Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Wednesday 27 January 2016

A Thought on the Arts: Where Craft Meets Concept

I was given pause, yesterday. I was given pause and it made me think about the other two occasions in the past few days when I’ve been given pause.

On all three occasions the subject that gave me pause was creativity. They were small things, or at least, not so small in many ways, but the triggers seemed reasonably small in scope at the time. The problem is that all of these three smallish pauses are part of a bigger and more important thought-scape.

It’s something I feel the need to tackle, and yet it is full of contradictions and culs-de-sac… And I’m not even sure where to begin.

Perhaps I should begin at the beginning with the triggers.

Last week, an English undergraduate asked me whether she should consider taking a Masters degree in Creative Writing.
The sale of a Rothko at Sothebys for upwards of £45 million

A couple of days ago a very well known commercial artist who is famous for his SF book jackets talked in the social media about a Rothko that sold last May for upwards of £45 million.

Yesterday, I looked at some art by the twentieth century war artist and illustrator Evelyn Dunbar.

My answer to the student’s question was No… Then I thought about it. It’s more complicated than that, of course.

My response to the news about the Rothko was ‘I bloody love Rothko… and Auerbach and Hodgkin!’

My response to Evelyn Dunbar was that her sketches were energetic and dynamic and extraordinary, and that all of those things were lacking in her finished work.

Now, here’s where I contradict myself, again in three convenient points.

I become deeply frustrated by how poor some contemporary writing is. I wish that books were better written and better edited. I often feel the same way about tv and film scripts. I wish that grammar was taught in schools. I wish that writers had a better understanding of cadence and rhythm. I wish they knew how to develop themes and ideas. All of these things can be taught in English Language classes in school, but don’t seem to be anymore. And, besides none of that really matters because talent can’t be taught.

While art does not have to be figurative to be beautiful, Rothko, Auerbach and Hodgkin did learn conventional skills, and it was those skills that allowed them to make beautiful, accomplished art outside of the constraints of the figurative. It is ignorance to suggest that this form of art has no value, and I was appalled when commenters on the social media thread did just that.

Evelyn Dunbar clearly had talent, but being taught art, studying it, stifled her creativity, hindered her process and did not allow her to produce her best work… Or was that her personality? Did she choose to conform? And this is only my opinion, of course.

Already, I’m in a quandary.

Already, I find that I am contradicting myself.

It is not possible simply to be an artist of any kind, whether that is a writer, a painter or a musician. It is not enough to want to be an artist, one must practice one’s art. It is not enough to have an idea for a story, a song or a picture, one must have the skills to translate those ideas to the page, the stave or the canvas.

Practice is one thing, but learning blindly, alone is difficult. Instruction can be useful.

I know people who can play an instrument by ear, and can therefore compose by ear, but how sophisticated can a piece of music be that cannot be written down? It might be possible to compose a pop song, a verse and a chorus, and to be able to repeat it, but it can only be handed on to another person by repeating it to them, probably more than once.

There is no way to write a concerto, for example, and to hold all of that information in one’s head, to make subtle changes, to draft and redraft each movement, and to arrange it for an orchestra.

To be a serious composer, it must, surely, be important to learn to read music and to play an instrument to a high standard. To be a composer, surely one must have more than a natural ear, one must be trained.

Of course, it’s also possible to take a four year old child and to make it learn an instrument, to give it lessons and make it practice daily, perhaps for decades, and still not produce a talented composer.

Of course, there have been any number of very talented popular musicians who have been self-taught, and singers who've had no vocal coaching. Great music doesn't have to be classical music.

The same is probably true of the painter. Even a talented artist can only learn so much about materials by trial and error. Oils and watercolours are both highly technical mediums to work in, and without some instruction a painter might produce a beautiful painting that simply cannot endure, for example. On the other hand, some of the most beautiful art ever produced has endured for thousands of years, and who knows who painted the walls of the caves at Lascaux? Naive and primitive art does not rely on years of learning skills, but retains its value.

As an art student, my enduring frustration was that I could not realise my ideas because there was no one willing to teach me skills. Ideas, concepts were currency, and I had plenty of them, but I never had the satisfaction of seeing them fully realised, because I simply didn’t have the craft. No value was ever put on the craft.

I know artists with wonderful skills who can do no more than reproduce what is in front of them. They make decorative work devoid of thought or expression, and it seems dull to me.

There are, or at least there have been, schools of art, too. There have been times when there has been a trend, a right or current way to achieve something. We see it in various periods of art history. So, students during those periods conformed to those expectations, but what if their talents naturally lay in other areas? Would they tow the line, or must they rebel to achieve their ends? Would they even graduate art college if they failed to produce what was expected of them?

Writing is very particular among the arts because it simply extends a skill that is universal. We all communicate, we all use words all the time. We don’t all write, not even e-mails or texts, although a great many of us do. But all but a very few of us have the power of speech. We all have a vocabulary. Very nearly all of us learn to read and write, even if we do not read for pleasure. Very nearly all of us partake of some form of entertainment that involves communication, whether that’s the written word or the spoken word, whether it’s books, comics, poetry, radio, tv, movies… Words belong to all of us all of the time.

By comparison to the writing student, many art students have had very little real art training before they head off to art school.

We do not all learn music and we do not all learn art. We do all learn to read and write.

What we need, I think, in all of the arts, is a synthesis of skills and ideas. Neither, on its own, is satisfying for very long, and while ideas will always outlive craft, the best ideas will invariably be taken up by better practitioners in new ways and will always be exploited. Artists with the best ideas and with a compulsion will always, I hope, master the skills to produce outstanding art in any arena. They will always find inspiration from those who’ve gone before, and often from masters and mentors too.

The rest is about personality. Some will need encouragement and support, some will need solitude. Some will need order and routine, some will need spontaneity and chaos. Most, perhaps all, will need instruction. How much instruction and for how long will probably depend on the artist. Some might need tutoring their entire lives, others might prefer to rely on practice and on their own processes.

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