Why Art Matters

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There is a lot of bitter argument these days about the nature of art and its usefulness. Even more pervasive “out there,” perhaps, is the hostile public indifference to modern (especially abstract) art that poisons the waters for anyone who would teach painting in a manner different from the ubiquitous Bob Ross, that fellow on PBS.

As an art teacher whose students are required to take art for credit—their honor roll status threatened by the grades that they receive in my course—I face continual debate about the validity of what I purport to teach. Students know what they like, and they are convinced that art is a kind of hoax that awards tens of thousands of dollars to some “quack” who arranges boulders on a little strip of real estate. A kindergartner, they insist, could do better than that ridiculous Jackson Pollock. The kids know what “good” art is, and they do not want to be told differently. Who do I think I am, anyway?

Yet, to a kindergartner, whose perception of the world is intrinsically one of surprise, the consciousness of drawing is necessarily abstract. Lines scribbled on a page have cast off none of their meaning: They record the physical gyration of an arm, the grasp of a giant crayon, the loving selection of a favorite color, and sometimes, but not always, the representation of an observed form. Up to a certain age, children’s relationship to visual data is remarkably intuitive and direct. They read life into random, as well as conscious, associations of marks and spaces, and they accept the fantasy and reality alike with a confident sense of concrete visual skills.

Most adults, on the other hand, have worked out a “sensible” hierarchy of importance, one that has created order and intelligence out of a chaos of perceptions by sorting out useful data and excluding the rest. It is in this adult discrimination that art frequently is reduced to an instantly recognized picture of something “realistic.” Such efficiency simplifies the process but deadens the senses. There is other information available to the eye, but, since it is not useful, it is neither explored nor examined. A decision is made, usually during that stormy transition from childhood to adolescence, that allows this capacity to atrophy. Generally, by age 11, a child has decided whether he or she is an “artist,” and, from that day forward, certain visual data will no longer compute.

What a loss. Some of the most delightful experiences of life are available via visual and tactile means. The exultation of spring and, equally, the leaden misery of a winter that lasts too long are accessible through these avenues. The enjoyment of all outdoor activity is heightened by sensual interplay. It is this physicality that drives people who work with their hands, and, for an artist, it is necessarily a passion. But for those who have denied themselves the title of “artist,” a velvet-covered mental chain all too often bars their entrance to the experience of art. They view a painting and want to know what it is, or what it is for. Pioneer abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky had a response for such people. “I do not understand this need to understand a painting,” he wrote. “Do we need to understand a sunset or a tree?”

Part of the problem is the central bias of education. Within the academic framework, most disciplines emphasize analytical and organizational skills, memory and recall, and expository precision. When art is taught within this framework, the assumption is that art must derive from the same objective processes—that it, too, must have a deductive “right answer.” Students are convinced that talent, which they define as the ability to draw “realistically,” is given to the few; for the rest, it is withheld completely, and it is fear of failure that paralyzes their courage. The unquestioned sense of can-do that small children possess gets locked away in the subconscious by a pair of gawky 11-year-old hands. Adolescence is a lock-step age; the majority rules. Abstract concepts of composition, vitality, movement, contrast, and image are irrelevant. Concrete qualities—craftsmanship, subject matter, and “realness”—are all they can discern or accept.

The struggle to teach art is to bridge this gap, to stretch the narrowing elastic of the students’ minds and to fan the embers of delight that all children have in the visual and tactile. The means to this end may be circuitous: to place together incongruous ideas and ask for resolution; to hand students a five pound chunk of stone and ask them to hold it, get it wet, listen to its weight and heft, and visualize a form within; to make them pin their palettes— rather than their excruciatingly slavish first paintings—on the wall and ask them why some of these things that were not intended to be “art” at all happen to be more interesting than others. Art is the answer to this question why.

I don’t mean to suggest, nor do I believe, that representational work is somehow less “artistic” than its nonobjective counterpart, but only that those same elements that elevate good representational art, even good photography, from the rest of the stuff people make are the same principles that govern the wildest abstract expressionism. These are the important criteria of art, and they are as diverse as the individual interpretations that illustrate them. If art is being taught correctly, 15 drawings of a turnip should be as different as the 15 different imaginations that have feelings about it. Even though they might share a certain true proportion and contour, one turnip might be seen as solitary, in the distance—another, close up and aromatic, in your face. One student might display its abraded skin, the purple like a bruise; another might detail the ratty white tail.

Like skillful writing, studio art struggles to control nuance, energy, connotation, and unity. It struggles to seek new perspectives and to excise triteness. Good writing imparts experience, not reality, with the same old words everyone knows, but somehow they are different, transformed. So does good art. Reality is, by definition, mundane. “Art” is an ancient word coined to define some other quality. We all have reality; if that were all we wanted, there would be no need for art.

The very point of art is the surprise it brings, the vigor, the taste. I tell my students that art exists for one purpose: to be interesting, to compel a person to linger and consider. A work is interesting if it imparts experience, and this is quite a different task from dutifully recording it. Art is materialistic, that is, it is expressed physically, and I look for “talent” in any student whose touch with the materials is reverent and responsive—that kid who uses a tool as an extension of the hand, who keeps his or her focus on an idea and uses anything, breaks any “rule,” and disregards any “right answer” to make it happen.

Invention is a necessity in art; the only way to make something work is to find a way. When I was in college, a figure-drawing teacher responded to a question about the need to study anatomy with a homily about the study of posture. “There are peasant women in the poor regions of the world who must carry water to their homes from the river,” he said. “The vessels they use are large and, when full, extremely heavy. They carry these some distance balanced on their heads. These women have perfect posture but not because they studied about it in school. Their posture is perfect because they carry the pot, because their focus is on the water.” So it is with art. When you are impelled by the idea, you must find the form to carry it, and that form will have its own dignity. This is what makes abstract art modern—the idea that the reality is the image itself.

Abstract art is not self-indulgent, but the opposite, which is why some kids find it so difficult; when their drawings look “real,” they want to be done. Despite the self-reliance that artists must maintain, they cannot be egoistic about form. Self-consciousness is an anathema; the art itself is the only driving thing. Relinquishing preconceptions is the challenge; it is, in truth, the gain of integrity.

Art, someone once said, is the shortest distance between two question marks, and therein lies its vitality. It cannot be pinned down with words. It is a process and a product of search and change—of form, intent, and experience. It is as difficult as any other subject in the curriculum; in some ways, it’s more difficult because every task demands risk and every response must stand up to public scrutiny. It does not have rules, like athletics; the only rule is that it has to “work.” It is not enough to please yourself; there must be a loop with the viewer. The idea is the content, but the “art” is in the form that must somehow touch an unseen viewer, that person the artist cannot be sure exists but hopes to find. Art is most simply a gift, offered by one sensibility to another. It is completely real and completely mysterious—which is why it is called “art.”

Vol. 04, Issue 05, Pages 30-31

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