Cornelia Seckel, Publisher • Raymond J. Steiner, Editor co-founders
(845) 246-6944 ·

Peeks and Piques Index

Art Times HomePage

Peeks and Piques!

Are Artists Born?

ART TIMES May 2008

ARE ARTISTS BORN? Or are they taught? The conundrum has been teasing my mind for a couple of months now, ever since our film correspondent, Henry P. Raleigh, posed a question that took me some time to ponder. Making reference to my usual conservative stance vis-à-vis the visual arts, he ended a letter to me that asked, “So, Ray, how would you devise an art curriculum?” Fully aware that Mr. Raleigh was himself a one-time tenured studio-art Professor (now retired) at SUNY New Paltz (my alma mater, incidentally, at which my studies as an art major back in the ‘60s lasted all of one semester), I wrestled with my response for several weeks. I finally had to admit that, given the choice, I would not design an art curriculum for any university for, Izaak Walton’s famous dictum that “no man is born an artist” notwithstanding, I do think that artists are, in fact, “born”. A late bloomer, I was nearly 30 years old when I started my studies and, solely on the strength of knowing how to draw since early childhood, declared my major to be “art”. In short order, my art professor judged my meager portfolio of representational sketches and pastels as “not art.” A Mondrian aficionado, he then spent a semester in trying to convince me that “modern” art was the only way to go. An ex-GI with no real savvy of what “art” had become in the ‘60s, I quickly saw my mistake and, in short order, dropped studio art, moved through art history, some philosophy and, finally, settled in to earning B.A. and M.A. liberal arts degrees in literature. My answer to Mr. Raleigh, then, grew out of that and some forty-five subsequent years of experience, including the last twenty-five years as editor of this publication. Now, before you start champing at the bit and pawing the ground, let me quickly state that I do firmly believe that courses in art appreciation most certainly ought to be both designed and taught at the university level. The same for Music and Literature. No educated person ought to go out into the world without some level of appreciation for the arts if only to give off the appearance of being “cultured”. At the very least, such courses in appreciation can take off some of the rough edges that seem to cling to every human born into this world. However — and this seems to me to be a truism that hardly needs iteration — no teacher/professor — no matter the level of his or her own expertise — can teach any other human being to be a painter, a composer, dancer or a writer. That can only be accomplished by the student’s own level of appreciation, interest, desire, and determination — and — I might add — born to be so. A teacher can impart some knowledge of an artform to his/her students, but cannot transform them into “artists” of any stripe. Furthermore, teachers — again, no matter the level of their expertise —cannot and ought not pontificate on what art “is”. To do so is no longer “teaching” but “dictating”. By what authority — other than that bestowed by the university — can teachers “pass” or “fail” a would-be artist? By what authority — other than that assumed by themselves — can a “university” confer degrees of “mastership” in any of the fine arts? Teachers/professors in such institutions of “learning” should inform their students of practices, practitioners, materials, skills and the history that pertains thereto; they may share their own experiences, share their own tastes, even share their own preferences — but cannot and ought not loftily declare what is or is not “art” — something that my one — and only — art teacher seems not to have understood way back when I signed on as an “art major” at SUNY New Paltz. How he arrived at such dictatorial power to judge what was and what was not art still mystifies me…especially when I look back over the (short) history of the American system of designing art curricula at the university level. I’ve talked to too many old-timers, some of whom never even finished high-school, who had been suddenly elevated to “professorship” by some university needing to offer an art “program”. Some of them did know something about art and how “masters” were made by history and not fiat, but it was not long before their students began filling the roles of “professor” — and we can see what and where that has brought us. English “man of letters” though he might have been considered, Izaak Walton started out as the son of an alehouse-keeper, tried his hand at iron mongering and, when we put his comment in full context — “As no man is born an artist, so no man is born an angler.” — we realize that he was most of all an angler — a fisherman — famous for his The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation written in 1653. And even this “fame” is shaky since in 1957, the anonymous Arte of Angling (1557) seems to have been the source for most of his cribbed ideas. I for one, then, tend to discount, along with my art professor’s judgment on what is art, Walton’s lofty pronouncement on artists. You either are or you aren’t and, for my money, there’s no two ways about it.

Art Times HomePage