Living Art I. An Invitation

An Invitation



Writing is surprisingly different from face-to-face art teaching: no colors, gestures or voices.

One must “spell it out”.

I write because I love art and because I noticed I am old.


I teach at The New School and The Educational Alliance. I also teach recovering drug addicts and people who have been diagnosed mentally ill (i.e., “the officially sad”). Most of the officially sad I teach are homeless.

Over the years my students and I created rooms devoted to art in the heart of practical existence. I want to help such rooms exist wherever they are desired.


This is a practical essay on art and art teaching.

As art is not a craft, a book on art teaching cannot be a “how to” compendium of rules. – It is necessary to wonder, “What is art?” and “What is the path to reach it?” It is necessary to locate obstacles and suggest a passage through them.

There is something else…. Some say, “Art is dying from natural causes.” They are wrong. Art is ill from loneliness. _ Those who would approach are given faulty maps.


I want every student to create a work of art.

There is a prejudice that there is no middle ground in art, either a work of genius or nothing. In carpentry class one does carpentry. No one says that only grandmasters play chess and only major leaguers play baseball.

In art class students should create art.



           Once one attempts to actually teach art the following erroneous, destructive prejudices shadow and threaten every step.

  1. Art as an autonomous creative project has no inherent standards of excellence. “It is all a matter of taste.” There is no arguing with taste.
  2. Art is entirely about feelings, and feelings are entirely thoughtless. Intellectually art is derivative or empty,
  3. Because there are no authentic standards, quality depends on social recognition. If you “make a living” from art you are an artist. If you are represented by “a major art gallery,” you are a good artist.
  4. Art, entirely a matter of taste and intellectually limited, cannot be differentiated from fashion or entertainment.
  5. Art is not necessary to human existence. It is a luxury.

The crucial prejudice is denial of “relevant standards”. Without relevant standards

one cannot dependably distinguish better from worse … The infinite aesthetic distance, and the innumerable achievable gradations, between Rembrandt and a talented beginner collapse… There is nothing to strive towards or hope for. One cannot distinguish progress from regression.


         To find a path past this danger we must examine it.

The term “standards” can summon further prejudices. Art standards are rarely explicit rules with routine applications. They are normally communicable disciplined sensitivities and orientations that enable one to distinguish art from nonart and within art to discern excellence. The order of art is “a logic of freedom”.

2. Traps and Misdirections



Many who are drawn to art accept these prejudices yet find an activity without standards_ and thus without the possibility of improvement _ empty. Many try to escape this tension by substituting routine technique or undisciplined emotional outburst for art. The results are normally banal and artistically irrelevant.


Within these prejudices art as an autonomous creative soulful project has no inherent standards. Yet there appear to be relevant craft tasks. Crafts have standards. They can be learned.

This is often expressed in terms of drawing (e.g., “At least Picasso could draw.” “I won’t try to express myself until I can draw.”). In this context good drawing has nothing to do with expression, vitality and grace. To draw well is to efficiently and dependably “get” an accurate likeness.

Accurate likeness is a feat of hand eye coordination. The quicker and more facile the better (as in juggling). There are, as yet, no official “speed art competitions.” Yet such comparisons are central to the identities and mutual “pecking order” of many of veteran “art students” (It’s all they have to hang on to).


            Some argue that because art is emotional and emotions are thoughtless the more “raw” emotion the better, as though only screaming is fine singing.


Some students accept these prejudices yet know art intuitively. They see correctly but imagine they are dreaming….The ability to create appears as an unalterable dispensation (a gift from God and/or one’s genes).

Their understanding is beyond their language and thus silent … . Silence exiles talent from natural development through dialogue.


           Within these prejudices all paths misdirect.


We need an image of the trap that I’ve described.

A locked door? There are more alternatives than in or out.

The search for a way out suggests “a labyrinth.” A labyrinth can be solved “in its own terms.” Here every turn is a dead end.

Wittgenstein refers to a fly bottle. A fly bottle is not closed and yet the fly is trapped. The way out is obvious to us but beyond the understanding of the fly…. If there is the human equivalent of a fly bottle no human could discern it.

The obstacle between art and ourselves is a locked labyrinth that supports and is supported by our culture. It cannot be resolved in its own terms. It is a trap that we can recognize and move beyond.


“The culture wars” strengthen antiart prejudices.

Some who assert standards misuse the achievements of “western old masters” to discourage the aspirations of people whose ancestors were not European and of all women to creative excellence. – This is a pathology of commentary projected onto art. Creativity resists infection.

Many of the greatest western modern artists were pioneers of “multi-culturalism”. Manet, Lautrec, Gauguin and Van Gogh were inspired by the elegance of Japanese woodcuts. Through Gauguin, even more in his pottery and sculpture than his paintings, European myths and figurative traditions entered dialogue with tribal patterns. African sculpture helped Picasso move decisively outside Greek derived idealizations…If North America is within “the west” so is the profound Mexican dialogue between European and Native American “visions”.

Others claim that all attempts to distinguish between art and nonart are necessarily sexist and racist (visions of white male vampiric ghosts).

If all it takes to be an artist is self and/or group assertion then the distinction between artist and nonartist is mere vanity. Such “assistance” is insulting. No group needs it

Art standards should be open to personal uniqueness and cultural diversity. Art judgment should be fair, passionate and empathetic.


           We need not formally refute prejudices to move beyond them. Yet it is helpful to note that two assumptions, “quality depends on social recognition” and “art is not necessary to human existence” are obviously flawed.

If social recognition distinguishes among painters between artist and non-artist then Van Gogh (who sold almost nothing in his life) was not an artist while alive but only after death. The posthumous honors accorded Cézanne and Van Gogh are literally recognitions (they state that which, noticed or not, exists).

It is shameful for an artist to rely on labels to include or exclude. The test is one’s own disciplined judgment. For example, I recognize as an artist that a resident in a substance abuse program who never went to college or sold a painting is a colleague. (Connoisseurs don’t need labels to know what wine they’re drinking.)

It is through art that an individual or group can survive in historical memory as a soulful presence.

The artist bears witness. People faced death to sketch and write the truth of their existence in the concentration camps. It is in part through the Mandelstams, Akhmatova and other artists (mostly literary) that the complex historical dialogue of Russian existence was not entirely broken to fit the brutal simplifications of communism.

Art is open to the whole person: feelings, moods, intuitions… parts of us there are no names for.

3.Taking it to the Room


To live the soulful life of art contradicts prejudices that would make that life impossible.



For a long time I saw movement beyond the trap of common prejudices as a mere prologue to exercises that develop the basic sensitivities of visual art.

Yet over the last seven years I’ve taught where many of these exercises are impractical. Student work is wonderful. I recognized that to move beyond received prejudices and enter dialogue with art is the crucial passage.

There may be initial rejection. A student at the women’s shelter, publicly criticized me for not teaching and added, “Why don’t you give demonstrations like the craft teacher?” I answered,   “Art is not an external task. It is about you. I can’t tell you who you are, what you see and what you want to say in paint.”

A few weeks later she was different. Her work is unique, beautiful and extremely complex. There is a tiny angel hummingbird playing a harp on the high branch of a tree. There is a tree that turns and twists in and through itself in Celtic complexity…. At a class show several months later she said, “I never imagined this was in me. I never knew that this existed and that I could do it”.… Working on a painting she said, “It is passing through a tunnel all fragmented and lost.” I wasn’t sure if she was speaking of the shapes in the painting or her experience of painting it…or her life.

Class critiques can help. I say, “Please choose a painting by another student that attracts you. Let yourself feel something. Share with us how what you are seeing opens this feeling”.

Students are surprised how much agreement there is about what paintings are “alive” and therefore art, and about the meaning of this art.


           Initial rejection may persist…. There have been extremes, especially in 80s and early 90s at The New School. One term most students “voted with their feet and left”. After another my chairperson called. She said, “I am now reading your student evaluations. This is the first time I called a teacher at home. I must tell you how moved I am. They are trying so hard to express their excitement….Congratulations.”

The normal outcome is mutual appreciation. We share the pleasure of creation.


           For most students acceptance that art has relevant standards is a temporary suspension of disbelief. It holds in class then dissipates.

Many ex students are vulnerable to misdirection. Some regress.

Perhaps we can get further than that here.


The above is an Excerpt from Living Art, An Invitaion by Avron Soyer Click to Continue reading- Living Art- IIReconstructing the Human Figure as a Unity, and Sensitivity to Implicit Movement


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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

Reflections on life, paintings, theory, conversation.

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