Seeing the Art World Through Personal and Political Lenses

Posted June 20, 2018 5:19 p.m. EDT

When historian Nell Irvin Painter decided to leave a chaired professorship at Princeton to go to art school — embracing a new field and a new life at the age of 64 — it was not so much the art part that baffled people as the school part. Art sounded like freedom; school sounded like drudgery. If she wanted to paint, why not simply retire and devote her days to painting? Why endure a crowded commute from her home in Newark to sweat it out with 18-year-olds for the minor distinction (for her) of yet another undergraduate degree?

In her candid and cheerfully irreverent new book, “Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over,” Painter says she never really questioned her decision to go back to school. For a black woman with an already formidable formal education, more formal education was a no-brainer.

“Institutions conferred not simply knowledge, but also the means to be seen,” she writes of her decision to enroll in the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Painter had spent enough time observing how power works to know that individual toil was no match for stubborn prejudice or oblivious indifference. “My personal worth in art, again, my old, academic, black self, would need all the institutional support it could gather.”

If you were looking for a term that sounds about as creative and tantalizing as a dental appointment, “institutional support” might be it. Painter, though, will make you think again. The same goes for the critic Aruna D’Souza, whose “Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts” also takes on issues of power and inclusion. Painter’s generous book is loose and freewheeling, while D’Souza’s ice-pick critique is pointed and direct; both volumes are generative, bringing new energy and insight to questions that have long preoccupied the art world. As Painter puts it: “What counts as art? Who is an artist? Who decides?”

Painter gets more playful with these questions than she initially lets on. One of the most enjoyable aspects of “Old in Art School” is seeing her relax her historian’s grip on social meaning and open up to new ways of seeing.

She became fascinated by process, copying the paintings of others in her own hand to discover how, for example, Max Beckmann delineated the distorted lines in a self-portrait, and how Alice Neel painted the artist Faith Ringgold’s dark skin. Painter derived a great deal of pleasure from the sensuousness of art supplies. Her “lying 20th-century eyes favored craft, clarity, skill, narrative and meaning,” but she learned that everyday subjects, including things she had previously deemed too ordinary, too confessional or too intimate, made for totally legitimate material. “Nowadays,” she says slyly, “even I contemplate making penis art.”

Which is not to say that she loses sight of the art world — or The Art World, as she occasionally, and only somewhat facetiously, puts it. She quickly learned that school was not an idyll or a refuge; if anything it was a hothouse, especially at the Rhode Island School of Design, also known as RISD, where she decided to pursue a graduate art degree.

The timing of her application to RISD seemed strange, if not awful. Her nonagenarian mother, out in the Bay Area, was dying; her nonagenarian father, struggling with depression, kept weeping on the phone. Painter was still in her last year at Mason Gross and also happened to be finishing her seventh book, “The History of White People” (2010), which she refers to by the delightful acronyms “THWP” and “MFB” (M for “my” and B for “book”; you can figure out the rest). When she talked to people about graduate school, everyone told her not to bother. So of course she had to, “with a conviction born of defiance.”

At RISD, her initial euphoria turned to gnawing self-doubt, when a bad experience with a student monitor and some deflating critiques sent her spiraling. She had to seek encouragement elsewhere, outside the school. Her (mostly white) peers and teachers stared at her work, often uncomprehendingly. When she recommended a bell hooks essay to a fellow student, he demurred. “He couldn’t relate to it, because the author was black. (Gasp!)”

“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 writes. “I never felt animus from them, just an assumption of my inconsequence and, sometimes when they focused on me, their inability — a good-natured inability, it must be said — to say very much about my work.”

In “Whitewalling,” D’Souza says that museums and galleries (the “white walls” of her title) might often mean well, but the inadequacy of good intentions is part of her point. She focuses on three controversies that roiled the art world over the decades — including, most recently, the exhibition of “Open Casket,” Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, in the 2017 Whitney Biennial — to explore how artists and curators have handled issues of race and artistic freedom.

D’Souza’s book is less about aesthetics than protest. Her politics are unequivocally radical. But she also sees how art has been expected to wield an almost supernatural power to extinguish fires that it didn’t create: “We both give art too much credit and place an undue burden on it when we imagine that it can interrupt or overturn such pervasive systems of power as white supremacy or capitalism.”

Reading D’Souza on how curation works can be clarifying. She is excellent on “the censorial function of curating itself,” which might value “ambiguity, open-endedness, even dissension” on the one hand, but will always — by definition — entail some form of exclusion on the other. She also shows how predominantly white institutions, even those identifying as transgressive or avant-garde, have historically “sucked moments of black protest back” onto their terms.

At under 150 pages, “Whitewalling” is a laser beam of a book, unwavering and on target. “Old in Art School” is more meandering, pleasingly and profoundly so, as Painter negotiates the artist she is becoming: not identical with her historian self, but not running away from it either.

“I was losing my reverence for coherence,” Painter writes at one point. And at another: “Don’t ask me to resolve the contradiction.” At the end of this memoir, she resolves “not to see myself through other people’s eyes,” and to trust her own more. It took her six years of art school and six decades of life, but she emerged with a growing body of work as well as a measure of self-acceptance — which, in a world full of bias and blind spots, can be the hardest thing to learn.

Publication Notes:

‘Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over’

By Nell Painter

Illustrated. 331 pages. Counterpoint. $26.

‘Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts’

By Aruna D’Souza

Illustrated. 149 pages. Badlands Unlimited. $19.99.