There are an astonishing number of people painting. Children, old people, numerous housewives, invalids, people taking analysis or psychotherapy, war veterans, confessed amateurs, a vast horde on the fringes of the professional art world—who would be professionals if they could make it—and finally a vast number of artists who can claim that designation because, for better or worse, rewarded by success or failure, in poverty or riches, they intend to establish their life on the quicksands of painting, and a vast horde of students who will mostly join the ranks of the amateurs, but many of whom will fill out the ranks of the professionals. Why painting? How many amateurs, housewives, or patients, ever turn to composition of music? I know of none. I imagine some write poetry, but very few by comparison with painting, and even sculpture and graphics attract incomparably smaller numbers. Only those playing some instrument might equal or surpass the number painting, but one would expect that in a performing art. And perhaps this word “performing” introduces a clue. I am reminded of the circles of people that gather everywhere to watch the sidewalk artist. Whether he sketches portraits from life, or is a specialist in Scottish terriers, what the spectators admire has nothing to do with art, but everything with performance: even costume plays a role (beard, beret, smock). In varying degrees this holds true all the way up to the admiration of the truly national artist Norman Rockwell. To the average person the imitation of an object on a two-dimensional ground is magical, and the performance an act of pure magic. I have watched these crowds watching the sidewalk artist, how they gasp when the artist with a smudge and a lightening short line reveals the nostril, or the inside corner of the eye, or the shaggy coat of the Scottie. Likeness is highly valued, but often the customer gladly pays for the sketch, even if the likeness is remote, because of his admiration of the artist’s skill. And without question skill is the ingredient of art that the unsophisticated and the provincial admire most, if indeed it is not the only ingredient. And where a question of skill is involved, there exists also the challenge, “Can I do it?” And the next step is to try it, and the next step after that is the triumphant discovery that indeed they can. Not so good of course as the sidewalk artist they admired, but a good beginning. With a little time and effort they could become nearly as good.
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