Last year, the artist James Case-Leal, teaching at Guttman Community College in New York City, enlisted his class in a research project. Under his direction, students logged the demographic information—age, race, nationality, gender, and education—for 1,300 artists represented by the top 45 commercial galleries in the city. They then analyzed the data to come up with a set of statistics: 80.5 percent of the artists were white; 70 percent were male; 46.9 percent had MFAs or MAs; and Yale was the most frequently attended school.
Case-Leal’s study had clear limitations: Not only was it geographically narrow, but determining which galleries are the “top” ones is subjective and tricky. What criteria do you use in a notoriously opaque field? The study’s website (now defunct) said only that each of the galleries chosen had a brick-and-mortar space and participated in either major art fairs or the primary market. Also, the students never interviewed the artists, which means that the demographic information listed for them could have been wrong. Yet the findings are not surprising. Even an imperfect study helps demonstrate how much the liberal-minded art world reflects the larger one to which it belongs.
Nell Painter was well versed in racism and sexism long before she went to art school. A historian whose research focused on the American South and the social construction of race, she garnered popular attention with her 2010 book, The History of White People. That was right around the time that she was getting her BFA and MFA in painting, having retired from academia and decided to become an artist. Painter drew constantly as a teenager and studied art for a time at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s. Decades later, her historical research slowly brought her back to working with images, until she made the decision to attempt a second career.
For Painter, that meant getting a second education, a journey that she chronicles in her new book, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. She knew going into the experience how entrenched oppression can be, yet she also knew the importance of institutional connections and support. As she writes in a particularly insightful passage:
How do you get a gallery? You make work that counts as interesting in the eyes of An Artist with a gallery. Who are artists with galleries? Your teachers, your peers, your friends. They persuade the gallery director to visit your studio and concur that your work is interesting…. How do you tell what art is “interesting”? It looks like art. What is art? Art is what’s in galleries. Now you know.
Still, Painter was a romantic. She saw the promise of art as a way to set herself free: “I wanted to create images, to make art that expressed my own mixed-up character, to forge a truer me than one confined by existing categories of sex-race and circulating widely as necessarily true,” she writes. This tension—between the private, idyllic state of making art and the social and political realities of being an artist—is central to Old in Art School. It’s very much to Painter’s credit that she refuses to become cynical.
This is especially true given what she endures. First and foremost, there’s “the crucial fact” of her age: Painter is 64 when she starts at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, surrounded by students who are, for the most part, just out of high school. Although she’s used to standing out as a black woman, the obsession with her age takes her by surprise. “It was as though being old summed me up, not all the things I had done to become a historian,” she laments. By contrast, her peers are almost caricatures of undergraduate art students: They drink lots of alcohol and dress in a perfectly calculated way (“Art students buy their clothes at Goodwill, or they wear expensive designer things that look like they came from Goodwill”). They also seem to have a very different relationship to authority than Painter does, a simultaneous self-regard and disregard for the rules that allows one of her classmates to pull an all-nighter and turn in “a tour de force that did not relate to any of our assignments.”
In art school, too, the teaching style is vastly different from what Painter is used to; it’s “less about instilling a curriculum of material-based skills and more about fostering students’ creativity.” She comes to accept and see the value in this, but also finds that the encouragement of creativity has arbitrary limits that reinforce societal norms: Painter’s teachers dismiss her figurative painting as being too close to illustration and discourage her from doing it. She smartly spends a chapter breaking down the racist and sexist prejudices underlying that distinction. “Part of ignoring black and feminist art came out of its widespread dismissal as mere illustration, as mere propaganda,” she writes. “This, besides the prevailing—and continuing—assumption that white-male work is raceless and genderless and innocent of ideological content. Which it isn’t.”
Another challenge of being old in art school is that life is more likely to intervene. During Painter’s third year at Mason Gross, her mother falls ill and dies. The loss is not only devastating but exhausting: Painter’s parents live in Oakland, California, so she’s forced to make multiple cross-country trips. She responds in a way that workaholic readers will recognize—by throwing herself harder into her pursuits. She applies to various graduate schools and gets in, albeit not to her first choice—Yale—but to the Rhode Island School of Design.
RISD is consistently ranked as one of the top art schools in the country, but it doesn’t come out of Old in Art School looking good. The book’s prologue tells the story of a teacher there named Henry, who informs Painter that she’ll “never be an artist” because she lacks “an essential component, some ineffable inner quality.” According to Henry’s theory, you either are an artist or you’re not; you can’t learn how to become one. This is the myth of the white-male genius rearing its head, and Painter rightly identifies it as “complete, unalloyed bullshit,” even as it stokes her insecurities.
Later on in the book, we get a clearer picture of the hostile environment in which Henry’s comments played out. At RISD, Painter is surrounded once again by younger students, almost all of them white. One refuses to read an assigned piece by bell hooks, saying “he couldn’t relate to it, because the author was black.” Painter herself is “dismissed as aggressive.” Her peers and teachers stand in silence before her work during “crits”—group-critique sessions that are supposed to be “the quintessence of art school.” After Painter graduates, she discovers that the seven other students in her MFA class—including a man who continually made big, sexist paintings based on an ad for pantyhose—all received honors; she was the only one who didn’t.
Painter knows and acknowledges that graduate school isn’t meant to be easy—the artist Emma Amos describes it to her as “one long tearing down”—and that crits especially have a reputation for being emotional ordeals. Nonetheless, it becomes clear that some of these aggressions are not solely aberrations or questions of Painter’s artistic skills. By the end of her first year in the program, the apathy of her peers has destroyed what’s left of her self-confidence, and she turns to her outside network to arrange a series of “alternative crits” with friends and artists, some of whom are black. They engage with her work honestly and help her understand the reactions of her RISD cohort in a broader context, as “a common reluctance of non-black viewers to engage with black figuration.”
Painter also mentions a student she befriends named Duhirwe, a black printmaker who, like her, isn’t offered the same opportunities as the white students. Both are shut out of a “patronage system” that’s born from a blend of favoritism and racism, though Painter notes that this is not exclusive to art school; she saw a lesser version of it as an academic. The rejection is particularly notable because Duhirwe has a presidential fellowship, which according to Painter is meant to help minorities. Yet in the painting department, the presidential fellow is “a white male artist who knew how to draw.”
This simple matter-of-factness is one of Painter’s strongest forms of indictment. She writes about her experiences with grace and style and doesn’t complain; instead, she chronicles the roadblocks she faced and the frustrations she felt, all while allowing her descriptions to carry the weight of their meaning.
In fact, Painter reserves her harshest judgments for herself. She’s remarkably honest about her own insecurities and shortcomings, noting early on that her “twentieth-century eyes” are her “major handicap as an artist.” As she explains:
My lying twentieth-century eyes favored craft, clarity, skill, narrative, and meaning. My twenty-first-century classmates and teachers preferred everyday subject matter, the do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic, appropriation, and the visible marks of facture: drips, smudges, and what in the twentieth century would have been considered mistakes needing to be cleaned up.
In order to become a real artist, not just a Sunday painter, she needs to push her eyes into the 21st century; she has to let go of her “reverence for coherence.” Fittingly, she learns to do so with the help of the computer, specifically pixels, which “don’t have any narrative sense; they don’t care what’s next to them or whether proximity makes meaning.” And this discovery comes not while she’s at school, but over the summer break between her first and second years at RISD. Alone in her studio, away from pressure-filled crits and disinterested peers, she finds her way to a process that involves working both manually and digitally: drawing and painting by hand, scanning that work and chopping it up in Photoshop, projecting it, and then working by hand once more.
This new process represents a difficult and impressive transition, especially for someone in her 60s. Painter enters art school wanting to learn how to draw and paint better. Instead, she learns that art isn’t about mastering skills, but about putting them in service to something else: the investigation of ideas or the expression of a personal vision. At one point, she reflects on a woman she had admired in a BFA class, writing: “I should have been, like Mary, painting what my hand was seeing. I was trying to paint as I thought I was supposed to in order to improve my skills.”
Painter faced a quandary. The system tells her to use art to express something within herself; at the same time, it rejects her efforts on the basis of her identity. “My definition of personal, my sense of myself as an individual, was too tied up in notions of blackness for the others to care,” she observes. Part of Painter’s journey, then, is separating the lessons about art-making that she finds valuable from the racism in which they’re wrapped.
Painter’s background of writing history for a general audience serves her well in this regard; she’s able not only to narrate but also to analyze her trajectory in clear, accessible language, without relying on theory. The book moves easily between experiences and analysis, explanations of research and process, and is mixed with brief history lessons on the artists whose work she admires and even some snippets of information from her previous book, The History of White People.
Her writing is consistently readable, with the occasional striking line jumping off the page, often when she uses color as a form of description. “Her pleasure gave me pleasure, though my pleasure was burnt-umber sadness in the darkness of earth tones,” Painter writes. Her style can be overly colloquial, with phrases rendered in all-caps for emphasis and words like “Harrumph” appended to the ends of paragraphs. These Internet-inflected tics are arguably the wrong elements of the 21st century to bring into her memoir.
Images of Painter’s artwork are interspersed throughout the book: Drawings she made while living in Ghana in her 20s give way to early art-school efforts, then to her MFA-thesis work and postgraduate pieces. The reproductions are mostly too small to give the reader a strong sense of how these pieces work as art objects, but they do offer an important additional way of following her development as an artist.
And an artist she is, despite Henry’s ontological myth, which Painter is well poised to deconstruct due to her status as an outsider. In a late chapter called “You’ll Never Be an Artist,” she explores the different ways to measure being an artist—having confidence, or a gallery, or collectors—and concludes that the term “has little stable meaning, and its definition and the criteria you use to define it depend, as with race, on who’s speaking to whom, when, where, and for what purpose.” This is a crucial insight coming from a scholar of race: Being an artist is a social construct, too.
Although Painter enrolls in art school partly for professional reasons, the transformation she undergoes is deeply personal and ultimately has less to do with sales or gallery representation than with introspection and community. Toward the end of the book, she sums up how her thinking has changed. “Now, with images in my eyes, I wanted to ask questions even when I knew I could not answer them,” she writes. That, by my bet, is one of the most essential things an artist can do.