One of the reasons I enrolled in an academic painting/art class was for the chance to see the work of people who consider themselves artists, feel so strongly about art that they are willing to pay for the experience offered in an academic setting, and to gain the current vocabulary of criticism. It also gives me the opportunity to hear what they might have to say about my work.
There are other reasons I enrolled in this class. The rigor and focus of making art without any hint of leisure. The requirement that I be able to talk about each individual project without lapsing into my own comfortable vocabulary (or silence.) And other reasons having to do with exposure to a variety of media and thought processes…. I once explained that I intentionally put my son in public schools because it is one of the few opportunities in the modern experience that expose every person to every other type of person in their own society. It was more true then than it is now.
But at the same time, I’ve been pretty insulated lately. Much more than even 10-12 years go. This painting class puts me in a much more varied room — most notably because of age.
What I learned in the first round of criticism is that for all my lofty expectations, people are still people. In this case, mostly people half my age and with fewer experiences. People who wear their unfinished bits and conflicting parts like screen-printed t-shirts; and then draw them out onto butcher paper.
It was a surprise when I was younger and taking creative writing and literary criticism that writers and would-be writers were actually writing about themselves. I don’t know why this was such a surprise — but it was. Anne Rice created a very successful vampire franchise out of the death of a child. Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the great characters of all time out of his medically meticulous preoccupation with solving puzzles. Hemingway slathered his testosterone all over literature for decades so that we can still smell it on the library shelves as we walk through the stacks.
Why then is it a surprise to me now that artists are painting themselves? Rembrandt made a life’s work of it. Van Gogh and Kahlo seem to look at us from every museum wall in the world. There are analysts who insist that da Vinci’s long labored-over Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait in pursuit of perfection. What other model would stand for such self-indulgence?
And so, regardless of age or personal history, we know that artists make art for a reason. The fever of hot chemistry means that young artists make art for personal reasons — while older artists sacrifice some of that personal energy in exchange for some interpersonal and societal/cultural energy. Either way, art is the world processed through the mind and its filters: memory, personal narrative, metaphor, chemistry, genetics, and the personal physics of the unconscious mind.
What turns out to be the most challenging aspect of taking an academic art class has nothing to do with the art I make. It has to do with looking 8 young artists in the eye, and examining their art, and remembering or not remembering that transmitters and receivers come in pairs in nature. Wherever and whenever we transmit — there is the intent of that transmission being received and understood.
Wherever there is a transmitter — there is a receiver. Whenever we receive/perceive and understand — it’s because somebody put it out there for us to find.
Criticism of any art depends on the critical voice having both the filtering structure to be an experienced receiver, and the self-filtering structure to not count its own chemistry, personal narrative, genetics, experiences, and history as worth communicating at any cost.
It’s the “at any cost” part of both art-making and art-criticizing that is dangerous territory. Self editing either in the making of art or the accepting of art (transmitting / receiving in 2 directions) is much more difficult than handling a paintbrush or a sculptor’s blade.
And truthfully, I’m not sure I’m willing to accept “at any cost” as a presupposition of any communication or creative endeavor. I know that may be contrary to to absolute freedom of speech — but it is not contrary to absolute humanity.