The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Category: Teaching

Skillz Part II: that’s not art

Ecole des beaux-arts, students working from the live model

Ecole des beaux-arts, students painting from life, 1800’s  (Wikipedia)

In his article, Is De-skilling Killing Your Art Education?, F. Scott Hess presents several anecdotal accounts of the way that “skilled” work was discriminated against in his own education, as well that of several of his peers. In his opening example he explains that he wanted to learn how to draw the human figure, and that an “untenured professor” (i.e. less firmly attached to the institution) showed him the ropes, while the chair of the department (i.e. strongly identified with the institution), an alcoholic abstract painter, tells him that drawing the figure “is not art”, and then goes on to drunkenly smash the plaster cast that he was drawing from.

While this episode is meant to illustrate an archetypal art-school clash between painting idioms and generational investments, it also highlights a tension between competing ideas about the ways art making relates to time and history. On one hand a kind of “underground” commitment to skills and procedures that were dominant in the recent past, and on the other, an officially sanctioned sense that history “progresses” and leaves certain practices irretrievably behind. The first position assumes the ability to sustain the unrevised ideals of an earlier period, in which the warrant for making art comes from vanished monarchical and religious authority. The second position assumes the historical inevitability of current ideals, where the authority of kings and churches is replaced by capitalist markets and narratives of linear progress.

But why does this conflict seem so acute in the context of current art education? I will venture a few thoughts.

First, there is often a misalignment between the expectations of students entering programs and the sometimes unstated assumptions of institutions and faculty. For example, students may think of art making in general terms that include any and every form of creativity, from carefully stumped graphite portraits of their dog, to mixed media collages that “raise issues”, to driftwood decorated with beads, to photographs of sunsets, to digital renderings of their favorite anime character, often mixed with vague ideas about “high art”. Faculty, in contrast, will likely think about art making in more specialized terms, particularly as they relate to distinctions between “art” and “craft”, between mass culture and a more rarefied culture of avant-garde innovation, and with a much broader relationship to art history.

Mercedes Matter with students, New York Studio School

Mercedes Matter with students, New York Studio School (Artcritical.com)

Meanwhile, institutions have their own mandates and goals when it comes to education, including literacy, critical thought, skill training, disciplinary knowledge and granting academic credentials. They also tend to have biases that privilege intellectual over manual labour. Universities are premised on enlightenment ideals of human progress through rational inquiry, and this model provides an uncomfortable fit for studio practices. In the Renaissance, artists, rooted in workshops and guilds, and sponsored by wealthy, educated patrons, aspired for their work to achieve the status of “liberal art”, on par with mathematics and philosophy. They did this by emphasizing humanist ideals, the originality of individual artists, and the use of the most “advanced” aesthetic strategies, including linear perspective. The values that provide a place for art in higher education also underwrite the attitudes that seek an enforced distinction between “art” and “craft” (or theory and skill in Hess’s terms). The place of studio art in this structure is precarious, and manifests as pressure for departments and individual instructors to continually prove the intellectual, rather than the aesthetic, value of what they do in the classroom and their own studios.

We live in a pluralist time when an unprecedented range of material and conceptual approaches to art are considered to be legitimate. Although traditional criteria – such as those used by the 19th century French academy, Kantian aesthetics, or the modernist avant-garde – have faded, judgments, distinctions, and evaluations persist. This is particularly true in educational contexts, where grading is a key part of advancement through the curriculum. The same pluralism that makes this an exciting time to be an artist complicates the issue of judgment, since no universally valid criteria exist.

When subjective criteria become hardened theoretical, aesthetic, social or political positions, as they too often do, the validity of a work becomes more directly linked to its ability to fit neatly into static categories (e.g. abstraction, figuration, painting, Art, craft, advanced, reactionary, etc.), than to provide a particular experience. The problem is amplified when teachers (or critics, curators, historians, theorists) assert the exclusive authority to decide what counts and what doesn’t, what has meaning and what is consigned to invisibility. Students rightfully resent the pressure to conform to a narrow conception of what is or isn’t art. Likewise, it can be difficult for instructors to balance the need to challenge students, letting them find their own way, against their own ideological baggage.

A Lesson with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1946 photo Genevieve Naylor

A Lesson with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1946 photo Genevieve Naylor (yourownguide.com)

Although I think that Hess’s argument is simplistic, I recognize his anxiety about institutional power and its sway over art training. Anyone who has worked in the studio for any length of time will recognize the limited usefulness of rationality. To the extent that art making deals with the manipulation of material, logic only takes one so far, then physical, intuitive, and tacit knowledge has to bridge the gap. However, pure technique or “skill” similarly runs up against the problem of empty display absent an intellectual framework that allows it to articulate its specific connections to the meanings that circulate in the culture.

 

Skillz

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In his recent article, Is De-skilling Killing Your Arts Education?, F. Scott Hess rails passionately against an alleged prejudice toward “skilled” representational painting in contemporary art education. I have heard some students and fellow artists voice similar worries, implying that because drawing from life and traditional technique are no longer the focus of most art school curricula, that artistic skill is banished, replaced instead by faddish academic trends. There is an added edge to these complaints when tuition costs are soaring and students seek practical skill sets in return for their investment. It is frustrating and discouraging for students when they perceive that their work is unappreciated, even when it is highly accomplished on a technical level. However, the tone of Hess’ narrative suggests that the crux of the issue is not a simple intolerance of skill, but is instead the result of contentious disputes over how art is understood to function in contemporary society.

It is important to be specific about what is meant by skill in this context. Hess equates skill with drawing the human figure, and more generally, the knowledge and procedures embedded in classical representational painting, such as anatomy, perspective, and mastery of technique. It is this approach in particular that is seen to be the victim of censure:

I wish I could say this academic prejudice against skill was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it is stronger now than it has ever been. Conceptualism replaced abstraction as the dogma of the day, and has been in turn replaced by Postmodern hybridity, identity politics, or pure theory on the majority of college campuses. As in all educational endeavors, young minds are molded to fit the norm their professors set forth. De-skilling is the term I’ve commonly heard used to describe this odd institutional practice in the arts.

The idea that you might train a surgeon to be clumsy, or an engineer to build poorly, or a lawyer to ignore law, would be patently absurd. In the arts, however, you will find an occasional musician who purposely plays badly, or a writer who ignores grammar, but only in the visual arts is training in the traditional skills of the profession systematically and often institutionally denigrated.

It is reasonable to wonder about the priorities of educational institutions that would allow such seemingly large gaps in the training of artists. However, I think there are two distinct issues at stake in Hess’ account. The first is the question of what constitutes skill and whether or not it is transmitted in art education. The second is the status of the academy in relation to its capacity to institute and regulate its dogmas and norms.

According to the terms that Hess sets out, there is definitely a systematic thrust by artists from the late 19th, and into the early 21st centuries to de-skill art production, and this is reflected and reinforced in the educational institutions that train artists in the modern period. This process begins with the rejection of academic standards of decorum, finish, and hierarchies of subject matter by artists like Courbet and Manet, and moves through the succession of “isms” into the 20th century. Although many of the early modern artists that are revered today had some kind of academic training, their refusal to perpetuate the standards of the academy did not come out of boredom or perversity, but from the recognition that these conventions were somehow inadequate to represent the rapidly changing world they lived in.  In this case, according to John Roberts, the question becomes:

how do I paint convincing images that express the truth of what it is like to live under these new conditions? As a result, painterly technique becomes a highly contentious matter in the bid for non-academic status and value; technique, it is asserted, is not a neutral skill, something transmittable down the ages, but, rather, historically contingent, and therefore inseparable from the demands of artistic subjectivity and the artist’s mode of vision. Questioning inherited technique then became a means of questioning the link between academic technique and form in official or salon-painting. (80)

Edouard Manet, Luncheon in the Studio, 1868

Edouard Manet, Luncheon in the Studio, 1868

Hess’ comparison between training clumsy surgeons and the “denigration”, in visual arts, of “training in the traditional skills of the profession” is misplaced because it assumes that achievement in each field can be measured against a similarly stable set of criteria. A surgeon without the requisite hand-eye coordination would not make it very far in their education, but it is also true that a surgeon that insisted on the value of the “traditional” techniques of bloodletting would have a hard time convincing the medical community of its value. Technology, technique, and research have rendered bloodletting obsolete as an effective means to obtain the goals of surgery. Within the visual arts, however, it is still possible to use the most ancient technical approaches (such as painting) and remain relevant, if they are deployed in such a way that they produce meanings that continue to have resonance within the culture.

Roberts refers to this modern questioning of inherited technique as “deflationary strategies”, and he connects these impulses with artistic methods such as collage, assemblage and the ready-made, which initially introduce “non-art” materials onto the surface of paintings, and then become independent approaches in themselves (82). Once modern artists established these strategies in opposition to the standards of academic painting, artistic technique could no longer be held as stable and therefore “artistic form is not able to be assessed from any normative standpoint”(81). Roberts continues:

As Duchamp’s notion of the ‘rendezvous’ suggests, the superimposition and reorganisation of extant forms and materials opens up the category of art to non-artistic technical skills from other cultural, cognitive, practical and theoretical domains: film, photography, architecture, literature, philosophy and science. Indeed, if art is a site of many different disciplines, materials, and theoretical frameworks, art can be made quite literally from anything. (83)

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955-59

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955-59

One of the results of this shift is that manual skill at representation no longer occupies a prominent place among the criteria for judging artworks. This in itself does not prevent the teaching or acquisition of these skills, but their priority in educational practice is diminished in favour of different skills, many of which might be described as involving conceptualizing or arrangement, rather than hand-eye coordination.

This short detour into the history of artistic de-skilling illustrates that the supposed prejudice against skill is not arbitrary, but is part of a critical response by artists to the conditions of modernity itself. It is something of a red herring to construct this as a tyrannical edict from the corrupt ivory tower. Further, complaints against abstraction, conceptualism, hybridity, identity politics, and so-called “pure theory” seem to ignore the fact that western society as a whole has moved toward diversity of voices and plurality of practices, and art-making is not exempt from these tendencies, nor should it be.

Fluency in the language of materials and their modes of application are the bare minimum for any kind of achievement in drawing and painting, but they are not sufficient in the absence of other cognitive aspects of art-making, and I submit that this is not any different today than it was in the 15th century when the “traditional skills of the profession” were codified.

De-skilling in art ought to be seen in the historical context from which it derives. Skill, as such, is not absent from modern artistic training, but the focus of this training is no longer directed toward the manual dexterity and disciplined technique prevalent in the pre-modern era. For better and worse, these are the conditions that contemporary art inherits from the last 150 years of practice.

But Hess’ complaint, I think, is actually less about whether students develop skills in art school, than the sometimes toxic discursive and critical environment that they have to navigate while sorting through which skills to take up and which to set aside. I will address this question in a future post.

Cited

Hess, F. Scott. “Is De-Skilling Killing Your Arts Education?”, Huffington Post: Aug 30, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/f-scott-hess/is-deskilling-killing-you_b_5631214.html

Roberts, John. “Art After Deskilling”, Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 77-96. http://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/robertsjohn_artafterdeskilling2010.pdf

Anti-gravity

Robert Ryman, Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

Robert Ryman, Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

I have always been attracted to paintings that seem to ask basic questions about their own functions or conditions. Not in the sense of a closed self-reference, but as an exploration of what paint does in a given situation. For instance, how does one get a painting or object on a wall?

Robert Ryman, detail of the edge of a painting against a wall where it has been attached with tape

Robert Ryman, detail of the edge of a painting against a wall where it has been attached with tape

Robert Ryman’s work has been very instrumental in this regard and the book Used Paint, by Susan P. Hudson, has allowed me to re-visit some of my early interests in these questions. The idea of used paint implies that the material has been transferred from one resting place to another, but not necessarily “transformed”.

When I was an undergraduate I had an extended critique with four of my advisors (ranging in their own practice from material formalist to psychological expressionist) about how my work (abstract, spray-paint on mylar) related or didn’t relate to the wall. My solution was to velcro the “skins” of paint to masonite boards spray-painted with contrasting colours, which acted as frames. These were attached to the wall by screws that were hidden by the mylar.

These frames were subject to much debate about how bad a solution they were. Not debate actually – it was clear that the solution was bad, merely the degree and the corrective were debated. After that grueling two hours I never made assumptions about the wall and painting again.

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970

On the other hand, it is sometimes too easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating these issues. A friend of mine snorted when I told him about the critique. He asked, “did you try anti-gravity?”

An interesting video on Robert Ryman:
http://www.art21.org/videos/segment-robert-ryman-in-paradox

Independent Project

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Walter Hopps: Jasper, from what point in your life would you date the beginning of your career, your sense that you were an artist, or going to be an artist?
Jasper Johns: Going to be an artist since childhood. Until about 1953 when it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being, and I decided I shouldn’t always be “going to be” an artist.

(Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum 3 no.6 (March 1965), reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, MoMA, N.Y., p.106)

The two classes that I am teaching are currently undertaking “independent projects” where the expected learning outcome is beginning to treat their work as their work. And not only to treat it as if belongs to them physically, mentally, and emotionally, but also that it is their work, their lifelong ‘independent project’.

Of course, it is presumptuous, not to mention absurd, to talk about this as a ‘learning outcome’. At best, it may be the first glimmer of understanding that being an artist is not a skill set, a talent, or an aptitude, but instead a particular kind of orientation towards the world and life. When Jasper Johns says “it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being” it suggests that being an artist is literally a question of being, that it is a mode of existence as much as an occupation.

It can be a difficult pill to swallow. Students enter art training for a wide variety of reasons, often without even a vague idea of what is involved in being an artist, but with an interest in making things and a sense that they want to be creative. They are also burdened by the trite images and clichés that circulate in the culture regarding “self-expression” and artistic “freedom”. It can be hard to come to terms with the reality that freedom and expression are the results of responsibility, rigorous discipline, and seriousness of purpose.

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I find that the fundamental problem of being an artist involves constantly needing to make choices about the right path to proceed upon, without anything to guide those choices except an elusive “vision” and the evidence of one’s work. Additionally, there is no easy path, or correct path, merely the one that lies ahead, opened or occluded by the accumulation of past decisions.

The first decision is a commitment to inhabit this mode of being fully, in the face of the very high probability that fortune and fame will not be the rewards that follow from this choice. And even if these material bonuses do arrive, the real (if less immediately tangible) reward for being an artist is existing in the world with the senses, the intellect, the emotions and spirit open and fully engaged. A possibly dubious prize when there are so many reasons to numb oneself against the world and so many available methods of anaesthesia.

The ‘independent project’ of art-making unfolds in relation to the life of the maker. As a teacher, I have become increasingly aware of the difference between how I perceive my life and art and how students (generally half my age) perceive theirs. When I was younger, the urgency that I brought to my work had to do with wanting certain things (e.g. career success, jobs, shows) immediately. Now the urgency comes from the fact that I am over forty years old, that I may live another forty if I’m lucky, and that the first twenty-five to thirty were more or less pissed away. This leaves very little time to work on my project before the deadline.

No longer wander at random. You shall not live to read your own memoirs or the acts of the ancient Romans and Greeks, or the selections from books which you were reserving for your old age. Hasten then to the goal which you have before you. Throw away vain hopes and come to your own aid, while you yet may, if you care at all for yourself.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Section III, p.32)

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