I brought two books with me on my trip to Iceland and Denmark: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Juno Díaz and The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn. I realized when I got home that both books had black and red colored covers with white backgrounds, both were 'the fill-in-the-blank of' titles and I have been meaning to read both for years. Of course that's where the similarities end since one is a novel and one a sort of art philosophy book. I won't talk about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao here since I am no literary critic, so you should just read it or look on the internet for reviews or criticisms of it. I will say I have been meaning to read it for ten years and was so happy to finally get around to it. I loved the way the story is told through text and footnotes and through different character perspectives. Also the cultural references, both Dominican and pop. The dynamics of this Dominican family are very human and imperfect, as we are. I found the story to read a little bit like one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's family tales.
What I am going to write about is The Shape of Content, a book that I have owned since art school, but never got around to reading until this last couple of weeks. It was written in 1957 but I found it to still be very relevant. You can read it yourself, it's pretty quick at 130 pages, but I hope that what I have here is a good enough highlight just in case you don't read it. Here, I will break down what I took away from each chapter.
Artists in Colleges
This one hits home because it took me years to break from the mould of art school. It can feel pretty restrictive and you get pushed away from your vision. I tend to rebel and do what I want, but they still got to me, haha. A big positive of art school is that it takes care of chapter 6, The Education of an Artist, in a big way. Getting to do screen printing, lithography, oil painting, pastels, ceramics, sculpture, book making and learn a huge variety of techniques was a pretty great experience and one that you may not get if you don't go to art school, especially in such a short amount of time.
"The university stresses rather the critical aspects of knowledge-the surveying, the categorizing, the analyzing, and the memorizing. The reconversion of such knowledge into living art, into original work, seems to have diminished."
He does note:
"I feel both art history and art theory are of immense value to the creative artist."
I know I learned a ton about the history and theories of art and it is constantly useful to me. I also realize that it has taken me years to break away from things I was told.
The Biography of a Painting
"The critic within the artist is prompted by taste, highly personal, experienced and exacting. He will not tolerate within a painting any element which strays very far from that taste."
I absolutely love this. Every color we use, line we draw is either acceptable or unacceptable to us. We often look at art and love it or hate it.
This makes me think of the famous thing Ira Glass said about taste, which is not exactly the same idea as Shahn, but somewhat related.
The Shape of Content
"An artist at work upon a painting must be two people, not one. He must function and act as two people all the time and in several ways. On the one hand, the artist is the imaginer and the producer. But also the critic..."
"The artist may not use lines or colors or forms unless he is able to feel their rightness."
YES. This is so true. We use the palette we like, the subject we are interested in and the style that is natural to us.
"But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person - the nonconformist - may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters."
"It is because of these parallel habits of detachment and of emotional involvement that artists so often become partisans in its burning causes. And also it is why they are so likely to be nonconformists in their personal lives."
"The conservative, with its vested interest in things as they are, holds onto the present, gives stability, and preserves established values (and keeps banks open). The visionary, always able to see the configuration of the future in present things, presses for change, experiment, the venture into new ways. A truly creative artist is inevitably of this part of the society."
This chapter reminded me that to make great work, artists really have to push and not conform to society's standards. I have gotten away from focusing on my Etsy shop because it felt like I was making work for a certain group of people. I have rejected the idea of making 'art that matches the couch'. I recognize that I am in a bit of an in between stage and I am okay with that as I explore work that really does something.
"How often do we read the critical comment that this work or that work appears 'labored.' And on the other hand, the calligraphic, the easily brushed style is highly admired; it has a free look about it. Extreme care is 'tight' and not good; extreme freedom is 'loose' and considered desirable. Art becomes increasingly free; it has freed itself from meaning in many cases, and freed itself of responsibility."
I find this so true in art I like. Basically, great art looks effortless. I love work that has a wonky or wobbly style, blended color or bold and unique line work. Art that is too forced or formulaic isn't interesting to me. It takes artist's years to develop their work so it looks effortless. That effortless generally is their style and what makes their work stand out.
The Education of an Artist
"Begin to draw as early in life as possible. If you begin quite early, use any convenient tool and draw upon any smooth uncluttered surfaces."
"...never be afraid to learn to draw or paint better than you already do..."
"Draw and draw, and paint, and learn to work in many media."
"In college or out of college, read, and form opinions."
Ugh, reminding myself yet again that I need to work on developing my skill. And draw and draw and draw.
Ultimately, he says this on The Education of an Artist:
Attend a university if you possibly can. There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do. But before you attend a university work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease-monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle — yes, even potatoes! Or, in the auto shop, the smell of oil and grease and burning rubber. Paint of course, but if you have to lay aside painting for a time, continue to draw. Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and take all seriousness seriously. Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read. And form opinions! Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many artists. Go to and art school, or two, or three, or take art courses at night if necessary. And paint and paint and draw and draw. Know all that you can, both curricular and noncurricular — mathematics and physics and economics, logic and particularly history. Know at least two languages besides your own, but anyway, know French. Look at pictures and more pictures. Look at every kind of visual symbol, every kind of emblem; do not spurn signboards of furniture drawings of this style of art or that style of art. Do not be afraid to like paintings honestly or to dislike them honestly, but if you do dislike them retain an open mind. Do not dismiss any school of art, not the Pre-Raphaelites nor the Hudson River School nor the German Genre painters. Talk and talk and sit at cafés, and listen to everything, to Brahms, to Brubeck, to the Italian hour on the radio. Listen to preachers in small town churches and in big city churches. Listen to politicians in New England town meetings and to rabble-rousers in Alabama. Even draw them. And remember that you are trying to learn to think what you want to think, that you are trying to co-ordinate mind and hand and eye. Go to all sorts of museums and galleries and to the studios of artists. Go to Paris and Madrid and Rome and Ravenna and Padua. Stand alone in Sainte Chapelle, in the Sistine Chapel, in the Church of the Carmine in Florence. Draw and draw and paint and learn to work in many media; try lithography and aquatint and silk-screen. Know all that you can about art, and by all means have opinions. Never be afraid to become embroiled in art of life or politics; never be afraid to learn to draw or paint better than you already do; and never be afraid to undertake any kind of art at all, however exalted or however common, but do it with distinction.
This book made me realize the holes in my art that I have been feeling lately, but I was not quite sure how to fill them. Some things I want to do:
- I want to dig deeper with my personal experience and views in my work. I felt this before reading the book, since the start of the New Year, but reading it helped solidify my need to do so.
- Nonconformism. Taking risks in your work or making work that is challenging or bold. Experiment. Make ugly stuff. Try new things. Learn from others.
- Keep improving my craft by taking classes and exploring new mediums.
I hope some of this was helpful for you too.