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Are Artists Stupid By Mark Gottsegen

first

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is yes and no. First, a definition of stupid is in order. The Random House College Dictionary defines stupid as “adj. 1. lacking ordinary keenness of mind; mentally slow; dull. 2. characterized by, indicative of, or proceeding from mental dullness; foolish; senseless: a stupid act.”

It should be obvious that I am not claiming that artists are “mentally slow.” But we are often intellectually and emotionally stupid about how we produce our work. First, we sacrifice the longevity of our artwork by deliberately or unwittingly using inferior materials; second, we jeopardize our health and the health of our families and friends by using dangerous materials without protection. I’ll give you a few examples of both situations, and I’ll offer some remedial suggestions for dispelling the notion, held by many conservators and health workers, that we are indeed stupid in the sense of definition.

An artist in his studio sprays an acrylic-based fixative. All the windows and doors are closed against the winter’s cold, and the room is filled with clouds of acrylic resin and solvent. This artist risks brain and liver damage.

A sculptor welds steel. She is outfitted with clothing to protect her body from flying sparks and molten metal and goggles to protect her eyes from ultraviolet light. But she is breathing metal fumes because a protective mask is too uncomfortable and inconvenient.

As a ceramicist mixes her clay body from the raw material, she exposes herself to silica, which can cause a chronic lung disease. The bag was repackaged by her local supplier, who has neglected to label the smaller container with hazard warnings and cautions. When she fires metallic glazes in her kiln, the fumes vent into her studio.

A famous painter has the first solo show by a living artist at a major museum. His brightly colored and very popular geometric paintings use fluorescent pigments, which are known to lose their fluorescence in a short time and to fade or change color in the bargain.

Toward the end of his life, another famous painter uses newly developed organic pigments to make some of his most famous paintings. The colors are so transparent, they glow like stained glass! Just the effect he is looking for! Twenty years later, a gallery displaying several of the paintings has to remove them from view because they’ve completely changed color-what had been a lovely transparent violet is now blue. There is no way to restore these paintings to their original glory.

Yet another painter glues broken crockery to his large oil paintings. At the height of his fame, a painting is shipped to a well-known private museum in Connecticut. The author witnesses the painting’s removal from its crate and then watches as one of the curators uses a broom to sweep pieces of plates out of the crate. “What will you do with that?” he asks. “Oh, we’ll just glue them back on wherever they fit.” “What kind of glue will you use?” Elmer’s.

“An artist is fascinated with the possibilities offered by colored pencils and makes 30 large and complicated drawings using them. His first solo show sells out. Five years go by; collectors of his early work begin to contact the gallery with tales of disappearing reds, discoloring fleshtones, and green trees turning blue. The artist, having moved on to newer materials, does not even remember the brand of colored pencil he used. Even if he did remember, he would be dismayed to learn from the manufacturer that the formulas for those colors have all been changed.

Another artist mistakenly thinks that “permanent” markers are lightfast, not realizing that permanent in this case means “impossible to wash out.” All of her work, marker-based, is doomed- even those made with black markers.

In spite of years of published information about the hazards of working with certain materials or working in certain ways, artists are killing themselves by using or misusing deadly materials. Worse, in my view, are the stories of disintegrating or doomed-from-the-start artworks, made by artists who are ignorant of their materials. Those who sell their poorly made work hurt not only themselves and their reputations but also the buyers. The buyers, turning to a conservator for relief and repair, hear further tales about the artist, and together buyers and collectors conclude that the artist is a birdbrain- a magnificent artist, to be sure, but a lousy craftsman.

Let me set aside the health question for a moment and concentrate on the craft question. Back in the “good old days,” this hardly would have been an issue. For one thing, the variety of materials available to artists was much more limited; for another, the craft of making art was approached much more earnestly, and a work’s physical production was taken as seriously as its aesthetic development.

But, the argument goes, these aren’t the “good old days.” Many artists say Those who sell their poorly made work hurt not only themselves and their reputations but also the buyer.

“We  [that royal we] are not concerned so much with the object a s  we are with the idea behind the object.” Yes, I guess that’s true. We need only look at the ideas about art that are in the foreground now to see that “issues”  predominate.

Reading about art i s  usually an exercise in developing a new vocabulary relating to concepts and is rarely about how the thing was put together (unless you are reading a conservation journal).

As much a s  we may wish to deny the importance of history, however, we cannot deny that until the late twentieth century and the rise of the critic and curator as aesthetic arbiters, artists were indeed serious about their craft. \Michelangelo would not have said, “I don’t  care whether the Sistine Chapel ceiling painting outlives me-what’s important here is that I’ve painted the Creation in its entirety. Now pay me.” He  was technically proficient not only in painting and sculpture but also in the most demanding craft of all, fresco.

Monet was so fascinated by the possibili-ties of relatively new pigments that he taught himself all he could learn about the effects of color and light. Seurat applied the most current theoretical and technical knowledge about color to his painterly ideas. There are countless other examples of artists whose craftsmanship formed the basis of their work and whose attention to that craft ensured that we can look at their products, as  they were meant to be seen by the artist, even 500 years after their execution.

To those who would claim that their work is intended to be ephemeral, I say, that’s  fine. But don’t  sell it or hope for a museum purchase. You could be like Christo, who does intend for his projects to be transient but sells his drawings and proposals to raise money to build the projects. Selling something implies that you warrant i t  to be fit for its intended use-in  the case of art, that i t  will be fit to look a t  for a long time. And museums now sometimes look askance at  art that their conservators deem to have an “inherent vice.”

Some artists who insist that their work is intended to be ephemeral really mean, “Don’t  bother me with that stuff about permanence-it’s  too hard to know all that stuff, too difficult to get information, too time-consuming  to do it  that way. It stresses me to think about that sort of thing.”  To them I say, that’s irresponsible and immature-and  you are unworthy of the title “artist.”  Perhaps that’s  a little harsh, but before you express your anger, consider why I’m saying it.

fteen years ago, I would have agreed about the difficulty of getting information about reliable and durable art materials. Then manufacturers were not interested in decent labeling because artists weren’t  demanding it, and the literature on artists’  materials was notoriously out of date. But beginning in about 1983, manufacturers began to publish in their catalogs a great deal of information about their products, and they have since become much more responsive to artists’  individual requests for facts about product use and longevity.

Admittedly, individual product labels have lagged behind in providing immediately accessible information, but catalogs have become very helpful.

Much of this effort on the part of manufacturers was inspired by artist and producer members of the Subcommittee on Artists’  Paints and Related Materials of the American Society for  Testing and Materials (ASTM). Standard quality, performance,  and health labeling test methods, practices, and procedures have been developed by this subcommitte.

And their voluntary adoption by most of the largest art material manufacturers has spurred disclosure of formerly closely held information.

Also in 1983, with most producers’ voluntary adoption of the ASTM’s  norm D 4236, “Standard Practice for Labeling of Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards,”  health information about artists’ materials became widely available. In 1990, Congress enacted an amendment to the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA), which incorporates the testing and labeling provisions of ASTM D 4236. What was a voluntary labeling standard has become law. Enforcement of the law by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began in late 1992, once certain rules and definitions had been more firmly established. So the cry about how hard it is to get information is now, it seems to me, the cry of people who don’t want to try hard enough.

who do you think is responsible for this intellectual and emotional stupidity of artists? Over the past several years, I have often heard the claim that others are responsible-”they”  are the ones who “should be” telling us all we need to know.

”They are responsible for my chronic lung disease because they should have told me not to spray that stuff.”  (Never mind that “that stuff” was never rnarketed as sprayable; the artist chose to spray it.) “I  didn’t  know that colored markers will fade! Why didn’t they tell me?”

“But I wanted to glue that plate to my painting, and it looked good, and I had no idea that the plate would fall off. They should have told me about that!” Who is this “they”?  In some cases, it’s manufacturers. They’re the easy ones to blame; after all, the producers are large, anonymous corporations, making lots of money selling their overpriced products, and they don’t care about the individual artist. Sometimes that characterization may be true, but for the most part it’s unfair. Most art material manufacturers are not gigantic corporations-

some of the best known have as few as 15 employees. Most do not make lots of money-total  paint product sales in the United States for all companies amounted to a little over $210 million in 1990.

And they do care about individual artists-in  fact, no one but artists buys their products!

We are the ones who are responsible for this state of affairs. In the imrnortal words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  The “they”  is us. How did we become “they”?  In the early 1900s, there were few university or college art departrnents-most  schools of art were non-degree-granting institutions like the Art Students League or the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts.

These schools operated under the older academic traditions: drawing from life casts and the live model, solid grounding in technical matters, discussion and study of the history of art (and literature and music). Artists produced by these academies were trained in the nineteenth-century universalist tradition and were viewed by the more avant-garde as hopelessly anachronistic in both their arand their views about art. The community of artists who were on the forefront of change had great contempt for these traditions-and  from a purely aesthetic point of view, rightly so. We forget, though, that as much as the avant-garde abhorred traditional values, not all of them rejected traditional technique or thinking: Wilem de Kooning’s oil paintings from the 1940s, as robust and vigorous as they are in both form and idea, survive in excellent condition precisely because of his traditional artistic training. On the other hand, Franz Kline’s paintings in commercial enamel paint on newsprint survive only in the most carefully controlled conditions, undergoing frequent conservation treatment.

After World War 11, with the advent of the G. I. Bill, thousands of people began to flood into colleges and universities. With the economy in a downturn because of the shutdown of war-related industries and with unemployment on the rise, what better thing to do than to go to college for retraining and education, especially if the government was paying the bill?

Because this influx included students who wanted to study art, art departments expanded rapidly. Expansion in academia leads to specialization, and with specialization comes a narrowing of interests. The B.F.A. and M.F.A degrees were born-signifying little more than that the recipient had completed a specialized course of study leading to the degree. The teaching of artists was given over to practising artists, in their special areas of painting, sculpture, printmaking, and so on. The teaching of theory was taken over by art historian, an outgrowth of nineteenth century conoisseurs, most of whom had never touched a brush or wielded a chisel-or had done so badly enough to realize that they’d better find some other way to earn a living! Gone was the intimate relationship between artists and their past, at least in the theoretical realm of the practice. Also gone, eventually, were artist-teachers who knew anything about art history. The knowledge of those who remained was so colored by their own biases as to be useless to those of their students seeking a solid education.

Today we have art departments that consist of eight or nine specialized areas of studio concentration over here and eight or nine art-historical specializations over there-sometimes  not even in the same building. The general survey-of-art-history courses offered to the student body at large try to cram 30,000 years of art-making into 15 weeks of lectures, three hours a week, and usually leave out all but a smattering of non-

Western art. Students majoring in art take their studio courses simultaneously with their history courses but often see scant connection between them. These students also take the general survey courses and gain little from them except an appreciation for their fellow students’ ability to memorize facts. Art history majors might take one or two studio courses but generally immerse themselves in the words of the past, present, and future and engage in what Robert Hughes has called “the perpetual  resurrection of the dead.” All the great artists have been written about, and so have those of the second or third rank, so the aspiring Ph.D. must resurrect some long-forgotten fourth-rate artist-who  should have stayed forgotten – and turn this drone into a cultural hero or a masterful genius. (Now we even see Ph.D. dissertations written on contemporary themes and artists who aren’t even dead yet. This is “history”?

In the studio areas, the teaching has become so specialized that mainly what is taught are techniques of thinking and idea-generating  processes-to  the near exclusion of the art-making processes.

Oh, we show slides and talk about how the artist made this or that, but we rarely go into much depth about the how-to aspects. In fact, the how-to of making art is now often viewed with some contempt: “You  go and find out how to do it. We’ll talk about what you’ve  done, in terms of current trends, when you’ve actually made something.”  If perchance technique or technical matters are covered, it is most often as a supplement to regular coursework and is rarely required: “We can’t  waste our precious studio time on that! Here’s  a list of books-go  read about it.”  Moreover, woe to the studio faculty member who actually writes about materials! My own colleagues have told me, “You  are a painter. You should only paint and have  exhibits.”  Students no longer read much of anything anyway, preferring instead to have other people tell them things.

In general, we artists now seem to rely on others (other “they’s”:  other artists, teachers, critics, curators, gallery own- ers, dealers, “the market”)  to tell us what to think and do and make. In fact, I once participated on a College Art Association Studio panel and heard a conservator tell an audience of artist-teachers that we shouldn’t  even bother trying to pass on material knowledge to our students-”Leave the repair of sick art to the conservators”-instead  of insisting that we take some responsibility  for making a healthy work in the first place. Most conservators I know are so overworked, trying to fix our deteriorating cultural heritage, that they don’t  have time to do the research that would give us better information; i t  seems to me that they’d welcome artists who are at least competent enough to label their work with the materials they used.

Once artists leave school, the pressure to be an artist and atthe same time make a living can overwhelm even the most dedicated lifelong learner. The scramble for the rent means that most artists have a “real” job and that making their art is relegated to “free”  time. As a consequence, in an effort to save time (“There are only twenty-four hours in the  day. I can’t  waste precious studio time looking things up!”),  artists settle into a routine way of making their art, generally based on what they learned in school or picked up from other artists. “They” have told us how to do what we do, and we will do it that way-it  saves time, requires little thought, and gives decent results. Possibly the first time an artist gives serious thought to the quality of his or  her craft and the durability of art i s  the first time a client comes back and says, “Look at this! It’s falling apart! Fix it!

Give me my money back!”  For the prices some of us charge for our workinflated beyond the realm of real value anyway-wouldn’t you think we’d  have given this some advance attention?

The  same problems exist with health-related issues. Our modem society has encouraged the formation of government bodies (such as the CPSC) whose sole purpose is to protect us from ourselves. We have private groups (such as Ralph Nader’s  Public Interest Research Groups) who police the entire universe, looking for hazards to life, because we ourselves have abdicated responsibility  for it. We have even reached the point where we demand that “they”  tell us how to protect ourselves; reading, learning what to ask and how to ask it-simple  skills that our parents should have taught us-have  gone by the wayside.  (There, I found another “they” to blame: It’s  all our parents’  fault!)

What’s the cure for this artistic stupidity? It’s  relatively simple, but, as is sometimes true, the cure is as bad as the disease: We must stop and think about  what we’re  doing. We  must learn those simple skills all over again.

  •  First, learn to read. The Art and Craft Materials Institute (ACMI) certifies that the labeling of art materials meets the health-labeling requirements of ASTM D 4236 and the LHAMA. The ACMI has certified nearly 20,000 products for their health labeling, and only  15% require cautionary  symbols-a  fact that should put to rest your fears that all art materials are dangerous. You may contact ACMI at 100 Boylston Street, Suite 1050, Boston, MA 02116. (617) 426-6400. The  National Art Materials Trade Association  (NAMTA) has also published a little brochure, written by artists, conservators, and manufacturers, explaining the ACMI’s labeling system.

They sell this brochure to their member dealers (art material suppliers), who should be willing to give it to you. If you can’t find one, you can write to NAMTA at 178 Lakeview Avenue, Clifton, NJ 0701 1 or call (201) 546-6400.

  • If there is anythmg you don’t  understand about the health label on materials you’ve bought, call the manufacturer with your question-before you use the product.
  • If you have a medical emergency relating to an art product, call your doctor or the nearest poison control center. Do not call a manufacturer  for emergency medical advice!  Businesses can’t give you emergency medical advice the operator who answers the phone is not a doctor.
  • If you talk to your doctor before you use potentially harmful materials or if you go to the doctor with symptoms of harm from using a product, make sure the doctor is  conversant in toxicological matters.
  • If you really want to get involved in health issues, contact Arts, Crafts and Theatre Safety (ACTS); the group publishes a newsletter that might make you think some more. ACTS’S Director, Monona Rossol, has written an enlightening book, The Artist’s  Complete Health and Safety Guide, which, gives a good, though necessarily incomplete, overview of current art hazards information. Get i t  and read it. You can contact ACTS a t  181 Thompson Street, #23, New York, NY 10012.  (212) 777-0062.
  • Beware of repackagers! They buy materials in bulk and then relabel smaller containers for retail sale. Although they are subject to the LHAMA, they will be slower to comply. For your health and safety, ask repackagers  for  material safety data sheets (MSDSs) to accompany every order. This caution also applies to mail order sellers-they  are resellers and probably don’t  know much, technically, about many of the products they sell.
  • Ask the counterperson  at your art supply store for information about products in stock. Many art supply stores employ artists who will be sympathetic to your questions and will try to help you find what you’re looking for. They are not, however, substitutes for your own independent thinking!
  • Write to every manufacturer of a product you use and get its master catalog even if you have to pay for it. Most such catalogs, particularly for painting materials, are fonts of knowledge and contain, in excruciating detail, almost everything you might want to know about the materials. Labels cannot tell the whole story-but  learn to read them, too. Perhaps one day all labels will be as good as the few stand-out companies’ (Liquitex and Golden Artist Colors are among the best for paints), but until then, you can still get information direct from the horse’s mouth. If the catalog or the label doesn’t tell you what you want to know, write to the company. It will probably answer reasonable questions reasonably put. It probably won’t  answer unreasonable questions hysterically put. “Wait a minute,” you say. “Why should I believe what manufacturers say? That stuff is secret, anyway, so why would they tell me?”
  • Well, ask yourself this: If they want you as a customer, don’t you think they’ll try to please you? Do you think they like to drive away potential sales because someone wants the answer to a question? Most of  “that stuff’ is no secret-it’s  the particular formulation, or the way the stuff is put together, that’s a  secret. No, they won’t tell you their for- mulas, but yes, they’ll try their best to answer technical questions.
  • Go to the library and check out some art material books (not how-to technique books). There are hundreds, most of them obsolete or containing archaic information. Stick to those published after about 1986 and you’ll get better information.
  • Get in the habit of at least glancing at the question-and-answer columns in magazines like American Artist. Once you begin to get the hang of it, you will realize that many of the questions asked are easily answered, mainly because they are the same questions that have been asked over and over. Some of the questions are quite silly, even ridiculous,but the answers deal with them fairly and patiently and usually correctly. Even if you despise the low-level aesthetic promoted by those magazines, do this for yourself; many lofty art publications deem technical matters beneath their consideration and rarely tackle them.
  • Learn to ask questions of people who can give you answers. Find out what you want to ask, and ask in general, followed up by detail. Learn to write reasonable can’t find one, you can write to NAMTA at 178 Lakeview Avenue, Clifton, NJ 0701 1 or call (201) 546-6400.
  • If there is anythmg you don’t  understand about the health label on materials you’ve bought, call the manufacturer with your question-before you use the product.
  • If you have a medical emergency relating to an art product, call your doctor or the nearest poison control center. Do not call a manufacturer  for emergency medical advice!
  • Businesses can’t give you emergency medical advice-the operator who answers the phone is not a doctor.
  • If you talk to your doctor before you use potentially harmful materials or if you go to the doctor with symptoms of harm from using a product, make sure the doctor is conversant in  toxicological matters.
  • If you really want to get involved in health issues, contact Arts, Crafts and Theatre Safety (ACTS); the group publishes a newsletter that might make you think some more. ACTS’S Director, Monona Rossol, has written an enlightening book, The Artist’s  Complete Health and Safety Guide, which, gives a good, though necessarily incomplete, overview of current art hazards information. Get it  and read it. You can contact ACTS a t  181 Thompson Street, #23, New York, NY 10012.  (212) 777-0062.
  • Beware of repackagers! They buy materials in bulk and then relabel smaller containers for retail sale. Although they are subject to the LHAMA, they will be slower to comply. For your health and  safety, ask repackagers  for  material safety data sheets (MSDSs) to accompany every order. This caution also applies to mail order sellers-they  are resellers and probably don’t  know much, technically, about many of the products they sell.
  • Ask the counterperson  at your art supply store for information about products in stock. Many art supply stores employ artists who will be sympathetic to your questions and will try to help you find what you’re looking for. They are not, however, substitutes for your own independent thinking!
  • Write to every manufacturer of a product you use and get its master catalog, even if you have to pay for it. Most such
  • catalogs, particularly for painting materials, are fonts of knowledge and contain, in excruciating detail, almost everything you might want to know about the materials. Labels cannot tell the whole story-but  learn to read them, too. Perhaps one day all labels will be as good as the few stand-out companies’ (Liquitex and Golden Artist Colors are among the best for paints), but until then, you can still get information direct from the horse’s mouth. If the catalog or the label doesn’t tell you what you want to know, write to the company. It will probably answer reasonable questions reasonably put. It probably won’t  answer unreasonable questions hysterically put.
  • “Wait a minute,” you say. “Why should I believe what manufacturers say? That stuff is secret, anyway, so why would they tell me?” Well, ask yourself this: If they want you as a customer, don’t you think they’ll try to please you? Do you think they like to drive away potential sales because someone wants the answer to a question? Most of  “that stuff’ is no secret-it’s  the particular formulation, or the way the stuff is put together, that’s a secret. No, they won’t tell you their formulas, but yes, they’ll try their best to answer technical questions.
  • Go to the library and check out some art material books (not how-to technique books). There are hundreds, most of them obsolete or containing archaic information. Stick to those published after about 1986 and you’ll get better information.
  • Get in the habit of at least glancing at the question-and-answer columns in magazines like American Artist. Once you begin to get the hang of it, you will realize that many of the questions asked are easily answered, mainly because they are the same questions that have been asked over and over. Some of the questions are quite silly, even ridiculous, but the answers deal with them fairly and patiently and usually correctly. Even if you despise the low-level aesthetic promoted by those magazines, do this for yourself; many lofty art publications deem technical matters beneath their consideration and rarely tackle them.
  • Learn to ask questions of people who can give you answers. Find out what you want to ask, and ask in general, followed up by detail. Learn to write reasonable one-page letters of inquiry-you  probably won’t get a satisfactory answer over the phone. Learn some patience-you might have to wait a week or two to get what you want.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to ask “stupid questions, because there is no such thing: Only an unasked question is stupid. And only an artist who is afraid to ask is stupid.
  • The ASTM standards applicable to artists’ paints and related materials include the following: ASTM D 4236-92, “Practice for Labeling Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards’” ASTM D 4302-92, “Specification for Artists’ Oil, Resin-Oil, and Alkyd Paints”
  • ASTM D 4303-92, “Test Methods for Lightfastness of Pigments Used in Artists’ Paints” ASTM D 4838-88, “Test Method for Determining the Relative Tinting Strength of Chromatic Paints”
  • ASTM D 4941-89, “Practice for Preparing Drawdowns of Artists’ Paste Paints” ASTM D 5067-90, “Specification for Artists’ Watercolor Paints” ASTM D 5098, “Specification for Artists’ Acrylic Emulsion Paints” Also under development are two lightfastness test methods for use by ordinary artists. These standards may be purchased from the American Society for Testing and Materials, 1916 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA  19103-1 187, at a cost of $15.00 each. Or you can join the ASTM for $50.00 per year (for individuals), get involved in its work on artists’  paints, and get all the applicable standards free of charge.liquitex

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