Where is the line between art and craft?

The line between art and craft is a modern one, and it’s resulted in banal, boorish and ultimately meaningless work being foisted on us as art.

Carved cravat, c. 1690, Grinling Gibbons, courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum

“Was Grinling Gibbons an artist or a craftsman?” a student asked. It’s a fascinating question, and one that points out how we’ve changed our ideas about human thought and endeavor.

The term intellectual is a recent invention, first written down in 1813, by of all people, Lord Byron (a man who was anything but). Prior to that, the literati would have been known as men of letters. They were literate in a time when many people weren’t. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the term acquired distinct social cachet and came to mean a person who was educated, artistic, and worked mainly in the realm of ideas.

Grinling Gibbons, c. 1690, after Godfrey Kneller, courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Grinling Gibbons was born in Rotterdam in 1648 to British parents. He learned to carve in the Netherlands before emigrating to London. He rapidly attracted attention from the highest circles, scoring his first Royal Commission in 1675. He went on to be the most celebrated master-carver of his day. His portrait was painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller, whose subjects included ten reigning European monarchs, Isaac Newton, John Locke, and the members of the Kit-Kat Club. In other words, Gibbons was working and living with the crème de la crèmeof British society.

So why, in the 21st century, do we call Kneller an artist and Gibbons a craftsman? They would not have made such a distinction themselves.

The Stoning of St Stephen, c. 1680-1700, Grinling Gibbons, courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum

Historically, painters and sculptors were held in low regard. The Greeks had nine muses for the arts, and—pointedly—none of them were visual artists. Sculptors and painters were thought of as manual laborers, barely above slaves in the social order. That’s not because they weren’t any good; Greek sculpture, in particular, approached the sublime.

It’s just that, prior to the middle of the 18thcentury, fine artists were considered craftsmen, along with jewelers, weavers, and everyone else who made consumer goods. While they may have been very successful and well-paid, they had no intellectual pretensions.

The Enlightenment changed all this, by casting artists in the role of communicating the civic virtues. This raised their status from artisans to gentlemen. Their training moved from the old apprenticeship/atelier model to formal art schools.

The Enlightenment also brought us the Cult of Genius, with its handmaidens, Feeling and Creativity. The artist no longer primarily tried to render beautiful images; he was engaged in profound and creative thought.

Limewood carving of musical instruments, c. 1690, Grinling Gibbons, courtesy National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Grinling Gibbons’ medium was wood, and it was used for decoration. There’s a modern assumption that there’s nothing profound about beauty, so the artist-as-craftsman is sadly out of touch with our times.

Western society has become caught in a trap where our civic virtues are now considered liabilities. This is vividly demonstrated in the stark contrast between our own dissection of shared values at the same time as Ukraine fights to the death to preserve theirs.

The focus on ‘genius’ is what has landed us in the modern dilemma of having so much banal, boorish, casual and ultimately meaningless material foisted on us as art. The intellectual mind can always be seduced by the idea of transgression, whereas a craftsman generally seeks to raise his standards to the highest degree possible. Given that this is the modern dividing line, I’d personally prefer to come down on the side of craft.

Monday Morning Art School: what I learned from losing 50 pounds

I rapidly gained a hundred pounds after my first cancer in 1999. It’s taken me this long to get serious about getting rid of it. As I reach my halfway goal, I realize that much of the discipline of losing weight is the same as the discipline of learning to paint and draw.
Peppers, by Carol L. Douglas
Being self-taught has its limits
After each of my pregnancies, I used Weight Watchers and exercise and bounced back. That didn’t work with my post-cancer weight. I tried many diets without success. The only solution the medical establishment offered was bariatric surgery. I’d seen too many mixed results to consider it.
I switched PCPs, and my new nurse-practitioner had a different idea. “Try this,” he said, and handed me a book. I’d have dismissed the plan as unsound had it not come from a medical professional.
When I first took classes at the Art Students League, Cornelia Foss looked at my work and said, “If it were 1950, I’d say ‘brava,’ but it’s not.” I’d still be painting derivatively today if it weren’t for her. Sometimes, a trained guide is necessary.
Dish of butter, by Carol L. Douglas
It takes longer than you ever believed possible
My weight loss seemed fast in the beginning. Now, it’s much slower, but it is still there. The same thing happens when you start to paint. Many people quit dieting when it gets tough, and they quit painting then, too. The secret of success is to maintain your discipline through these parched times, because that’s when you’re making real improvement. If it’s going to be meaningful, change is incremental.
Weight Watchers works for millions of people because it registers these incremental changes and encourages you through them. Painting teachers do the same thing. However, if you quit, you’ll make no progress at all. I started this diet in February; I thought I’d be down a hundred pounds now. I’m not, but I wouldn’t have lost a single pound had I not done it. While I didn’t meet my self-imposed goal, the last nine months have not been wasted in self-recrimination, either. 
Home made wine, by Carol L. Douglas
Chaos is not helpful
I realized that my travel schedule had stalled my weight loss, despite my faithfulness to the plan. Then I started to look at my painting in the same light. All these road miles were not helping my painting, either. There’s tremendous value in travel, both as a painter and a person, but months on the road are corrosive. Most improvement is going to happen in your own studio.
Acrylic paints, by Carol L. Douglas
The method isn’t the issue
The method I’ve used to lose this weight is Haylie Pomroy’s Fast Metabolism Diet. It isn’t for everyone. But I’ve come to believe that the method is far less important than your own self-discipline.
The same is true in painting. There is no inherent superiority to alla prima oil painting, although it’s what I practice. One can paint beautifully indirectly in oils, or in acrylic, gouache, or pastel. Mastery comes from within, not from the pigment.
There’s a spiritual element
I believe that God loves me and wants me to be happy, so I can work through the lean times without losing my courage. I can afford to take risks and be intrepid. That’s true in dieting, in painting, and in my business model. If you lack courage, you need to take a long, hard look at why that is.
Toy monkey, by Carol L. Douglas
Ultimately, it’s all about you
I have a friend who’s unsure how she can embrace a radical diet when so much of her family life revolves around food. Likewise, I have friends whose family commitments mean they have to cut back on their painting time. I have lived both those realities, and I am not downplaying them.
But in the end, it’s all about you. Families are remarkably resilient when they realize how much it means to you to succeed. If you’re conflicted about whether your art or your diet are ‘worth it,’ that conflict will spill over to your home and play itself out in your relationships.
My own children survived my tofu lasagna, and holiday dinners with nudes on the walls. They grew up with a working mother in a working studio, and they’re accomplished, good citizens. There’s no reason to sacrifice yourself on an altar of ‘how things should be’ or listen to your own self-destructive thoughts. Yes, you can do this.

Art for the masses can be a mess

It’s just as bad as that Italian Alps painting your Uncle Louie bought from the back of a truck, but it’s really expensive.
I’m not sure what the heck it’s supposed to be, but it’s a thousand dollars.
Last week I saw a bloated bit of bad ‘original’ art for the equally-bloated price of $999 at my local HomeGoods® store. “And thus is demonstrated the failure of public schools to teach art appreciation,” commented Michael Chesley Johnson.
In 1914, Elsie De Wolfe wrote, “Our ancestors hung their walls with trophies. Our pioneer of to-day may live in an adobe hut, but he hangs his walls with things that suggest beauty and color to him, calendars, and trophies and gaudy chromos. The rest of his hut he uses for the hard business of living, but his walls are his theater, his literature, his recreation.”
The earliest mass-produced art was woodblock printing on paper. It originated in China in the 7th century. By the high Middle Ages, it was common throughout Europe. It was labor-intensive, and the plates broke down after multiple impressions. Thus, woodblock prints were too precious to hang.
Central-Park Winter: The skating pond, lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1862, courtesy the Museum of New York.
Then came engraving and etching, and from them lithography, which uses a limestone plate and a water resist. It allows for much longer print runs. From it was born the American printing house of Currier and Ives.
In 72 years, Currier and Ives produced 7500 lithographic plates, totaling more than a million prints. These were all hand-pulled. More impressively they were almost all hand-colored. A team of women artists worked assembly-line fashion, each with her own color.
Currier and Ives prints were given the imprimatur of The American Woman’s Home, a popular 1869 guide to “formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes” by two of the crusading Beecher sisters.
“The great value of pictures for the home would be, after all, in their sentiment. They should express the sincere ideas and tastes of the household and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor,” they wrote.
Daybreak, 1922, by Maxfield Parrish. This was the most popular art print of the 20th century.
Currier and Ives closed in 1907, the victim of the invention of rotogravure. It is fast, cheap and reliable. Suddenly, the world was awash in printed images—including advertisements and Sunday supplements. This was so much the rage that Irving Berlin mentioned it in Easter Parade in 1933:
On the Avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us,
And you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.
The Heilige Schutzengel hung in many 20th century nurseries, including mine.
Along with that came art prints. They ranged from the mawkish, like the so-called Lindberg Heilige Schutzengel (Holy Guardian Angel) that graced so many children’s bedrooms, to nostalgic art prints of the immigrants’ home countries, to sophisticated prints of good paintings. The middle classes were spoiled for choice, and with that, they entered the world of connoisseurship. And, yes, Michael, they studied art appreciation in school.
By the middle of the twentieth century, even middle-class Americans could afford real art, as long as it was imported from East Asia.
In the 1970s, we began to see cheap hand-painted art from East Asia. These are done with brushes by actual humans, but with no artistic intention behind them. Often, they are copies of western masterpieces, flagrantly disregarding our copyright laws. But back then they were—above all–affordable. Now the middle classes could own an ‘original’ painting for little more than the cost of a print.
This artwork at HomeGoods® just completes the circle. It’s just as bad as that Italian Alps painting your Uncle Louie bought from the back of a truck, but it’s really, really expensive. You could own a real painting for that price.

Prozac or painting, my friend?

Peppermint tea with a serving of art and music might be just what the doctor orders.
The Three Graces, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Camden Falls Gallery
I gave my head cold to my husband. Since we were scheduled to have a snowstorm this morning, I decided to turn off our alarms and let him sleep as long as he wants. He can make up his work-hours on the weekend. There are times that the body needs to rest, or so people tell me.
Meanwhile, I want to share the most delightful news story of the week. British doctors may soon be prescribing arts and culture to their patients, under a scheme unveiled by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
To an American, the scheme seems politically daft. It provides for the creation of a National Academy for Social Prescribing that will “ensure general practitioners, or GPs, across the country are equipped to guide patients to an array of hobbies, sports and arts groups.” This is part of a larger government scheme to combat social isolation called the Loneliness Strategy.
Keuka Lake Vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Kelpie Gallery
When we’re done raising an eyebrow at our cousins across the pond, we have to ask the question of whether arts-starvation and social loneliness are problems that we cansolve with our independent American can-do spirit.
The British scheme seems aimed at the elderly, who do experience loneliness, as we’ve all seen firsthand. Getting Grandma on a bus to the museum and giving her a playlist of heavy metal to remind her of her youth seem like good, practical ideas.
Health insurer Cigna surveyed 20,000 American adults on the question of loneliness. They found that 46% of Americans experience some form of loneliness, and 47% experience social exclusion. 43% felt isolated from others, and the same percentage said they lack companionship and their relationships lack meaning.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the elderly complaining about isolation, but their young children. Social media wasn’t a factor at all. Rather, the important issues were family connections, work, sleep and physical activity.
Cadet, by Carol L. Douglas, private collection.
They should have asked about religious practice. Going to church and synagogue weekly are time-honored ways of becoming and staying engaged in community.
“We’ve been fostering a culture that’s popping pills and Prozac, when what we should be doing is more prevention and perspiration,” Hancock said.
As of this month, doctors in Montreal can prescribe a visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for their patients in the doldrums. It’s a much smaller initiative than the British one. “There’s more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health,” said Dr. Hélène Boyer, vice-president of Médecins francophones du Canada. “People tend to think this is only good for mental-health issues. That it’s for people who’re depressed or who have psychological problems. But that’s not the case. It’s good for patients with diabetes, for patients in palliative care, for people with chronic illness.”
And, possibly, for the common cold. As of now, I’ll be serving a dollop of art along with my husband’s peppermint tea.

Where does art come from?

A new dating technique calls into question what it means to be ‘human’.

The ladder-shaped figure dates back at least 65,000 years, making it Neanderthal in origin. Courtesy P. Saura, Science.
The first recognized artists in the western canon are Bezalel and his assistant, Aholiab, who decorated the Tabernacle sometime between 1400 and 500 BCE, depending on who’s dating the book of Exodus. Polygnotus of Thasos, who worked in the mid 5th century BC, was a superstar in ancient Greece, as was his student Pheidias. But of their actual work we know nothing except copies and descriptions.
The oldest extant western art is all anonymous, the work of early Homo sapiens. Our ancestors, after all, have been scrawling on walls for at least 80,000 years. Why they did this, we don’t know, but we do know that art-making is a uniquely human activity, linked to our higher reasoning skills.
Snowbound, 1911, Charles R. Knight. This is our traditional understanding of Neanderthal culture.
Our slower-witted cousins, the Neanderthals, didn’t have those skills, and thus didn’t create and embrace culture as did Homo sapiens. For that and anatomical reasons, we call them archaic humans, implying that they weren’t quite up to Homo sapiens’ standards. In fact, Carl Linnaeus used the word sapiens because it means ‘wise’.
Or that’s what anthropologists thought until recently. A study published in Science this past February indicates that Neanderthals weren’t nearly as low-brow as we thought. They too created art.
We know that in Africa, Homo sapiens adorned their bodies with pigments and wore beads. There’s some indication that Neanderthals in Europe did the same thing, but anthropologists have always assumed this was something they borrowed from Homo sapiens as the latter arrived in Europe.
Cave art is a step up in the decorative arts, just as painting is a step up from applying makeup. We’ve always assumed that the cave art seen in Europe was the work of recently arrived Homo sapiens. Of course, that was guesswork, since the art can’t be accurately radiocarbon dated.
Skeleton and restoration model of the La Ferrassie 1 Neanderthal man, courtesy National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo. Looks just like a guy I saw yesterday.
Radiocarbon dating is useless for mineral-based pigments. Even when our ancestors were using something organic—like charcoal—contamination issues and sample destruction made radiocarbon dating nearly impossible.
Researchers turned to the mineral deposits that form in caves, called speleothems. Stalagmites and stalactites are the most visible examples, but deposits form in all caves. These can be dated by measuring the natural decay of trace amounts of uranium. This is called uranium-thoriumdating.
Speleothems form over the surface of cave paintings just as they do everywhere else. Researchers realized that these can give us a latest-possible date without affecting the artwork itself. “In La Pasiega, in northern Spain, we showed that a red linear motif is older than 64,800 years. In Ardales, in southern Spain, various red painted stalagmite formations date to different episodes of painting, including one between 45,300 and 48,700 years ago, and another before 65,500 years ago. In Maltravieso, in western central Spain, we showed a red hand stencil is older than 66,700 years,” wroteChris Standish and Alistair Pike.
Yet according to everything we think we currently know about human migration, there were no Homo sapiens in western Europe before 45,000 years ago.
Neanderthal tools
“[T]he types of paintings produced (red lines, dots, and hand stencils) are also found in caves elsewhere in Europe, so it would not be surprising if some of these were made by Neanderthals, too,” wrote the authors.
According to our current understanding, Neanderthals lived in Eurasia from 250,000 to 40,000 years ago, disappearing about 5000 years after the arrival of Homo sapiens. We first assumed they were made extinct by Homo sapiens’ superior culture; we now believe they were absorbed into the surviving population. That makes more sense if we consider that they had the same capacity for symbolic thinking as their African cousins. We now know that Neanderthals made tools, built structures, used fire, made art, and buried their dead. In short, they were every bit as human as Homo sapiens.

Party dogs

What is art? That’s something nobody can agree on.

Great Danes and Doberman Pinschers talk about what they plan to wear to my daughter’s wedding.
Last night I assembled an august panel of artists to help me with a project. Barb is a printmaker with an art degree from University of Maine. Sandy is a gallerist with degrees from Pratt and Hunter College. Together, we dressed 42 dogs in wedding finery. (As so often happens in sweatshops, I ‘forgot’ to pay them.)
“Is this art?” I asked two other artist friends.
“It’s like asking if a soy product in the shape of a chicken leg is food,” said one. “Technically, yes, but it’s bad food.”
“I guess the individual sculptures are art,” hedged the other, who then raised the question of whether they’re craft or even, just possibly, crap.
Two coats of silver and three of glitter… good taste, by the way, is repressive at times.
‘Artistry’ is easier to define than art itself. That means the skill necessary to produce a work of the imagination. But what defines the product of the imagination as art rather than engineering or craft?
Ars longa, vita brevis, wrote Hippocrates. He probably meant that it takes a long time to acquire and perfect artistry, but that the practitioner has only a short lifespan in which to practice. We repeat it, instead, to mean, “art lasts forever, but life is short.” That is, of course, a modern conceit. The ancients understood that “what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)

Barb felt that a DeWalt glue gun was not the tool for the job.
Platosaid that art is always a copy of a copy, an imitation of reality. This leads us from the truth and to illusion, making art inherently dangerous. (Rich words from a philosopher!) Elsewhere, he hinted that the artist, by divine inspiration, makes a better copy of truth than may be found in everyday experience. This makes artists prophets of sorts.
A lot of artists have had a go at defining art. Many are coy, like Marc Chagall, who said that “Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers–and never succeeding.”
Even in non-traditional art, imitation is a recurring theme. “Art is either a plagiarist or a revolutionary,” said Paul Gauguin. What makes an Andy Warhol painting of soup cans different from the soup cans themselves? Intent and meaning. Pablo Picasso said that art is a lie that makes us see the truth.
In some way, art is the taking of an idea and making it manifest. Otherwise, it’s just a fleeting thought.
Sandy and I sewed their garments, Barb dressed them.
People frequently debate the line between art and craft. Art is useless in practical terms; it exists solely to drive emotion and thought. Fine craft does that and more. It must serve a practical purpose along with being beautiful. Since I didn’t drill their noses out to hold flowers, my party dogs fall on the side of art. 
Neither fine art nor fine craft are mass-produced, however. That is manufacturing. Those brass birds from Home Goods, as inscrutable as their meaning and purpose might be, qualify as neither art nor craft.
“The craftsman knows what he wants to make before he makes it. The making of a work of art… is a strange and risky business in which the maker never knows quite what he is making until he makes it, wrote R.G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art. That sounds very nice, until I think of dye-master Jane Bartlett throwing pots of color into the snow to see what shows up. Her textiles end up as clothing, but her process is wildly unpredictable.

That’s the bomb

“If you ask me, Jeeves, art is responsible for most of the trouble in the world.” (Bertie Wooster)
Creation, by Carol L. Douglas. Today’s illustrations are three paintings from when I was younger and more cynical.

In the wake of last week’s horrifying shooting in Parkland, Florida, Rochester educators have had a jittery week. “I’m coming tomorrow morning and I’m going to shoot all of ya bitches,” 21-year-old Abigail Hernandez, an adult student with disabilities, allegedly posted on East High’s Facebook page. A 23-year-old rapper, Randy Ross, was arrestedfor making a video called School Shooter, which he filmed on Greece Central School property. Officers deemed the video a terroristic threat. I’ll get back to that.

On Monday, employees at the Mary Cariola Children’s Center received a package via FedEx. It included cryptic, “ranting and raving” text and a device that looked like a bomb. Mary Cariola Center is a much-loved cultural institution in Rochester, because it serves children with multiple, complex disabilities. There were about a hundred clients there that day. They were evacuated and the bomb squad secured and disarmed the package.
The package contained a wooden box with homemade electrical components, including a power source, switches, a circuit board and lights. It was not a bomb. It was a work of art.
Man, by Carol L. Douglas
According to Rochester Police, the package was misdelivered. Its intended recipient was an arts organization in Rochester. They expected it and wouldn’t have been discomfited in the least by its message. Those ravings? They were the title: Baby Go Boom.
No one is going to be arrested for this snafu. No word yet, either, about whether the package was insured. But I have a grudging respect for the artist, even if I don’t like the theme. The piece was convincing enough that, outside the gallery context, rational people mistook it for a real bomb.
Artists have made work from the point of view of the anti-hero since Shakespeare wrote Richard III (and probably earlier). Such literature is often uncomfortable, but until recently, nobody questioned whether it was art. The line was blurred by Eminem. He talked about drug use, sex, mental illness, poverty and divorce, in language his audience understood. Still, he seemed to romanticize violence, particularly against women.
Confusion, by Carol L. Douglas
Even if Randy Ross is a rotten artist, his School Shooter is probably art, not threat. I’m not interested in creating art that celebrates nihilism; in fact, I abhor it. Still, I respect the right to create it.
We’re so focused on the Second Amendment these days that we’ve lost sight of the Fourth Amendment and the idea of probable cause. For example, your son makes a stupid joke about a square root sign looking like a gun, and your house is tossed by law enforcement. The more we are driven by fear, the more likely we are to ignore the niceties of our Constitution. Unfortunately, they’re the bedrock on which our legal system stands.
Set against this is the powerful need to root out violence. I’m no closer to an answer than anyone else, but I keep coming back to the idea that a society without values and aspirations is ungovernable. Our culture speaks to the lowest common denominator. Is it any wonder that it is also corrupt?

The mysterious perfection of watercolor

It can be either deliciously finicky, or wildly out of control. Or, in a perfect world, both.

St. Elias Mountains, Yukon Territory, by Carol L. Douglas. Think you can’t paint from a boat? This was done from the passenger seat of a car. 

Yesterday I got an e-blog that read, “Want looser watercolors? Pour your paint.” Well, I like pitching, throwing and otherwise making a mess with watercolors, so I opened it in great anticipation. What it was really talking about was drawing a meticulous cartoon, blocking off the light areas with masking fluid, and then setting the darks with a wallowing, graduated wash that gets a little bit psychedelic by virtue of watercolor’s great sedimentation qualities.
That’s a beautiful technique, but nothing that starts with masking fluid can be described as loose. We can’t use these shadowy washes in field painting, unless we’re willing to hang around all day reblocking paper and waiting for it to dry.
A field sketch of Houghton Farm (New York) by Winslow Homer.
Watercolor is a curious medium. It’s quite capable of the ultimate control, as in Albrecht Dürer’s Large Piece of Turf, 1503. It’s equally capable of insouciance, as in Maurice Prendergast’suntitled seascape, below. You can go anywhere you want with it.
Untitled seascape by Maurice Prendergast.
Frank Costantino is a painter who manages to pull off meticulous renderings in watercolor in plein air events. Frank’s drawings are spot-on and his framing is clever. On the other end of the spectrum is Elissa Gore, whose field sketches always burble in the style of Ludwig Bemelmans.
You know my pal Poppy Balser, who shares my adoration of boats, the sea, and color. Although she’s primarily an oil painter, Mary Byrom does lots of sketching in watercolor.
Large Piece of Turf, 1503, Albrecht Dürer. 
There hangs the moral of my tale. Every one of these painters works in more than one medium—in Frank’s case, watercolor and colored pencil, in the rest of them, watercolor and oils. That’s true of me, too.
I first learned to paint in watercolor. That was standard procedure in the mid-century, when no right-minded teacher was going to hand a kid a box of toxic chemicals and tell her to go to town. It’s a private possession for when I travel or when I’m thinking. I never sell my watercolors, and I don’t intend for them to be shown. Watercolor, for me, is deeply personal.
Preparatory sketch of Marshall Point, by Carol L. Douglas.
But it’s also the perfect travel medium, which is why I took it to Australia and to London and plan to bring it along to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in March. When it’s just you, your suitcase and a Prius, you want to travel light.
All of this has been much on my mind recently as I’ve debated the best sketchbooks to buy for my Age of Sail workshop on the American Eagle, in June. I’ve tried many myself. As with everything else, each one has its plusses and minuses. One friend suggested that I cut down sheets of paper and make my own, but I want every student to have a takeaway book with a nice binding.
I plan to have students working in both gouache and watercolor. I need to find the right paper for both. So every time a friend posts a new work in a sketchbook I query him or her relentlessly on the materials. And I’m narrowing it down, slowly but surely.

Instagram, the internet, and the painter

Instagram is changing how buyers respond. Should it also change how artists paint?

Hashtag #pleinair. By the time you read this, the top nine will be something different.

I haven’t painted in square format in a long time. The stark symmetry of the square can be lovely, but it can also be static. Recently, however, one of my daughters suggested that I start up again. “You should try painting for Instagram,” she said.

Instagram images started at 612px by 612px but have grown to 1080px by 1080px. (On your laptop or tablet, the images are scaled back down to 612px.) You can nab a few more pixels by posting portrait-format images. This made it easier for marketers to cross-post to Facebook. As someone who uses Facebook/Instagram marketing, I appreciate that.
While 1080px is incredible resolution from a wee little phone app, it’s not going to reproduce the subtleties of a masterpiece like Frederic Church’s Heart of the Andes. It skews art to the graphic-design side. What’s important isn’t how the work reads on a wall; what’s important is what it looks like on a phone. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does tend to leave subtler painting back at the Met.
Hashtag #landscape is overwhelmingly photographic and mystical.
The Instagram artist’s goal is to end up where newspapermen used to call “above the fold,” meaning on the upper half of the front page. That translates to being among the top images in a wildly popular category like #art. You’re not going to get there without great images. But you also need to discipline yourself to act like a trained monkey at times, to do things like randomly “like” posts by your followers, over and over and over.
The artist/gallerist has to wrap his mind around the fact that Instagram isn’t a way to flog paintings, it’s a medium in itself. It favors the bold and simple. Composition and color are key. Instagram users like video. And they aren’t librarians: even in a category like #pleinair, the top posts don’t necessarily have anything to do with painting.
Hashtag #artist. Is that a Vampire Facial in the middle?
Instagram flows both ways, of course. There are artists whose work is about the interaction of people and technology, like Jeanette Hayes. There are many more of us who’ve integrated Instagram and Google into our reference material. That makes the search engine roughly analogous to the camera in the 20th century. Instead of creating our own reference images, modern artists appropriate them from others. Yeah, I know that’s illegal and unethical, but appropriation is one of the major movements in modern art.
Then there’s the issue of what’s acceptable. “There is also a notorious censorship issue on the app that prevents real artistic freedom,” said Instagram darling Brad Phillips. “Sure, the official stance is that you can post pretty much whatever you want but sexual images (ones that do not violate Instagram’s terms around nudity) are often flagged and deleted.” That predates Instagram, of course.
Hashtag #art. If they print it, it must be true.
All this is puts great pressure on the artist, particularly one trained in the 20th century, when there were very different ideals about craftsmanship and the meaning of art. I’m ambivalent about Instagram, but I ought to get past that. Should I change how I paint? I’m not sure I want to. Should I change how I photograph and present my work? Absolutely. 

Perfectly pure art

It’s not about money, and nobody gets to say whether it’s good or bad. Too bad more art isn’t like NaNoWriMo.
Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, c. 1670–71, Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Ireland
November might be our month to express gratitude, but it’s also NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. My third daughter has been participating since she was in high school. Now, her younger brother also spends the month of November writing a novel.
“I might as well do it while I still can,” is their rationale. That reflects a sad view of adulthood in America. Young people see their mid-twenties as the end of all self-actualization, when in truth it ought to be just the beginning.
I’ve mostly interacted with NaNoWriMo as a mom. My kids knew that, “I can’t rake leaves, Mom, I’m short on my word count,” stood a pretty good chance of working.
Occasionally one of my older friends takes a swing at NaNoWriMo. This year it’s a retired religious who’s in palliative care in Jerusalem. She’s the survivor of two different cancers, breast and adult Ewing sarcoma, and she has lots of professional experience writing and editing. It’s been interesting to watch her struggle with the NaNoWriMo challenge.
Paul Alexis Reading to Émile Zola, 1869–1870, Paul Cézanne, Museo de Arte de Sao Paulo
Since 2006, almost 400 NaNoWriMo novels have been picked up and published by publishing houses. These include the best-seller Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. More have been successfully self-published. (A complete list is available here.) Recently, winners have received five free, paperback proof copies of their manuscripts that they can use for marketing. They’re also encouraged to do revisions in a “Now What?” month, where published authors help them polish up their work for submission.
NaNoWriMo focuses on the doing, not the quality of the results. A winner is a person who completes their 50,000-word work in the one-month window. “If you believe you’re writing a novel, we believe you’re writing a novel too,” says their website.
The participation rate is huge. This year, 441,184 people are participating, from all over the globe. There will be about 40,000 winners. These people will write 1,667 words a day, every day, for thirty days straight. That’s a lot of words. It supports what art teachers often say: inspiration lies in methodical disciplined action, not in some mad flash of genius.
As with so much other crowd-sourcing, NaNoWriMo was only possible after the development of the internet diffused the power of traditional publishing. It’s popular with young people. I expect that their tastes and style, coupled with this engine of quick distribution, will create a period of great achievement in literature.
Young Man Writing, 1650-1675, Jacob van Oost, Musée d’arts de Nantes
I don’t need to read my son’s story; he’s already told it to me. As he talked, I smiled at his vocabulary and word structure. He’s always been good with language, but I’m sure these forays into forced-march fiction have influenced how he thinks and speaks.
Complete works don’t just fall out of your head onto the paper, whether they’re painted or written. They’re clawed out in great chunks, then endlessly revised. Painting or writing may be intensely satisfying but they’re also hard work.
We humans love to spin stories, and we love to hear them. I love NaNoWriMo because it celebrates that inventive human spirit. I love it because it’s never been mostly about the business of art, but about the simple joy of creativity. I love it because nobody’s appointed themselves the arbiter of what’s good or bad. Too bad more art isn’t like that.