Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Consider the pleasure & importance of sketching, even as a non-gifted amateur
An Exhibition About Drawing Conjures a Time When Amateurs Roamed the Earth
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
“Playing the Piano for Pleasure” is a minor classic of self-help by Charles Cooke promoting musical amateurism, published in 1941 in the upbeat style of Dale Carnegie. It lays out a strict regime of practice and discipline, the musical equivalent to a better body in 30 days. “We will worm our way, expending considerable effort, into the small end of the cornucopia,” he promises, “in order that we may later emerge, expending less effort and having the time of our life, out of the large end.”
I was reminded of Cooke while visiting the Grolier Club, where a show called “Teaching America to Draw” provides a refresher course in pencil-pushing and other sorts of sketching as a collective pastime. It’s about that golden era, from the time of the founding fathers nearly to Cooke’s day, when educated Americans drew as a matter of course.
Drawing was a civilized thing to do, like reading and writing. It was taught in elementary schools. It was democratic. It was a boon to happiness.
From 1820 to 1860, more than 145,000 drawing manuals circulated, now souvenirs of our bygone cultural aspirations. Not many of these manuals are still intact because they were so heavily used, worn down like church relics, which supplicants rubbed smooth from caressing.
We’re addicted to convenience today. Cellphone cameras are handy, but they’re also the equivalent of fast-food meals. Their ubiquity has multiplied our distance from drawing as a measure of self-worth and a practical tool. Before box cameras became universal a century or so ago, people drew for pleasure but also because it was the best way to preserve a cherished sight, a memory, just as people played an instrument or sang if they wanted to hear music at home because there were no record players or radios. Amateurism was a virtue, and the time and effort entailed in learning to draw, as with playing the piano, enhanced its desirability.
Drawing promoted meditation and stillness. “A sustained act of will is essential to drawing,” Paul Valéry put it. “Nothing could be more opposed to reverie, since the requisite concentration must be continually diverting the natural course of physical movements, on its guard against any seductive curve asserting itself.”
A century ago it was possible for a Philadelphia educator named J. Liberty Tadd to instruct young women to stand in pigsties to learn to draw animals directly from nature. There’s an illustration in the show from Tadd’s “New Methods of Education” of a girl in a long, improbably immaculate dress sketching pigs on a blackboard.
The exhibition is full of such exhortatory books, many of them discomfiting today because they presume a degree of skill among ordinary citizens — even children — that would now be regarded as noteworthy in the art world. There are exceptions, like a popular manual from the 1840’s by Benjamin Coe, one of Frederic Church’s teachers, who, to judge from his illustration of a maiden in a glen, needed a little brushing-up on perspective.
On the other hand, there’s J. T. Bowen’s “United States Drawing Book,” from 1839, with its moody view of a crumbling cathedral in a landscape, and P. Fishe Reed’s “Little Corporal’s Drawing Book,” a progressive manual from 1869 with bird drawings that Audubon might have been proud to make, conjuring an America in which 10-year-olds are absorbed not by Game Boys and iPods but by the finer points of mastering realism.
Clearly these manuals were aspirational no less than educational or recreational. It’s hard to imagine that most American schoolchildren during the 1870’s could duplicate the leaves and bugs and complicated curlicue patterns that Herman Krusi Jr. drew in his manuals for classroom instruction. But Americans wanted their children to: that’s the point.
Something happened between then and now, and it wasn’t just the invention of gadgets that eliminated the need to draw.
There was also a philosophical change, away from drawing as a practical endeavor and toward art appreciation. From dexterity and discipline to feelings and self-esteem: the shift in values is implied by some of the later books in the show. Consciously or not, they parallel changes in modern art, which threw out the rule books of draftsmanship and proposed a new, free-thinking attitude.
As for expending effort to become skilled at drawing, the post-Cooke postwar generation introduced Paint by Numbers, and the situation has gone downhill from there.
“Drawing in America is as much a basic human activity today as it has always been, even if it is not perceived to be as necessary to economic and cultural progress,” Albert A. Anderson Jr. writes in the slim pamphlet accompanying the show.
I don’t think so. Drawing and doodling are not the same. With the arts, American adults have acquiesced to playing the passive role of receivers.
In a new memoir, “Let Me Finish,” Roger Angell recalls trips to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in the 1930’s with his father, who also liked to join pickup games when middle-age American men still did that. Today baseball is like the arts, with grown-ups mostly preferring not to break a sweat. “We know everything about the game now, thanks to instant replay and computerized stats, and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it,” Mr. Angell writes.
So it is with classical music, painting and drawing, professional renditions of which are now so widely available that most people probably can’t or don’t imagine there’s any point in bothering to do these things themselves. Communities of amateurs still thrive, but they are self-selecting groups. A vast majority of society seems to presume that culture is something specialists produce.
Rembrandt Peale published one of the drawing manuals in the Grolier Club show. Besides being an artist, Peale became Pennsylvania’s first high school art teacher in the 1830’s, hired by Alexander Dallas Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin. People, Franklin pointed out, can often “express ideas more clearly with a lead pencil or a bit of chalk” than with words. “Drawing is a kind of universal language, understood by all nations,” he reminded Americans.
We have given it up, at a cost that, as Franklin might have put it, is beyond words. Mr. Angell goes on in his book to say that television and sports journalism have taught us all about the skills and salaries and private lives of professional ballplayers, on whom we now focus, instead of playing the game ourselves.
As a consequence, he writes, “we don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either.”
You can draw the analogy.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company