Runaway Rant: Skill Matters in Art

I haven’t been writing or sharing anything lately because I’m in one of my training periods. This involves a lot of knuckling down and plowing through tutorials and exercises to fine tune my skills, and that requires a bit of a humble and honest mindset. It’s not fun compared to creating, but it’s essential to make “next level shit”.

There’s a conflict here with how we consider skill in terms of a contemporary art paradigm. Let me throw out that virtually no technical skills were taught in my graduate art program. Rather, one was instructed in how to think about art, how to conceive projects, and most importantly how to judge art in terms of its sociopolitical implications. More traditional skills are generally considered mere craft, and if they are arduous, something that could ideally be outsourced to assistants or skilled artisans. The real contemporary artist is someone who conceives a piece, not the person or people who make it.

But there’s a limitation with the contemporary model. A lot of possible art can only be conceived in and through the mastery of certain skills. I find it useful to make musical analogies, so, consider that if you couldn’t play any instrument very well, nor read music, nor understand musical theory in depth, it would be about impossible to innovate a substantial new musical piece. To simplify my analogy, if your goal were to make an amazing guitar solo, you couldn’t really imagine it without knowing how to play the instrument, or related instruments, or music in general. Innovating that solo would happen in and thru learning to play the guitar, and playing other solos.

This is not exactly true, in that the imagination and the subconscious are powerful things. You might have had dreams where you hear really cool music, and your own subconscious imagination must have been responsible for making it. I’ve had those dreams for sure. But in a waking state, try as I often do to make guitar, or piano, or synthesizer music in my head – this is a standard thing I do when I go to sleep – I doubt I ever create anything truly new or special. I just don’t know enough about music.

I have made experimental musical compositions by splicing sounds using sound editing software, overlapping them, and so on. This method produces a sound collage of sorts, but I eventually realized after obsessing on making these creations for months that I was limited by my inability to deliberately choose notes, chords, and the rest. Here, I could make viable music using experimentation, accident, various techniques I developed, and relying on my ear, all without needing to play any instrument, or read or write music. But I couldn’t deliberately create a melody using notes.

This same problem exists in visual art. All sorts of art can be made that does not require one knows anatomy, perspective, composition, lighting and shading, how to use values, color theory, and a myriad of other skills. Andy Warhol made a career employing only a bare minimum of these skills to the point where they were almost irrelevant. Most contemporary artists who are taken seriously don’t use them at all. However, these artists can’t draw or paint a realistic image from their imagination, or can’t any better than millions of freshman artists or your average person of very modest skill.

We might agree that before the 20th century the core of art was the visual image, and a primary goal was to make new and captivating imagery through drawing and painting. While this may be considered antiquated, quaint, or a joke to many contemporary artists, critics, and art aficionados, it’s worth noting that today’s most celebrated artists mostly can’t make an image for shit. Within the dominant contemporary art paradigm following Duchamp, Warhol, and the rest, this is not a problem in the least. However, from another perspective, these artists are cut off from making what is historically most central and the biggest chunk of art. They are like musicians who can’t play an instrument or write a song, or can’t any better than I can (I played clarinet in band, had a 10-week piano course, and taught myself to play rudimentary guitar).

A curious thing about much contemporary art is that it gives us nothing new to really look at. It gives us things to think about, it re-contextualizes formerly non-art objects as art, and it borrows imagery from commercial art and pop culture, but it does not use the visual imagination to realize new imagery. For example, consider Andy Warhol. We can say he put all sorts of new things in the gallery and museum space, but we could see something very similar in the supermarket or in a fashion magazine. Rather than give us something new to look at, he gave us rather plebeian things to look at in a new way. The musical equivalent would be to play a commercial jingle in an auditorium and have the audience appreciate it as profound music. There’s nothing new to listen to, just a new way of listening to something banal and unsophisticated. It reminds me of when Aldous Huxley looked at a pair of ordinary pants after taking mescaline, and found them a marvel of intricate design.

In the contemporary art narrative the goal of producing new and captivating imagery is not only considered dead on arrival, but impossible. We are told that nothing new can be imagined, that the author is dead, and that all we can do is recombine extant objects and images. This, I think, is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy, and part of it is that you can’t make new imagery if you are not highly skilled at making imagery to begin with, just as you can’t write a new song if you are not capable of writing songs at all. You can’t write poetry in Chinese if you can’t speak Chinese.

The word “imagination” is curiously absent in discussions about contemporary art, and I gather this might have something to do with the connection between image and imagination. The real artist, we are told, makes works which challenge us to ask the question “what is art?”, and, we are told, the “artist” who makes an image already has answered that question, in which case his or her work is automatically irrelevant. This is akin to saying that the person who writes songs is not a musician, because he or she is not asking the question “what is music?” The real musician makes sound sculptures with perhaps an incidental note or two, a borrowed jingle, or text instead of sound [ex., a sign that says, “The sound of a book falling on the floor”].

I don’t believe any of that. I think we can make new songs and make new images right now, but it requires we become if not fluent in the requisite language, at least passably able to speak it. And, of course, you can have expert, virtuoso skills at painting or playing an instrument, and still have nothing to say of your own, just as you can be fluent at speaking English but incapable of writing a poem in English that isn’t cringe-worthy. Similarly, we could say that you can have the most up-to-date and comprehensive understanding of science and have no guarantee of making a new discovery. But without those skills you can be quite certain you won’t make a scientific breakthrough.

Much of my art training is on the conceptual end of the spectrum – certainly all of my graduate art education – but over time I’ve come to realize my real interest in art has always been the image. The other stuff I was interested in about the same as I am interested in whatever I’m doing for whatever job I have. You learn something, become familiar with it, and then your mind is attuned to it and it’s of some interest. My real fascination is for imagery, and particularly that of the more imaginative variety. To continue my analogy, this is no more surprising than a musician declaring his or her true interest is writing songs.

As I hone and develop some new skills, I find I am also becoming able to envision new images. So, again, if I’m not writing or sharing new work, it’s because I’m sharpening my tools and acquiring new ones. Have patience with me. I think it will be worth it.

~ Ends

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3 thoughts on “Runaway Rant: Skill Matters in Art

  1. I agree! It’s like the engineer who has never built a house. He specifies a certain type of drain field but in actually it may need to be completely different depending on soil type and bedrock depth. But the engineer doesn’t know that because he has never had to actually build and maintain it. If he had he would have known that while in theory it works great in 3 years it will be full of roots from the shrubs he wanted planted for landscaping and need to be ripped out and replaced. Actually working with any skill helps you learn how it can be applied in the best way and allows you to build apon that understanding to create something better.
    Great post as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ” skill helps you learn how it can be applied in the best way and allows you to build apon that understanding to create something better.”

      Right. There’s a lot people can do without having the proper foundation, but there’s a lot they can’t. The latter may be a lot more important than people thought.

      Like

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