Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seekers and wankers

I am going to give the color wheel a rest for a few days. I like to mix things up a bit here, so tonight I think I will write about two different attitudes toward art and why one of them will lock you out of advancement as a painter. Caution; the material that follows is provocative and may contain irksome content.

There are two types of art students, the first who I shall refer to for convenience as "wankers" believe that all they need to know lies buried within themselves and they have but to find the sincerity to extrude it onto the canvas.

The second group I will call "seekers" look out into the world and seek to find information out there about how to make art. Seekers read books about painting, study with other artists, haunt museums and study historic art. They seek out the company and advice of other artists, particularly those that can help the improve. They BELIEVE they can improve. I recommend you develop a seeker's attitude. Here are some reasons why I think that is a good idea.

Lots of people have been down this road before you, even though they may have been very clever they still have had the benefit of generations of artists handing down ideas and methods. If you wanted to become a chemist, you wouldn't hole up in your basement and try to discover the periodic table of elements yourself, it took generations to discover that, you would simply buy a book and look it up. Why waste the years discovering that which is not only basic, but easily discoverable? With enough years of study you might be able to do something original chemically perhaps even add a new element to that table.

A familiarity with the historic ideas will give you a standpoint for appraising new ideas. Knowing how artists before you have dealt with various problems will give you an inventory of methods for solving those problems when they appear in your own painting. Knowing the work of the great artists will help you to recognize the best art of today rather than be impressed with the merely adequate or worse, the derivative. How are you going to make great art if you don't know what it looks like? If you told me you were studying to be a rock and roll guitarist and I asked you what you thought of Chuck Berry and you said "who?" I would guess you were not real serious.
Wankers are anti-learning. Why learn about the art of other people if everything you need to know is already within you? They have mistaken self examination for communication. What matters is not what the artist intends, but what they convey.

Knowing about art will make you a better painter, not damage your originality. It is better that your originality spring from knowledge rather than being a symptom of that which you have left unlearned. The seekers will add to their knowledge, the wankers will not. That is why you occasionally meet people who have been painting for many years that paint so poorly, rather than become knowledgeable about art, they have chased themselves in ever tightening circles. Wankers!

When I was an art student we were encouraged to be wankers. I think it filled chairs in the art schools. Telling those kids it was all about them, was far more popular than presenting them with a daunting course of study into methods, history, materials and philosophies of art. It also made possible the employment of teachers who might have been unable to convey those rarefied ideas. The art school teachers I had would simply dribble zen-like pop psyche phrases and cryptic aphorism like "explore the random inner tectonics of the flatness continuum!" or "give it more Bossa Nova!

While "Know thyself" is a good advice, "know what you are doing" is probably better advice in the painting game. Become a seeker, not a wanker!

21 comments:

MCG said...

Yes, but a respectful 'but';
There is more variety of visual expression to look back on in 2010 than in all of human history. The 20th century was indeed unique, but not necessarily wasted. Meaning, as a seeker, I also want to understand completely the 'idea' side of things, the 'concept' side of things as much as the craftsmanship and skill side of things. If creativity is important to painting, versus copying and rendering alone, then we have a deep well of experimentation in the 20th century that never occurred before in human history, and that has yet to be fully understood visually. yes, some of it is crap; as in every era. Yet some of it seems to have some power?
Long story short, I'd LOVE if an art student could go to Yale and actually learn to paint and draw as well as any academic painter, and ALSO learn about the power of great abstract design and the power of expression in ways that some were free to pursue without constraint. Therein might be some lessons that the painters in 2050 will understand that we have not yet absorbed. Perhaps?

Chris said...

Stapleton, this post was a bit of a change of direction! Keeping us on our toes.
I've become more of a seeker lately, but also feel like a bit of a wanker because I am not drawing / painting enough to fully appreciate and use the info I am reading. That doesn't quite fit your definitions though, so maybe you need to add a third group for those like me who seek but don't really know how to use the knowledge because they haven't struggled/worked enough to find the problems! (I would call myself more of a bludger.)

Luckily 'wanker' is almost a term of endearment in the land of Aus, so until I become an experienced seeker I'll happily think of myself as a part-time wanker.

Linda Crank said...

I am a Seeker. I spend hours and hours outside of a regular job pursuing the knowledge and skill that I hope will improve my art (in fact, I should be drawing a plaster cast right now instead of posting a comment on your blog). But I have run up against Wanky attitudes recently, and they are discouraging: "You are putting yourself in bondage to what you say are Artistic Principles!" or "You are killing your creative spirit!" It is surprising how vehement and hurtful a Wanker can be. Be that as it may, I shall continue to seek believing that the knowledge and skill I am gaining will eventually allow me to express myself fully and beautifully.

mariandioguardi.com said...

I seeked. I wanked. I seeked.I wanked. Now I paint and paint and paint.

Why do one or the other?Why not both, dear?

willek said...

What we seek is the vocabulary. What we say with it comes from within.

mariandioguardi.com said...

Whoa, Willek! That is so profound that I'm not sure anyone can add anything to that. So maybe it's not that we can do both but that we HAVE to do both.

R Yvonne Colclasure said...

Hooray! I now have justification for five shelves of art books and hundreds of art magazines. I will add that one must DO something with all the knowledge one gains from the seeking. I feel I am just beginning to see some of the results I have been seeking after 30 years, because I finally have enough confidence to believe in myself. (And workshops with wonderful artists, blogs like this one, artists who are truly professional and don't mind sharing what they have learned with those of us who want to learn). Thanks Stape.

Joe Winkler said...

Andy Warhol once was asked if he were an animal , which would he want to be. His answer "A sponge"

Great post Stape! You are so right!

Lucy said...

Stapleton, did we attend the same college?

You forgot that if you are a wanker you must speak with question marks:
"My work explores issues of gender and consumerism?"
(I'm female and I buy all my lipsticks at Bloomingdales. It's like, the concept of it?)

"I work with, like, process and mark-making?"
(I put bubble gum on canvas because it relates to my childhood?)

Bravo, Stapleton for keeping alive the knowledge that is in danger of being lost.

All of it is interesting though, and there are many ways of making art. I am sure there are bubble gum paintings out there that are nice to look at.

billspaintingmn said...

Stape, you leave no stone unturned!

I believe we seek (your) wisdom.
Wankers is just a silly word for winkers.

Spreggo said...

The coincidence is a bit unnerving that I've begun on the painting path, trying to become a seeker, AND I started a new tank of triops.

Simone said...

Hey Linda, wankers say stupid stuff. Stay focused on a principled approach.

Willek, nicely said. I like to refer to painting as translation which requires language, albeit a visual one.

As a teacher I have learned to troll for seekers and cope with wankers. Most wankers will not become seekers so I have learned to let them be content to wank. It's kind of a wheat and chaff thing.

Jose L De Juan said...

Couldn't agree more.
I would add that art criticism is also to blame as it rarely explores techniques and focuses on narrative and context, sometimes very irrelevant .
However, I've met many a seeker-wanker or wanker-seeker : the eternal student who thinks one more workshop or a different type of paint will elevate his/her art. Someone who has read more books than anybody and knows the chemical formula of cadmium yellow. If a painter keeps asking you : how did you mix that color? or how long does it take you to paint this? and never leaves the information realm to just g and paint unassisted as it may, you've got someone who has made a wanking out of seeking.

Lucy said...

Jose, what a great point you've just made.

Thomas Kitts said...

Ummm, seems like a bit of a straw-man argument to me, Stapleton. Borderline curmudgeonly.

Surely there is a continuum between your Wanker and Seeker that most, of not all of us fall on. Let us not overlook (or dismiss) in your argument the stale formality that was (often) produced by the French Salon towards the end of its days, as it tried to institutionally codify what was 'Art' was and what it was not. And most of that was expressed in the form of technique.

Frankly -- for me -- I am always skeptical of any metric which seeks to define what art is by defining what it is not. Or who an artist is by defining who isn't.

Thomas

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Amen, I have no problem defining what is or isn't or who is or isn't. But then again, I am definitely a curmudgeon. I also had this experience in "art" school.

What do you do if you are a seeker being sought out by wankers? Should I seek out something with which to whack the wankers?

MCG said...

Marian and Willek; Right on! "There are rules!" to craftsmanship;and "there are no rules!" to creativity. Turns out after all these years I've come to believe the classical realist mentors were right, and the avant garde friends in academia were right. Both were right and both were wrong depending upon which side of the brain you stand on. Both aspects are vital, it is an emergent system. There are reductionist ideas in "art school", there are as many reductionist notions among "realists'. I want to learn everything about craftsmanship, AND learn why SOME of the stuff in the 20th century had an impact, beyond context. I am not talking about the inequities in valuation that exist right now that’s another matter. I'm talking about as a painter, understanding the important things like value and chroma as well as the CONDITIONS that drive creativity. I'm not talking about laziness as an excuse, or hiding behind a lack of knowledge and using philosophy to justify the outcome; I am talking about seeking to understand why those painters did what they did, in the absence of craftsmanship. Pollock never learned to paint. Yet he tried and tried within his own constraints to come up with something elegant and powerful. I was told for years Pollock sucks. I then started to actually look at some and surprise, I "got" what he did with his drip paintings. It's not a big thing, but it looks to me like frozen dance, and it has a certain elegant power to it, and it comes from what creativity might come from...persistence and conflict, and failure, and some knowledge cumulatively from that pursuit. After 10 of them, ok, I get it. But also after 10 Rembrandt self-portraits, ok I get that TOO, the special genius. The brightest minds of the human race are trying to understand and discover where creativity comes from, how to harness it, how to facilitate it. We know precious little still. Yet in art, we have 100 years of wild creative experimentation. I'm not saying it's all good. I'm saying there might be some things to study that are of value. This old either/or choice from either side is to me, old. WHY must I choose? One can inform the other. Knowledge expands creativity, and creativity expands knowledge, and that is what has ALWAYS moved painting forward. 'Learn your craft and THEN create. GREAT. Then teach me the craft, but THEN teach me the rules of creativity. Nobody CAN, because we do not yet know. We know as much about creativity as Giotto knew about aerial perspective. So I am expected to ignore a century of those off the wall experiments? There is elegance in a line. Tell me about the power of a Gerome or a David; most people would walk by one in a flea market. Lack of education, refinement and taste? That’s the realist 'safe-place” I’m not sure its 100% accurate. Auction houses know that red paintings sell better than any other color, WHY? These are also things I want to know. I know one really smart painter, a hard-studying seeker, who would completely write off the whole 20th century except for the fact that Motherwells Seagram series "blows through his soul". Thats honesty. If I pump enough Scotch into a fellow realist I can usually hear a similar story "yeah, screw those modernist's and post-modernists, but I saw this piece once that I loved...” I want to know WHY that realist liked or even LOVED that abstract work, or that idea. Crash together in your mind a Gerome and a Motherwell. Some kid is going to do it someday, and create something nobody ever imagined. We are maybe too close to the 20th century to understand it all yet, but I think the painters in 2050 will have a much better sense of the value of it all, or not.
@Richard: teach them, like Stape does. It can only be good.

Stapleton Kearns said...

All;
Thank you so much for your comments. I have to teach early in the morning, so I will; reply once to all of you.
You all make good points, I agree with some and disagree with others.
There are wankers on both sides of the modern-traditional divide. I notice some of you attribute wankyness to the moderns in particular. In another generation
only seekers will know about the art of the 20th century anyway.
I always knew more about the moderns than the other kids in my classes who actually preferred it.
.....................Stape

Christine's Arts said...

Thank you Stapleton, I love this article and all the comments made by your readers. Learn the rules, then break them with gusto!
Lucy, you are hilarious!

Randall Cogburn said...

Makes since to me Stape. I am trying to find others who paint in the Houston area just to get together and paint and talk about painting. Just got to get some money to go seek some more, lol. Life does seem to throw curve balls now and then.

~Kirby

Mulika said...

I am a drama school student and this post totally fits with the culture amongst those particular artistes too...

I am a life-long seeker. Trained & worked in theatre arts for many years before I decided to return as a 'mature' student to study acting purely. I have to say that I find the teachers, maybe, through no fault of their own encourage wankiness or self-indulgence as I call it. Somehow, it would be too much a ask to NOT make everything about you!