11 Feb

David Smith’s questions for students of art


While researching for a freelance job, I came across this series of questions posed by David Smith (1906-1965), a sculptor:

Questions to Students
The following series of questions appears in an undated typescript among the David Smith Papers.
It was probably written about 1953-54.
1. Do you make art your life, that which always comes first and occupies every moment, the last problem before sleep and the first awaking vision?

2. Do all the things you like or do amplify and enjoin the progress of art vision and art making?

3. Are you a balanced person with many interests and diversions?

4. Do you seek the culture of many aspects, with the middle-class aspiration of being well-rounded and informed?

5. How do you spend your time? More talking about art than making it? How do you spend your money? On art materials first—or do you start to pinch here?

6. How much of the work day or the work week do you devote to your profession—that which will be your identity for life?

7. Will you be an amateur—a professional—or is it the total life?

8. Do you think the artist has an obligation to anyone but himself?

9. Do you think his contemporary position is unique or traditional?

10. Do you think art can be something it was before? Can you challenge the ancients?

11. Have you examined the echoes of childhood and first learning, which may have once given you the solutions? Are any of these expectancies still operating on your choices?

12. Do you hold with these, or have you recognized them? Have you contradicted them or have you made metaphoric transposition?

13. Do you examine and weigh the art statements of fellow artists, teachers, authorities before they become involved in your own working tenets?

14. Or do the useful ideas place themselves in a working niche of your consciousness and the others go off unheard?

15. Do you think you owe your teachers anything, or Picasso or Matisse or Brancusi or Mondrian or Kandinsky?

16. Do you think you work should be aggressive? Do you think this an attribute? Can it be developed?

17. Do you think your work should hold within tradition?

18. Do you think that your own time and now is the greatest in the history of art, or do you excuse your own lack of full devotion with the half belief that some other time would have been better for you to make art?

19. Do you recognize any points of attainment? Do they change? Is there a final goal?

20. In the secret dreams of attainment have you faced each dream for its value on your own basis, or do you harbor inherited inspirations of the bourgeoisie or those of false history or those of critics?

21. Why do you hesitate–why can you not draw objects as freely as you can write their names and speak words about them?

22. What has caused this mental block? If you can name, dream, recall vision and auras why can’t you draw them? In the conscious set of drawing, who is acting in our unconscious as censor?

23. In the conceptual direction, are you aiming for the successful work? (To define success I mean the culminating point of many efforts.)

24. Do you aim for a style with a recognizable visual vocabulary?

25. Do you polish up the work beyond its bare aesthetic elements?

26. Do you add ingratiating elements beyond the raw aesthetic basis?

27. If you add ingratiating elements, where is the line which keeps the work from being your own?

28. Are you afraid of rawness, for rawness and harshness are basic forms of U.S. nature, and origins are both raw and vulgar at their time of creation?

29. Will you understand and accept yourself as the subject for creative work, or will your effort go toward adapting your expression to verbal philosophies by non-artists?

30. If you could, would you throw over the present values of harmony and tradition?

31. Do you trust your first response, or do you go back and equivocate consciously? Do you believe that the freshness of first response can be developed and sustained as a working habit?

32. Are you saddled with nature propaganda?

33. Are you afraid to exercise vision, seek surprise?

34. When you accept the identification of artist do you acknowledge that you are issuing a world challenge in your own time?

35. Are you afraid to work from your own experience without leaning on the crutches of subject and the rational?

36. Or do you think that you are unworthy or that your life has not been dramatic enough or your understanding not classic enough, or do you think that art comes from Mount Parnassus or France or from an elite level beyond you?

37. Do you assert yourself and work in sizes comparable to your physical size or your aesthetic challenge or imagination?

38. Is that size easel-size or table-size or room-size or a challenge to nature?

39. Do you think museums are your friend and do you think they will be interested in your work?

40. Do you think you will ever make a living from museums?

41. Do you think commercial art, architectural art, religious art offer any solution in the maturing of your concepts?

42. How long will you work before you work with the confidence which says, “What I do is art”?

43. Do you ever feel that you don’t know where to go in your work, that the challenge is beyond immediate solution?

44. Do you think acclaim can help you? Can you trust it, for you know in your secret self how far short of attainment you always are? Can you trust any acclaim any farther than adverse criticism? Should either have any effect upon you as an artist?

In particular, to the painter—
Is there as much art in a drawing as in a watercolor–or as in an oil painting?
Do you think drawing is a complete and valid approach to art vision, or a preliminary only toward a more noble product?

In particular, to the sculptor—
If a drawing is traced, even with the greatest precision, from another drawing, you will perceive that the one is a copy. Although the differences may deviate less than half a hair, recognizable only by perceptual sensitivity, unanimously we rule the work of the intruder’s hand as non-art.
But where is the line of true art—when the sculptor’s process often introduces the hands of a plaster caster, the mold maker, the grinder and the polisher, and the patina applier, all these processes and foreign hands intruding deviations upon what was once the original work?