Early humans picked up their drawing tools and told their stories with pictures. These early steps were the beginning of our species’ artistic development. But as significant as they are, they are the makings of an untrained child. They lacked techniques that are the building blocks of design in art. It would be foolish to compare the writings of a child with that of Dostoevsky or Nietzsche, wouldn’t it? But the developments that gave us geometric structures had yet to be discovered by people.
Eventually, humans began to notice a mathematical ratio prominent in all of Nature: the golden section. Across different cultures, humankind reasoned that these numbers were the language of God. Thus giving birth to the pursuit of beauty and expression through the scaffolding of unity. They built their temples and religious artifacts following this number as a kind of geometric prayer. This is where academic drawing, the bones of all visual art, began to develop.
Artists, first commissioned by religious communities, trained early to use these constraints in the design of their pieces. And therein lies the first distinction between fine art and graphics. One displays feeling held together by nature derived proportions and the other doesn’t. The artist, Harold Speed, has a fine example that will shed more light on that point. Take a person who chaotically moves around flailing their limbs, grunting, zig zagging across the room—this is not art. But let that person move around within a set of constraints, their expressive movements are now coated with grace and reason—that is art. The foundation of art is design and logic. Variance left unchecked is chaotic and void of reason. So if everything is deemed art then the word art loses its meaning.
This is why I’ve developed a problem with the work of the late Jackson Pollock. There is an absence of design and unity in his work, an indulgence of variance. And I credit him among others with ushering us into an age of artistic decadence because most now indulge in variance, ignoring the importance of unity. I’ve shared my findings with friends who are designers and I’ve discovered an indifference that troubles me. Why, I wonder, wave the right to learn from the rich artistic tradition we’ve inherited? It’s the interplay of the subjective and the objective that makes art, as Tolstoy says, the highest means of knowledge.
Unfortunately, for some, this knowledge brings past and current work into question. It is difficult to see the inconvenient truth. Making art isn’t just about following intuition. It’s about applying instinct within a set of rules. It is then up to the trained artist if they wish to bend them a little. Schools of thinking, such as Cubism, explored different points of view but still remained faithful to tradition. So it is possible to break new ground within the constraints of artistic tradition.
In the classical sense, the artist and the designer are one. There is a reason why classical artists were well-versed in the laws of mathematics and art. But the aim of this essay is not to put down those who enjoy art or want to be artists. On the contrary, it aims to encourage critical thinking in the casual reader and curiosity for tradition in the artist. Just because someone says 2+2=5 doesn’t mean that it’s correct. Similar in art, just because someone claims that they are making art doesn’t make it so.