Book CLub: Autobiography

We spent a recent Sunday afternoon having a cosy tea party replete with fresh scones, over which we discussed a paper by Robert Nelson on autobiography in art: subtitled ‘Between egotism, chatter and necessity.’ The chapter is from his book The Jealousy of Ideas, available online, a book ‘specifically about method in the creative arts where subjectivity is potentially fetishized’ (p. 37). For better or for worse, art has pushed its way in to the academic world and fought for its place beside the sciences and the humanities, and Nelson (p. 37) seeks to account for the seemingly less academically acceptable facets of art, most notably ‘subjectivity and passion.’ Art has an undeniably personal basis, unlike the more apparently objective disciplines, and thus seems less amenable to the strictures of academic rigour.

Discussion immediately turned to whether this move into academia is even useful or valid for art. Some of us found this development troubling, and wholly at odds with the intuition and imagination that drive the most compelling art. Others felt that at best, an academic accompaniment to painting might have some practical relevance, insofar as it helped to make better pictures. Nelson, as an educator in the academic realm, begins by accepting that artists are already thrust into this position and, as I understand it, must find a way to rise to the centuries of scholarly standards upheld by other fields. Our work is different—eminently practical, and inextricably bound up in ourselves: self-driven, self-funded, self-initiated, self-conceived. The elements that make it work are not easy to translate into words. And even if they are, there are perhaps two broad ways of translating those elements: by describing, as a painter, the painterly methods employed in the construction of the painting, or by expressing, as a thinker, the ideas themselves that underpin the painting. For all painting is an expression of ideas, whether as simple as the charming or striking effects of light, or as daunting as emotionally turbulent visual treatises on violence or suffering.

Artists are thinkers, and we trade in ideas. We are intellectuals, but our ideas find their most profound expression in visual form. This way of working does not easily merge with scholarly traditions, and we find ourselves reaching (often clumsily) for words, to clarify. Often we use words just for ourselves, making painters’ notes, documenting our experiments for our own private reference, explaining our intentions and recording the results of our trials. Yet when we write for others, we rarely share these insights, and instead explain the context, and especially try to convey something about ourselves. There is something disturbing in the shift away from the gritty work itself, the calculations and predictions and results, towards the self, the author, as though real meaning will only be found in a personality, or perhaps—more worryingly—through celebrity.

Any scholar, suggests Nelson (p. 65), will be driven by her own interests, and her research will extend in that direction. ‘All methodology is about the scholar’s interest. The expression of my reasons, as a scholar, for undertaking the research.’ But the scientist does not preface her paper with a personal autobiography, or ‘scientist’s statement.’ The abstract briefly outlines the work covered by the paper. The paper then begins, all fanfare aside: ‘In this paper we attempt to …’ The author isn’t removed, or irrelevant, or passive or without interest. But the author makes way for the work itself, for this is what is of scholarly interest. I would suggest that as painters we cannot forge our way into an academic environment by clutching at the spotlight. Nevertheless, we have some rich ideas that would find academic footing if we simply got on with presenting and perhaps even discussing those ideas themselves.

Our work is fundamentally different from many fields in that it is by nature constructive rather than deconstructive. Our method of exploring and explaining the world is not to pull it apart into tiny pieces but to create unified images or forms that bring together countless elements. We think simultaneously about colour and tone and light and shadow, about the shapes and their relations to each other, about the impact of the whole and the accuracy of the parts, about depth and atmosphere and weight and presence, and on top of this about emotions and moods. Our job is to combine things to make a particular claim. Perhaps as representational artists we are cast aside as irrelevant because of the nature of our approach. Perhaps current academic practice in art is driven by the fashion to dismember and deconstruct. Perhaps we would do better to stride on in our creation-based approach.

And yet, perhaps we need not shun the academic world entirely in order to do this, because there might yet be very valuable things to gain from it. We discussed how powerful it would be to have a common scholarly language, a dependable and meaningful vocabulary with which to talk about our core concerns. Rather than thriving on obfuscation and indecipherable cleverness, we might find a means of being clear and concise and conveying something with conversational generosity. We might build a framework within which to work, giving us a real means of evaluating art (rather than letting the market or controversy dictate what is of value). Rather than running kicking and screaming from anything that threatens to limit our practice, we might more maturely see how setting relevant parameters might extend our practice and challenge us to solve more complex problems. In seeking a common scholarly ground we might be able to define a useful standard, imperfect but rigorous, and not appealing to lofty universals or personal preferences. And best of all, we might find a new way to connect with each other as intellectual peers, as well as with thinkers of other fields, and maybe even with our audience. In the end, we are trying to connect with others and to communicate, and as Nelson (p. 66) argues, ‘the reason for the text is neither to promote yourself nor to show off but to render transparently what may have happened.’

Of course, book clubbers went home struck by many different points that came up in conversation, and the above is only my impression of the event. Book clubbers are encouraged to add their own comments below. Everyone with an interest in art is welcome to join the book club, including non-artists. Not for the faint of heart.



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