Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I'll Take a Masterpiece...and Make it Snappy

I grew up in a family of DIYers. From building an extension on the house (or building the entire house from scratch) to renovating the kitchen or bathroom to taking apart the car's engine to diagnose a problem, the members of my extended family (both men and women) dove right in, manuals in hand, and got it done. That same attitude applied to recreation and arts, as well. My father would often draw, my mother mastered an endless number of crafts, we kids picked up the guitar or taught ourselves piano. We were quite far from the leisure-class family you imagine in some Victorian novel (we did these things out of economic necessity mostly), but we cared enough about such things to make the sacrifices to actually buy a piano or guitar or drawing essentials.

Then things began to change. I recall the first time I heard my father took his car into a mechanic to have it worked on. I was quite literally shocked. Why not fix it yourself, I thought? I had spent untold hours assisting him in my youth as he lay under the engine, mildly cursing, covered in grease, impatiently requesting some tool from his massive toolbox (ah, those were the days). All through my teens and college years, I never once took my jalopies into a shop. If I couldn't fix it myself, there was always Dad.

So what happened? Well, mostly cars became much more complicated. Advanced electrical systems, and then computerized this or that, made it impossible to do-it-yourself anymore. When some ticking noise or clanking sound emerged, it became foolhardly to take it apart himself, so my father had to take it in to a specialist.

This all came back to me while reading Michael Kimmelman's
review of an exhibition titled “Teaching America to Draw” at the Grolier Club:

[A] show called “Teaching America to Draw” provides a refresher course in pencil-pushing and other sorts of sketching as a collective pastime. It’s about that golden era, from the time of the founding fathers nearly to Cooke’s day, when educated Americans drew as a matter of course.

Drawing was a civilized thing to do, like reading and writing. It was taught in elementary schools. It was democratic. It was a boon to happiness.

From 1820 to 1860, more than 145,000 drawing manuals circulated, now souvenirs of our bygone cultural aspirations. Not many of these manuals are still intact because they were so heavily used, worn down like church relics, which supplicants rubbed smooth from caressing.
Kimmelman then offers an insightful analysis of what it means that we no longer draw, as a pasttime, in our nation:

Something happened between then and now, and it wasn’t just the invention of gadgets that eliminated the need to draw.

There was also a philosophical change, away from drawing as a practical endeavor and toward art appreciation. From dexterity and discipline to feelings and self-esteem: the shift in values is implied by some of the later books in the show. Consciously or not, they parallel changes in modern art, which threw out the rule books of draftsmanship and proposed a new, free-thinking attitude.

[...] With the arts, American adults have acquiesced to playing the passive role of receivers.


[As] with classical music, painting and drawing, professional renditions of which are now so widely available...most people probably can’t or don’t imagine there’s any point in bothering to do these things themselves. Communities of amateurs still thrive, but they are self-selecting groups. A vast majority of society seems to presume that culture is something specialists produce.
What Kimmelman laments is not a loss for American art, per se. In his review of the Greater New York exhibition he noted:

Drawing is the new painting. There's one much-promoted trend. Everybody draws so preposterously well now that it's almost boring.
But rather, he deplores the loss of a collective culture:

Rembrandt Peale published one of the drawing manuals in the Grolier Club show. Besides being an artist, Peale became Pennsylvania’s first high school art teacher in the 1830’s, hired by Alexander Dallas Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin. People, Franklin pointed out, can often “express ideas more clearly with a lead pencil or a bit of chalk” than with words. “Drawing is a kind of universal language, understood by all nations,” he reminded Americans.

We have given it up, at a cost that, as Franklin might have put it, is beyond words. Mr. Angell goes on in his book to say that television and sports journalism have taught us all about the skills and salaries and private lives of professional ballplayers, on whom we now focus, instead of playing the game ourselves.

As a consequence, he writes, “we don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either.”

You can draw the analogy.
I see two intriguing ideas in all this. First is that perhaps the national resentment toward artists is similar to that toward athletes. Sure, the die-hard fans still worship selected heroes, but who would you say the entire nation admires (or even knows)? Not as many as we used to.

Second, is this notion of specialization in art, and what that leads to. I don't exactly resent the mechanic who knows how to fix the car, but he's certainly never gonna replace my Dad. Getting my car fixed had been a special time for bonding and joking (inbetween dodging the hurled crescent wrenches). But it became just another item on the ever-expanding "to do" list, another in a series of business transactions.

Perhaps there's not so much a resentment toward artists today, as there is an expectation that they should provide a service, accept payment, and not expect so much devotion in return. Moreover, just as we select our service providers according to who caters best to our existing needs, perhaps this leads us, as a nation, to expect artists to cater to our existing tastes. "Don't challenge me, you fool, this is just another in my ever-expanding list of commercial transactions."


Anonymous danonymous said...

ONe things come to mind for me when you bring up sports players.
There are so many more teams in each sport than ever before as the sports have become huge corporate enterprises. Coupled with that is a roster of players that trade from team to team stretching fan loyalties to the limit, where you cheer players one year and boo them the next.
Perhaps a parallel of the arts is the overwhelmingly large (I assume) number of people involved in the arts, (and perhaps more galleries than ever before as well, but I am guessing here).
Could it be that the numbers who used to draw for personal pleasure and development in private are now the numbers who paint and draw and sculpt, etc., for recognition. And with so many voices saying Please Look At Me all at the same time (market share) as a culture, that we are more deaf to voices claiming our attention than ever before.
I have often heard and somewhat romantically believe that if everyone was doing art, there would no longer be the driving "need" for ART.

7/19/2006 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger kurt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7/19/2006 10:02:00 AM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

Remember the classic Marshall Mcluhan ( Marshall McLuhan is considered the first father and leading prophet of the electronic age) text...The Media Is The Message? in what seems now to be very early TV history (60's).
I don't think art is thereto compete for the attention and market share of the culture. But perhaps, as it always has (am I being naive and romantic about this?) its job is to rise above the competitive fray, reinvent itself once again , and raise our cultural consciousnous without the PR fanfare that is sometimes blatant in the art world. Sensation and the Saatchi collection seemed to do that but the follow through was pretty limited for it was an exciting blip. I'm sure exciting stuff will once again its own time and place.

7/19/2006 10:44:00 AM  
Anonymous bnonymous said...

Kimmelman's article suggests a solution to the elitist/populist split we've disucssed in various posts over the months. It involves mending the split by making everyone more sophisticated visually--by bringing back the idea that all civilized people should be able to draw. Instead of trying to mend the split, why not destroy elitism by making everyone part of the elite, at least as far as art goes. This is not far from the politics preached in such magazines as The Nation and Harper's, wherin an educated populace is seen as the key to real democracy.

But then there's another split, this time between craftsmanship and ideas. Kimmelman notes that as drawing became less important to the average person, parallels emerged in the elite: "...modern art, which threw out the rule books of draftsmanship and proposed a new, free-thinking attitude." As much as I'd like to see everyone draw, I'd hate to see the art world turn toward craft and skill and discipline instead of innovation, exploration and intellectual ambition. So this leaves me with a little ambivalence--and a suspicion that wanting drawing to be a universal skill again is simple nostalgia, a nice-sounding idea that shouldn't be taken too seriously.

7/19/2006 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger chrisjag said...

"I'd hate to see the art world turn toward craft and skill and discipline instead of innovation, exploration and intellectual ambition."

Since when did skill preclude experimentation? Why can't one do both at the same time? I like art to be challenging and "new" as well - but to throw the technical model out as expendable is crazy, espcially since thought and creativity are usually expressed through technical means.

7/19/2006 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

perhaps this leads us, as a nation, to expect artists to cater to our existing tastes.

I don't think the general public ever expected artists to challenge their existing tastes. That's what made the challenges challenging.

Also, drawing used to be perceived as an essential skill in creating art. That's no longer the case. (I'm not saying that I don't value it, but that there are easier ways to create art without it). It used to be that everyone drew -- now everybody's a digital photographer. I also think the observation that we, as a society, have become more used to passive prepackaged experiences is right on the money. And there's great incentive for those providing the experiences to dumb them down as much as possible (market share).

I'll take a good book and a game of beach volleyball over tv and a seat at the Lakers game any day of the week. But I think I'm in the minority. So, supersize me...

7/19/2006 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Kimmelman then offers an insightful analysis of what it means that we no longer draw, as a pasttime

That concept, passtime, is also something of a mystery to me. Is that like when you have extra time, and you want a way to help it pass by? Wow!

7/19/2006 02:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Steve Ruiz said...

I think part of this loss can be attributed to the "art as expression" or theraputic application of art as taught in our school systems. Through to the end of high school, art is regarded as a fluff elective like bowling, where everyone who shows up gets an A+. In fact, this idea pervades through most college programs too. When the focus is on something other than achievement, I guess it'd be natural for the quality of and regard for the field to fall.

If there were no Olympics, would anyone really care about the long-jumper?

7/19/2006 05:23:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

I think Steve is on target. Art education is relegated to elementary school children from affluent neighborhoods. Who then grow up thinking of art as something children do, not adults.

Skill is still valued more than insight or ideas. Skill can be taught much more easily. Easiness seems the underlying cult of our culture.

7/19/2006 06:43:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Easiness seems the underlying cult of our culture.

And busy-ness. Lot's of busyness people out there.

7/19/2006 07:02:00 PM  
Anonymous bradc said...

almost makes me feel guilty for pushing the shutter, but I can't draw worth sh*t.

7/19/2006 07:21:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Kimmeleman wants to blame artists and Modernism for the general degradation of the culture.

Why not blame those crazy physicists and their 'quantum mechanical' ideas. How can we believe anything when even scientists are that confused. I say a return to classical newtonian physics would herald a return to responsibility among our youth and politicians.

Or maybe compulsory sunset contemplation . . .

7/19/2006 07:32:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Or maybe compulsory sunset contemplation . . .

Tim, please don't even put the idea in their heads. We don't need more people moving out here. But as for Newton, a proper respect for gravity is something everyone should learn at an early age.

7/19/2006 07:59:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

My mom, who's 90, has played the piano since she was a teenager. Before 'records', it was a form of recreation. Drawing had a similar function and it was a handy skill for figurin' out how to make something.

Frankly, I don't see a "general degradation of the culture", nor do I think "Easiness seems the underlying cult of our culture" any more than it ever has been. If anything, the culture is more complex, more complicated, more specialized and more demanding. Individuals determine what "skills" are worth acquiring depending on what they need to do.

If the digicam affords someone a "representation skill" that's great, but it's still just a means to an end, just as plain old drawing with a pencil is.

It's a new culture, with new rules and requirements, something old mixed with something new. JMHO.

7/19/2006 09:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I agree with George, the world is way more complex. Also, we're a lot more people, hence more art and more athletes.

And we've seen a lot of good art, so we're more difficult. That has nothing to do with the fact that we still and always will love the most challenging art. It is just that the "notion" of challenging
had been so much "lazied out" (from lazy, please help me find a better term) by blunt conceptualists that it's true that in 2006 the next challenge seems to be a renewal of appreciation
for pure skill (time will tell).

I think they are still a lot of people who draw or paint in their pastime. Thing is there are more activities to do these days for a pastime so people do lots of other stuff. Also, people tend to travel now more than they used to do. That takes times too.

It is true that with technology
and specialization there is a great danger of forming a new Plato's Cave when we don't understand anymore how the objects we use function. I am a big defender of synthesis on these levels. Today it seems you either can have a broad vague knowledge or be specialized in something so even the notions of elitist has changed. No one can pretend to "know" anymore, that is perhaps why we inflict so much nostalgia on Da Vinci. Trust me Da Vinci these days would go mad.

Still I dont understand why "dad" should be more admirable than the expert guy in cars. People tend to overlook the hard job done by the people they don't know. It's always service-service-service, and let me tell you this service is getting more and more lousy exactly because it is under-appreciated.

I think we've lost sense of human respect, basically. That is the main problem. We are ready to give the best trophies to our winners but we disregard others like they're pieces of the Matrix. I am not a fan of the attitude and in fact I am able to appreciate most people. It's more with artists that I will tend to be suspicious
because so many of them are just full of themselves. I consider artists more like "priviledged" than "special superhumans". To be able to express yourself in the right way is a privilege, because tons of people try it and are not able to. And they work hard at trying. Have you ever been to a karaoke? So I tend to admire the works of art more than the artist personas, if you will.

I think if there is any popular resentment about visual arts it is mostly because it became complicated, and the people whose job is to discuss about art have created their own language just to make things harder. Non-art
people use to say when they visit an exhibit with me that they like the fact that they comprehend me when I tell them what I think an artist is doing.

Besides, I do believe there is a couple emperor's clothes in contemporary arts (no I dont mean Duchamps). I think we've over-estimated a couple attributions.
The well-sensed people will think "hmm...nice idea, but..period". There is a difference between a nice fun idea and great art, and a lot of conceptual arts from the 60's and on seems to be about turning
"nice ideas" into masterpieces of art. It's hard sometimes to spot the people responsible for this. Even gallerists tend to re-re-represent artists years after years
of redundancy so I guess redundancy sells.

I think we have way too many museum catalogs saying "this artist is one of the best of the
second half of the 20th century", or "one of the most important artist of his generation", etc, etc... Like we have hundreds of most important artists. How can we ask the popular nation to manage?

People definitely want great art,
but they don't want to be told what great art they are supposed to like. When that great art will hit, it will hit, people will be ready for it.


Cedric Caspesyan

(Ps, They are some hitters, Barney is a hitter, people like him...hes not too unchallenging)

7/19/2006 11:18:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Today it seems you either can have a broad vague knowledge or be specialized in something so even the notions of elitist has changed. No one can pretend to "know" anymore, that is perhaps why we inflict so much nostalgia on Da Vinci.

I think Cedric makes a good point. There was a time when a curious, educated person was able to be up on the current state of knowledge in the arts, sciences, and practical matters of life. Those days are long gone; now it's a full-time job to stay informed in even one specialized field. I don't know if Leonardo would go mad, as Cedric suggests, but perhaps he would stop with the notebooks and just have a talk show.

7/20/2006 02:05:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

able to be up on the current state of knowledge in the arts, sciences, and practical matters of life.

This has a different meaning in todays world. It is not so much about acquiring the knowledge itself, rather it is now about knowing how to find the information when you need it.

Google is big brother

7/20/2006 02:28:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

George, I very much agree with you up to a point. But there's also a level of understanding and synthesis that goes beyond knowing where to find information. And I think it's getting harder and harder to achieve that as the world's accumulated knowledge and culture multiplies.

7/20/2006 03:43:00 AM  
Blogger George said...


I can't disagree, that's why a genius is still a genius.

7/20/2006 04:40:00 AM  
Anonymous auvi said...

As much as I'd like to see everyone draw, I'd hate to see the art world turn toward craft and skill and discipline instead of innovation, exploration and intellectual ambition.

I agree, up to a point..."craft and skill and discipline" do not guarantee interesting art, but "innovation, exploration and intellectual ambition" may not be sufficient conditions, either. There can be no guarantees.

"New media art" usually errs on the side of focus on skill or technical virtuosity. Many works of this type seem to belong in a high school science-fair instead of a gallery.

And yet, making art with technologically advanced tools offers so many possibilities for artists. Possibilities that we can't even imagine yet: new tools, new modes of expression, new concepts. Given these new opportunities, technology offers virtuosity "something to latch onto" -- a valid justification for virtuosity in the artistic process. (Virtuosity for its own sake is uninteresting. But virtuosity in service of new modes of creating/thinking/being becomes interesting.)

7/20/2006 06:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More, it's about primary information, or first hand information.
Today, especially artists are looking everywhere for inspiration, past, future, left, right, infront, and behind, thoroughly, or statigiclly, the market, the hottest, though seldom hook in to the primary--the primacy of own experience.
We're all smart, enough! In this lay the predicament. We've outsmarted ourselves.

Artist are trained to be professionals--it's very true--and are the lapdogs of the designers of culture who at play in their whims are the most powerful and underrmining of our culture developing, least professional in the real term of being an artist.

7/20/2006 07:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim, you don't like our quantum physics?
Theorists, indeed scientists, who are highly experimental, are usually a few steps ahead of us all.
I do agree that within the 'highly-above-most-of-us' language physicists use to talk among themselves, is off putting. At the same time, if I remember correctly, when science was at its headiest in the 1800's +, atoms, and their subatomic entered the stream, ancient monads started to make sense again, and artists were right there, expressing these ideas through their own particular fabric and particularization.

Language is, after all, streamed through in many tongues.

Sunsets are nice!
Close on perfect from a number of vantages.

7/21/2006 07:52:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

T: Why not blame those crazy physicists and their 'quantum mechanical' ideas. How can we believe anything when even scientists are that confused.

A: Tim, you don't like our quantum physics? Theorists, indeed scientists, who are highly experimental, are usually a few steps ahead of us all.

Um, I think Tim was being facetious here.

7/21/2006 11:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK David, I get it now!

7/22/2006 05:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If everyone knew how to draw there would be a higher percentage of people who would be able to synthesize craft and skill with intellectual ambition, and be able to think in terms of materials. There doesn't have to be a split between the two camps. We need to let go of that fear of the word "craft", it doesn't have to be negative.

I would like to think that you could synthesize in that same way with digital technology, but I have some reservations, just because it often seems like digital technology just isn't designed to be tinkered with, or worked with, or fixed in the same way older technology was. I work in a printshop full of nineteenth century printing equipment; in the office we use a variety of laser and inkjet printers. We have to replace them every six months since they get a lot of use, and they aren't designed to be fixed, they are designed to be thrown out and replaced, it's inevitably much cheaper to do that. The nineteenth century equipment is the opposite, and I think that quality encourages people to develop a different kind of relationship with materials and with technology. It's like the equpment itself is harder to penetrate, and harder to manipulate in a new way.

7/27/2006 11:26:00 PM  

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