Skill Matters in Art: Part 2

Rather than go back and edit my prior post, I decided to write a follow-up to expand on the ideas a bit. I want to give another example of why skill is necessary, but also elaborate on why it’s considered just busy-work and not important in contemporary art.


First, I want to give a more concrete example of why skill matters in making art. I talked about trying to make music without being able to play an instrument, read music, and without a firm grasp of musical theory. This can certainly be done, but we need to acknowledge that there are other things that can’t be done without mastery of a instrument, etc.

In a rough parallel with the conviction in visual art that nothing new could be painted or imagined, the author is dead, originality is impossible, and so on, we could easily conclude that after a decade of rock guitar solos, it had all been done. And that’s just not reality at all. Consider Eddie Van Halen’s infamous “Eruption” of 1978.

My best friend in high-school played that for me and I was shocked. I didn’t like Van Halen. I liked my metal dark and mysterious [Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” or “Rainbow Rising” or Judas Priest’s “Sad Wings of Destiny” for roughly contemporaneous examples], and up-beat party metal didn’t suit my sensibility. But when I heard eruption I was floored.

What made “Eruption” possible was the guitarist’s innovative technique of tapping on the fret board, or to be more specific “rapid two-handed tapping triads that have a classical like structure” [Wikipedia]. You couldn’t conceive this solo except in and through physically handling the instrument, after and alongside gaining competence at playing it.

If you are a “musician” who doesn’t play any instrument, can’t read music, and so on, and you outsource the busy-work playing of the music to assistants or studio musicians, you can’t conceive something like a new guitar solo. Another way to put it is that you can’t come up with a new sound. But you could come up with a new way of thinking about music, or a new application for music, or challenge your audience to consider everyday sounds as music.


When I was in art school the idea was definitely not that you needed to master your medium. I got in a debate with my Photography class about this as an undergrad, and everyone sided against me. I argued that you learn the craft, and then you can do whatever you want with it. But my teacher, and my peers (I think they were just echoing what they were being taught), saw this as backwards, conventional, or traditional. Rather, the craft was a trap which almost insured you wouldn’t do anything of significance, and we needed to go outside of it. More importantly, we could make compelling art right now with no significant training, and should do so in order to address pressing social issues (at the time A.I.D.S. was a big one).

Of course I wasn’t arguing for complete mastery and virtuoso status, but rather just having the fundamentals under ones belt so one wouldn’t be making beginner mistakes and having to reinvent the wheel. The counter argument was that you don’t need all that, and why waste precious time?! There are new, exciting, and more relevant approaches and techniques that you would be much better off learning.

Further, we were rebelling against the establishment, and it could be seen that mastering a medium was not only working within the establishment, but in so doing bolstering it. Thus, if you wanted to learn how to paint shadows or draw hands, you were aspiring to be a part of the status quo and all it represented, including sexism, racism, colonialism, homophobia, opportunistic exploitation of the masses, pollution, and wars of conquest. In order to fight the oppressor, one needed to use alternative tools and approaches, and not the tools and mindset of the master. By the time one had mastered the medium, one would simultaneously, inevitably have also been fully indoctrinated into the status quo.

This is another topic I’ve said a lot about in prior posts, but, suffice it to say painting has nothing to do with the status quo, and everything to do with the love of imagery and the visual in general. All that deleterious political stuff is just projected onto visual artists, which in itself should be a red flag.

I had another conflict with my famous New Genre teacher, Paul McCarthy, who accused me of being “locked in the rectangle”. It’s a very interesting and widespread idea, which is still prevalent some 30 years later. In this paradigm, painters (or image makers) were trapped in a pathetically narrow conception of art, while other artists were FREE to explore using any and all means: everything outside of the rectangle. I proved I was NOT locked into anything, but that’s another story.

I don’t imagine he realized the other way of interpreting his idea, which is that he was locked outside the rectangle, and that means, in the realm of visual art, being locked outside of the history of creating imagery using visual intelligence and the visual imagination. Some aeronautical engineers are stuck making planes that fly, but the bold, contemporary, iconoclast aeronautical engineers can make planes that can do other things, like plow into the airport or explode on ignition, and the ONLY thing they can’t do is make them fly.

At the root of his viewpoint is the notion that art is no longer a window. The rectangle is the frame of the window into the presumed no longer relevant or interesting visual imagination of the artist. We are not looking through a portal into an imaginary world: painting was long ago revealed, as in Kasimir Malevich’s all black square painting, to be just another opaque object within quotidian, consensual reality. Once art moves forward, it never goes back.

This, I’ve argued elsewhere, is a mistake. Sure, Malevich’s Suprematist Square is a flat painted object in quotidian reality, but that doesn’t mean any other painting is. And why should we forsake the artist’s visual imagination and the imagery he or she might produce? To do so eradicates the possibility of the artist visually manifesting her or his personal vision. It’s as nifty a proposition as eliminating the song from music on the grounds that musicians are trapped in notes. McCarthy saw himself as going beyond the boundaries of painting by doing things like slapping a wall with a blanket dipped in tar, or smearing his face in paint and dragging it along the ground. These actions go beyond the boundaries of painting in the same way setting a piano on fire, and listening to the strings pop, goes beyond the musical imagination of composers, which is not at all. It’s the equivalent of gluing a novel closed, declaring it’s merely a brick of paper, writing something stupid and offensive on the cover like “nutsack”, and then tossing it out the window in some triumphant freeing of literature from its historical shackles. You can similarly transcend running a marathon by face planting at the starting line.

The moment Paul McCarthy transcended the history of painting.

I guess it’s easier to blow the lid off of painting than to be passably good at it.

Note to artists who think they’ve transcended the boundaries of a medium. You have to reach the boundaries before you can transcend them. It’s something to paint like shit, or with shit (this is not an analogy in McCarthy’s case) and declare you’ve handily trumped the history of painting. As it happens, Paul McCarthy later went on to make paintings. Have a gander for yourself at what it looks like when a performance and conceptual artist who has gone beyond the limits of painting decides to take up a brush.

WS, Chanel, Dreaming, 2014. by Paul McCarthy.

Ooooooooh shiiiiiiit. Looks like he got his technique 100% from Jonathan Meese, and then added some depressing, manic, pornographic stuff, a bit of scatology, and declared it a masterpiece for our species. It helps his cause that his intent is almost always to offend and disgust a mythical uptight American family like the Cleavers, in which case an offensively disgusting painting can be counted as an artistic triumph.


One of my former grad school instructors, multi-media artist Daniel Martinez, argues that painters are like people who can only speak one language, but multi-media artists such as himself are multi-lingual. I can quote a YouTube video:

I think that we often feel that in mixed company, or in a context where I would suggest instead of using mediums of art-making, let’s talk about language. So, in a context of multi-linguality — so, if I’m in a space where the majority of the people in the room speak four or five different languages and move very easily among those languages without a thought, and then you have one person in the room who only speaks English, that person starts to feel very uncomfortable because of not being able to enter into those discourses easily because they lack the tool of the language.

I think there’s a similarity, hence, when we isolate a medium, that uncomfortability of the fork using appears.

Here, the painter is someone who can only speak one language, whereas the multi-media artist, such as himself, is fluent in several languages including painting. In his defense, he was by far one of the better art instructors I’ve had. Nevertheless, the narrative he spouts above is taking a massive dump on painters. I can forgive a common misconception — who doesn’t harbor a few themselves? — but I can also reject it.

He also makes “paintings” of sorts, and we can see what someone who is fluent in multiple mediums produces:

Human Nature Is, 2013, by Daniel J. Martinez

Uuuuuuh. uuuuuh. Uuuuuurm. …. …. …. NAILED IT?!

Let me see what else I can find that shows a fluency in painting:

We Buy Gold Facial Waxing, 2012. Daniel J. Martinez

It’s got 4 colors, the yellow and blue are complimentary, and the wires on top produce two chevrons, which may in fact be a reference to Frnak Stella’s chevron paintings. I guess that’s what is meant by being fluent in the discourse.

But I made something kinda’ similar below, and, well, I’m the one busy brushing up my visual art skills. On my other monitor is a digital painting tutorial I’m working through.

[If you don’t follow my blog, the pic above was done entirely in Photoshop, and is part of a satirical mini-series in which all the art is text and says, Radical New Boring Shit.]

It’s rare to get a painter, other than Julien Schnabel, who thinks he’s better than the old masters. But your conceptual and multi-media artists like Jeff Koons have actually articulated that they have improved upon old master paintings.

Conceptual / multi-media artists are to painters what Neo is to the bad guys in The Matrix after he discovers how to manipulate it. They can blow armies of painters out of the water with a flick of the wrist.

I’m starting to drift off topic here a bit. My purpose isn’t to deride mandatory alternative mediums for art, but to point out that a lot of new art cannot be conceived except in and through working directly in the medium oneself. I tend to not even think this way myself, but noticed while learning some lighting techniques that I was then able to imagine imagery using more complex, accurate, and dramatic lighting.


The big picture which my college instructors put forth relegated painting [image-making] to a single, backwards, dramatically limited language or “discourse” which was also necessarily in league with the status quo and the instrument of oppression.


These two paradigms — the one in which skill is necessary, and the one in which it is backwards —  are dramatically opposed. I don’t know how many languages Daniel Martinez is fluent in, or can speak at all. I can speak English, French, Chinese, Thai, and Khmer [in the case of the Asian languages it’s because I’ve lived in China, Thailand, and Cambodia]. I can even read and write Thai. I’m only fluent in English, and just good enough at any of the others to travel and understand very basic exchanges, and I’d need to do some serious brushing up to get my skills back at most of them (for some reason, I can only hold one Asian language in my head at a time). Being fluent in a language isn’t just knowing a few words and stock phrases, and being fluent at painting is not just being able to splash around some paint or draw a stick figure. Being able to talk about a medium, or “discourse” about it, is not at all the same thing as being fluent in it

It’s not really a question of what the medium is, but what can be done with it. While I may speak 5 languages on a rudimentary level, I can only write something like this in English. If I lost my ability to speak English, I’d still have 4 other possible languages at my disposal, but would be restricted to ordering noodles, bargaining for transportation, talking about the weather, and inquiring about someone’s family… Being multi-lingual here never allows a very sophisticated use of language, and more importantly what can be communicated with it.

While many contemporary art practices are not restricted to the confines of the rectangle, they are unable to create within it in (at least in a meaningful way). This is on par with saying that novelists are only capable of creating within a book, but the multi-media artists can use language and its discourse everywhere outside of the book. Thus, a placard on a wall referencing a found sculpture is liberated literature, as is a sign within an installation with a political meme on it, but, any novel is bound and restricted to only one avenue of expression and meaning. Meanwhile a novel can express infinitely more than the rudimentary text in the average installation.

What’s missing here is that a novel is a transparent language capable of expressing possibly unlimited content, and so is painting, and music. The nature of the content is different and unique. Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” does not communicate the same thing as a painting by H.R. Giger, and a novel by Toni Morrison can’t express what either of those pieces do, but has another range of possibility. A multi-media work by Daniel Martinez can’t do what those three other mediums can, but does something else.


A problem with most contemporary visual art, which is seldom acknowledged, is that it is visually mute. It gives us nothing to visually savor, but rather something to think about which comes in the form of something that is visible. We can look at it (because it is not invisible), but it’s not worth really looking at for the visual pleasure of it or the imagery created.

Of course, as I pointed out in the prior post, you can look at anything and be blown away by it, as Aldous Huxley was when looking at a pair of trousers after imbibing mescaline. This is the trick of appropriation art: put something innocuous on a pedestal in a museum, and then people will SEE it as art. Why, it changes the way we THINK about art. Yes, I suppose, but take it off the pedestal and out of the museum, and it has no visual interest and communicates nothing visually. The visual imagination is not used either in the conception of the piece, its realization, or its appreciation.

Curiously, the visual imagination is completely absent in a lot of contemporary art (unless you consider how anyone arranges their desk a sophisticated use of the visual imagination, or how they tap their fingers a musical composition).


One of the primary languages we have as humans is visual language, which requires visual intelligence and the visual imagination. Contemporary art, while opening so many other doors, has largely slammed that door shut, and congratulated itself for it.

I think Daniel was onto something with the notion of fluency, but missed the mark in presuming multi-media artists are necessarily fluent at painting, and I presume the other three categories might include sculpture, film, and perhaps literature, architecture, and/or theater. In reality they are only fluent at multi-media art, and often, to put it bluntly, suck at painting big time. I’m willing to grant that mutli-media art is its own language, which one could achieve fluency at, but not that it encompasses any other or is superior to any other. That is as arrogant and myopic as saying that painting is better than music.

The more skill you have with a given medium, the more you can do with it. Just as I said before, being a virtuoso is not the goal, nor does it guarantee one has anything to say with the skills in question. Van Gogh was not a virtuoso, and Bouguereau was. We all tend to find a balance. I find that as an artist, if one wants to continue to develop, sometimes one needs to buckle down and hone the craft, at other times one needs to experiment, other times to cut loose, and then there’s the instances where one tries to wrap it all up in a coherent piece.

Enough talking, back to the honing, so I can get back to the fun stuff.

~ Ends

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