Friday, October 23, 2009
On cultural education and the artist
Above is another place I stood last week, near Laconia, New Hampshire.
So many of my opinions on painting are drawn from old books, and old men I knew twenty or more years ago. I will often make a statement that to me seems perfectly reasonable, that is now controversial but was once generally accepted in the art. I have based a lot of what I do on historical precedent, that is one of the things that interests me. So forgive me if I rant and rave a little. I mean well, I think.
An idea that has disappeared is of the artist as having a working familiarity with the achievements of his own culture. I am not suggesting that we should be expert on all matters aesthetic, but that an artist is better served by knowing something about his nations, art, literature, design, etc. than he is by an ignorance of it.
Our contemporary idea of the artist, at least in the press and the movies tends to be of the artist as wild beast, manchild, iconoclast, rebel, black clad hipster, and late night party attendee. All of these are laudable, and I demonstrated an aptitude for most of these in my misguided youth. However there was once a popular idea of an artist as a person of some refinement. Before today's concept of who an artist is became the norm, the artist was often expected to know the things that an educated person would know.
Today education often means a different thing than it once did. The colleges and university's turn out graduates who are trained to earn a living in the business or professional world. Many of our schools have become high class trade schools and have neglected to teach their students the liberal arts. I routinely meet people educated in the finest and most exclusive schools,( I do live in the Boston megalopolis ) who know nothing about their own countries artistic heritage. I have many times asked one of them,"Can you name me five American artists who died before 1900?" They never can, and often they went to Harvard or Brown! They have a lot of learning, but it is within their trade. That is, they know the law, or they know how to practice medicine or how to conduct a business. But that is not the same as a broad education. This is one of the reasons why much of the art in our magazines and galleries is so horrid. (I, of course, am not referring to you or anybody you know, I mean those OTHER people.) This art is the art preferred by those with money, but absolutely no knowledge.
I am occasionally asked "what should I paint if I want to be a successful artist?" I always reply "good paintings". But then I say something like this " If you just want to make sales though, here's what you should do". Boy, that gets their attention. " Copy photographs as exactly as you can, in bright colors, and paint with lots of contrast. That's what sells best. Almost every gallery I am in has an artist who does this and they are usually one of the top selling artists in the gallery. Often they use projectors to get their images onto the canvas"
Most of what serious traditional painters labor so hard to learn will certainly make them better artists, but that has little to do with sales much of the time. Those things are generally lost on many of the dealers and buyers of art these days. You can't blame them, they didn't learn about art in school. Yes, they had art class, but it was cut and paste. It was about them and their creativity, not about the historic art of their culture. Quality and sales are not that closely related, they can be, and if you want to make it as an artist, work for that, but there is a whole lot of truly awful art sold.
I think the explosion of interest in traditional painting will slowly lead many more people into a more sophisticated knowledge of painting, but not in this fiscal quarter. So I don't guess that I can argue that knowing about the arts will make you a more successful painter, but I think it will make you a better one.
If you told me you were learning to play Rock guitar (remember I love Rock and Roll) and I asked you what you thought of Chuck Berry, and you said "who?" I would assume you were not serious and might not get too far. There is no music without musicians and their music. The same holds true for painting, I think a painter should know the history of their art. That means knowing the major players in each period and what their paintings looked like. I don't mean you need to be an expert, but you should be aware of the general facts. When you go into a museum you should know most of the painting's authors WITHOUT reading the tags. That is why I have done so many posts on the history of American landscape painting, I do think that knowledge is essential for a landscape painter at least, and useful to all would be painters. I will soon return to more of those posts. I try to mix things up here. The goal of this blog is to lay out as best I can, the things a painter ought to know.
But I think there are other facets of our culture an artist should know . Tomorrow night I will list some of those things.