Art is a Calling

from the studio of John Tomlinson

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John Tomlinson. 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.

Is art a profession or a calling?
June 4, 2016

John Tomlinson

The question asked by the title is asked universally by artists, art educators, students, critics – just about everyone engaged in the arts, in this case, the visual arts.

As common as it might be, it is a big question that merits addressing by all who love art and wish it well. Whether it is a question crucial to the survival of art, I don’t think so. That’s too grandiose for my taste.

As I address it over time, I intend to stay close to the personal. I don’t like telling artists what’s what or what they should think and have avoided doing that in my 25 years as an art school drawing instructor in 5 art schools. And yet, I have ideas on the subject based on my 40-odd years as a practicing studio artist, ideas that come from the wisdom acquired in my long practice that have brought me to the finest period of art-making that I could ever have imagined.

My experience is not in the professional art world; it is in the making of art.

I am saying right away that for me art is a calling.  Right away I am saying that I will reveal what I think it takes to make an authentic work of art. What I think, not what you ought to think, but I will voice my distress concerning much of the art being made in this time.

I will also address and quote from the readings and writings of friends, colleagues, critics and authors I admire for their ideas on the subject.

So this blog is about how I see things from my perspective as an older person who has been making art a long time through many, many struggles and changes.

To get things going and give readers time to ruminate on the subject, we start with a post from Facebook by critic David Hickey and responses elicited by me from poet/psychoanalyst Karen Morris and critic Dominique Nahas. Mine will arrive at a later time.

David Hickey, June 2, 2016

“You people have been writing on this page for nearly a year and not once have you addressed the issue at hand. The problem with art is that artists make bad art and demonstrate intellectual cowardice. If artists expressed and embodied their preferences, then gangs could form supporting one kind of art or another. They could hang out in bars, speak freely without the danger of robot censure. Exhibitions would arise from the noise these gangs make.This is simple: make good art. Say what you think is good art. Say what you think is bad art. Write it down. Get out there with your aesthetic and prune the dead fruit from your social tree. But no. It’s the cleric’s fault, It’s the government”s fault. It’s the art dealer’s fault. It’s the critics’ cult, its the dean’s fault. It’s the collector’s fault. Its the university’s fault. Not a chance . It’s your fault and nobody else’s. No good art goes unrecognized, unless it is willfully barricaded in the suburbs. Art is a social medium, art is a judgmental practice. This is better than that. What nudges,”

Karen Morris, June 6, 2016

“I’d love to read your response John. Speaking for myself, I have to say I agree with much of Hickey’s complaint. I am often quite heart-sick from what I see in museums and galleries. It is as David Bowie wrote so poignantly in “Black Star” before leaving this world, “Seeing more and feeling less….” I’ve all but given up having any faith in much of the art I see. More often than not, artists rely on verbose narratives to explain their “ideas” rather than allow, permit, trust, that the viewer’s experience will be what they intended. I resent this intrusion into my own abilities to feel, intuit, imagine what is in front of me. This reliance on the narrative tells me how unconfident artists are in their own work to stand alone. I would not go so far as to say, as does Hickey, that the problem is that “artists make bad art”. That’s too global. I like to think in both horizontal and vertical directions. Even “bad art” can evoke interest and sensitive feelings. There are many talented artists, but the number of unskilled artists far out numbers them, thus their reliance on words and the over-valued “idea.” My sense is that it’s a phase we are going through before we’re able to completely let go of our hands and bodies…and become the “big brain, little hands” creatures we are yet to become. We are riding out the end of the golden age. It’s just taking longer than we wish.

Dominique Nahas, June 3, 2016

“I guess as long as art is being taught as a ‘profession’ rather than as a ‘calling’, as long as art is being made or promoted through the lens of the marketplace, branded, and seen primarily as a ‘good'” as opposed to a ‘service’ we are all really screwed (and become screwed up in regards to our priorities and how we view other people, + other artists who we presume to be doing ‘better’ than we are, financially). As the practice of ‘Art’ is now regarded primarily as a means of production creating a fungible ‘good’ i.e. an ‘asset class’, that is, belonging to and belonging in a commodities ‘market’…we have really (as an art community) poisoned our well, pissed in our bed, or whatever other self-destructive metaphor you can think of. In some ways the primacy of money in the art world is the worst fate that could have befallen it. Il faut simplement cultiver son proper jardin. (as Voltaire would have it in Candide); but this presupposes one can keep body and soul together in order to do any sowing, any planting, of any useful kind.”

An earlier version of this text appeared recently at artisttomlinson.wix.com/nothingbutartblog .

John Tomlinson has a 40-year career as a studio artist in drawing as his major work. He has taught in 5 art schools for 25 years, notably at Parsons School of Design Fine Arts as a drawing instructor and concurrently for 21 years as Director of the New York Studio Residency Program. He shares a studio building with artist Daria Dorosh 100 miles northwest of New York City in the Upper Delaware River Valley of New York where he is active in the art and experimental theater communities. His recent collaboration with poet/psychoanalyst Karen Morris produced a book of poems and drawings available at Amazon at https://amzn.com/0991005333 .  More of his work and bio information can be seen at www.johnwTomlinson.com

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