Saturday, July 14, 2012

I'm Too Dumb to be an Artist

-By Tim Bruckner

(Note: the images associated with this writing have virtually nothing to do with its content and appear simply because, I like them)

I recently picked up a few copies of “art” magazines. After reading a couple, I realized that I am too damn dumb to be a real artist. Real “art” is described in terms like:

“A complicit satire of the art market, or worse, as an example of condescending spectatorship.” 
Or a work of art can be “fastidiously carefree.” 
Apparently, “the female form speaks of castration and nothing else.”

Sounds a little scary to me. But, looking at a bunch of images of real “art”, it turns out that some of it is a little scary. One well known artist builds a sculpture, live, using a saw horse and rendered lamb parts. I’m way to dumb to think about sculpting like that.

Clearly, the kind of stuff I like and the kind of stuff I make isn’t art. If I were to sculpt a portrait of Michael Jackson decked out in his Thriller costume, at best, it would be an example of proficient craft. But, if I have a team of craftsmen create a portrait of Michael Jackson in porcelain and gold leaf cuddling up with a chimp, well, that there’s art.

Nothing of mine has ever been described as an “image that contextualizes the larger narrative of national history with its attendant traumas.” And, I’m not sure I’d want that description applied to one of my pieces, since I’m really not sure what it means.

I had to read this one a couple of times. “Black lines frame some of the compositions to deadpan effect, paradoxically delineating the non-image.” When I think of deadpan, I think of Buster Keaton.

Some things I make because I like the way they look. Some things I make just to see if I can. Many of the pieces I create are about me, my friends, my family and the human condition as I experience it. My human condition would be hard pressed to be described as “cheeky dubiousness of ambivalence.

I have never, to my knowledge, sculpted anything containing or referring to a node. A work by a celebrated painter contained “nodes of a feathery density.” Feathery density? Is that like light heaviness? Beats me. The same artist was able to do away with “alloverness in favor of asymmetrical knots of activity.” Two things struck me about that. I didn’t know “alloverness” was a word, let along one word, free of hyphens. And “asymmetrical knots of activity” sounds like something you’d need to take an antibiotic for.

I put a great deal of value in craft. But craft on its own is just skill. Which isn’t to say that a profound level of skill isn’t art. But a high level of craft at the service of an ideal is about all I need from art. But I’m kind of simple.

A work of art “whose formal strength hinges on its violation of pictorial cohesion” seems a little like describing the Emperor’s New Clothes as having a "Wagnerian petulance exhibiting the dichotomy inherent in its formalness.” I made that last bit up. But it sounded good. And I bet, somewhere, to someone much smarter than me, it made sense.

One of my all time favorite artists (and I use the term as it applies to not-real art) is Gil Elvgren. Big strike number one: he painted pin-ups. Big strike number two: he painted art for billboards and advertising. Big strike number three: a lot of people really liked his work. He had mad skill. He was a brilliant designer. A clever story teller. And the guy knew women. He was never crass or condescending. His work may seem a little simple and unsophisticated. A man after my own heart.

Seems to me, being a little dim, that art needs to hit close to the heart and deep into the imagination. Too much brain can get in the way. And if it starts there, and seems not to able make the last leg of the journey, its just as much commentary as it is anything else. This isn’t to say that commentary can’t be art. It most certainly can be and very often is. But without a little sweat, belch or fart, it’s like explaining love, heartache and empathy with a graph and a pie chart.

Back, several decades ago, I had late-night bar conversations much like this. “While devoid of symbolic content, the artist’s paintings – like the abstract cosmological art of India and Tibet – focus both the eye and the mind, conflating the minimal object with the meditative.”

The difference being, I was usually drunk and would have probably forgotten it by morning.


  1. Amen to that! I can't bear to open up any of the contemporary art magazines out there anymore. Scares the crap out of me too. I simply can't relate to what the modern world calls 'Art' these days. I feel alien to it. Myself and a few others in my class who are also illustrators feel like rogues for Christ sake. Thank God for ImagineFX and MC blog.

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  2. Well said brother. Some people in the higher spheres of academia have made a virtue out of overthinking, and are so preocupied with how precious the form of what they say is that it makes me suspect there's little content in the actual work. It's all surface--and ugly, at that! I mean, have you seen some of this contemporary highbrow art? They barely know how to apply paint! But of course, there's always a three hundred Byzantine monster of a paper impenetrably explaining how "subversive" the thing is. Keep rocking on Tim, we love your work!

  3. this article actually makes me feel lots better. I'm taking an online history class right now and I'm on my own as far as learning the material goes. just me and the book. I would love to learn about the content, and am super interested in the subject, but it is so wordy and sometimes nonsensical (to me) that I can't even answer the questions about it at the end after reading 50 pages, haha!

    great read!

  4. This is everything I think about art and more. Thank you!

  5. I have lived in the hallowed halls for so long that I know they are not hallowed. The art world suffers from the same thing that all academic worlds do: Incest. If you interact long enough with one group your own language develops and your own sense of snobbery. The funny thing is that they look out and laugh at the world but the world doesn't really know they exist. Great post Tim.

  6. I agree with your sense of art haha. I mean if pin ups aren't art then is Frank Frazetta not art? The definition of art by artists is confusing. I'm glad to see another sculptor who agrees with me, and to see a sculptor on Muddy Colors. You rock dude!

  7. a peer and i in art school constantly get into bouts of yelling over this. he would state that artists like Donato Giancola or Todd Lockwood are not REAL artists. they couldn't possibly be respected in the art world! i would ask what, then, is the art world? he would.. etc. etc. etc. i may just e-mail this to him.

  8. Do what you love, love what you do. Make things because there's nothing else you'd rather be making. Who gives a damn about what it is and how it fits in? Who gives a damn what other people have to say--especially people who make a living talking about what you do?

  9. I've allways felt that most postmodern artists are people who wanted to be intellectuals but never were very good at all that sciency stuff...

  10. Torbjörn, that little comment made my day. It, and this entire article, are going to be framed and placed on my wall where I can read them everyday. Thank you, Tim, for taking on the pretentious "real art" world!

  11. I always thought good composition, color use, and a desire to make decent money was the overall goal, but I guess it was just my dumb wide eyed naivete kicking in. I should scrap that and start gluing piles of horse droppings to car doors. I think that will bring me up a notch to at least a "competent artist"


  12. Well said, Tim.

  13. The small-town art scene around me needs to read this. So frustrating. This is such a timely piece. Thank you!

  14. The larger cities don't get much better to be honest. lol

  15. This is one of my favorite posts in awhile. It made me laugh, made great points, and hit home. In my book, something's art if it comes from wherever within you and you did your best. My little kids make real art -- and I wouldn't dare tell them otherwise (it's a joy at any level to me). I make art, even when I'm functioning only as a "designer." I can't dismiss anyone else's work as not being art because he or she did or didn't use a brush or a computer, or a certain style (or if it doesn't attract some fanciful commentary about it). Great post, Tim. And thanks again (to all) for all that goes into Muddy Colors.

  16. Have you ever read the story "The Emperor's New Clothes"? The emperor paid well for fine clothing, and fancied himself to be very knowledgable about esthetics. His courtiers, of course, followed suit. A pair of con-men came to town and set up shop, pantomiming with great care spinning and weaving cloth, then sewing it. "Only the most sophisticated and subtle mind and eye can see these gorgeous garments, they aren't for just anyone." They said. Everyone agreed the garments were fabulously magnificent, because no one wanted to be seen as crass and plebeian. A suit was commissioned and paid for, the con-men fled swiftly in the night, and the emperor had a great parade to show off his new garb. A little boy shouted out, "Why is the emperor walking around with no clothes?" Everyone shushed the kid because no one wanted to admit they too could see nothing either.

    The "fine art" ... industry? gig? world?? is based entirely on marketing. The galleries sell at very high prices and compete for investment fine art entirely based on the perceived market value of the product. This requires a small field of wealthy buyers who compete with each other for ownership of these high status items. What makes them high status is their rarity and genuine lack of popular appeal - if everyone likes it, it's not unusual/special enough.

    If you want to really insult someone in this field, show a lot of enthusiastic praise for their work. Make sure you look like a regular person. They will be horrified, because if just anybody off the street actually likes their work they've failed. It's too mundane for the rarified "fine art" label.

    Snort. To my mind, art says something to the viewers, something as simple as a lovely moment or profound enough to shake the viewer's world and everywhere in-between. But it does NOT say "I paid a lot of money for this really ugly thing my investment broker swears will be worth more in five years." I really don't think elephant shit sealed in resin is art. An image or sculpture is art.

  17. My art instructor made the whole class visit a fine art gallery in downtown SF where a small canvas covered with a very thin layer of pink, just that, absolutely nothing else, was priced at 24,000. Apparently the artist had sold a coule of them (in different colors) and is some kind of famous. We had to write report about the artworks (nice words only, profanity is not allowed). I never turned in my report.

  18. Thank you Mister Bruckner. I did the "Beaux Arts" (Fine art course) in Toulon, famous harbour in the south of France, and lasted 6 months there (I heard later that the "Beaux Arts" in Paris is more academic). Most teachers and student were infatuated with conceptual art of the most pretentious order. Nobody was interested in learning anatomy or perspective for exemple, and inexperienced first year students were encouraged to produce totally abstract work and come up with highly intellectual explanations of why they did what they did. Most comments were quite ridiculous to listen to.
    The more convincing they seemed to be in their speeches, the best mark they got. The work in itself didn't count ! It's what you said about it that was important, and the fact you were self-confident enough to defend it.
    One girl in second year talked about how she loved the aerial aspect of orange skin. Her work : some peeled orange skin on a cardboard box. I just couldn't bear it.

    And this is coming from someone who (also) love abstract painters like Zao Wou-ki or "land" artists like James Turrel (the later is even one of my all time favourite artist after I experienced one of his exhibition).
    On the other hand don't start me on Jeff Kons or worse, Damien Hirst.
    As you mentionned, worse part is that these 2 guys don't even make their "artwork" themselves, they hire people to do it for them !

    I loved what Elena wrote above.

  19. The one thing I worry about is that there are fine artists who are honestly pursuing some kind of truth in their work. It is not always a marketing scheme. And even when that is so, we as illustrators etc. do that too. So I hate to lump all of the academic art world into one gross mass. Even with some bitterness of being an illustrator in the midst of academia for over 20 years I still don't want to be a hater.

  20. Read "The Painted Word" by Tom Wolf (1975) It is very enlightening about all this

  21. I like to remind the idiots who think commercial or commissioned art isn't "art" that The ceiling to the Sistine Chapel was commissioned art and Michelangelo is still revered as one of the greatest artists in history because of it.

  22. Amen.

    I think the "art world" suffered an identity crisis with the advent of the camera. But instead of focusing on the skills and techniques of the artists, it responded by turning increasingly to philosophical bullshit.

    "Art for art's sake" is a relatively new concept. Historically, art nearly always served a function beyond the purely aesthetic -- it was there to help people visualize things they weren't able to see first-hand. Along comes the camera, and suddenly that function is yanked away.

    But instead of focusing on the unique way each artist is able to interpret a subject, the art scene became obsessed with the new, regardless of whether it brought anything worth looking at along with it. I think it has something to do with getting people fired up, like newspapers do with headlines. People are pretty dim, and are generally more titillated by someone taking a dump on a gallery floor than by observing the gentle play of light and shade.

    But I've seen a lot of local art scenes that simply don't cater to the highbrow. They just make more or less traditional art -- some good, some godawful-- and sell it to locals and tourists who don't give a shit about post-modernism. The so-called art world exists in an ever-shrinking bubble, puffed up with its own self-importance and insulated from the common people.

  23. Excellent article. I am merely a consumer of art, but I am moved by many images from pinups to book covers. I could care less what the "experts" say, what's important is that images have the power to convey truths and feelings in a way that words cannot, and sometimes the plainest compositions are the most expressive and evocative.

    I am fortunate that our house contains paintings by several artists I greatly admire (though they mostly work in illustration and publishing). These paintings speak to me, touch me, and fill me with reverence. That, to me, is art, and is far more valuable that something inspires critics to techno-babble.

  24. I think art with a philosophical bent is great if done well. I've seen some amazing pieces of art meant to convey complex ideas and ideals. The problem with a lot of the fine art world now is that it's doesn't rise to that level but is instead a lot of pretentious nonsense. As someone pointed out above it's all marketing based but the fine art world doesn't want to admit it so it dresses things up in word salad. Those of us working in less rarified circles, illustrators, designers, toy sculptors, are hip deep in marketing and the business side of things too but we are honest about it.

    Now to be honest, many of us also cater to audiences that are a sliver of the population, not everyone is a fan of comic books, dinosaurs, or (my area) sea creatures, so I don't think the fact that the audience for fine art is small is a valid argument. That it's snobbish and pretentious certainly is though and many artists of the past would be appalled by the fracturing of art separating "fine art" from the majority of other art.

    Also I'm really glad I found Muddy Colors, I'm just getting back into illustrating to give myself a break from clay for a bit and it's already one of my favorite blogs.

  25. It's the same intheatre world: 'real' theatre is far too complicated to be understood by the masses apparently, and that is their fault. Anyone trying to make theatre that people may actually enjoy, with a fun story, is not a real writer.

    I had to read a right load of bilge in theatre school, because that was "classic" theatre. Now I write comedies for people who don't like theatre. Obviously I'm too dumb for 'real' theatre.

    Thanks for the encouragement: it's good to know I'm not on my own in this fight.

  26. Art is entirely subjective. I try to respect everyones opinion on the matter. Having said that some of you sound like frightened children.

  27. "some of you sound like frightened children" . That's just a subjective opinion, just like this one. I guess its turtles all the way down.

  28. Just do what your heart (vocation) commands you to do. Do it wholeheartedly, be honest, brave and open, live your art and you will be an Artist (with a big “A”), and your creation will become Art (with a big “A”). This should be your primary parameter.

    There are smart, wonderfully complex , pretentious and profound fine artists in the world. And there are delightfully shallow and lighthearted illustrators in the world. And there are many places in between these two extremes. All comes from the same source, and all that expresses a part of us that needs to be expressed. Let your heart choose a place for yourself. Argue about art, but don’t discriminate others just because they are different, or because they discriminate you. Don’t be like them!

  29. TO be honest this is why I eschew (to use one of their words!) art magazines and books... they're full of pretentious claptrap. I sometimes think the artists themselves must be laughing up their sleeves to hear these writers and critics ("those who can do, those who can't teach"... or, perhaps, critique?) wax lyrical and create this overblown ideas of what the piece is actually about... "a dystopian a synchronicity displaying the fundamental juxtaposition of male and female at constant odds with their sexuality"... no, mate, it's just a painting of a couple having a bit of nookie on a picnic rug!

  30. Hey Tim,

    I can understand your frustration with these magazines, however, the argument you've presented is pretty poorly executed.

    I see nothing wrong with intellectualizing artwork. The so-called "fine art world" is not a direct affront to the work you do; rather, it's a completely separate entity that simply values different things in art and creativity. There was nothing I could glean from any of the quotes that could be construed as a dismissal of your values, save perhaps a preference for a simpler style of communication.

    The quotes you've copied down up were taken out of context -- likely written by critics describing their thoughts on works of art seen in galleries & museums -- not by the artists themselves. Even so, I doubt that any artist would disagree with your assessment that "…art needs to hit close to the heart and deep into the imagination," although for some artists that might not be the only goal in mind. And although you might not enjoy his work, it's hard to accuse Jeff Koons' porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson & Bubbles of being less imaginative, or less "close to the heart" than an Elvgren girl.

    The inclusion of Gil Elvgren as a martyr for your point is unsupported by any evidence within the quotes you provided. If you had been highlighting a scathing dismissal of his art, it would make sense, but the simple fact that he wasn't represented in these publications is hardly a rebuke of his work. (Side note: the last issue of Art in America actually had a full-page advertisement for an upcoming auction of American Illustration Art featuring an Elvgren painting)

    There are plenty of different kids of artists in the world, and plenty of different kinds of art publications to cater to those artists. Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose are two examples of magazines covering one small faction of the art world; Art of the West and Southwest Art cover another; and Art in America and Art Forum cover yet another. I'd hasten to guess that readers of those other magazines might be equally offended by the art and writing in the others.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I'm glad that while I'm reading an article I don't entirely agree with as I am struggling to put into words my thoughts I can already find someone who's done a better job than what I probably ever could. Thank you, I agree entirely with your statement. The tone of this article was as if to make the art and critics presented within seem pretentious, but I think the author came of that way instead.

  31. God I hate that quote: "Those who can do, those who can't teach." Worst kind of generalization.

    Petar, well put. Follow your heart. I know plenty of artists whose work I just don't like but who are completely honest in their philosophical direction.

    1. Though Woody Allen's addition to the quote is pretty funny: "Those who can't teach, teach Gym." :-)

    2. I had forgotten that quote Arnie. It made my day.

  32. I needed that. Thank you very much.

  33. Thank you, Tim. You not only made me laugh and snort out loud at my desk (on a Monday, no less!!), but you vindicated my frustrations at having encountered a MOST suffocatingly pretentious hipster couple who were visiting At The Edge last weekend when I was there. They spent the entire time overanalyzing every piece in the gallery and trying to out-intellectualize each other. I wanted to walk up to them and say "you know, it's perfectly ok to just say 'dude, that is just so freakin' cool.' Heaven knows I was squee-ing like a 12-year old at every other piece :)

  34. Thanks Tim! I never could Talk the Talk, but I love making art.

  35. "A"rt - will always be owned by the presenter, in the same way as an atheist or spiritualist will hold onto the idea of being the "true" believer. Ultimately the elephant is touched by many blind believers. May no one wrest the love they feel for their god.

  36. Hey there,
    I guess we all struggle with this issue. My two cents: I studied Arts and
    Culture to learn all the theory, the philosophy, the 'Art World' so to speak.
    Yes, I was (and still am) a curator, I organized exhibitions, wrote on art
    and such. But not in a pretentious way. One side of me is the illustrator
    who loves to draw and paint traditionally, who's into realism and trying
    to create beautiful things and entertain the public. The other side is the
    over-theoreticizing maniac who tries to fit everything he sees into a
    theoretical context.

    Personally I think that if you really want to change the status quo (as generations of artists have done before you) you have to do it from the inside out. No, you don't have to go along with the so-called 'intellectuals', but isolating yourself from them is neither healthy
    nor very productive.

    I always think of Dali for example: he was kicked out of the 'high-art'
    circles, and just said: f**k that, I'll just start my own thing. He
    understood what had to be done, but also wasn't afraid to ' sell-out'.

    Recently I found something similar: I picked up the book 'Suggestivism' by
    Nathan Spoor. In it I found a whole collection of artists that float
    inbetween the high, the low, the beautiful and the theoretical. I think
    getting the combination of both is the real path towards being the full-blown
    artist. (someone like Donato for example is well on his way in creating
    what Barnett Newman would call 'The Sublime'; work that is both beautiful,
    overwhelming but also has strong content and a very sound fundamental base).
    Others that come to mind are Alyssa Monks, David Kassan et.c (yes, realism
    is really marching again!)

    That is where I'm going!

  37. "I'm Too Dumb to be an Artist" ...Nah, you're just not pretentious enough to be an art critic.

    Never, ever confuse the two.

  38. You and this dude should do art reviews together.

  39. Thank you for this Tim.
    You made me feel much better about myself. I need to keep reminding myself of things like this since I'm in a very commercial industry.

    I should know I'm actually better than I usually rate myself.

    I love what I do!

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