The lost art of drawing.

An article in the New York Times speculates about the era before digital and recorded media, when people drew, played sport, played music, for themselves, rather than watching others do it, or finding instant substitutes like photography, recorded music or TV.

The article concludes “television and sports journalism have taught us all about the skills and salaries and private lives of professional ballplayers, on whom we now focus, instead of playing the game ourselves… As a consequence, [Roger Angell, in Let Me Finish>… writes, we don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either. ”

Drawing in particular, the article argues, “was a civilized thing to do, like reading and writing. It was taught in elementary schools. It was democratic. It was a boon to happiness.” But then came “a philosophical change, away from drawing as a practical endeavor and toward art appreciation. From dexterity and discipline to feelings and self-esteem:…..With the arts, American adults have acquiesced to playing the passive role of receivers.”

The article quotes Paul Valery: “A sustained act of will is essential to drawing…. Nothing could be more opposed to reverie, since the requisite concentration must be continually diverting the natural course of physical movements, on its guard against any seductive curve asserting itself.”

As Valery also said: “Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated”. One strand of argument here is that our culture has changed, and we no longer have time for serious thoughtful slow pursuits, when we can attain our objective instantly by taking a photo.

Another strand is about democratisation: once we felt that “Amateurism was a virtue, and the time and effort entailed in learning to draw, as with playing the piano, enhanced its desirability…” whereas now we are instantly exposed to the best in art, or music, or sports, and feel not only that we cannot compete, but also that it is not worth trying to do so. Apparently, between 1820 and 1860, more than 145,000 drawing manuals were produced in the USA. (Does that mean different editions, or copies?)

But what is the objective of taking a photograph? That it will be better (more accurate, more representational, more realistic)? The value of the artefact is seen as its success at achieving a goal (remind me what this thing looks like) rather than a process or an achievement, or a personal statement, or even a personal amusement or investigation or growth process (Valerys concentration.)

Im partly interested in this because Im about to start a spare time BTEC in Art and Design, but also because drawing can be seen as a form of simulation. The drawing simulates the original scene. In some cases (eg architectural drawings, blueprints) its value is entirely in accuracy and impersonality. If you focus on this, then of course photographs are better. On the other hand, the drawing can also convey more: emotions, an attitude, etc., which a good simulation should try to convey. Its this extra dimension that I want to understand better – hence the BTEC.

We are strange creatures. On the one hand, we live in a universe of spin. We choose our leaders on the basis of hairstyles and soundbites, we choose our products on the basis of advertising (graphic design/ copywriting). All of these try to subtly manipulate our emotions rather than our senses. Simulations try to do the same – see this post about the US Armys ongoing attempts to talk to Arabs before or instead of shooting them – artificially building trust by wrapping messages in exogenous visual or psychological cues.

Yet when it comes to art, which you might say should be subtle and moving, we express by our actions a preference to have efficient representations rather than spending time creating personal statements.

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