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Post #1061 • September 25, 2007, 10:08 AM • 17 Comments

An alert reader writes:

After much struggle I boiled down my thoughts on extrinsic elements in art to two questions I hope are relevant.

1. If a respected commercial gallery or a curated art space approached you to show your graphic works, as indivisible works (e.g., "Fire" would be one work in eight panels, not eight separate works), would you accept; or would you say that if you ever presented them in physical form at all, it would only be through a respected book publisher, categorized as graphic literature? (BTW, I'm assuming the text is integral to the work. It looked to me like you added the text to "Fire" digitally, after scanning the original watercolors).

2. Every Friday you present a link from the Department of Skills. Is skill intrinsic to art? If so, isn't the image the thing, no matter how it's produced? If not, why is it valid to critique it?

1. They're webcomics, so any other version of it would either be a facsimile or its own statement. I wouldn't be averse to showing the images by themselves or the comic in book form, as long as it was made clear what people were looking at. The text that looks like it has been added digitally to the images in "Fire" has actually been positioned over them with CSS generated by a Python script. Little production notes are in the page source, if you're interested. But to answer your question the way you meant it, as long as the thing held up on its own, I wouldn't mind people seeing it on its own. Berkeley Breathed made a decision about Bloom County products that they had to add to the character. One of the few that were released was an Opus phone, which looked up when it rang, and when you hung up, it returned to staring at the wall. The idea is that versions should enrich, not dilute.

Keep in mind that now that I want to work with concepts and language, I'm moving into a medium that supports them more naturally than visual art. Trying to make juxtaposed images not read as narrative is practically impossible, and language in comics looks like it belongs, not like a misplaced element. Someone could try to classify me as a conceptual artist, but from the standpoint of comics, they're pretty formal. (Scott McCloud considers himself a comics formalist, by the way. His analyses of the medium are excellent.) My thought is to make the thing function on its own terms, whatever its terms are.

2. This is a hard question. Skill has two axes: technical and artistic. In many cases you can measure technical skill: increasing realism, more balls in the air, crisp, pianissimo arpeggios of 64th notes. Artistic skill is tautological - the artist's skills are good because his product is good, and the product is good because it's good. Performances or productions can have technical skill but not artistic skill, or artistic but not technical skill (or not much; usually something with artistic quality reads at least somewhat as technically competent). There are also infrequent examples of both and frequent examples of neither.

No problem there. We run into trouble when we try to correlate the two axes. If they related causally, we wouldn't get technically proficient, artistically negligent productions. If they don't relate causally, what the hell is going on?

I have a theory, which perhaps you could observe regarding the new addition to your family. In first language acquisition, I think sounds and ideas stack up at random and then coalesce into language when the kid wants to say something. You don't pontificate about syntax, you just say to her "ba ba ba ba ba." At the same time you're naming things to her. One day the sound and the idea come together, the parents make a big happy deal about it, and language gets acquired. At the point of the child's first word, if you look at everything in her skill set that's not the first word, you see an pile of sounds and ideas that correlate, but not in English (she means "bottle" when she makes that prolonged gurgle) or don't correlate at all. The pressure that forces them together is the child's ambition to communicate.

Fast forward to art school. Substitute mechanical skills for sounds, grown-up ideas for baby ideas, and I think the same thing is going on - what matters is the student's ambitions, both the quantity and the quality.

Towards the beginning, ambition demands more skill. The student learns how to handle various media and her art gets better than it was. After a while, the ROI diminishes noticiably - more skill doesn't necessarily result in better work. (The same happens in language - knowing bigger and more arcane words doesn't necessarily result in better writing.) She has to address artistic quality, which is not technical quality. How she goes about this is up to her, and depends entirely on her ambitions, which hopefully are both aggressive and well-aimed. She likely picks a specialty according to her interests and bears down on it.

So is skill intrinsic to art? Yes, in the way that water is intrinsic to swimming. Swimming, whether the dog paddle or the butterfly, is something that happens because of water. Art is something that happens because of skill. Does more water mean better swimming? Not after you have enough of it. What's enough? It depends on what you think of as a good swim.

I have found that good artists harbor bad feelings about their technical skills for their entire lives. (This isn't causal, because having bad feelings about your skills doesn't make you a better artist, but it is part of the self-critical mechanism that might.) Being a productive artist involves putting those feelings aside to some degree and working on the right problem in the work, which may have a technical solution and may not. At some point you say to yourself, what the hell, I'll never be Rembrandt (or whomever you admire), but off to the studio I go.

But secretly, they remain skill junkies. And that's why I have a Department of Skills on Fridays.

There's another side to this: Is skill intrinsic to music? To dance? No one would even ask. Why has art become so different from every other creative effort? Or has it?




September 25, 2007, 10:56 AM

I didn't know you liked Breakdancing?

Wanna battle? Haha!



September 25, 2007, 11:01 AM

Prepare to get beat down, son.

Well, not really. I can't break worth a damn. I enjoy watching, though.



September 25, 2007, 12:42 PM

Skill is made evident through expectation, and becomes less evident and less central to an activity when expectations are reduced. No one who merely banged the keys with his fist would be considered a skilled pianist, but, given the example set by visual art, it is possible to imagine it coming to that. ("By randomly battering a sophisticated instrument I am making a comment on the savage impulses of mankind when confronted with an incomprehensible object")

We may not know right away what constitutes skill in a particular activity, like knitting or tree-climbing, but we will be able to judge it fairly quickly as soon as we understand what was being done and saw it being done.

Visual art, unlike piano-playing or dance or literature, is extremely broadly defined. Anything visible can be plausibly called "art". Skill has been subordinated by the misconception that innovation is not only essential but also consists of doing away with existing conventions. Once the expectations inherent in these conventions are discarded the skills associated with them become expendable as well.

This means that you can produce art with very little evidence of skill, but it also means that one is free to evolve conventions and skills, within some medium, which indeed produce innovative art, a kind of home-made converse of the convention-busting cliche. I am an abstract painter using mediums which have potential which has barely begun to be worked out. Once in a while I find some new way to get a visual effect, a new "skill", which makes my paintings better. But it comes slowly, like any invention, and very few people will recognize it because it will be new. That's why the Abstract Expressionist artists matured so late. it is also why, on the other hand, it is so easy to make just about anything and call it "art"; hardly anyone knows the difference.


Chris Rywalt

September 25, 2007, 1:36 PM

Franklin sez:
So is skill intrinsic to art? Yes, in the way that water is intrinsic to swimming. Swimming, whether the dog paddle or the butterfly, is something that happens because of water. Art is something that happens because of skill. Does more water mean better swimming? Not after you have enough of it. What's enough? It depends on what you think of as a good swim.

I'm commenting mainly because I was doing a vanity Google search and found my name mentioned in an older comments thread. Apparently I never comment here because I'm afraid Franklin will out-write me (Marc Country) or because I agree (Franklin). Actually, I never comment here because I never read this blog because...well, I don't have a good reason. I guess because I forget Franklin even has a blog. Which makes me a bad blog friend, I guess. No one likes to hear that someone they like doesn't read their blog, right?

Anyway. I'm here today, and I wanted to say -- in addition to all that stuff just now -- that this paragraph I've quoted here is fantastic. Worth the trip. I think I'll add it to my blog's fortune script.



September 25, 2007, 2:00 PM

To the curious: go to youtube and punch in "derek bailey" in contrast to the guitar player you have chosen for skill in music and tell me what you think. This kid playing the guitar has skill but there is no art coming from his guitar. Why do you make a distinction between music, dance and art?
And besides the kid w/ the guitar turn to John Fahey who mastered bluegrass and kept playing until he did something else with it (turned it into art) instead of merely skill. A skill can be learned, taking that and making art out of it is something different.



September 25, 2007, 2:02 PM

...and just for fun youtube John Butcher for the sax.



September 25, 2007, 2:33 PM



September 25, 2007, 3:06 PM

This kid playing the guitar has skill but there is no art coming from his guitar.

Actually, that wasn't the question. Is skill intrinsic to music? Sure. I put up the four-hands thing because it's fun. I won't defend it as art. It's certainly music, though.



September 25, 2007, 3:41 PM

I think your analogy is a bit skewed, Franklin.

Skill is to art as water is to swimming? It should be the other way around.



September 25, 2007, 4:50 PM

Maybe it's an upside-down mirror analogy opie.



September 25, 2007, 5:24 PM

the longer you do something the easier it is to convince someone you know what you are doing.



September 25, 2007, 7:00 PM

I know. I hate that. They installed one in our house and I can't seem to get used to that upside-down image.



September 26, 2007, 8:55 AM

To the curious: visit "youtube" and punch in Derek Bailey in contrast to the guitar music demonstrated above for skill in music and tell me what you think!



September 26, 2007, 6:11 PM

ok never mind...


Geoff Bunn Art

September 30, 2007, 2:18 PM

Skill is no more intrinsic to art than it is to any other 'metier'. A child can produce art, a cat, a fool.

What is 'art' is is what is art.

What hangs in a gallery, however, is largely authority and/or privilege. And those who dictate what hangs there, want you all to think that there is an inner guile. That a way, they can keep it to themselves.

Free yourself up and squidge some paint onto a piece of board or paper.

Pip pip!



September 30, 2007, 5:10 PM

We try to make sense here, Geoff.


Marc Country

September 30, 2007, 7:42 PM

A child can produce a cat? Now THAT'S skill!



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