I got into an extended discussion on Facebook today. It mostly came out of the news that former President George W. Bush has been making paintings. For some reason, this was so interesting that a critic as intelligent and insightful as Roberta Smith devoted space in the New York Times to discussion of the works. Among her observations, "one can imagine them being not too out of place in a group show that might include the figurative work of Dana Schutz, Karen Kilimnik, Alice Neel, Christoph Ruckhaberle and Sarah McEneaney." High praise indeed.
I'm debating putting the whole post on my blog, with names (excepting mine) redacted.
First of all, why is the intelligent and insightful Smith reviewing paintings by Bush, when Ken Johnson is (poorly) reviewing works of women and people of color? This situation alone explains the problems with arts writing at the NYTimes and other outlets.
Second, why are we even considering these paintings in the discourse of art? Is Bush an artist? If not, then why not? What makes someone an artist? Can you just wake up after being an art historian for years and just be an artist? If so, can I be an art historian now? Or a chef? (I own chef's knives.) Or a surgeon? Is art a profession, or an avocation? Or an attitude?
It seems that the de-skilling of art in the 50s transformed into the "anyone can do it" ethos of the moment. If you feel like an artist, or a writer, or anything, that is enough. Saturday Night Live took this on in a skit called You Can Do Anything!
Animals make paintings. Anyone can. Is access to art supplies really all it takes to be an artist?
In this Facebook chat, someone told me that I just wanted to keep "bragging rights" to the word "art," something that they thought would be a hollow victory. Maybe. I'm not sure about that. But I do think that art is too important to be treated casually. Maybe it's because I'm an artist, but I think that importance requires that we take art seriously and that we be critical about visual culture. This makes me an elitist by saying that only artists can make art. I think that's true.
I also think that artists are taught by other artists. Either through a singular investigation of the works of others, one-on-one classes or institutions (including the much maligned MFA programs), there is some transmission of skill, history, and context from one artist to another. I learned from Manet just as sure as I learned from Roger Tibbetts. I think art is a public discourse, not a private method of personal expression. I think art talks about life as we live it. I think the artist embodies and expresses the entire culture of her moment through her activity. So given the power and importance of art, who can make it?
So here's my fundamental question to you, Dear Reader, who can make art?