COMMENTARY : Why the Artist Can’t Draw--and Why We Shouldn’t Care


Some insist that most of the principal achievements of art since the 1960s add up less to a sign of the richness of contemporary culture than to an indictment of its utter bankruptcy. Various culprits are claimed responsible. One primary offense, the grumble goes, is that too few artists today know how to draw.

Generally, what is meant by the complaint is that few of today’s younger, widely acclaimed artists have learned how to draw in the traditional, academic manner. Rigorous, extended technical training in the manual skills of draftsmanship has largely disappeared from the curricula of leading art schools. Art, the thinking goes, is the worse for it.

A rising chorus of complaints about a perceived atrophy of contemporary drawing skills emerged in the past decade. It rode the wave of renewed interest in figurative painting that was a hallmark of the 1980s. Traditionally, drawings were most often meant to be steps in an extended process whose grand finale was a painting. So the Neo-Expressionist crudeness of much ‘80s figurative painting has been explained--by naysayers--as the result of a woeful “failure” in underlying drawing skills.

The appropriate response to this cavalier charge is, simply, bunk . Within the life of art today, the “fallen” place of traditional concepts of drawing is a false issue. Perfection in academic drawing skills is no more a guarantor of great paintings than failure in those skills promises bad ones. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the delightful exhibition called “Why Artists Draw: Six Centuries of Master Drawings From the Collection” contains many renderings in graphite, chalk and pastel that are, in an academic sense, exceptional, by painters of decidedly less than stellar reputation or achievement.

An adept, red-chalk study for an allegorical figure of Africa, meant to become a spandrel decoration, is a lively and cleverly composed invention by Carlo Maratta; yet, the artist, who had been the most fashionable Roman painter of the late 17th Century, ranks today as merely a pleasant Baroque artist whose star faded fast. Because no ideal and everlasting model exists against which all paintings may be judged, the appeal to drawing as a painter’s timeless anchor is bogus.


Aesthetic standards, which are multiple and sometimes even contradictory, are also temporal. It’s no accident that “Why Artists Draw” spans precisely six centuries, rather than four or 10 or some other number. For traditional drawing is a value that was forged in the crucible of the Renaissance.

Michelangelo is among the greatest draftsmen of all time. In 1563, the year before his death, he also took on a novel job. With Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, Michelangelo served as co-director of the new Accademia del Disegno--the first official art academy anywhere, founded that year in Florence by the painter and historian, Giorgio Vasari. The Academy of Design had a specific aim, which went on to shape the future programs of state, royal and even private academies that would spring up in Rome, London, Paris and elsewhere in subsequent generations.

Simply, the academy meant to elevate the hitherto rather lowly status of the artist, lifting him above the ranks of mere craftsman. The legendary, titanic struggles between Michelangelo and his papal patron in Rome, Julius II, are the most extreme demonstration of why the need was felt. Michelangelo--and Cosimo and Vasari--conceived of the artist as something different from what he had been throughout the Middle Ages: a hired worker, as would be found in any guild, whose job was the faithful execution of someone else’s artistic ideas.

How this transformation was to be achieved can be seen, in part, in the kinds of drawings that began to proliferate. As the separate categories devised for the show at the County Museum attest, drawings since the Renaissance have been of different kinds and have had several uses.

A compositional sketch was a preliminary step in an artist’s realization of a finished work in another medium, such as a painting or a sculpture. A figure study was meant to elaborate the precise details of figures that would appear in a final composition. Sometimes a figure study was just done as an exercise, as hand-eye gymnastics meant to hone an artist’s manual skills. Then there was the bozzetto , a final, highly finished composition, frequently used as a virtual transfer pattern for a fresco or a tapestry.

Certainly the variety of drawing types reflects the academic emphasis on practical study--on the traditionally demanding craft involved in making a work of art. But this new, loosely ordered variety reflects something else as well, something that was crucial to the aspirations of the emerging academy.

The status of the artist could not be raised merely by requiring practical study and expertise in craftsmanship. If artists were to do more than passively execute artistic programs laid out by others, it would henceforth be necessary to require a depth of theoretical and intellectual inquiry from painters and sculptors too. That could be accomplished through the study of history, myth, church doctrine, nature, mathematics and many other subjects, all of which would conspire to deepen and enrich the language of art. But it could also be represented in another way.

More than any other medium in the repertoire, drawing is the one in which the activity of the artist’s mind can register itself most directly, without intervention, in visual form. Points of view are worked out, possibilities tested, visual speculations made, decisions set down. Drawings are a kind of “aesthetic electroencephalogram.” They possess a liveliness unlike any other medium because, typically, they can be described as a direct transcription of artistic thought.

Compositional sketches, figure studies and the like record the processes by which that thought blossoms, develops and is refined. A new emphasis on drawing was one of several ways theoretical inquiry could be made demonstrably integral to art-making.

Needless to say, in the academic effort to transform the status of the artist from craftsman to creator, a certain degree of success is implied by the informal title Michelangelo (and a few others) acquired: He was called the “Divine.” Divinity is about as high as a pedestal gets. And if, today, some believe that traditional concepts of drawing have “fallen” far, it is from the pedestal first erected half a millennium ago.

Without explanation, the six centuries surveyed in “Why Artists Draw” peter out after World War II, coming to a screeching halt by 1960. The most recent works are small abstractions from that year by the sculptors David Smith and Eva Hesse. Because artists didn’t just suddenly stop making compositional sketches or figure studies, the date of the survey’s end would seem to be more than mere coincidence.

In part, the reasons “why artists draw” have changed dramatically in postwar generations. Another category of drawings identified by the show is those that are not made as a prelude to some other end but that are executed as an end in themselves. This is not a new idea, as sheets by Tiepolo, Ingres, Braque and others in the exhibition make plain. But, undeniably, the genre is prominent in the 20th Century and proliferates in contemporary art to a degree it never has before.

Why? The 1960s witnessed a profound shake-up in the hierarchy of artistic mediums. As it did, there was no reason a drawing had to be conventionally regarded as a first, second or third step on the road to something else--including the maker’s road to legitimacy as a bona fide artist. A number of useful explanations for this shake-up can be offered, but one in particular has to do with drawing itself.

The basis for realignment had been indeliberately prepared in the previous decade by the celebrated success of Jackson Pollock’s drip-paintings. The artist had made them, of course, by dripping paint in linear streams from the end of a brush or, more commonly, a stick onto unstretched canvas laid out on the floor. By the late 1950s, these shimmering skeins of paint had been acclaimed internationally as a monumental achievement.

Pollock’s drip-method has been described in many ways, but none has been so astute as that emphasized last year by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the artist’s biographers. Hovering above the plane of the canvas, moving his body, his arm and his wrist in a continuous and improvisational choreography literally suspended in air, Pollock, they said, was drawing in space. Where that drawing fell to earth became a painting.

In these stunningly beautiful works, no hierarchy of drawing and painting can be identified. Drawing and painting are instead inseparable, one irrevocably fused within the other. No “before” or “after” can be sorted out. And perhaps most important, drawing’s lively quality as the direct transcription of artistic thought now coursed through painting, too, generating an ineluctable electricity.

The proliferation, since the 1960s, of drawing as an end-in-itself therefore shouldn’t be surprising. Nor should the irrelevance of traditional forms of drawing to whole segments of artistic practice, including many varieties of painting. In a fundamental way, Jackson Pollock had brought the European tradition of drawing to a close.

Today, the significance of manual skill or craft in drawing is wholly dependent on the individual artist’s aim. Some need it, some don’t. After all, Pollock’s epochal triumph was arrived at in spite of a notorious “failure” on his part: In the academic sense, the artist couldn’t draw a lick.