“The Matthew Effect” in economics was named after the verse in Matthew in the New Testament of the Christian bible: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (25:29) A popular way of saying this is, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
The Matthew Effect as applied to education was first described in 1990 by Canadian psychologist Keith Stanovich. You can get the idea with all the talk these days about the importance of third grade. Children who move into fourth grade without knowing how to read suffer significant disadvantages for the rest of their lives. Learning to read is the vital precursor to reading to learn. Poor readers drop out. Later on in life, good readers get the good stuff, and poor readers don’t.
The Matthew Effect can be applied to art. Historically, would-be artists who didn’t learn the basics of drawing, composition, colour and form put themselves at a disadvantage. But with the widespread democratization of art, particularly in the Western hemisphere, folks these days often feel self-expression is up ahead of proficiency. It seems many artists are simply educated with a sense of entitlement and audacity.
In many places, big, decorative art is popular. Artists with very little training or academic instincts can often make effective, even sensitive, wall-fillers that make people happy. One of my more conservative dealers calls it “the end of connoisseurship.” He tells me people are not looking so closely for exquisite rendering, good drawing or the skillful nailing of light and shadow. “Right now they want ’em mighty, moody, and splashy,” he says.
“Because traditional skills aren’t so respected anymore,” my dealer says, “there’s an industry in teaching people to be amateurs.” As he said this I was remembering Picasso’s remark: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I’m curious about this. Is “painting like a child” just a trend? Are skill, technique, and connoisseurship truly on the endangered list? If so, what is this doing to people?
PS: “Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many tasks.” (Keith E. Stanovich, Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology, University of Toronto)
Esoterica: Another friend regularly attends courses where everyone is encouraged to throw paint onto giant, inexpensive surfaces — often from a lineup of commonly-shared pots of colour. The idea of these events is to free up the creator within, express oneself, shake out demons, and have a good time. Colour mixing and other basics are not part of the curriculum. After a weekend of emoting and splashing, my friend asked if she could bring her results to me for a crit. In a diplomatic manner I pointed out what I thought were their strengths and weaknesses. After a while she hesitantly asked, “How much do you think I should charge for them?”
The painting science
by Barry John Raybould, UK/USA/China/Italy
I think part of the problem may lie in the economics of the art instruction publishing industry. In order to sell books, any art instruction book needs to be packed full with pictures, with accompanying step-by-step instructions that make painting look easy and accessible to everyone. That is where the market is. Difficult concepts and extensive instruction on how to build a student’s foundation in the fundamental skills needed to paint well are avoided because they do not sell books. The result is a plethora of art instruction that address only the simpler of the fundamental skills needed to paint well. It is an incomplete foundation. The majority of the really in-depth art instruction books by artists such as Carlson, Payne, and Alfred East for example, were written in the first half of the 20th century or before. They tend to be very heavy on text, with few pictures, somewhat difficult to read, but packed full of key concepts and principles that a painter who wants to do quality work needs to understand. These books would not be published today, at least not by the established art instruction publishers. As John Constable, the British painter said, “Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature.” You do not get very far in a career in science if you have not spent years mastering the basic building block principles that are the foundation of all science. So it is with painting. Before the advent of the 20th century “isms,” all artists used to understand that.
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Value of the traditional
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
When I decided to study art at the college level, I had two great art programs to choose from. One taught traditional drawing and painting based on time tried methods of representational art. The other college program focused much more on conceptual art and abstract painting. I decided to go with the program that taught traditional painting methods. I have never regretted that decision, because even though I do love to do abstract work on occasion, I am not limited in the types of things that I can do. As a traditional painter, it is sometimes tempting to just jump to the other side and paint happy loose paintings with dancing poppies or randomly place shapes of color, but then I see someone who understands what I am doing. They stand in front of my work and get their noses right up next to the canvas, so they can really study my brushstrokes! That makes my heart sing and keeps me plodding on to sharpening my own style of painting.
by Decker Walker, Stanford, CA, USA
Formulating this issue as a struggle between traditional skills and free expression boxes us in unnecessarily. Traditional skills are fine, but limited. Artists of the last 150 years have shown that there are an unlimited number of visual languages and that the language family of traditional realism is just one big family, like the Indo-European languages are one big family. Traditional Asian visual languages require their own set of skills, some overlapping with Western ones, some distinctive. They and Traditional African visual languages, Amerindian, Pacific, and the invented languages of cubism, abstract expressionism, and more all show that artists can create visual worlds as exciting and worthwhile as Traditional Realism, if not more. Some contemporary artists will speak the language of Traditional Realism and good for them and for us viewers. Others will choose to speak in other languages. Some will invent languages and some of these languages will attract viewers and followers. To lump all these speakers of different languages together as ‘free expression’ is to repeat the parochialism of the Greeks who thought all languages other than theirs sounded ugly, like ‘bar-bar,’ and labeled their speakers barbarians. Just because some people throw paint at the wall and call it art shouldn’t lead us all to retreat to the supposed security of Traditional Realism.
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by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
I used to be a devotee of Picasso, but have come to the conclusion he, as well as many others of his time period, did a big disservice to technically trained artists. I find many who believe training is not necessary anymore. They want to “feel” it rather than do a technically produced work. Amateurism is the name of the game. This so-called “democratization” has made many believe you don’t need intense study and method anymore. They falsely believe they are producing artwork worthy of notice. But they are self-delusional and much of what is produced is decorative at best and will find the junk heap sooner or later. History will not remember any of this work. As with all products made with quality, skill and integrity, these works will stand the test of time.
Our natural joy
by Solveig Larsen, NSW, Australia
Academia can de-construct and impose ideas, technique etc. to the point where it kills the soul of a thing. I have heard world class composers, conductors and musicians agree universally that although a piece of music may technically be perfect, it does not surpass the supremacy of a work, not technically excellent, but played with soul, played with emotion.
Too much of modern, and post modern art has been focused on deconstructing “life” …much of it caught up in the mental complexity of ideas. In de-constructing, the soul is killed off. The work lacks heart and life. The same can be of being overly academic in one’s approach to art. Hopefully the individual, because of the joy discovered in being creative, is naturally led to learn more, but not at the expense of one’s natural joy, one’s essence, the thing that drove him/her to create in the first place. I think it is far preferable to remain true to one’s uniqueness. Then learning is a joy, and one retains the soul in one’s work that is so enlivening and truly qualifies, sustains and deserves the title or the word “art.”
Unfair comparison with therapy pot-o-paint classes
by Suzanne Edminster, Santa Rosa, CA, USA
“Are skill, technique, and connoisseurship truly on the endangered list?” As a maker of big, moody paintings, I would suggest that it’s just a different skill set, a different technique set, and indeed different set of connoisseurs today. You included an unfair example when you cited your friend and the purely expressive pots-o-paint class. These classes totally avoid any thought of aesthetics or criticism — in fact, both are forbidden. (This is to “protect” the artists, and thus they are not really art classes at all, but therapy or expression classes. Normally they use substandard paints and materials and the end results are not meant to be shown to anyone, no matter how interesting they are.) Many non-traditional paintings are carefully crafted aesthetic expressions. Many abstract expressionists, like de Kooning, were fine draftsmen.
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The art of deconstruction
by Angelika Ouellette, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
The comment has reminded me of some university art classes in the late ’90s: “I’m curious about this. Is ‘painting like a child’ just a trend? Are skill, technique, and connoisseurship truly on the endangered list? If so, what is this doing to people?” The-in-thing in the classes I attended was taking great pride in deconstructing anything that remotely smacked of beauty, health, vitality, joy or, gawd forbid, talent and skill. It did make for interesting interpretations of the projects we were given, and certainly gave me a glimpse ‘outside’ the box of what I thought was art. Unfortunately it also left me feeling inadequate and dissatisfied as an artist and without any hope of utilizing what I’d learned as a profession — let alone a passion.
The sad state of art criticism
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
I do not think a subject makes me hotter under the collar than the so called ‘democratization of art. As Jean Cocteau said, “It is art if I say it is art.” It certainly was easy for him to gain fame placing a man’s pissoir on a pedestal than actually learning how to paint. He was a third rate artist at best, and if it weren’t for these art twits, who would know him? This cry has been taken up by many wannabe ‘artists’ in the latter part of the last century by kids with parents with deep enough pockets to pay the tuition of the useless 20th century art schools — including mine.
Imagine my surprise as a young student in the 1960’s, at the vaunted Boston Museum School, that art school was a do-it-yourself project. Professors rarely attended classes. Stilllife and models were present but no one clued you in to how to manage them. Apparently that is still the case today. Sadly I trooped by, unknowing, one of the only extant ateliers in America teaching the classic studio style. It was the R. H. Ives Gammel studio on Newbury St. He was a student of Edmund Tarbell, Joseph DeCamp, classic Boston School artists.
As there were no other ateliers or other places to learn how to draw classically that I was aware of, I basically taught myself — a long arduous process. Fortunately these art sanctuaries are flowering today.
This democratization of art is aided and abetted today by leading critics — especially the New York Times’ Jerry Saltz, called in Art Review in 2009 as the 73rd most powerful person in the art world. This is his take on “deskilling” from Wikipedia:
In an article in Artnet magazine, Saltz codified his outlook: “All great contemporary artists, schooled or not, are essentially self-taught and are de-skilling like crazy. I don’t look for skill in art… Skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency… I’m interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or re-imagine it — an engineer, say, who builds rockets from rocks.”
His wife is also a New York Times critic – riding on the same rails.
Jacob Collins, one of the foremost figurative artists of the day, cannot even get reviewed in the New York Times.
It seems a daunting task to persevere. Ballet dancers learn their skills through years of arduous training. Do you think a dancer says, “I dance therefore I should be allowed to express myself as a soloist in an American Ballet or Bolshoi production? Me-thinks there would be a man with a net in the wings. Yet this is allowed and even encouraged in contemporary art schools — and woe to the person who contradicts one of its students, as I have.
This is a modern conundrum. Should those of us who live for aesthetics and beauty leave Rome for the Huns?
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Enjoy the past comments below for The Matthew Effect…
watercolour painting, 10.5 x 10.5 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Kimberly Price of Dallas, TX, USA, who wrote, “I am DYING to know what you said to her!!!!!!!”
(RG note) Thanks, Kimberly. I suggested to her that she was putting in a nickel and trying to get a dollar tune. I told her to go to her room.
And also Linnette Johnson of Austell, GA, USA, who wrote, “I get as much art instruction as I can from experienced artists and some of what I get is not taught by colleges! I try to have individuality and paint from my heart but at the same time applying the basic principles… however, following the dotted lines is most boring to me. That’s why realism leaves me cold. As for computer art — apostasy!!!
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Port Moody, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Although it is the traditional artist’s job to dedicate the time and attention to the traditional philosophy, modern artists need to be on top of the current culture and make their art relevant to it. Making art based on a mix of both worlds has endless possibilities.”