We had been in our wonderful little town for a couple of years when I’d heard about a life painting class offered at the local art center. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “life painting class” is where a live, usually nude model is provided for people to draw or paint. I had been wanting to sharpen my skills in painting human beings, and so I called up to find out the details.
The class was created and run by two artists. One had achieved fame as a legendary San Francisco poster artist of the 60’s, and continues to paint and design posters. The other one answered the phone.
After telling him I was interested in signing up, he gave me all the info, then asked “So, what kind of work do you do, abstract or realistic”? I replied “realistic”, and he said “good, that’s harder”.
After hanging up the phone I thought about this and decided this must be a guy who didn’t do either style very well. His easy dismissal was part of an attitude that has gone on for well over a century, generally by much of the public and a few critics, but also by a disappointing number of artists. To wit: abstract art requires little artistic skill and is a scam perpetrated by an intellectual elite hell-bent on the destruction of civilization.
People who have taken an Art History survey course in college are familiar with the general idea:
- For thousands of years the role of the artist was to create convincing reality, conveying assorted religious, historical and political ideas without the written word (which most of the public couldn’t read, anyway). The more realistic-looking the art, the better the artist.
- The invention of the camera rendered the traditional role of the artist obsolete. Freed of the requirement to be the camera, the artist became the interpreter. In conjunction with progress in science, technology, psychology and philosophy, art and artists became reflections of the modern human condition.
- For the cultural establishment (whatever that means), definitions of “skill” and “talent” reflected these changes.
- More or less.
But back to the story, I continued to stew over my conversation with this guy. I’ve done both, representation and abstraction, and I can tell you they are each as “hard” as you make them..
It’s not how long it takes to make a painting. It’s how long it takes to make a painting that represents what you want it to.
Next: Hey, Darryl, relax.