Friday, October 23, 2009

Le Mouton

Untitled, Richard Watson

There are many artists out there who advertise themselves as "self-taught" or "outsiders." There are several implications here. First, that their work is unaffected by dogma and is therefore better because it is more emotionally "pure." Second, that their skills as artists are natural talents endowed by nature or god and not by schooling. And, third, that "schooled" artists are elitists. To the first and second argument, if one is to look at art from a historical perspective, art, as with all endeavors, can never exist without influence from the past... that is, art has a linear progression; one can trace the influence of art forms of one period to another. For instance, the invention (or maybe discovery would be more accurate) of linear perspective led artists to draw and paint realistically, imitating nature, giving us artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Or, conversely, artists may rebel against academic painting and seek movement and light... and we have the Impressionists. Or, emotion might suddenly be of primary importance and we have the Expressionists...The point is that nothing comes from nothing. To the third argument... that "schooled" artists are elitists... this goes to the modern American culture of anti-intellectualism. In fact, you could say that this entire self-taught, outsider phenomenon is a form of anti-intellectualism. It's sort of like saying, one is proud to be ignorant, proud to spew obscenities, proud to be uninformed, proud to be led... proud to be sheep... which ironically is antithetical to what it means to be an artist.


  1. There is something to be said for self-taught artists who "get it." That is to say they have, without attending art school, learned the language and history of art on their own, and are able to effectively navigate the often intimidating and rocky waters of the art world.

    I find however, that for every one of these self-taught artists who "get it" there are a 100 out there who don't. These artists may produce interesting work without formal training, but their work and critique seem to be missing the substance of one who has taken the time, whether self directed or through formal education, to understand the history and diversity of art.

    So I guess what I am saying is that you are right on regarding the culture of anti-intellectualism which is generally just a defense mechanism for the insecure, but there are those artists who are truly self-taught out there as well.

  2. Yes, Chris, you are right. There are those out there who do "get it" and have no formal training. I think what really gets my goat are the people who look disdainfully at education and rather flaunt their lack of education, wearing it as a badge of honor... also that they intentionally label themselves as "self-taught" almost as an excuse to not seek out teachers (not necessarily teachers in schools either) because they feel that they already know all there is to know. I myself do not possess a degree in art, but would never describe myself as self-taught... I've had many wonderful teachers/guides/mentors from all walks of life in schools, out of schools, by the wayside... I think most people are like this, so... people shouldn't label themselves because it only serves to make their world smaller and less informed.

    Oh.. and anti-intellectualism... *sigh* I think I need to devote more time to this one... it's really a thorn at my side. Unfortunately I think it's much more than a defense mechanism. It pervades our entire society; people are more interested in the size of their McMansions and their cars than in philosophy and art.

    As with all things, when I wrote this one, I had certain people in mind. Much of this is my frustration at things here in Hawaii and my own small battle. I know things are different where you are. Probably you have wonderful, insightful artists around you (I can see from your photography that you have a gift that many lack), as did I, especially in LA and Boston. Here... well. It's a chapter in my life; a lesson in patience.

  3. Comment Part II

    With the influx of technology, economy, shift in culture and so on, the venues and capacity to support artists is one, dwindling, and two, a combination of both a dwindling demand as well as the challenges of a new medium, driven by technology, which conditions many to expect immediate gratification. Regardless, this creates a whole new need for most artists to have great savvy in self promotion through social media, making marketing oneself almost more important than the art itself. That or embrace the concept of a starving artist. (Which begs notation of another brand of artist, those that come from well to do backgrounds and are able to focus on art without distractions that others may face, another long conversation with many caveats and relative truths)

    Back to it - tonight I listened to a Chet Baker interview on YouTube. He was talking about the decline in available places to perform. Los Angeles went from 25 reputable jazz clubs to a handful, and likewise across the country, making it nearly impossible to sustain his art as a performer. Here in 2009, this has become ridiculously hard. As a performer, more time is spent making phone calls to line up performance opportunities just to be heard.

    As for the self-accomplished artist, I have a great respect for this. For those who have the passion and intellect to make this happen on their own, in many ways lacking the networking opportunities available to those who invest the time, and money, to attend a school.

    Does schooling take away from art? This is complex, as the answer has to be both yes and no. Many artists I have spoken with, leave or graduate and become momentarily lost. Plenty of studies show that schools place tremendous stress on artists, more than students in traditional academic studies. Why? In art students are perpetually judged and critiqued, while this can be good, something has to be said for how this impacts the free nature of the creative process, forcing a branding or structure which can stifle many creative spirits. Many will break from this and find their own voice, many will hold to their vision while in the academic world of art, and some will go through the rank and file with an inflated sense of accomplishment by way of a piece of paper possessing no ability to produce anything worthwhile.

    I think it's conversation that could go on infinitely. Hopefully I was able to rattle this off in an intelligible manner in a comment box, but I'd certainly love to go back and forth on this.

    Best Regards

  4. Comment Part I

    Thanks for the posts. I'd like to weigh in on this, feeling fairly confident that I've lived on both sides of the argument. It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I actually went to a university. In the years leading up to this I always found a fondness and motivational drive in the concept of being self-taught, or self-inspired.

    Chances are high this was in part my own lethargy, in part misguided feelings towards academia and the concept of a formalized education. I hate to call it a conspiracy of the system, but in part this is true. People pursue educations, largely, to have a degree which helps bolster the chances of a better job or future. I will acknowledge that there are many subdivisions to which this could be defined, but will limit this in reference to art. I will also acknowledge that there are many who respect the institute of higher education and are truly passionate about knowledge, but this as a greater minority, in both academia, and art.

    After spending years reading on my own, and basically focusing on watching and observing life, I wound up in art factory. A program director had heard some recorded tracks of spoken word poetry with jazz layered beneath and offered me a substantial scholarship to a nationally acclaimed music program.

    I can not deny that schooling has had a tremendous impact on my growth as an artist, as a person, and as a thinker. From a technical standpoint, the opportunity to study with many accomplished artists opened avenues of thought that have lead me down many different paths.

    While some topics here are worthy of their own analysis, I want to focus on one main topic. Institutes of higher education, art programs included, which are very much a product of a society and a declining culture, which have driven art to abide, for the sake of it's own survival, on these campuses.

    Consider classical music. Schools churn out pianists by the thousands. Included are schooled jazz musicians and so forth. Thankfully, these schools keep art alive in many ways.