If you show an average group of people the classic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting or images of the Colosseum, few would contest the artifacts’ categorization as “art.” But consider Doris Salcedo’s “Shibboleth,” a mere crack running down the length of Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, an art gallery in London. Or look at an impromptu flash mob on the streets of New York City or a few spontaneous lines of poetry from an angsty teenager — sans meter or rhyme but abundant in feeling – or a blank canvas titled “Take the Money and Run” sold for $84,000. Here, the waters get murkier, largely because there are few distinct marks of technique that immediately scream “art.”
Though artistic technique — from chiaroscuro to arpeggios to vibrato to a host of other established traditions — is immensely valuable insofar as it generates visibility for expression and serves as a stepping stool to help great ideas take flight, we should take care not to place it on an infallible pedestal. Otherwise, we risk suppressing the creative liberty behind some of the most thought-provoking art out there. “Shibboleth,” for example, may be “just” a crack, but it speaks to the innumerable, omnipresent divides in human societies.
For most of my life, I’ve worked with art in some capacity. From dancing to singing to playing instruments, I’ve relished many lessons and performances — and suffered through others. In retrospect, I think some of the differences in those experiences are attributable to the perceived emphasis — or lack thereof — on purportedly “proper” technique. Many art students who may have emerged as creative geniuses instead get scared off by the arts because of unpleasant encounters with forced technique and requirements to conform to traditions that limit their craft.
Technique is undeniably part of what makes art memorable and durable. There is a reason that various techniques exist — they are time-tested and proven to make art more appealing to the average viewer, and they are incredibly important to maintaining the integrity of various art forms. To the extent that technique carries messages across expanses of time and space, it should be preserved.
But when technique starts becoming a hindrance to, rather than a guide for, originality — when it pushes potential artists away and makes existing ones dread rather than delight in their art — its use as a measure of artistic value should be reconsidered. It would be a sad waste to constrain the future of art to its past.
A 2020 study found that one’s physical and mental health, as well as one’s socioeconomic status, can pose barriers to engagement in the arts. For those who lack access to formal training, or have personal circumstances that make training difficult, undue emphasis on technique can be a deterrent that locks people out of the ability to use art as an emotional outlet. And often this lockout affects the people who need it most.
An overemphasis on certain accepted techniques can also exacerbate the adjacent problems of eurocentricity and male domination in art. A recent study found that 85% of artists represented in 18 major U.S. museums are white, and 87% are male. Compared to men, women have historically lacked equal access to technical art education. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been creating art — it just means their art was not recognized, displayed and preserved to the same extent. Consequently, many of their names and contributions have been lost to time, a tragedy whose full magnitude we will never know.
Likewise, because technique can vary greatly between cultures, defining art primarily by technique risks narrowing one’s lens. For example, straight legs are desirable in ballet, but bent legs are key to bharatanatyam, a South Indian classical dance form. A prevalent European visual art tradition is the use of the vanishing point for three-dimensionality and realism, but a lot of African visual art emphasizes deliberately prominent features, such as a ruler’s head, prioritizing symbolism over realism.
Art can have so many meanings and goals, and many different methods exist to achieve them. Overvaluing one method without exposure to others can limit the scope of art appreciation, or even squash possibilities for cultural fusion — which is a shame, because art is universal. Growing up as a kathak dancer, I often wished I didn’t have to explain to my friends what it was in order to prove that I was just as much of a dancer as a competitive ballerina. That’s why, when I came to Georgetown University, the very existence of Rangila, the long lines of people it attracts who want to experience the art of another culture and the understanding and validation it creates made me indescribably happy.
As I always say in this column, our generation can be the turning point. And we have a lot of progress to build on: I’ve seen it everywhere, from my Advanced Placement Art History class in high school, where six out of 10 units were dedicated to non-Western art, to here on campus, where a talented team is putting together Georgetown’s first original Asian American musical. But there’s more work to do in making art more accessible and less alienating for as many people as possible.
Let’s capture clips of saxophone players on M Street and make them go just as viral as videos of maestros on grand pianos. Let’s advocate for traditions like Rangila to expand and represent more cultures. Let’s support novice artists with just as much enthusiasm as seasoned ones. Let’s eliminate barriers — whether they are based on gender, ethnicity or anything else — that dictate who can occupy artistic spaces. And let’s broaden our horizons in terms of the art we consume and share.
Call me biased, but I think art is one of the best parts of the human experience. And in that experience, the more the merrier.
Shivali Vora is a first-year student in the School of Foreign Service. Something Old, Something New is published every third Friday.