Advice to Young Artists

I haven’t reviewed a book in ages – quite simply because I haven’t read one. Swamped with study unfortunately, and as enlightening as it may be, it has it’s downside, in what I get to read. That’s not to say that required reading is bad or boring (did I imply that…), no, no, no. It’s just acknowledging that you don’t want to hear about text books. Today’s waffle is about a book that has been mentioned here before. This time, however, since I’m finally getting near the end of it, I can say something more complete. Three months to read a book is something of a record for me – it used to be like three each week…

So here we go with Advice to Young Artists in a Postmodern Era. The author, William V. Dunning, is a professor in fine arts at Central Washington University and his book is published by Syracuse University Press. Now normally, as you may know, I don’t bother with that sort of formality, I just give you a link to Amazon or somewhere, so you can go find the boring bits yourself if you’re interested. OK, I have still gaven you a link to it but that’s only because if anyone buys a copy I get a 6 cents credit or something like that. Which I then put toward the books I buy which keeps me supplied with things to write about. I promise I won’t spend it all at once. Alright, don’t let that stop you buying a copy – I’ll keep writing anyway – just to spite you. Oh, I forgot, my point in giving you the dull details was to say that the guy has cred.

You can, in fact, be grateful the commission is so small because it stops me reviewing books that are no good. Can you imagine the rant? That’s because I don’t bother to finish reading books that are no good (unless the lecturer makes me…) and thus I have nothing to say on them. So there.

I also don’t do proper book reviews, there are lots of those out there. I just tell you what I think and then ramble on about irrelevant stuff. If you’re looking for a normal book review – try Google. I promise you there’s nothing normal on this site because… OK, we won’t go down that side track either because that one was covered last week…

A few posts back, I praised Mr Dunning for bagging writers who re-hash stuff they’ve read without bothering to check their facts. It happens a lot, especially in rose books – I know a lot about books on heritage roses. I also grow a lot of heritage roses (mostly hidden under weeds at the moment…sniff) but in growing them I know about them. Some things become darned obvious when you grow a particular rose: like how big it is and whether or not it has a scent. An author might make a mistake and say that Monsieur Tillier is a puny thing that struggles to make three feet and the Dark Lady doesn’t smell good. Shame on you on both counts. Monsieur Tillier in my garden makes a good 12ft in all directions and The Dark Lady will perfume a entire room – no need to stick your nose in that one. What’s criminal, however, is all the other authors who come along and repeating it! Where’s their credibility? What does all that have to do with art books? Aside from “not much”, of course. I’m getting to that.

The similarity between rose books and art books is in all in the description. A with roses you can find out an awful lot about a painting by standing in front of it and looking. One thing you may learn when standing there looking is that what you see may not be the same as stuff that has been written and copied ad infinitum by writers who didn’t go and stand in front of the paintings they wrote about…

Mr Dunning blew the whistle on lots of books that describe Seurat’s work… I could kiss him. Colour theory is a pet interest. Seurat’s work likewise. The difference between what Seurat did and what we are often told he did is, well… amazing. Go back and read what I wrote on that or better still go find a copy of Advice to Young Artists to read for yourself, check the library. Or, even better still, if you’re really lucky go look at La Grande Jatte with a fresh eye. It’s in the museum at the Chicago Institute of Art. Look for the red, yellow and blue dots that are supposed to mingle in the eye…

OK, so what else does he write about? Mostly about how to get the most out of being an art student. He also has a fair bit to say to and about being an art teacher. Or how to be a better teacher. He doesn’t bag teachers, not good ones anyway, but he does point out interesting things that might raise a collection of eyebrows. Things like: good teachers are those that spend more time learning about their subject area rather than learning about how to teach. In fact he thinks that too much education theory makes them worse. Oo wah.

He also reckons that crap is a technical term. I might just use that in an essay some time seeing as I can quote an authoritative source.

On art students too he has radical thoughts. There’s one where he tells the story of a guy going off to art school already a pretty accomplished realist painter. (I think, I can’t find the page, details don’t matter, the message is the same). The school wasn’t teaching much that he could learn. Ignoring the cries of his fellow students that he was selling out, he thought about it long and hard, picked up his brushes and knuckled under to study the abstract painting being taught. What the… At the end of doing his time (yeah, I’m well aware that makes study sound like a sentence…) at that school he was able to combine what he had learned with what he’d already known to make something entirely new. He didn’t sell out. Nor did he waste his time. An interesting thought for any student faced with a seemingly irrelevant class. (OK I could learn from that.)

For me however, William Dunning’s most important message was right up front in the first few pages of the book. He talks about what makes it likely that an art student will make it as an artist. It’s not the ability to solve problems – as we are often told – it’s in the rare ability to ask questions and find problems worth solving. That’s the difference between good and great.

And that’s something worth thinking about. Amanda

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