The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Artbroken: Art on the Academic Rack (2009)

Revised version of 2007 paper, delivered at the 2009 FATE conference in Portland, Oregon.

It is a cliche to say we are "at one with nature" but, let's face it, our bodies and brains and very beings have taken shape on this earth since we were wriggling in the primordial swamp.

99% of everything we are was settled long before we even got started as human beings. Life has come a long way, and every inch of the journey had to be negotiated with our planet. The conditions of earth are literally part of us. Billions of small, insistent expectations are built in to our billions of neurons, and every one of them is an ancient lesson learned.

Our consciousness lives in the tiny space remaining, the one that we optimistically call "free will." We pretend we are fully independent, continually rejudging, relearning, readapting and evolving, choice-making creatures, operating apart from the earth we stand on.

Value, deciding what's best, is the basis of life as it evolved and the basis of life as we live it now. Not grand values of truth and beauty and abstract ultimates like that but the everyday and the mundane and the constant. "What's the right choice?" is built into the making and continuing of life. It is what we have been doing since we were microbes. It is the process which, over millions of years, produced a species that makes art.

Art-making is a specialized modification of value choice, one in which we replace practical choice with esthetic choice. Art is making something better without knowing what better is. It is, in effect, condensed life, a small model of the creation of life encoded in materials. The artist brings the core life experience up to the surface, up from a place that is way deeper than words and ideas, and puts it into material form so that it can reach the same deep place in another person.

The work of art is the point of contact, the spark that jumps between the poles.

Let's be clear that when we talk about "art," we are talking about great art, living art. Most art is just surface noise. Great art is what drives this enterprise. Great art is why we are sitting here.

It is fashionable these days to sneer at the idea of good and bad and say everything is relative, driven by politics and power or whatever. But even as we deride the idea of value we spend most of our time making value judgments - whatever we choose to call them - and because we operate on the assumption that there is such a thing as better and worse, and that art has great value for us, we are forced to conclude that the judgments we make about art are not arbitrary exercises of taste but indications of how well we get what the art has.

We are too neurologically similar to even suggest, as the word "subjective" does, that the goodness carried by this thing we love and agonize over and spend billions on can possibly be subjective. Art is human value in its purest form. How we get to it is subjective; the goodness is not.

To confirm this we don't need to agree on what's good, and make lists, although we do that anyway. All we need to do is understand that there is such a thing as good art. Everything else follows from that. There is "goodness" there or there isn't. The artist puts something in; you take something out. You either get it or you don't. That's all we need to know. The rest is up to you and your eye.

Furthermore, what we get from art comes across through the effect of the living whole. Everything you can actually point to and describe in art - musical notes or words or paint - is just stuff. Art, as such, is not a matter of specific content but a reflection of value judgments the artist made about content while consulting that core life experience. It is conveyed by what you see, and what you see is form.

There are a million paintings of the Crucifixion, for example. They all have the same intense, meaningful, familiar content. However, very few are great art, and the art experience provided by these has nothing to do - I repeat, nothing to do - with religion.

If content determined quality then any painting of an apple would be just about as good as any other painting of an apple.

Talent is the ability to cut to the quick of life and bring it out in the guise of a chosen medium. Learning to draw and paint and design and see enables talent to bring life to the surface and give it form. As art evolved we found ways to synchronize the hand and the eye and the brain to develop the sensitive neuronal connections that facilitate the life force as it threads its way past the interfering static out into the light of day. Art comes from the heart, from inner life, from what we have learned from the world over eons. The world itself, as it is, as it exists around us, is just fodder for the inner life force.

Unfortunately, the simple, unassuming, old-fashioned utilitarian character of these basic techniques works against them in the academic marketplace because they cannot compete with the intimidating jargon, beguiling mystique, comforting entropy and overwhelming pressure to conform to the theories and so called "issues" that are thrown, like so much garbage, onto the path that art must take. We are making art an endangered species even as we pay millions of dollars for the freaks and clones that take its place in the marketplace.

Things and ideas and theories and so-called "issues" are cheap and easy. Art is precious and tough. It is built from reflective judgment, slowly, bit by bit, from trial and error, just as life is built. And it is built from form that has evolved deep in the psyche through rigorous practice and learning. To force art to be nothing more than a vacuous illustration of some current politically correct idea is to derogate the ancient tradition of the great art that makes our lives better. To promulgate nonsense in the classroom is to betray our students and our duty as teachers.

When we, as artists, submit to the icy fingers of academia, and make our art dependent on ideas or things or theories or fashions or moral lessons or "truth," or any other nonvisual external, we cut art off from its nourishing sources, smothering it with the wet blanket of the trivial and the commonplace.

And when we, as teachers, betray the small voice of inner necessity that made us become artists to gain the paltry rewards of the market or academia we trade our free souls for a joyless straitjacket.

It is a Faustian bargain, and it is a bad one.