Nov 16, 2011

REVIEW | Advice to Young Artists in a Postmodern Era, William V. Dunning and Ben Mahmoud, Syracuse University Press, 1998

Advice to Young Artists in a Postmodern Era. William V. Dunning with Ben Mahmoud. Syracuse University Press. 1998.

Following the advice of the age old saying to "not judge a book by its cover," I picked up William V. Dunning's Advice for Young Artists in a Postmodern Era not expecting much. The cover seemed entirely too generic, and I have a certain distaste for the font used for the book's title itself. However, despite the droll and unassuming exterior of the book, once I dove into the content itself I was flooded with a rich variety of information that was presented in a smart, witty manner. Not only does Dunning provide a great amount of real, solid advice, he manages to maintain a humorous blunt tone throughout the book.

The book itself is divided into various chapters, all ranging in content from the relation of talent and intelligence in art, to more specific subjects such as what makes for a successful and educational relationship between students and their teachers in the art world. Dunning is quite good at reducing larger concepts into short, almost terse sentences that convey their meaning without fanfare. Due to his direct nature, it is seemingly impossible to misunderstand Dunning's concepts.

The chapter that discusses the correlation between intelligence and talent in art particularly stands out in my mind. "Intelligence is not gasoline," Dunning states at the beginning of the chapter in one of his many loaded one liners throughout the book. He reasons that society possesses a skewed view on what makes a person intelligent, and is quick to denounce that one is intelligent simply because of his "pursuits." According to Dunning, an interest in philosophy and classical music does not make one intelligent, but rather that intelligence should be viewed more as a learned trait, one that is closely tied to an intense curiosity and motivation to learn more.

This learned aspect of intelligence, Dunning reasons, is directly related to talent. "No pain, no gain," he states. Reasoning that a marathon runner must strenuously train in order to build the endurance and ability to run a marathon, he likens that learning to make successful art should not be a dissimilar process. This reasoning eventually leads to the discussion about the differentiation between talent and genius.

Dunning is quick to denounce the idea of genius. Falling back on his comparison of learning in an art process compared to an athlete training for an event, he is fast to point out that most famous athletes were successful because they were provided with coaches that were knowledgeable in their field. The students who are most successful in school, he says, are the students who utilize all of the different routes provided to gain information in their education. Rather than being tied down by the idea of "natural talent," a truly successful artist works towards their skill from several different approaches and angles, and does not fear outside influences and criticism. This unwillingness to accept guidance from one's professor in lieu of trusting one's "genius" and "natural talent" is a trait that can not lead the artist to success.

This chapter really sets a precedent for the rest of the book. Dunning is fast to reason that art is not a talent, but more of a discipline because success in art on a professional level is something that can not be measured. Whereas a child at the age of six can be recorded as solving math equations on a professional level, it is impossible to measure the achievement of professional status in art. This belief that art is then a learned discipline really opens the door to artistic discovery and growth. Rather than shaming the art student for lacking "natural talent" and genius status, Dunning insists that with curiosity, intelligence, guidance, and a willingness to learn, art can be a successfully learned process.

-Brittany Ham


  1. ContributorNov 20, 2011 04:59 PM
    I agree with Dunning completely, and I think that what he's saying is something that the studio teachers here tell us. I like the de-mystification of the process of art making. Sometimes, for some reason, people decide if they can or cannot become artists by their ability to "draw a stick figure". And it doesn't make sense. Nobody can be great artists without work. I'm interested to know when this artist mystique thing started, and how it's breaking down and why. Maybe the mystique comes from the idea that it can't be properly measured. This book looks comforting. Maybe I'll read it over Christmas break. Thanks,
    Noelle Fitzsimmons