“The whole time,” my friend said after the man left the gallery, “I wanted so say, ‘you know, he’s a professor of art.’”
We’d been schooled. It’s something I’d come to expect after sitting in the gallery for two summers. Some gallery goers need to have the upper hand. This man was an extreme example. He didn’t want to talk about art. He’d walked into the gallery to be acknowledged for what he knew about art. After barely glancing at my paintings he declared, “These paintings have no life in them. You need to add people.” After a pause, he added, “People like paintings with people in them.”
And he was off.
My friend tried to get him to dial it down by mentioning that my sales were good, but the man seemed unaware of the gallery convention of placing red dots next to sold paintings. And he was unimpressed by the number of dots on my paintings. “No,” he said in my friend’s direction, “I’m not being critical. If he can do this, he can paint people. Just someone relaxing in the corner of the painting…like Renoir. Or,” he said turning back to me, “have you seen Gauguin’s Yellow Christ? That’s a painting!”
“Look,” he said to my friend, “I’m just trying to help him. I’m a vocational counselor. If he wants to make a career of this, he needs to make paintings people want to buy. And if he learns to put figures in his paintings he will be able to make portraits. You can make a career of that.” He glanced around. “In fact,’ he said, oblivious to the wall of figurative paintings behind him, “if this gallery wants to make it, all these artists need to add people.”
I was tempted to tell him that my last big project was 100 portraits and, as the 80 portraits that sit in my studio attest, portraits are no road to the easy life. I bit my tongue. I just wanted him to leave. But he stayed for another twenty-minutes, hardly taking a breath.
Just to be clear, this guy wasn’t the first person to tell me that my landscape paintings need people in them. And he wasn’t wrong about the power of the human figure in an image. Figures can allow us to enter a painting. They also convey values through identification, establishing boundaries of inclusion and exclusion for viewers. Indeed, many corporate collections won’t buy two kinds of paintings: those with human figures or those that are abstract. The danger of conveying values that might offend clients—or in the case of abstract work, the danger of making clients feel stupid for not understanding the work—is too great. And his point about figures in painting is no new insight. It’s an old convention. A few hours after he left, I recognized something about his insistence about it and about the examples he cited. His art education ended with his general education in the 1950s.
It’s a cliché to say that art education needs to be returned to public education. Most people rail against the inequity of funding for athletics over arts, but that’s just falling for the political theater. Arts aren’t that expensive. They’ve been cut from public education because they convey values, and because they foster critical imagination. Our political culture, as is painfully evident this summer, relies on citizens who are neither imaginative nor critical thinkers. Given that our politicians aren’t going to deconstruct their power, I have no hope that arts education will return to schools in a real way. But I haven’t, and will never, give up on the need to support art education. I simply believe that it needs to emerge from more democratic spaces, like galleries.
My students sometimes chafe under my insistence that they learn to write and speak about their artworks. Some say that the work should speak for itself. I have no doubt that the artworks have a voice, but I also believe that artists (and galleries) have a responsibility to invite viewers into a dialogue with the processes and thinking that guide art’s creation. Invitations to dialogue cultivate relationship, and it’s through meaningful, on-going relationship that art will enact its power. And art’s power is one way we cultivate our individual powers of imagination and critical engagement with the world.
I made a mistake by backing away from the vocational counselor. I should have engaged him, and I should have complicated his perspective. I should have enacted my values in the space of the gallery.