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.


Gregory Becker said...

That is a very sensible argument for familiarizing oneself with art history.
I hear it said that an artist needs to be a proven artist. I believe this comes from the world of sellers who are trying to convince uneducated buyers.
As if beauty is a foriegn concept to buyers and the investment is what is familiar to the buyer.
"How much will this be worth in 20 years?" The investment has trumped a persons sense of beauty.
People should buy a work of art because they love it. They should be able to look at it and know even if they cant put it into words.

Robert J. Simone said...

I share your opinion about history and cultural refinement. Such attitudes add depth to one's personality and richness to life. I have always preferred less mainstream rock and roll precisely because those artists were usually classically trained musicians. People like John Cale, Lou Reed and Kevin Ayers were always more interesting.

I am surprised at the number of gallery owners and art enthusiasts, even art students in community art centers who have never heard of John Singer Sargent. Truthfully, I think much of academia, including the revered Ivy League schools have gotten so over the top with ideology that they fail to create critical thinkers. These brilliant educators get in the way of education. I know several MFA's who think their degree means they know art and can paint. Often their work is stunning....sorry, I too am ranting!

Philip Koch said...

Good post. I think one of the most effective things I can do in teaching my drawing classes is showing students images of Rembrandt, Winslow Homer, and the like projected on the same wall, literally side by side, with their own drawings. Generally the students really like the presentations.

One of the great mysteries to me are the Ph. D. art historians who've become museum curators who, while knowing the art of the past well, still conclude today's significant art HAS to be conceptual or "new media" art only. Fortunately there are exceptions- wish there were more of them.

JT Harding said...

why learn to draw when you can "project" says it all about our instant gratification society. Looking forward to the next fiscal quarter.
ps: Sargent is a good example of someone who learned the culture of his times. He played music, knew several languages, and was a food connoisseur and his art and sales reflected it.

Unknown said...

Maybe we should add an american art history section to the DMV driving test - then almost everyone would have to know it. It would probably make the DMV a happier place too.

Paul said...

Stape - thanks so much for this blog post - one of my favorites. First off - the word "quintessential" comes to mind when viewing the first pic with the road, trees, and house. I can recall several paintings by the New England masters with an almost identical view - usually with 2 walking figures.

Regarding your comments on art history - Mega-dittos!! I especially appreciate your comparison to music. While most people can recognize the skill of a guitarist like Eric Clapton, it adds so much more to hear Clapton quote, and IMPROVE upon old blues licks when you've actually spent time listening to the old blues guys. Likewise, Manet's Olympia just looks like a well painted naked woman - but becomes genius if the viewer is familiar with Titian's Venus of Urbino. As a relatively new collector (I wouldn't know oil paint from latex), I'm still learning my art history - but I always appreciate a current artist who is able to quote or reference a known master's piece and improve upon it or use it in a new way. To this collector's eye, for what it's worth, that's the sign of a great "artist", not just a craftsman.

Rae O'Shea said...

One of my favorite things to do is to go to a museum, find a painting I like by someone I'm not familiar with and then go home and learn everything I can about them and their work. I've backed into learning art history but I've had a lot of fun doing it.

Gregory Becker said...

Hey Jeremy...that one made me laugh.

willek said...

I just commented on your answer to Deb's comment yesterday... for all to view...

Today we painted hilltops of blueberry barrens in Sedgewick Maine. We will be painting there again tomorrow in the rain and fog. It looks like a landscape on another planet. .

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have mixed feelings about the proven artist idea. I think I will write a post on that and the investment thing, thanks for the idea.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I don't often cross paths with academia any more. Years ago they didn't consider what I do to be art at all. That may have changed. Philip Koch is not that.He might be the only MFA out there who can paint.

I am a high school dropout, so I always enjoy tweaking the academics.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That sounds like it would be an eyeopener for a student, but maybe they don't know the difference.
How do you deal with the academic environment. I am surprised they don't attack you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Sargent was so cool. He was the ultimate example of that kind of artist.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is funny. If the DMV could do it, why not the government schools?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. I keep sneaking the name of a deceased blues man into this blog, have you noticed?

Stapleton Kearns said...


I think most of us backed into studying art history. I think we all stumbled over it. The schools don't teach it much, it is kind of a niche thing, like tropical fish.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I laughed so hard when I wrote that.I wondered if you would find it.
I know those blueberry fields. Are they red yet? I don't think I know of many places that are stranger.

Philip Koch said...

Stape, I can assure you there are more than a few MFA's who paint in a manner you'd respect. Many more paint in a way that might make your teeth fall out, but that's another story. Happily, no one has ever attacked me for my teaching a more traditional approach to drawing. I am considered one of the most traditional teachers at MICA, but I'm not the only one.

The academic environment varies a great deal from school to school, but at least in larger art departments and art schools, there are usually to be found at least a couple of very respectable observational realist painters. At MICA we've got a half dozen people teaching drawing and painting who I'm pretty sure you'd respect.

And I don't think it's only at MICA, even though we have a somewhat stronger connection to the realist tradition than most art schools. Among teachers, there's most often a go-along-to-get-along attitude governing the competing ideas about what's the best training for an artist today. Given the fractious nature of our contemporary art world, I think that's the best compromise possible at this time.

At my school every day I I see both things I respect a lot and things I think are misguided. I have to hope that in the end, many students can figure our for themselves which path is best for them.