A Plea For Standards
A Guest Editorial by GLADYS ROCKMORE DAVIS
Last summer I spent two weeks as guest instructor of art at the University of Ohio. The class was a large one, and most of my students had had previous training. In the course of giving a series of lectures, I brought up the subject of some of the fundamental rules for composition and found that no one in the class had ever heard of them. This is very strange indeed. Can a house be built without a basic knowledge of architecture?
I am not a writer, but I have an overpowering wish to say what I believe on the subject of the standards I have always respected and tried to maintain in both my life and work. I should like to speak as an artist and a mother, as a wife, housekeeper, cook and now a grandmother; these are some of the jobs I have worked at in my life.
There seems to exist today a philosophy of self-expression and a complete rejection of all accepted standards of the past. Here are some of the phrases I hear constantly from staunch adherents of the new cults and isms:
there is no past in art.
this is the new world.
man is in the sky.
this is the machine age.
everyone can paint, because there is no need to study.
there are no rules-the masters of the past are old hat. Perhaps they are right in what they say, but when I look at my eight-month-old grandchild, she seems to look like babies of past eras. She seems to do all the funny little things my own children did when they were infants; she cries when she is uncomfortable or hungry and already seems to understand the love with which she is surrounded. I ask now, shall my son and daughter-in-law teach this child no manners, no morals, no discipline, since these are also old-fashioned? Would this new cult have this child see only machines, have her never know love or responsibility or roots? I am not afraid to admit that as both a mother and as an artist I have studied proven rules of the past. I did not find it easy to try to be a good parent. I was confused many, many times. I read old-fashioned books, the Bible, Emerson, and many others, to get help. I wanted to raise a pair of honorable human beings; I wanted them to have all the old-fashioned virtues and to become responsible men and women. I say with great humility and a prayer that I believe they have.
I started a long time ago wanting to become an artist. There were years of the hardest kind of study in attempting to master all of the elements which I believed and still believe are a part of painting a picture. To me, they include a study of draftsmanship, composition, color, values, design, the study of textures, light, the painting of flesh which has blood in it, and over all a love and reverence for the majestic and difficult medium of oil paint. All of these things I felt I had to learn in order to be free to tell my story through my experiences as a woman and as an artist. Neither job has been an easy one; both are creative, and I have not found any quick or easy formulas for either of them.
Of course, I realize that I am speaking out of turn, since certain representatives of the so-called modern movement in art believe that none of these rules exist. They teach the opposite, which is that everyone has a talent, that no knowledge or technique is necessary, and that self-expression and newness is the goal. At the risk of being called old-fashioned (a term which is the terror of so many in the world of art today) I believe that for the artist who is really gifted and serious it is essential to acquire knowledge and technique in order to be free to create works of art.
We are each born with something uniquely our own. No two people see a tree the same way, or a child, or the sky. It is not necessary to strive for something different and new. I believe that if we retain the purity of our own reactions to things, what we do is bound to be new. This principle finds support in the way all great artists of the past worked and thought. It will not produce results as startling as some insist upon today. It is the slow way, of course. It requires discipline and love of craft, virtues rare in our time. So many want to start at the top. How foolish they are! Nothing fine was ever built quickly and easily. One must have courage and integrity, and the road is long and often heartbreaking. But the rewards are wonderful. They lie not in the clamor of the world, but in the deep satisfaction of honesty, of being true to oneself, and of the development of character.