I once asked my old art professor why she was a painter. After stumbling around for a while, she said something like, “the process of painting teaches you how to live.”
I’ve been thinking about this response for a few years now. It’s a statement I believe in wholeheartedly, but I also stumble around before ever repeating it. In the studio, I often feel like I’m reaching in the dark, but I rarely feel like I am being taught.
Five weeks ago my wife and I had our first daughter. She came five weeks early. Twelve days in the NICU completely reoriented my priorities. The second Augusta was sent down the hall for breathing issues, my wife and I clicked into survival mode. Nothing else mattered besides caring and advocating for our daughter in the NICU. Now that we’re back home, I’ve haven’t clicked out of that mode. The impulse to create, replaced by the impulse to survive, now seems ridiculous. How could anything be less urgent than smudging oil and pigment around on a flat surface?
Obama shared my sentiments lately. A few weeks ago he was criticized for his thoughts on the art history degree:
“I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” [sic][laughter]
This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Skilled manufacturing is so much more urgent, so much more relevant than discussing the well-smeared paste of artists long past. Who has time for that? I’d rather feed my family, or fix the problem in Syria.
The College Art Association responded to Obama’s remarks. If we do away with such degrees, “America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities.”
But art making never seems so urgent as saving future generations. When so much of what we encounter on a daily basis offers an escape from reality, isn’t art just another way out? So many paintings offer pastoral windows into other worlds. These pleasant getaways rarely challenge our beliefs or craft our values.
Of course such paintings have their place, but I really believe that art was born out of a much more urgent necessity. The Chauvet Cave drawings, some of the earliest known, are anything but decorative. Painted in the far recesses of a cave, most of the drawings feature predatory animals or buffalos or horses in states of movement. There is a palpable searching in these drawings, an urgency, a need to really figure something out. One drawing features a combined female and bison figure. Here two fabrics of life are awkwardly knit together in charcoal. Sustenance and generation, death and life so intertwined, it only makes sense to draw them as one.
Such images often express what words cannot. More recently, drawings have been used in refugee camps as a successful way for children to express their thoughts and feelings. With a simple drawing, they can express what they could not put into words. The process of drawing accesses a different part of the psyche. It is a process of seeking, digging, carving until you get somewhere. You only need to keep your hand moving. Art does not offer a way out, it offers a way in. Born out of necessity, art making unfolds new topographies, new ways of charting. A drawing or painting becomes an extension of seeing, and even when it’s not necessary, we still turn to these mediums to know deeper.
Even still, art seems like an extra-thing, a we-could-get-by-without-it thing. But I think we can say its superfluousness is only matched by its necessity.