Enough With the Paint Brushes Already

Jackson Pollock in a photo by Hans Namuth at Wikipedia

Here I am, blogging my heart out about what it’s like to spend an entire month in Siena submerged in Sienese painting, when I casually click on The Chronicle’s Web site only to see The Chronicle has chosen to illustrate Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s “In Praise of Leisure” with the clichéd image of paint brushes in a jar to signify a recreational activity. The Chronicle is hardly alone in seizing on the image of paint brushes for this kind of thing.  Everyone does it. But it galls me as a serious painter, and I hope you can see why.

While my sentiments accord entirely with the essence of the article, I take exception to the illustration. Couldn’t it have been an image of shuffleboard? Or a birdhouse built in a basement? The image of the brushes does nothing but perpetuate the myth that painting is a leisure activity.

Art is not the icing on the cake of civilization. Art is one of the bases of civilization. In the beginning were cave paintings, not cave hedge funds, or cave economic texts, or departments of “Cave Studies.” And after the rise and fall of any particular civilization, who (other than historians) still thinks about its economic system, or even its military might? What mostly lives on for people in succeeding civilizations are art and ideas. Those civilizations which made no art, or spurned philosophy (think Sparta) quickly turn to dust and become only the stuff of legend.

True, people frequently pick up a paintbrush when they’ve finished with a life of hard work trying to earn money and support themselves and their families. Over the years, many amateur painters have asked me to admire their work. While I don’t mind looking at it, and offering a few helpful tips or praises, and though I am fully tolerant of the idea that art can be a hobby, I put my foot down when it comes to treating hobby art as serious art, or calling hobbyists “artists.” Do not forget that Churchill and Eisenhower, both of whom took up painting in their retirement, were terrible painters. Anyway, I ask you: Are mathematicians asked to admire retired people keeping score in Scrabble?

The argument that modernism ruined art and made it childlike is not valid. Modernism (Picasso, de Kooning, Donald Judd, et al.) is simply more difficult to understand than some other kinds of art, because it’s structure and skill aren’t as obvious as in traditional art. (It’s not so easy to understand a lot of Sienese painting, either, without also understanding the backstory that informs it—and appreciating the forms that departed from realism). There may be a lot of bad modern artists out there who  confuse the issue with bad work that indulges itself in the license of modernism, but why pick on art in this respect? There are also a lot of bad bankers, retailers, doctors, lawyers, car dealers, and insurance salespeople.

As I walk around Siena looking at art from the middle ages—almost all of it, remarkably,  commissioned not by individuals, but by a republican state—the artist in me is struck by the intense labor it took to make the frescoes and oil panels many people never think about. As Ovid noted, the best art is that art which conceals itself. Yet because all we see is the finished product, does our awe and admiration have to be limited to the stupendous effects? There should be some room left over for admiring the sweat that led to the pictures. While most people aren’t artists, and haven’t a clue what goes into making a painted image, how much imagination does it take to understand that making a painting requires knowledge, stamina, focus, and, in most cases, a fair amount of physical work?

Great civilizations have always firmly put homo economicus in a lower position relative to artists. When we live in an age where most people admire kids’ fridge drawings and retired people’s paintings more than real paintings made by real artists, we can safely say we live in a decayed civilization—one which, perhaps, doesn’t deserve all that much leisure.


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