Art for art's sake...?
January 31, 2010 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Is realism in painting still a valid form of art? I am terribly confused.

I have always enjoyed painting and drawing. I am reasonably proficient but not brilliant, and I essentially copy things - I like to copy photographs (often my own) of landscapes and animals and faces, so that they look as much like the originals (within the limits of the medium I am using) as I can make them (though I sometimes draw cartoons too). Art is strictly a hobby for me - I only did it at school til I was 16, and I have never studied or known much about the theory or history of art or different art movements. Hence my question!

Last week I got into a discussion with a colleague about art, and he said that he couldn't see the point in the kind of art I did at all (I should point out that he didn't phrase it like that - up til then he didn't know I painted) - you may as well just take a photograph. Now, I do get that photography has rendered realistic portrayals of things unnecessary, but I'd never considered that it might make them totally pointless, and it struck me as a rather odd thing to say. Later that week, when my painting hobby came up in a conversation with an art teacher, I mentioned the "why not just take a photograph" comment to her and asked, jokingly, whether there was any point in me carrying on with the kind of art I did; that is, painting things as I actually saw them. She said that it was "obviously always better to interpret it in some way", but that it was "okay to copy things as a way of learning".

Now, I realise I should really just have asked her what she meant by that at the time, but I am kind of confused by her reply and I hoped that someone with a background in art might be able to help me understand what she could have meant. I am assuming that my kind of art is a sort of realism, and is it therefore true that all other forms of art are superior to realism? I wonder whether even my kind of painting does involve some interpretation (I might make a sky bluer, for instance) - in fact, isn't some amount of interpretation almost inevitable, because the artist can only paint it as he sees it even if he's not deliberately trying to change anything? And how can it be "better" to interpret your subject than not to, if the viewer can't always tell whether the difference between the subject as it is and the subject as it's painted is intended or not? (Is this making any sense?!) Does it even make sense to be talking about one approach to art being "better" than any other...?

I'm aware this question is bordering on chatfilter, but the reason I'm asking is that I know so little about art - and I know so few people who do know anything about art - that I don't know how to go about trying to find out whether it really is considered "always better" to interpret a subject (or what that even means!) myself, and I hoped someone could give me some idea about where I should start looking or what I should start thinking about. Obviously it's just a hobby for me, but I would like to be a decent artist - hypothetically speaking, if I were to show my paintings to someone who knew about art, would they automatically be considered inferior because of the lack of interpretation? Even if they would, I don't seriously intend to start changing my style to make them "better" - I'd just like to know if that is the case, and if so, why is it so? I'm honestly not looking for anyone to say "no, don't worry, your take on art is just fiiiine" - it's just really never struck me that the attempt to make a painting realistic could make it somehow less valid. Does technical skill come into it at all, for instance?

Any thoughts would be really helpful, and I do apologise for such a confused and rambly question!
posted by raspberry-ripple to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I had an art teacher in high school who did a lot of abstract art in his own work, but also taught classical oil painting and portraiture. What he said is that while a photograph captures a moment, a painting -- even one based on a photograph (which he used for portraiture) -- is created over time and thus is less about a single moment. Certainly, I have a different emotional response to a painted landscape or still life or portrait than I do to a photograph. Both are equally valid, but different.

And judging by recent works I have seen in major galleries, realistic painting, even hyper-realistic (realler looking than a photograph, is far from a dead art.
posted by jb at 10:36 AM on January 31, 2010

Also, your critics sound like jealous haters. I love when people make any art (or creative endeavour), no matter what subject or style. My grandfather paints wonky houses and copies paintings he sees for sale in magazines. I would be honoured to hang any of his paintings in my house, just because I could look at it and think, "He made that."
posted by jb at 10:38 AM on January 31, 2010

Realism is still valid and living. It's still someone's interpretation of a subject, and evaluating the artist's technique is more satisfying in realism than any other school.

Photorealism, where the artist attempts to create a scene that is indistinguishable from a photograph, is another story. People have been debating it since probably the 70's, and I agree with the main point of the criticism-- photorealism is about the creator's skill and patience, because the most successful works are nearly indistinguishable from a photograph that would have taken much less time to produce. So it's more of a "hey, look at what I can do" than presenting a unique perspective on a subject.

But plain realism, that's very much alive.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:45 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Realism is a technique like any other. There are still things you can do on a canvas that you can't do with a camera.
posted by rhizome at 10:49 AM on January 31, 2010

Realistic art still requires interpretation and skill; it still requires composition and layout, it requires technique and interpretation. It still requires translating from one image to creating another. You aren't tracing a photograph, you are reinterpretting it. Your choice to try to replicate it as closely as possible (through choices in color, stroke, placement, etc) is neither new nor unusual. There's a long history in art in (sometimes gruesome) detailed, realistic depictions of everything from dead ducks to rotting fruit to gorgeous young things.

Have you seen Janet Fish's work? She's my favorite of the modern Realistic Painters. She by no means represents an extreme - in addition to Realism, there's Photorealism, and there's Hyperrealism, both of which are recognized as "real" art movements by people in and outside the traditional art world.
posted by julen at 10:52 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

... but not by everyone, as Mayor Curley points out above.
posted by julen at 10:54 AM on January 31, 2010

Realism is a technique like any other

This. A good realist painter will not "just" copy what he or she sees: the artist will choose a color palette, a composition, etc. that will make it more Reality than what a camera could capture.

Most people who haven't studied art won't understand that, just as they won't understand the skill and composition it takes to make a good abstract work.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:56 AM on January 31, 2010

First of all, if it makes you happy, keep doing what you're doing. You need no other reason or approval.

A big part of art is the problem solving activity of taking some subject and rendering it in your work (even if your subject is abstract or conceptual). The technical challenge of realism is great and engrossing, but the end result of mastering that challenge is simply that you're getting close to what a photograph can produce much more easily, which is simply visual fidelity to the subject. This is what confounded artists in the late 19th and early 20th century, and led to tremendous exploration of what other challenges were available--cubism, expressivism, abstraction, conceptualism, minimalism, etc.

Still, people like pictures that look like something, and people like making those pictures. In the rarified world of the "pure artist", realism really is grade school exercise; but that rarified world is a small, over-rated, elitist, capricious and generally inaccessible place that most artists stop worrying about.

So there's nothing wrong with working in a realist mode, and many artists who make their living at it continue to do so happily. But... and it's a big but... they've generally moved beyond trying to get only an accurate representation of their subject, and are considering other things as well. They're experimenting with the effect of different mediums, of making different decisions in how they represent something, of simplifying the subject or highlighting particular aspects of it... this list is endless, but comes down to this: they're thinking about more than accurately depicting the subject.

Keep making realist art, but be open to thinking about more than how much your work looks like the subject. Expose yourself to other artists and look for what they're thinking about. Keep a list of things that interest you in the work of others and try them out. Realism in art has actually made a strong comeback since the mid 20th century, but it's a realism that tries to do more than what a camera can do.
posted by fatbird at 11:02 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

The most important thing in art is the frame. Frank Zappa said this in The Real Frank Zappa Book, though I doubt he was the first to think of it.

This expresses a fairly common view of art: an object is art because someone intends it to be seen that way—by calling it that, hanging it in a gallery, performing it in front of other people, etc. Most often creator of the object intends it to be seen as art, and creates the object specifically for that purpose. But sometimes someone finds an object that is not originally art and turns it into art by putting a frame on it. A beautiful object found in nature, like a sea shell, is not art. A utilitarian man-made object, like a toilet, is not art either. But if Marcel Duchamp signs his name on it and puts it in a museum, that's art (though it may not be good art). "Artness" is not determined by content.

What this means for you: if you think your realistic paintings have something to say, and for that reason should be considered art, then you're right. They might be bad art (if their content isn't interesting), but if you intend them to be art, no one else can tell you they're not.
posted by k. at 11:05 AM on January 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Extremely short answer: realism (also sometimes referred to as figurative art, and a subset of what's referred to as representational art) is very valid and very much alive. Feel free to tell anyone who says otherwise that someone who A) works at an major art museum, B) was put through college in part by the proceeds of her father's sales of his own figurative paintings, and C) sees examples of realism in art galleries every day told you so.

That said, there's a history to the rejection of strict realism -- arguably starting with impressionism in the last quarter of the 19th century, then leading through cubism (and a million other -isms, as mentioned above) in the early 20th century and culminating in abstract expressionism at mid-century -- that's at the heart of the development of modern and contemporary art. Nevertheless, there's a vast difference between saying "realism isn't my cup of tea" and "realism isn't valid." One is a perfectly legitimate opinion. The other is pretentious twaddle.
posted by scody at 11:13 AM on January 31, 2010

Also, you should be aware that the word "art" is used in different senses. If you create a painting that is not intended to express anything—for example, one meant only to demonstrate your technical skill or as a decoration for your house—people might call it "art", but it is not art in the same sense. In some contexts any drawing or painting is referred to as "art"—this is not wrong, just a different sense of the word.

There is a continuum between art and merely utilitarian objects, and many objects contain aspects of both (for example: buildings, furniture, journalistic photographs). There is also a continuum between art and mere entertainment: most movies, novels, and popular music contain aspects of both, though some are more on one side than the other.
posted by k. at 11:14 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

The other is pretentious twaddle.
posted by scody

Definitely. I ran into art majors in college with attitudes like this and every one of them was trying to hide the fact that they were too lazy or unskilled to develop their technique. What the art teacher said has some validity though, and I think, from what you said, your work is basically in line with what she's talking about.
posted by Locobot at 11:22 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

The invention of photography, especially color photography, changed the market for art a lot. It took away a lot artists' traditional bread and butter work, like doing portraits, and it made artists rethink what they were doing. Photography and other new technology also gave artists a lot new media to work with. The cool thing is now you can combine drawing with photography and digital manipulation of images.

Realistic drawing is not a useless skill even now. When you draw something, you're creating a representation of how it looks to you, picking out aspects of what you're looking at that you think are important and need to be included in the image you're making of it, and making decisions about how to do that, and you're learning a lot about how visual representation works and how people see things.

Keep doing what you're doing. Study up on some art history too. And you might find vector graphics interesting.
posted by nangar at 11:39 AM on January 31, 2010

...what a photograph can produce much more easily, which is simply visual fidelity to the subject...

I don't know much about art, but this sounds to me like a painter's dismissal of photography: Only the boring kind of photography is primarily about visual fidelity. If a photograph can be a work of art, so can a realistic painting.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:39 AM on January 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Many art teachers and artists trained in the western tradition over the past half-century have been heavily influenced by modernism. Western art owes a great deal to the development of art schools through the Bauhaus and through the avant-garde of the 20C, many of who were reacting to the horrors of WWI (eg Dada) and WWII (eg Abstract Expressionism). Key to understanding what people are saying to you is realizing that, generally speaking, the idea behind a work of art is considered to be as important, if not more important as the aesthetic qualities of a work. Thus Michel Duchamp’s Fountain can be proclaimed the most important work of the previous century.

Going back even further, the invention of photographic techniques in the 1800s made realism in painting and drawing less necessary. We can see the results in Impressionism, Fauvism and many of the art movements of the 20C. Even when influenced by photography (see the blur and point of view in this image by Monet for example ) paintings tried to push the boundaries of what photography could do.

While some artists are interested in photorealism (see the amazing Mary Pratt) those who are most respected in the art world tend to create work that is somehow out of the ordinary, or interesting beyond the fact that it is a highly detailed copy. Pratt usually paints the contents of the kitchen (roasts, jelly, fish on tinfoil) –things that are mundane but become interesting because they are still so closely linked to the idea “woman’s work”. In contrast a painter like Robert Bateman while immensely popular and obviously highly skilled tends to be less appreciated in high art circles because he paints wildlife and this is seen as repetitive and uninteresting.

If you are interested in looking at someone who straddles the worlds of photorealism and abstraction, check out Gerhard Richter.
posted by Cuke at 11:55 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Simply by drawing you are interpreting. A drawing is not the real scene and is not a photograph. You are making choices about how to represent what you're "copying" that make it unique. Being aware of the choices you are making is (for me) engaging in the artistic process, which is another way of thinking about what your teacher is saying.

Realism is not dead. Photography and drawing / painting are quite different. A painting provides texture and no matter how much of a "copy" creative decision-making. Photography provides an unmatchable illusion of depth and requires problem solving. Interesting is interesting regardless.

However, be aware that the standard trope is that photography did make realistic painting less relevant. The upshot of this is that at most art schools today most students graduate without learning how to draw, no matter how legitimate their other pursuits. I think this is a shame.
posted by xammerboy at 12:00 PM on January 31, 2010

Don't listen to the pretentious art-pretenders. As an art history major, I've had to deal with a lot of people with their noses high-in-the-air, unimpressed by anything they might consider too mainstream, or too well understood. Jealous to protect their small amount of cultural capital, they will act snooty, and poo-poo others attempts to explore or understand art. Realism is a fine and valid form of artistic production. It has a long and distinguished history. Art is for you, and so you should do what you like with it, and not what others think you should.

It's also kind of silly to say that realism is a form of art that lacks "interpretation". Actually, any type of reproduction involves "interpretation". Even a photograph is mired in it: when you think about the act of taking a picture, you focus on some aspect of reality and emphasize it by excluding your other surroundings- you frame the photograph, you put it in a book relevant to some interpretive or artistic project, or you hang it on a wall in a particular environment (be it a house, an office, a museum), and each of these surroundings carries with it its own boatload of context and meaning.

The next time someone starts to squash on realism, you can point them to its broad and important history in the Western canon. You can explain that, actually, the entire Renaissance came about largely BECAUSE artists were interested in exploring accurate pictoral representation in the form of vanishing perspective and accurate modeling of the human body. Much of the rest of art-history has been simply a movement towards and away (and then towards, and then away again, etc.) from a realist-like perspective towards something "more abstract." (The idea that abstraction holds some core value superior to realism is an invention only of the 19th century bourgeois value-system. Art in the salon culture of 19th century Paris became increasingly a form of social capital, and owning it and knowing about served as indicators of wealth and position. During the shift in the 1860's from the realism, etc. of the salon culture into the impressionist and post-impressionist movements following it, the idea of art as "cultural capital" was maintained and even reinforced.)

You can, as mentioned above, point out out that this is present in contemporary art as well, like Chuck Close and the Hyper-realists. You can point to Martha Rosler, and her various social projects, based on the earlier photographic essays of WPA artists from the 1930's. You can say "Hi, have you heard of Diego Rivera?", and you can even point out the fun fact that Jackson Pollock, king of Abstract Expressionism, was trained as a realist painter.

If you're interested in studying these issues of Realism, and how much interpretation it actually involves, there is tons of literature you can read. I think a good starting point would be:

"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", a short essay by Walter Benjamin, that is probably one of the most referenced essays in art history scholarship.
"The Museum without Walls" by Andre Malraux, which is basically a book about how art (regardless of its realist/abstract qualities) is appropriated by institutions for their own ends., and
"The Art of Describing" by Susana Alpers, a GREAT book on realism and realist interpretation, specifically in the context of 17th Century Dutch painting.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 12:22 PM on January 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Well, straight-up copying photographs can only take you so far as an artist – have you drawn much that was directly from life? What everyone is saying about the place of realism in modern art is quite true (i.e. yes it does have a living place in modern art) but if you're presenting drawings of photos to someone with art training they are pretty much going to be able to tell they are drawings of photos and little more. But how do you get more? You experiment, you draw from life (if you're not doing that already), you find artists you really like and try to figure out what their thought processes are, and, well, I guess that's a start.
posted by furiousthought at 12:28 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

"However, be aware that the standard trope is that photography did make realistic painting less relevant. The upshot of this is that at most art schools today most students graduate without learning how to draw, no matter how legitimate their other pursuits. I think this is a shame."
I am unaware of any art schools that do not require at least one intensive class in drawing from life (not photographs, by the way).

Art school is a seriously misunderstood institution, if I'm to judge by most of the comments about art students that I see bandied about on metafilter all the time.

Realism is still valid as a pursuit, one of the benefits of post modernity is that a diversity of techniques and approaches to image-making has become acceptable, if not encouraged. There's a plethora of well respected artists whose work is realistic, if not at least figurative. If anything, the tendencies in art today for quoting past movements and appropriating imagery from high and low sources often encourages contemporary artists to consider working from photographs while composing what they're attempting to communicate with their work. The lines between all disciplines (including the ones between photography and painting) have been blurred.

That said, directly copying from a photograph and trying to match it as a goal is not the same thing as trying to capture reality- it's trying to reproduce a photographic image in paint. This is a dead end, and it's (relatively) easy to do with a little practice, the artist can gauge their improvement or the quality of their end result based on how closely their painting matches the photograph, and the result is certain to elicit positive responses from viewers who "don't know much about art but..." (as they often preface their judgements).

This is why your art teacher expects you to progress forward from drawing directly from photographs to drawing from life or abstracting the parts of the source material you are using to create something more interesting. Learning to draw from life (which is not already two dimensional, unlike a photograph) is really about learning how to *look* in a new way. It's a skill separate from recreating something that already exists in a flattened form. Once artists learn new perceptual skills from studying the world around them, chances are they will bring those new insights back with them should they decide that their calling really is as a photorealist, and this broadening will allow them to investigate information provided by a photograph that they might otherwise have missed before.
posted by stagewhisper at 12:38 PM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, good. Whinging about "the art world." I love nothing so much as inverse snobbery based on half-understood arguments that were settled nearly a century ago and that nobody's been adding to in decades.

Contemporary art is without question the most open and inclusive discipline in the humanities (which are themselves derided for their openness by many in the sciences), embracing a range of practices from straight-up perceptual painting and figurative sculpture to ephemeral and even virtual actions, interactions, and propositions. When one person expresses a personal preference for one form or another, they are, I can assure you, expressing only that: a personal preference.

Your coworker may just be a bit of a rube. The art teacher might have meant one of several things. Certain representational painters place a great deal of emphasis on real-world perception ("painting from life"), and she may have been referring only to your reliance on photographs. A photograph renders flat a scene that has real depth, that changes with time and with your own physical relationship to it. It gives you an image, rather than requiring you to make one. Perceptual painting is trickier, and many people value it more.

Scads of successful painters work directly from photographs, however (this to distinguish from painters who might use multiple photographs as references), it's just that they usually have a specific reason for doing so. Think about Gerhard Richter's labored recreations of newspaper photographs or Elizabeth Peyton's wonky reworkings of tabloid imagery—both want their audience to recognize the photographic source of their images, with the idea that this will cause us to think in some way about our relationship to those images.

Paintings that are simply illustrative or decorative are fine—as illustration or decoration. We all like them, but there's only so much you can say about them. Some people are content to contemplate things like composition and framing and the like ad infinitum, a lot of others find that avenue terribly boring. Again, personal preference.

And though you don't come right out and say it, if there's any anxiety about what you're calling "realism" versus abstraction, I'll just throw it out there that a dominant theoretical position since at least the eighties has been that there's no such thing as "true" abstraction anymore. When someone endeavors to make an "abstract" painting, they are in fact reproducing a set of forms and conventions established in the first half of the 20th Century. Therefore any new "abstract" painting is actually a representation of an abstract painting.

Do with that what you will.
posted by wreckingball at 12:47 PM on January 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

Others have said this more eloquently than I already, but I just wanted to add my voice to the "of course realism is still a valid form of art" chorus.

Your coworker is an ass.
posted by usonian at 12:50 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

HabeasCorpus, here is Benjamin's famous essay rather than a wikipedia link. The purpose of his essay is not to talk about "these issues of Realism, and how much interpretation it actually involves" but rather to discuss the ways in which mass dissemination of imagery affected the general public, and to what degree each of the disciplines at the time wielded the most power to control/direct the masses.

Film held the highest position for Benjamin, since he theorized it diminished the distance between the work and the viewer in a way that reproductions of paintings could not- reproductions of paintings are still once removed from the actual object, whereas Benjamin saw film as a submissive/ immersive experience. He states: " for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art."
posted by stagewhisper at 1:10 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

She said that it was "obviously always better to interpret it in some way", but that it was "okay to copy things as a way of learning".

What a fucking idiotic thing for an art teacher to say. How does this person teach art while being apparently ignorant of the concept of technique?
posted by desuetude at 4:10 PM on January 31, 2010

I'm also an art-teacher, and I think drawing realistically is a wonderful skill. Whether or not it's art is dependent upon the definition of art. I think most people consider art to be "the products of human creativity". Is what you're doing creative or just constructive? If you are copying things exactly with no thoughts about composition, subject-choice, emphasis etc. than I'd say you're more of a technician. However, we all know this is humanly impossible. The act of hand making an image is inseparable from a whole series of small aesthetic choices that add up to a unique creation. If you had five very talented artists draw the same object 'as realistically as possible' they would still all look different. One artist would be slightly more entranced with the lighting, another would emphasize shape or color etc.

So short answer: probably, yes it's art.

Also: Photographs are not as realistic are we often assume. They crop in ways very different than our natural perception. The human eye discriminates in ways that the camera does not. You can look at a beautiful woman's beautiful eyes and never even know there are pores in her nose. A camera will always see them. If you really want to make realistic art work from life, and from art from the pre-photographic and early photographic world.
posted by debbie_ann at 4:10 PM on January 31, 2010

"She said that it was "obviously always better to interpret it in some way", but that it was "okay to copy things as a way of learning".

What a fucking idiotic thing for an art teacher to say. How does this person teach art while being apparently ignorant of the concept of technique?

I don't understand how this statement makes her teacher ignorant of the concept of technique in any way. Copying something by hand, whether it's a photograph of the great outdoors or a photograph of an historical painting or drawing is a traditional way of learning techniques that can later be applied to one's own work. In fact, this is the only time during a student's development that copying is actually encouraged by decent art teachers- later the student is urged to move on and apply any insights they've learned from the copying exercises to their next project.

What is your definition of the concept of technique?
posted by stagewhisper at 4:49 PM on January 31, 2010

stagewhisper, I was reacting to the idea of realism as 'mere' copying, not interpretation. Which to me suggests that she was disregarding the artistic technique required to render something faithfully in paint. I was perhaps a little harsh, since the art teacher's statement was given without context.
posted by desuetude at 4:58 PM on January 31, 2010

posted by stagewhisper at 5:31 PM on January 31, 2010

Do not take anyone talking about "valid forms of art" seriously. They are under a serious misapprehension of reality.
posted by cmoj at 11:13 AM on February 1, 2010

Response by poster: Firstly, thank you so much for all your thoughts about this. I'm sorry it's taken so long to reply, but I've been trying to digest all the responses, all of which I've found really interesting: you've really given me something to think about here. I haven't read all the links yet but have looked at some of the artists you've linked to; I haven't been properly interested in art or artists for ages and your responses have really inspired me to find out more about some of them (I am finding Gerhard Richter pretty fascinating) so thank you so much - I've got much more out of this question than I hoped for!

One comment I would just like to highlight is this:

If you had five very talented artists draw the same object 'as realistically as possible' they would still all look different. One artist would be slightly more entranced with the lighting, another would emphasize shape or color etc.

I think this is how I feel about what I do. I admit that my use of photographs is limiting (and I will come back to that), but I do feel that what I try to do when I paint them is emphasise whatever it is that drew me to the image in the first place: even if it isn't conscious interpretation, the painting I end up with is not the same as the original photograph (and not just because of my own technical limitation) because it's been filtered through my own feelings about the subject. This is partly why I so enjoy drawing faces, because I like trying to convey the expression as I perceive it, but even landscapes have a mood or an atmosphere of some kind. I've always felt as though just the choice of what to paint is an interpretation of some kind (and I agree with HabeasCorpus's comment that a photograph is also an interpretation, for that reason). I also really like this:

What he said is that while a photograph captures a moment, a painting -- even one based on a photograph (which he used for portraiture) -- is created over time and thus is less about a single moment.

and I have to agree with this:

So it's more of a "hey, look at what I can do" than presenting a unique perspective on a subject.

- but I am a bit of a sucker for "hey, look what I can do" - I just really enjoy admiring an artist's technical skill. And it doesn't seem to matter that someone could just take a picture of it more easily - because in that case, you can't give all the credit to the photographer, because some of it belongs to the technology that makes photography capable. I am a bit amazed by Mary Pratt (but, alas, I quite like the wildlife paintings too).

I think what I thought was weird about the art teacher's comment (and for the sake of clarity, she's not my art teacher, she's another colleague - I'm a teacher too (of chemistry, in case that explains anything!)) was just that it seems so obvious to me that even a painting like one of my "copies" involves some kind of interpretation, that telling someone it was "better to interpret" their subject seemed vaguely and unconstructively critical (should I interpret them more? Interpret them differently? Or what?). Of course I don't expect everyone to appreciate my paintings, but to tell me that doing something she clearly thinks I'm not doing is "obviously always better" just seemed like too much of a blanket statement to be helpful. If one's appreciation of a painting isn't all about technical ability, then surely some of it must be at some level subjective, and if so, surely one approach can't always be better than another? (I can see I might need to read about this...!)

I do take on board the criticism about not painting/drawing from life (though in this particular situation I don't think this is what the art teacher meant). I rely on photos partly because I tend only to paint things I think are really beautiful (and I do see things that I think are really beautiful in life, but I tend not to have the time or the equipment to record them there and then so I take a picture and paint it later - though I realise this isn't an ideal solution at all) and partly just through lack of time in general. I will try harder to sketch things around me, and to work more from life wherever possible, as I can certainly see the value in this - thank you for the advice.

And thank you all, once again. After reading all your comments I really do feel inspired to try to improve - and thank you for giving me so much to think about!
posted by raspberry-ripple at 11:41 AM on February 1, 2010

was just that it seems so obvious to me that even a painting like one of my "copies" involves some kind of interpretation, that telling someone it was "better to interpret" their subject seemed vaguely and unconstructively critical (should I interpret them more? Interpret them differently? Or what?). Of course I don't expect everyone to appreciate my paintings, but to tell me that doing something she clearly thinks I'm not doing is "obviously always better" just seemed like too much of a blanket statement to be helpful.

Here's my advice: don't diminish your own work by calling it "copying." There is absolutely nothing wrong with painting from photograph or photographs, and it need not be your own photograph for the painting to "count" as "your art." (It is of course appropriate to credit the work of others where appropriate. If you show your work, you can note your acknowledgments.)

The idea that you need force some sort of mannered "interpretation" into your work to prove that you worked hard enough at being artistic is silly. (And a good way to create bad art.)
posted by desuetude at 12:02 PM on February 1, 2010

I think there's an important distinction that hasn't yet been made here, and that doesn't come up often in these discussions amongst serious students of capital A Art, but I feel is near the heart of your question, since you describe yourself as a hobbyist and not someone intending to take on the Art World.

It's the distinction between those makers of pictures who are primarily interested in the picture they're making, and those who are primarily interested in the things they are making a picture of.

The universe of viewers can also be divided more or less in this way, with the vast majority, I believe, primarily enjoying images because of what they are images of, or about, compared to enjoying them because of what they reveal about the person making them (their style, their intentions, their choices, their skills, and on and on). Of course, this is a sliding scale with lots of overlap, not a simple either/or distinction, but I think asking which side of the distinction/scale is getting more love (is it the thing pictured or the picture itself?), either from the maker or the viewer, is quite a useful measuring stick for sorting out the "valid" makers and the "with it" viewers from the clueless, at least from the "Is it Art?" POV.

Obviously, even image makers who are committed to a particular subject matter can be, and usually are, highly conscious of all that goes into making a particular image and are strongly opinionated about what makes one image of a given thing better than another of the same thing. And equally so, all viewers can easily sort between images they prefer of the same subject based on the chooses made by the maker.

But once the focus, for either the maker or the viewer, shifts away from the subject and begins to give even slightly more weight to the work itself, then I think you can say that Art is being attempted/appreciated, no matter the subject or the style, and its validity in the contemporary world is going to be easily defended.

I think the question of skill comes down to this, too. The average viewer can most easily judge the skill required to make an image by comparing the work to what they know of the subject, even if it's simply the look of the world that's the subject. If it looks "real," the artist is "really good."

And there's no denying that skill is required to make that happen, or that such a skill will probably forever win approval from many viewers, or that such skills are delightful, fascinating, and even profoundly mysterious to pursue as a maker. But nobody with even a subliminal appreciation for the changes in the meaning or function of Art since the advent of photography or since Duchamp proved that Idea is at least compelling as Execution will be satisfied with such skills as the determining factor in whether or not Art is being produced.
posted by dpcoffin at 1:04 PM on February 1, 2010

dpcoffin, and I think your distinctions are interesting and a useful starting point in determining relative quality in representational art. Rather than using these parameters to determine whether or not something is Art or Not Art, I'd instead frame it as using them to determine where along the continuum of good art, bad art, and/or kitsch a painting with easily recognizable subject matter falls.
posted by stagewhisper at 5:31 PM on February 1, 2010

Best answer: I'm pretty loath to make (or at least to speak) judgements about good or bad art, since I'm certain there's much more subjectivity in my personal rankings than objectivity, despite the strength of my personal convictions.

But I think a self-described hobbyist could well devote a lot of pleasurable and enlightening energy and time in a realistic-representation-of-beloved-things skills-building project "for it's own sake," and reasonably refrain from regarding the project as "Art-making" while very happily regarding it as "doing art." And wind up making a bunch of very nice objects in the process.

It's only when they start deciding that this is Real Art that they'd be likely to run into dissenters (and of course plenty of supporters, too).

So then it's more like politics than a hobby.
posted by dpcoffin at 6:12 PM on February 1, 2010

dpcoffin- agreed!
posted by stagewhisper at 6:50 PM on February 1, 2010

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