Friday, December 30, 2016


I feel sorry for art students nowadays. The old days of drawing from life, both animate and inanimate, are gone, along with learning the craft of being an artist: how to mix colors, use different mediums, gesso a canvas, etc.  useless skills in today’s art world. A friend who attended the Royal Academy of Art in London a half century ago said he spent his first week there just learning how to clean a brush. Why learn technique when a computer can do it for you  - better than you ever could – or turn a photo into a painting using Photoshop? “What kind of a painting?” you ask. “Any kind. You name it.” The computer can transform your image into Impressionism, Expressionism, Photo Realism. Who needs to know how to actually do anything?

What today’s artist does need to know is how to find a gimmick and run with it, turn it into something new and newsworthy. There are no art values anymore, no underlying design quality, no expressive drawing, no message – it’s all a search for the gimmick.  Look at Damien Hirst and his embalmed shark. Look how much press Marina Abramovic got with her “shtick” at MOMA. All she did was take her clothes off and sit without moving for a week in front of an audience. In a prior event, she and a male friend stood naked in a doorway, forcing viewers to walk between them. These are clever ideas and should be appreciated as performances, but how do you teach students Cleverness? I feel sorry for the art schools.  Do you give classes in Gimmick I and Gimmick II? I recently read a great essay by Sarah Thornton in her book, “Seven Days in the Art World”. It describes a MFA Senior Class “crit” at CalArts, considered one of the best (and priciest) art schools in the country. Without editorializing, Thornton demonstrates the difficulty of teaching someone to be an artist in a commercialized art world with few rules and no shame.

In the past, even a journeyman artist studied the liberal arts; today’s art schools give only a smattering of culture, mainly a couple of semesters of art history. This puts young artists at a disadvantage in their creative life; all the really great artists were remarkably literate. Without a broad cultural background to enrich his or her work, an artist can easily get hemmed in by a “shtick.”

I’m on the e-mail list (at least once a week) of a master huckster, a mediocre artist but a gifted self promoter. He’s part of a group of graffiti-style  “Street Artists” who go around cities (not just New York) pasting their work up in public spaces. He came up with a gimmick all his own, a signature face that looks like it was drawn by a third grader. He will tell you that because he uses bio-degradeable wheat paste to attach his work, he is not (permanently) defacing public or private property. He seems to be quite well known as he is always notifying his readers of talks he will be giving at conferences on Street Art all over the world, plastering his perky smiley wherever he goes. Unfortunately, I think Street Art is passé and he may have to come up with a new shtick.

Everywhere I look in the art world, there are ideas, clever gimmicks passing for art. They take little if any skill to execute since the piece itself is usually produced by some commercial process. Jeff Koons, an incredibly successful sculptor, is a perfect case in point. I’m not saying an artist needs to have a Renaissance level of expertise, but at least he should be able to make the model he gives to the shop – or maybe that’s asking for too much.

It’s often hard to differentiate a gimmick from a true work of art, especially when it comes packaged in a load of pretentious Artspeak. If an artist’s goal is to come up with something innovative and expressive, I have no problem with that. What I object to is a mindset that says:  “How much attention can I attract with this?”  We live in a world where the ‘idea-concept’ supersedes the ‘craft-object’. But, I am probably being unfair to artists, asking them to have ideals when the rest of the world doesn’t know what the word means.

 P.S. The nymphs dancing around my lampshade are Maenads, followers of Dionysus.  Or maybe they’re Bacchanntes, worshippers of the god Bacchus).  They often appear on ancient Black and Red Figure Greek vases, frenzied dancers drunkenly performing in honor of their god. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 9, 2016


As any artist will tell you, art is a tough way to make a living. Even if you are fortunate enough to meet with a modest degree of success, it doesn’t always last and you are soon back to living on a spouse’s salary.  Unless you have family money  (and that kills creativity faster than anything), most artists I have known eventually give up and take a course in computer programming. But then, you can always teach art, and, if you really want to die as an artist, that’s the quickest way to do it. I’ve known too many artists who have destroyed their careers and their talent by accepting the security of an academic position.

Graphic designer, Bob Callahan used the magic of Photoshop to team up
with deceased artist, Ben Shahn.

I am currently reading a terrific book,  “The Shape of Content”, a collection of talks that Ben Shahn, gave at Harvard in the mid 1950s. My friend, the graphic designer Bob Callahan who adores Shahn’s work gave it to me for Xmas. Shahn speaks, not as an academic trying to intellectualize art (usually unintelligible gibberish), but as a working artist who genuinely understands what goes into the process. He says (beautifully) what I have long believed, that a teaching position at a university, a goal sought by many artists, is his kiss of death. Shahn points to many well-known artist friends of his who never produced anything of value once they achieved the sought-after safety of an academic position.

Diner Scene    Oil on Canvas    72"x48"
Why does this happen? I spent twenty-two years teaching art history at the University of Connecticut campus, managing to avoid studio art for twenty of those years. At least, when you teach art history, you spend your time looking at the work of the greatest of the great; it’s like going to a museum three days a week. When you teach studio art, your days are spent looking at student crap (to put it kindly) and you find your judgment about what is good or not good irretrievably compromised.

In my early twenties, I was friendly with a painter who had attained considerable (and well deserved) success in the 1970s New York gallery scene. His work was an interesting combination of OP and POP Art. He showed in top Madison Avenue galleries and was on his way to a major career when he “chickened out” and accepted a position teaching studio art, first at Yale and then at University of California, Berkeley. Not bad huh? But that was the end of him as a significant artist . He lost the opportunity to become a major player in the art world; his work became repetitive. During the years he was teaching, there was little growth or development. I got to know him again after he retired and came back to this area (with a substantial pension) hoping to pick up his art career where it left off.  But it never happened, he became ill and died not too long after. While his work is currently experiencing a minor revival, he never achieved the major artist status that should have been his. The students, he confessed, sucked him dry, “bit into his leg and held on” was the way he put it. In his 30 years of teaching studio art at some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, he told me he had only encountered two or three who were worthy of his time.

I recently spoke to another artist friend who at one time was in the processing of developing a major career as a printmaker. It all stopped when she was hired to teach at SUNY Purchase. She never produced anything worthwhile of her own during decades of teaching. Other colleagues of hers, who also had significant success as artists until they started teaching, met the same fate. Death at the hands of Tenure.

An artist cannot look at student work day after day without losing his or her “eye” for quality.  One’s judgment as to what is “good” becomes distorted by always having to look at beginners’ feeble efforts. Plus, the politics of the University, the administrative responsibilities, power struggles, problem students etc. suck out even more  energy. What looked like a secure way to make a living has drained the creative person dry.

 So, the moral of my story is: If you want to be an artist, wait on tables dig ditches,  do anything, but don’t teach studio art in academia.