This book looks a bit like a stocking-filler and I’ve flicked through it in gallery shops, smiled, and put it back. I’ve now spent some time going through it and my first impressions were a little wrong, I think. It may look superficial but there’s some really useful wisdom in here. In the introduction, the author — Associate Professor in the MFA Program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York — outlines his ambitions for the book:
Lessons learned in pursuit of art are lessons that pertain to almost everything we experience. Art is not separate from life; it is the very description of the lives we lead. And so, this book is really for everyone who cares about art and the way it enriches our being.
I’ve spent about ten years studying in art schools and what the author proposes is true. These are the things you learn at art school and it’s good to read them so clearly expressed. For students engaged in distance learning this long list of points is especially useful as it covers a lot of stuff that students ordinarily pick up from one another through sharing studio space and coffee breaks. One of the points is learn from your fellow students.
Some advice seems aimed at the professional practitioner but is also crucial for the student serious about challenging themselves: learn to accept criticism and learn to speak about your work. There’s practical advice too — with opaque media, learn to mix colours on the surface of the image and scale is a critical component of any work. While these observations might seem obvious to someone who has been through art school it’s good to see them addressed so clearly. I’m delighted that a point that I made in an earlier blogpost is covered: embrace the ‘happy accident’.
Mixed in with White’s own advice he makes points by quoting others. My favourite is a pair of observations by Philip Guston: you work to divest yourself of what you know and I want to end with something that will baffle me for some time. Being baffled by your own work might seem like a strange thing to wish for but for me, it’s why new work gets made.
If I was being critical this book might be seen as a shopping list of wisdom for the lazy student. Many of these lessons are probably best learned through experience — discovered first hand — and consequently more profoundly ‘owned’ by the student but there’s nothing here that is especially esoteric or obscure; any good tutor ought to be passing on some of the insight contained in the book’s pages. White’s list acts as a summary of stuff that the conscientious and dedicated student ought to be on the lookout for. Call it a guidebook or a map and its true function is revealed: this is the territory that the student passes through and being aware of the landmarks and topography is important and White provides a service to both student and tutor by codifying some of the fundamental lessons that art schools offer.