Old Masters and Young Geniuses

Old Masters and Young Geniuses

I expect I’m entirely normal in my struggle with questions as to the right and wrong ways to make art. The early part of the muddle was the worst, when it was all new and the edicts many. The time when it was simply a lot to remember: colour theory, perspective, how to mix plaster, why not to use a favourite brush to apply latex… Then the moments of undisputed nitwitism, for example, a country-living history meant that I had mixed copious loads of concrete for 2 chook sheds, a bike shed and countless step footings –reckoning on fact that I knew a thing or two about cement and said so – not thinking that it was agro to bare skin because I’d always used a mixer and garden gloves without issue. Eek! Red face in addition to red hands. Anyways, add to that a seemingly endless array of mediums and thinking it necessary or possible to be expert in everything and one has a recipe for issues, more so while noticing that some artists appeared to be master of none and revered for it.

Then the dawning realization that much of the advice was conflicting! It took me a while to notice… It would have helped enormously to know that the Impressionists really were in battle with the realists who came before them, and that most practitioners speak authoritatively on their niche without a nod to the existence or legitimacy of others. Yeah, that’s an argument for getting a bit of history before launching into the how-to books. No, I never have disagreed with that. My irritation with art education – argued at length here – is on the relevance of what is included in the curriculum and consequently what is left out. Understanding the “timelineliness” of art would have been more useful than the ways in which the Gothic cathedral was as much a civic building as a religious one.

But then I came into art by accident – wanting to make sculpture for a garden. Nothing flash: elegantly simple bird baths would have done. I thought real art was Titian, ugly modern stuff and overpriced minimalist excuses for not wanting a proper job… Another reason as to why art history needs to be relevant and touched on in earlier schooling (before we get channeled off into mathematics or some such…)

The next conundrum was that some artists are famous early on, without the benefit of solid skills or even the yen to get any (usually the ugly modern and lazy minimalist) while others took a life time to get solid craft behind their art often dying poor and unrecognized. Me? I figured I wanted both – fast skills to make great bird baths. Then realized to my surprise that I had a knack for this stuff – I could draw after all, had an eye for form and so much creativity bottled up, that it was that which had been slowly driving me crazy. Get it out or go under. Clearly, the bird baths hadn’t been enough. The evidence was there all along, I was just slow in coming to the party. OK, so I ended up knowing I fit. (Well, sort of.) It was then the confusion became really overwhelming.

All that is simply to explain (the long way) why reading Old Master and Young Geniuses by David Galenson has felt like one of those hit over the head moments. A turning point that has changed not so much what I do but that it’s OK that I do it. I came out of it with a sure sense of the validity of my process, no less. Heady stuff that plonked me on firmer ground as why I want to work the way I do.

David is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago which means he has cred. He also has a fair bit of education and interest in art and art history which seems an odd mix of the prosaic and the fanciful. Needless to say, this gives him the means to look at art from an entirely different vantage point, or in other words, he ran some stats on artists… gasp.

He asked a bunch of questions. What’s the relationship between stage of life and quality of art? What is quality anyway and how do we measure it? He decided that importance couldn’t be evaluated by the hoopla of short term popularity or economic success. He decided that real worth belonged to those artists who made innovations that a have had a lasting impact on other artists; and the value of that influence be decided by experts such as critics, scholars and curators. He chose to measure by counting things like the outcomes of auctions, the number of illustrations in textbooks and which works from various stages of careers were included in retrospectives. Interesting method and numbers, maybe, but what’s more enthralling are his conclusions.

Old Masters and Young Geniuses convincingly argues that there are two types of artists: either experimental or conceptual. The experimental artists have careers which tend to be dominated by single ill-defined objectives which are achieved in a tentative and incremental fashion. They often work without preliminary drawing or planning, effectively discovering the image within the process. Typically such artists rarely feel they have succeeded and are seen as perfectionists plagued by frustration and unfinished works. Notable examples would be Cezanne and Pollock. Conceptual artists, however, work to communicate specific ideas or emotions by systematically executing a clear vision. Much of their work is in the planning and detailed studies which leave the completion of the work itself to be something of a formality, often so much so, that it may even be delegated to others. Clear members of this group would be Warhol, Chuck Close and Robert Smithson.

Where this distinction between two creative methods becomes useful to us is in the recognition that experimental and conceptual are styles are at either end of a spectrum. Most artists lie somewhere in between these opposites, with a leaning toward one, balanced with a little of the other. Do you need pedantic accuracy achieved by repeatedly painting over an image? Or have evidence in the form of piles of meticulous studies to prove a more conceptual inclination? It’s also possible to change that position over the course of a career, as Picasso did. Knowing that there is a spectrum offers not just an understanding of where we fit in, and permission to experiment looking for that which feels right, all the while knowing that all possibilities are valid. It’s comforting to know that we don’t have to try to emulate both Rembrandt (experimental) and Bridget Riley (conceptual). Not all at once, anyhow…

David continues to explore the meaning of the polarity of creativity by looking at scholars, writers, film makers and sculptors in addition to painters showing that his thesis pans out to artists and thinkers of many disciplines. He looks at the cyclical nature of the two styles and the reactions and roles of critics and dealers. He also looks at our current position as a conceptual art world postulating that we may well be ready for an experimental backlash. A reassuring thought for those who like to see a good dollop of craft as the basis for a work of art. Now that’s an odd thought.

Well worth a read!

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