book review: the undressed art
Post #478 • February 22, 2005, 8:31 AM • 7 Comments
Peter Steinhart has made a valuable contribution to the literature about contemporary art, on a topic that was sure to win tenure for no denizen of any ivy-decked faculty lounge: a history, much of it recent, of figure drawing groups and contemporary efforts to draw realistically from observation. Steinhart is a naturalist by trade, a former editor of Audubon and a nature writer whose work has appeared in Harper's and the New York Times. The Undressed Art: Why We Draw benefits from the naturalist's approach - to observe what's going on around him and work backwards into theory based on the facts, rather than the converse method used by several decades' worth of art historians.
Just as we would expect a nature writer to get outside and see some nature, Steinhart faithfully attends figure drawing groups around the Bay Area. From this basis he muses on learning to draw, modelling and its history, drawing studio etiquette, the difference between drawings and pictures, the struggle to improve, and the place of drawing in contemporary art. He interviews artists and models by the score and cites sources going all the way back to Pliny.
Groups all over the country get together to draw the figure. Here in Miami I know of four of them offhand. Figure drawing groups are a longstanding, pervasive movement in art that has touched on the lives of many professionals and many more amateurs, and I believe that its lack of scholarly treatment until now indicates a perversion of the celebrity-driven art world: it happily admits popular insults to highbrow taste, but doesn't want to deal with the fact that highbrow taste, such as artful figure drawing, may itself be popular enough to constitute a distinct trend. Really, The Undressed Art ought to accompany an exhibition, but I'm not going to hold my breath until a curator somewhere sees fit to assemble it.
Some of Steinhart's most intriguing observations come from something I'd like to see more of applied to the study of art: science. His chapter on learning to draw provides an overview of the psychology studies regarding the development of childrens' abilities to form images. He makes a convincing case for a connection between creativity and wanderlust, which fits the facts well and explains why I think about moving out of Miami every eighteen hours or so. He cites a study that suggests that different kinds of art activate different areas of the brain, and that your preference for some styles over other styles may be akin to your preference for some kinds of mood-altering chemicals over others.
Steinhart is also an astute observer of himself. In a chapter called "Waiting on a Muse," he writes:
Drawing is not something you do perfunctorily. It's something you can do only if you are attentive. If you stop drawing for a while, those fractious republics in the mind, the ones that must all carry on a polite conversation for one to draw well, stop talking to one another. Without the constant discipline of practice, they forget they ever knew one another. If you stop drawing, you lose your connections. Lots of events in life can alter your concentration. Poor health can do it. A change of scene can do it. A heightened emotional state or depression can do it. I draw in bars. But I don't draw well in bars, especially with a second drink in front of me.
Anyone who takes figure drawing seriously will recognize this as quite true.
Generously illustrated (although I wouldn't have minded even more plates), The Undressed Art supplied an enjoyable, readable, personal examination of contemporary drawing as a practice and its relation to the larger art world - how it fits into it, but not squarely, and how its adherents go on anyway.