A Quick Personal Story and A Challenge:
In a college studio art class, my professor did an experiment. As a quiz, without Googling, he asked the class to name 50 artists in 10 minutes. “Piece of cake!” we thought, and started listing. He continued, “-who are ALIVE TODAY,” and we froze, crossing Michelangelo, Picasso, Pollack, and DaVinci off the list, minds racing, Art History majors panicking.
50 suddenly seemed like a much larger number, and we almost immediately tried to stretch the time limit, and the definition of “artist,” and “alive,” and “today,” to make more names count: “Ray, do we count? We’re all artists, there’s like 10 kids in this class, okay, how about you and all our other professors, cool that’s 15, oh, that guy that died just last week, can he count? Yeah, I know I hadn’t heard about him ‘til he died, but-”.
Dead Artists’ Society
This exercise was meant to point out that the most easily recognizable names in Art History are dead, and most have been dead for hundreds of years, but the landscape of the art world is always changing. It requires constant effort to keep up with changing times -going to galleries, reading art news, doing research- but that effort is worthwhile.
If this challenge still sounds like a piece of cake to you (good for you!), take it up a notch. The most easily recognizable names in Art History are also overwhelmingly male, white, and European. If asked to name 30 living female artists, could you get 30 in 10 minutes? How about 30 female artists, period? Without cheating!
Could you name 25 black artists, any nationality? Or 20 American artists, alive or otherwise? How about just 15 Asian artists? Try 5 local artists- can you name 5 artists working right now in a 5 mile radius of your town or nearest city? They do exist, even in the suburbs!
Take 10 minutes today to learn about living artists. See what new things people are trying with contemporary technology and what they have to say about modern-day issues. Starry Night and the Mona Lisa aren’t the end all and be-all of artwork, lots has happened in the last hundred years that’s worth painting.
Take 10 more minutes to specifically research female artists, and non-Caucasian artists, both working today and throughout history. Their work will educate and inspire. They are around, and they are fascinating. They’ve always been in the art world, pushing aesthetic boundaries, exploring issues of race and gender, and just generally defying the image of an artist as a white guy with a mustache, a palette, and a jaunty beret.
Make it a point to learn about local artists, even (especially) those who haven’t yet been “discovered”- take a look at what’s on display at the nearest gallery, even if you’re in a small town, or check out local art fairs. See the kind of art made by people living and working in the same time and place as you do, and see if the things you have in common foster a deeper connection and understanding of their artwork.
I promise the effort is still worthwhile!