One of my core aesthetic principles is that if I can do something, then it is not art. While this is (mostly) intended to be humorous, it is well founded—I have no artistic talent. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I have successfully taught aesthetics for over two decades.
In the course of teaching this class, I became rather interested in two questions. The first was whether or not a person without any artistic talent could master the technical aspects of an art. The second was whether or not a person without any artistic talent could develop whatever it is that is needed to create what is often referred to as a work of genius. Or, at a much lower level, a work of true art.
While the usually philosophical approach would be to speculate about the matter over boxes of wine, I decided to engage in some blasphemy and undertook an empirical investigation. To be specific, I decided that I would see if I could teach myself to draw. I would then see if I could teach myself to create art. I began this experiment in the August of 2012 and employed the powers of obsession that have served me so well in running. It turns out they also work for drawing—I have never missed a day of drawing, even when I had to scratch out sketches on scraps using a broken pencil. Yes, I am like that.
While this experiment has just one subject (me), I have shown that it is possible for a person with no artistic talent to develop the technical skills of drawing. To be specific, I have trained myself to become what I like to call a graphite technician. At this point, my skill is such that people say “I like your drawings because I can tell who they are of.” That is, I have enough skill to create recognizable imitations. I refuse to accept any claims that I am an artist, on the basis of the principle mentioned above. Fortunately, I also have an argument to back up this claim.
When I started my experiment, I demonstrated my lack of drawing ability to my students and asked them why my bad drawing of a capybara is not art. They pointed out the obvious—it did not look much like a capybara because it was so badly drawn. When asked if it would be art if I could draw better, they generally agreed. I then asked about just photocopying (or scanning and printing) the picture I used as the basis for my capybara drawing. They pointed out the obvious—that would not be art, just a copy.
Part of the reason the photocopy or scan would not be art is that it is just a mechanical reproduction. When I draw a person well enough for others to recognize the subject, I am exhibiting technical skill—I can re-create the appearance of a person on paper using a pencil. However, it is clear that technical skill alone does not make the results art. After all, this technical skill can be exceeded by a cheap camera, a photocopier or a computer connected to a scanner and printer. Just as being able to scan and print a photo of a person does not make a person an artist, being able to create a reasonable facsimile of a person using a pencil and paper does not make a person an artist—just a graphite technician.
Why this is so can be shown by considering why a mechanical copy is not art: there is nothing in the copy that is not in the original (laying aside duplication defects). As such, the more exact the copy of the original, the less room there is for whatever it is that makes a work art. So, as I get better at creating drawings that look like what I am drawing, I get closer to being a human photocopier. I do not get closer to being an artist.
This sort of argument would seem to suggest that photography cannot be art—after all, the photographer is just a camera technician. An unaltered photograph merely captures an image of what is there. One counter to this is that a photographer (as opposed to a camera technician) adds something to the photograph (I do not mean digital or other manipulation). This seems to be her perspective—she selects what she will capture. So, what makes the work art is not that it duplicates reality (which it must by the laws of physics) but that the photographer has added that something extra. This something extra is what makes the photograph art and distinguishes it from mere picture taking. Or so photographers tell me.
It could be countered that what I am doing is art. Going back to the time of the ancient Greeks, art was taken to be a matter of imitation and, in general, the better the imitation, the better the art. Of course, Plato was rather critical of art on this ground—he regarded it as a corrupting imitation of an imitation.
Jumping ahead to the modern era, thinkers like d’Alembert still regarded fine art as an imitation, typically an imitation of nature aimed at producing pleasure. However, his theory of art does leave a possible opening for a graphite technician like myself to claim the beret of the artist. d’Alembert defined “art” as “any system of knowledge reducible to positive and invariable rules independent of caprice or opinion.” What I have done, like many before me, is learned the rules of drawing—geometry, shading, perspective and so on. As such, I can (by his definition) be said to be an artist.
Fortunately for my claim that I am not an artist, d’Alembert distinguishes between the fine arts and the mechanical arts. The mechanical arts involve rules that can be reduced to “purely mechanical operations.” In contrast, d’Alembert notes that while the “useful liberal arts have fixed rules any can transmit, but the laws of Fine Arts are almost exclusively from genius.” What I am doing, as a graphite technician, is following rules. And, as d’Alembert claimed, “rules concerning arts are only the mechanical part…”
What I am missing, at least on d’Alembert’s theory, is genius. On my own view, I am missing the mysterious something extra. While I do not have a developed theory of “the extra”, I have a vague idea about what it is in the case of drawing. As I developed my technical skills, I got better at imitating what I saw and could cause people to recognize what I was imitating. However, an artist who draws goes beyond showing people what they can already see in the original. The artist can see in the original what others cannot and then enable them to see it in her drawing. All I can do is create drawings where people can see what they can already see. Hence, I am a graphite technician and not an artist. I do not claim this to be a proper theory of art—but it points vaguely in the direction of such a theory.
That said, the experiment is continuing. I intend to see if it is possible to learn how to add that something extra or if, as some claim, it is simply something a person has or does not have.