May, 2015

Dear Artists, Toss the Instructions and Forget the Critics

Discussed in this essay: – What Painting Is, by James Elkins, Routledge, 1999. – Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, by Alva Noë, Hill and Wang, 2009. – Ways of Seeing, by John Berger, et al, Copyright 1972; Penguin, 1977. This article focuses on painting, but if you’re into something else—music, dance, ceramics—these ideas probably apply to your creative endeavors, too. I’ve been working full-time as a painter for four years. Before that I earned a Ph.D. in Theory and Cultural Studies at Purdue University where I taught courses on an array of topics from film theory to ballet. In both of these lines of work I’ve found that the way we usually talk about painting blows right past the most important thing in painting: the paint, mixed and applied by hands that try and err and retry. What’s going through a painter’s head as she works? Let me put most answers to that question into two categories: “Art History” and “How-to.” This is an overgeneralization, but follow me. Under “Art History” we have critics and historians in coffee-table books, documentaries, classrooms, and museums. Their goal isn’t so…