sound, theory-driven art and traditional visual art are not both about how things look. In art, the fusion merely strips the traditional art object (that is, one well-crafted physical object) of meaning while replacing it with a jumble of fatuous words.

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 reassuming that task is precisely what artists must do. The future for thoughtful artists lies in rethinking how art fits into society as a whole -- and not just as a self-righteous, intellectually fashionable social or political critique. The time has come, in other words, for artists to think about how they fit into society. What do they really give to it? Are they necessary to it? Who, exactly, constitutes their audience?

In this case the only way to leap forward is to go backward -- to ideas that had credibility before modern art. We need to dig them out, however, from beneath the accumulated rubble of history. The idea I have in mind is one of the oldest of all -- that artists need to consciously consider their audience.

The basis for a truly interdisciplinary art education of the future requires art students to read some of the great treatises on the role of art and artists in society. Without turning art students into research scholars, we can guide future artists to be more philosophical and relevant to our culture as a whole than most artists -- even those with the best of intentions -- are today. We need to direct art students to serious thinkers from the past who have reflected on the nature of art and the artist, in philosophy, history, or fiction, and whose historical distance allows us to see ourselves, in effect, from the outside.

For example, by having art students read Leonardo da Vinci's paragone (a rhetorical device used to explore the merits of the different arts developed during the Renaissance) on painting -- without an art-historical or philosophical intermediary -- college art professors would expose aspiring artists to an articulate master whose thinking about art led to art's being accepted into the university in the first place. Moreover, younger artists would learn not to dismiss Leonardo as a mere archaeological relic of 15th-century Italy, as so much current theory is inclined to do.

When students read Laocoön, written in 1766 by the Enlightenment essayist Ephraim Gotthold Lessing, they are prompted to think about the differences between the spatial and temporal arts (in Lessing's lexicon, painting and poetry). Laocoön contains a down-and-dirty struggle over what constitutes our visceral reaction that something is ugly and whether, or to what extent, we can get around our aversion to specific physical things or our attraction to beauty.

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.

By teaching students Rousseau's "Letter to d'Alembert on Theater," an attack on the arts that recapitulates Plato's examination of the generally uncritical assumption that art has some inherent social value, students would be prompted to ponder whether art is automatically good for people, in all times and all places. In that context, students could be asked to think through whether becoming an artist is actually closer to becoming a swindler than a social worker. Selected passages on art in Tocqueville's Democracy in America would reveal the particular pressures on artists that result from living in a democracy, compared with living in an aristocracy, and lead them to see the inevitable tension between social equality and excellence in the arts.

For art professors whose cup of tea isn't hard-core philosophy, why not teach fiction that puts artists in real predicaments about their purpose? For example, in Balzac's allegorical short story "The Unknown Masterpiece," the lead character, Frenhofer -- a character who loomed large in the imaginations of Cézanne, Picasso, and de Kooning -- gets sucked into the black hole of artistic self-absorption. In John Fowles's The Ebony Tower, two artists clash over the meaning of abstract art in what is clearly a metaphor for the meaning of artistic freedom.

R eadings from outside the modern and postmodern box would shake up art students who have learned bromides in high school such as "Art is a form of communication," only to have them replaced by gaseous pseudosociological truisms along the lines of "Art derives from myriad socially constructed 'truths' based on the repression of the Other," or "Global nomadism produces hybridized cultures." Wrestling with perennial questions about how art fits into a good society, or how it might function differently in a bad society, would inject an intellectual and moral rigor into art education.

A new reading curriculum such as the one I am suggesting could prove stronger at salvaging hands-on arts such as drawing and painting than the head-in-the-sand, keep-on-trucking attitude now favored by professors who believe in the centrality of drawing and painting. For it was art itself that inspired Leonardo, Lessing, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Balzac to think so deeply in the first place.

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? When things get this messed up, it's time to go back to the future.

Laurie Fendrich is a professor of fine arts at Hofstra University.
posted by jb at 7:28 AM on June 13, 2005

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