Art Writers / Art Makers by James Elkins

Should people in my field (art history) also try their hand at making art? For years I’ve been interested in the strange friendship between studio artists and art historians (and critics, and theorists): between the people who make and the people who write about art.

James Elkins will give a free, public lecture on Thursday, November 10 at 7:00 pm in the Academic Center Auditorium on the campus of RIngling College of Art and Design.

Should people in my field (art history) also try their hand at making art? For years I’ve been interested in the strange friendship between studio artists and art historians (and critics, and theorists): between the people who make and the people who write about art. In most art departments in North America and western Europe, studio artists share the same university department with art historians. Usually the two groups get along reasonably well (although there are plenty of counter-examples!), but typically the art historians don’t spend a lot of time in art students’ studios, and the studio artists don’t always show up for the art historians’ lectures and seminars. It’s a conventional arrangement, and there is no literature that theorizes or justifies the custom of combining art historians (and critics, and theorists) with working artists. In Europe, especially eastern Europe, and in South America and elsewhere, studio artists aren’t found in universities at all. They work in art academies, and some art historians work there with them; but most art historians (and critics, and philosophers of art) work on the other side of town, in the university.

This amiable disconnect is one thing that interests me. Let me put it as a question:

1. Does it make sense to have studio artists working in the same department, or in the same building, as art historians? Assuming the answer is yes–why wouldn’t it be?–the question is: why does it makes sense? It’s fascinating to me that there is next to no literature describing why the two groups should be combined. In addition to this institutional question, there are two other questions that also puzzle me.

2. Should art historians (and critics, etc.) learn to draw and paint? Should everyone who writes about panting have at least tried painting once or twice? Even though it’s easy to answer “yes,” it’s hard to come up with a good justification for the answer. So here’s another way of putting it:

3. Does the experience of making art have any measurable effect on writing about art? If you’re reading something written by an art historian or a curator, can you tell if they have made art themselves? Can you tell if they have tried drawing or painting? What are the tell-tale signs?

It seems to me that if we can’t come up with reasonable justifications and answers to these questions, then there isn’t a good reason to continue the common practice of combining the making of art with the study of art.


About James Elkins

James Elkins-A graduate of the University of Chicago with dual degrees in painting and Art History as well as a PhD in Art History, Elkins is an accomplished writer with a focus on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images, writing systems, and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some are about natural history (How to Use Your Eyes).

When he isn’t writing, Elkins is an accomplished lecturer who speaks across the country on various art-related topics. His opinions regarding these subjects have made him a fascinating draw for art aficionados who find his opinions to be both educational and at times, controversial.

For information on James Elkins, visit his website: http://www.jameselkins.com

Buy his books!!! —> http://astore.amazon.com/jameselkins