I’m not silly enough to attempt to define art.


I’ll stick with “we know it when we see it” (knowing full well that nothing could be farther from the truth in these contentious times in which we live). Instead I simply invoke the idea of “Art” [fill in the blank here] so that I can say that lots of things that artists do are not art, but are sometimes instead preparations for art. I made the drawing above to be telling myself where various objects would sit on the still life table that I was arranging in my thoughts. So the drawing isn’t art, but it provides some first ideas concerning something that might afterwards be art.

Musicians understand this readily since there’s a whole lot of not-music that must be made for music to happen. Before all, you have to learn to play the instrument. Some drawings are the way you play your scales and arpeggios. Some drawings are more diffuse like a jazz player’s chord chart.I happen to love a not-art sort of drawing. I love freedom in its many guises.

A certain kind of drawing is like tuning the instrument. Or warming it up. A clarinet is going to sound a little different after the player has warmed it up. The vibrations of playing open the wood and the reed. And the musician and the artist also especially have to warm up the other instrument: the mind.

There’s all kinds of drawings. Drawings that sort out visual problems or ideas. Drawings that we do for pleasure. Drawings that are meant to be fully presented works in their own right. We’re all familiar with these. My father’s surgeon decades ago drew a very unscientifically illustrated picture to communicate how he would do my father’s colon resection — this, on the night before the surgery, and the lines wiggled this way and that, following the surgeon’s words. And when this virtual colectomy was concluded, he handed the paper to Daddy who eventually gave it to me (post-surgically — after everything was good again). I, in turn, put it in the back of a volume on Edouard Manet where the drawing remains to this day.

The surgeon wasn’t an artist and that drawing was about ideas expressed as a pictogram, a scribbling image where appearance didn’t matter as much as narrative. (I don’t recall the surgeon saying “I’m not an artist” as so many laymen do when taking up a stylus. I loved him for that. Drawing is not a special club to which only some people are allowed to belong. He just started talking and drawing.)

But what about another kind of drawing that isn’t art. I was just coming out of the Chinese restaurant with our take-out food when three birds flew across the parking lot at about the level of my head, turning instantly in formation to avoid me as I walked, whizzing past me to wherever they were going. I was wondering what it would be to draw the birds in flight. I never did properly “see” them in the way I see things that I draw in my life as an artist. They flew too fast to really see. And I have no use for them in the art I’m making now. But it would be interesting to attempt to draw what I remember.

However, I’m not sure what I saw. Did I see the birds’ bodies? In that instant that my brain thought “birds — wow — they’re flying right to me” did I also see the parking lot or much of the rest of the scene (my car, buildings across the street, other cars, power lines, miscellaneous urban stuff)? I think of their bodies in flight, their relationships to each other, the three of them flying like a squadron. These visual memories have nothing to do with art. If I draw them, I don’t think the drawings will be art.

I painted a spider ages ago because it had built its web on the front porch. But the painting is just a painting, and merely contains some thoughts about what a spider looks like.


If the art part of my artist’s brain is like a room, then these images — both the ones I drew and the ones I didn’t draw — are like things tossed in the back of a closet. They aren’t art. But they are intriguing small incidents in the course of a life.



4 thoughts on “Art and not art

  1. Wow. Margaret. What a kind thing to say. I am very glad that you find the posts valuable. When I write, I am always hoping that people will find encouragement. Art is a wonderful thing and has many facets. It can be done completely on the level of fun or it can be a challenging and difficult discipline. Personally I like the challenge of it, but I know that people can get discouraged. I know it from my own discouragements. Also even when people have been doing art a long time, they lose track of how much they’ve learned. In the moment they are thinking about what they wanted to achieve and feel the ways that their goal fell short and lose sight of how far they’ve come. The point is today. The work you do today sets you on course for the work that lies ahead.

    I know that the more one practices at art, the faster the difficulties go into the rear view mirror. So in all of these posts, I am urging work. Work, work, work. But sometimes playful, inventive, risk taking work. Sometimes, yes, even nose-to-the-grindstone work. Sketches and haphazard drawings, warm-ups, studies are all ways of practicing. They also allow you to learn things without messing up a painting that’s in progress. If you separate out the different difficulties and develop them separately then later putting them back together in the painting is much more manageable. Tonality, color, linear drawing, tonal drawing, drawing in masses, perspective, composition, texture (texture of the motif or of the media), scale, etc.. as well as the challenges of specific media (watercolor, pastel, oil, acrylic, etc.) are all things that can be taken apart and dealt with independently.

    And in the taking part, we do better when we’re not always mentally beating ourselves up! Sometimes in order to progress, you have to exile the inner critic. Or at least book the critic for a longish vacation ….

  2. Fruitful dark, the other reason I painted the spider — a reason I didn’t mention because it didn’t relate to my topic — is that I’m afraid of spiders. Watching them has helped to mitigate the fear A LOT. I used to be really terrified. But the porch spiders in particular helped me get over some of the arachnophobia simply by their predictable nightly presence. I found that web building usually began at 8 pm. So I’d go outside sometimes and watch. And it really is amazing to watch a spider build a web. The spider itself still affected me rather unpleasantly as they are, let’s face it, very creepy looking, but I did gradually grow to respect them more and more for the beauty of their building and for some of their other habits as well — their persistence, their patience.

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