“An Artist”? Nell Painter, Old in Art School

Painter

An An Artist artist finds her identity in art, does nothing but make art, and does it all the time, making work of unimaginable creativity. An An Artist artist makes art 100 percent of the time. . . . All of me wanted to be An Artist–and yet at the same time to keep my past as a thinker and writer. But how could I be An Artist, when “academic” was so poisonous a concept in art and while I had always been academic?

I have never wanted to be “An Artist,” never dreamed of reinventing myself the way Nell Painter did herself when she retired from a distinguished career as a historian and enrolled in a BFA and then an MFA program. I was drawn to her memoir about this experience, though, partly because of my own recent (and ongoing) attempts to at least become more artistic and partly because in a different and more modest way I have reinvented myself over the past decade. It has been a more sputtering process for me, not begun with anything like the same decisiveness and clarity of purpose–but as eventually happens with Painter, the result has been work that could be described as “hybrid,” rooted in academic experience but expressing itself differently. One of the recurrent questions in Painter’s book is what exactly defines “An Artist”–or, when are you entitled to consider yourself one? In a similar way, I puzzle about what it means to call yourself “A Writer,” an identity that surely overlaps with being a professor but which is rarely claimed by or attributed to those whose writing is academic.

Painter-Self-Portrait-10
Nell Painter, “Self-Portrait 10”

Old in Art School is a fascinating read if you are interested in these kinds of questions, or in questions about what makes art “good” (and who decides) or how (or whether) art can be taught. Painter’s own journey follows her from enthusiasm to painful doubt about her own goals and talents: an alternative subtitle could be A Memoir of Imposter Syndrome, given how often she is driven to despair about whether she can or should sustain her ambition to be an artist (much less An Artist), or how to reconcile her own interests–in particular subjects as well as styles, and especially in incorporating historical and textual material into her work–with the advice she gets in the relentless “crits” that are a key part of the art school apparatus.

The early part of the memoir follows her struggle to see differently and to let go of her fixation on coherence. “False and foolish pride, mine,” she remarks tartly, “beguiled by my lying twentieth-century eyes”:

My lying twentieth-century eyes favored craft, clarity, skill, narrative, and meaning. My twenty-first-century classmates and teachers preferred everyday subject matter, the do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic, appropriation, and the visible marks of facture: drips, smudges, and what in the twentieth century would have been considered mistakes needing to be cleaned up. What I thought of as private intimacy is out in the open, as graphically as possible. Penises and vaginas are commonplace motifs, and nowadays even I contemplate making penis art. painter-audio

One way that, as a non-Artist, I understand this shift is away from art as pictures (whether more or less representative) and towards art as visual thinking–mimetic or figurative art is out, and highly conceptual art is in. (The more advanced Painter’s work gets, the more explanation it requires to know what she thinks it is doing, or is about.) This won’t surprise anyone who knows even a little bit about art history, of course, but Painter helped clarify for me why an artist, or at any rate an aspiring Artist (one who wants to be taken seriously in what she calls “the Art World”–Painter is irritatingly fond of capitalizing words to given them more, or more ironic, weight), would have to, and presumably want to, embrace the 21st-century modes she outlines. Other ways of seeing and painting would condemn you to being seen as derivative or commercial–heaven forbid! I think there is some tension between that compulsion towards the new and what an amateur like me might think of as authenticity. What if you love doing beautiful watercolors of recognizable landscapes? should you really have to abandon them for “penis art” to qualify as an artist? (Similarly, do you–should you–have to abandon plot and character to be taken seriously as a novelist? Some critics clearly think so.) But at least as Painter tells it, for her it was a genuine and ultimately satisfying–if often unhappy and difficult–process of transformation in her aesthetic vision.

soul-bowling-1
Nell Painter, “Soul Bowling”

Old in Art School is also interesting about Painter’s feelings as she loses her hard-won authority as a historian and academic. Not only did she hold prestigious professorial appointments, including at Princeton, but she was the President of the Organization of American Historians and served on the boards of multiple other important professional organizations including the American Historical Society and the Association of Black Women Historians. None of this means anything to her art school “peers,” who see her only as an anomaly–as an “old” woman mysteriously landed among them (Painter is 64 when she begins her BFA at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts), and as a black woman in a conspicuously non-diverse context. Though she is occasionally and understandably bitter about the awkwardness and exclusion that results, she is also acidly funny about her undergraduate classmates:

Day after day after day I ate alone among undergraduates laughing uproariously and commiserating dramatically over what was Technicolor red-orange hilarious and what was acrylic cyan-green catastrophic. Everything new. Everything just born. Drama, always. Undergraduates’ lives were so vivid. . . . In their arty costumes and fabulous tattoos, they nuzzled one another, arms on shoulders, kisses on cheeks. They laughed some more. They chose their vegetarian meals together, paid up together, sat down together, fed off each other’s plats, and left together arm in arm. Everything mattered so deeply.

Her curmudgeonly perspective does not keep her from learning both alongside and from her youthful peers, who distress and annoy her sometimes with what she perceives as their lack of commitment, organization, and patient effort but also often surprise her with the results of their different habits and artistic instincts. Still, she attributes her own progress to “education and hard work”: this approach may be less glamorous than frantic all-nighters in the studio and run contrary to the popular assertion that an artist is born, not made, but in her case at least, it is the route to success.

new dogs symmetrical
Nell Painter, “New Dogs: Symmetrical”

What does success mean to her? Another interesting strand of Old in Art School is Painter’s attempt to answer this question, which is closely related to the question of why she attends art school at all. “You don’t need it,” one of her teachers tells her about her decision to go on to an MFA after finishing at Mason Gross. Painter resists that advice, partly because she rejects a narrative the sadly familiar subtext of which is “you can’t do it” or “you shouldn’t do it.” Her determination is also clearly related to her academic background, and the fixation it cultivates on credentials and validation. “I just assumed,” Painter says,

I could not be a serious artist without art graduate school, just as I had known I could not be a serious historian–a publishing historian, a scholarly historian–without history graduate school. For history graduate school, I went to Harvard. For art graduate school, I went to RISD.

She doesn’t spend much time interrogating these assumptions, though they are part and parcel of her ambition not just to paint better on her own terms but to become a recognized participant in the Art World. As she tells it, entrée into that world does depend on credentials and connections, but especially given how important she finds advice and critiques from people she knows outside of her degree programs, I wondered about how necessary such formal programs were to her or indeed are to art itself, or whether they have the same equivocal relationship to art that MFA programs do to writing. I don’t know the art world well enough to know if there is a faintly disparaging term equivalent to “MFA fiction,” or if there’s the same lingering sense that the degree is really essential only so that you can compete for jobs teaching in similar programs–not because a degree is either necessary or sufficient for you to write a great novel or brilliant poetry.

plantains3
Nell Painter, “Plantains 3”

In any case, success for Painter ultimately means both completing her degrees and finding her way to art that encompasses her historical expertise and her love of text. “In my history books,” she concludes,

I have already had my say in clear language and discursive meaning about community. Now what history means to me in images is freedom from coherence, clarity, and collective representation. My images carry their visual meaning, which may or may not explicate history usefully or unequivocally.

Painter’s book did not entirely convince me about the rightness of this result: I don’t really grasp the value in abandoning coherence, for instance, and (relatedly) my own taste in visual art is pretty old-fashioned. By and large I prefer figurative art to abstract or expressionist art, and Painter’s more chaotic, collage-like works do not appeal to me aesthetically, though her comments about them and the conceptual projects they fulfill certainly interest me.

Old in Art School is not really that kind of a book, though: it is not a work of theory or art history, or an aesthetic treatise. It is, as its subtitle indicates, a personal memoir. A significant amount of the book is spent on Painter’s family, and on her feelings–which are not separate from her artistic development but entangled with it, as one of her main struggles is reconciling the pull of her personal life with the art school expectation that “an An Artist artist makes art 100 percent of the time.” In particular, Painter lives in New Jersey and her aging parents live in California. They demand and deserve her time and attention; her grief for the loss of her mother, the emotional vortex of her father’s depression and his eventual move east to be closer to her, his death–these are not things she can avoid or deny, though for a long time she feels intensely conflicted about how to cope with them and still pursue her artistic ambitions. The artistic ethos Painter finally embraces is one that does not insist on separating life from art, just as it also incorporates history and writing.

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Nell Painter, “The America I Know – 4”

Old in Art School is sometimes awkward as it shifts among its many topics. Painter’s narrative jumps around in time in ways that did not always make sense to me, and her prose often seemed stilted. She is refreshingly frank, though, including about her own failures of empathy, patience, or insight, and she is consistently sharp and illuminating about being older, especially as a woman, among mostly young people, and about being a black academic and artist in worlds where to be either, never mind both, is still a rarity. Though her experiences in these respects are far from my own, I definitely recognized the plague of self-doubt and the frustrating truth that appeals to other people’s judgment can never really appease it. As for being “An Artist” or “A Writer,” Painter is happier having reconciled her academic and artistic selves. The key may be to stop fretting about identity in any such absolute way and just keep doing the work in front of you–while always also imagining how else, and what else, you might make with the time you have.

One thought on ““An Artist”? Nell Painter, Old in Art School

  1. bbenzon July 16, 2018 / 9:39 am

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I’ve been thinking these things through w/ respect to graffiti. As you may know, graffiti was started in the late 60s and early 70s by kids-teens who knew little or nothing about Art and museums and MFAs. They were just asserting themselves in a world that had marginalized them. So they put their names – not birth certificate names, but names they’d chosen for their graffiti persona – wherever they could. And the name became, as one of them put it, the faith of graffiti. And the “art” developed as a way of creating ever more elaborate and sophisticated renderings of those names. In the mid-late 70s graffiti became adopted as the all-but-official graphic style of hip-hop and extreme sports. And so forth and so on and now that graffiti is all but legit, it still keeps its distance from the Art World, though there’s now a dance going on.

    And then there’s the art of Jamie, Michael Bérubé’s son: Jamie’s Investigations: The Art of a Young Man with Down Syndrome

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