Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thoth... and/or, Why it is That Artists Die in Art School (w/ update)

(Color translation of) An Automatic drawing - pastel on paper - 1973, Dia Sobin
(original drawing at the bottom of the post)

I came upon a scrapbook of old drawings of mine recently - very old, pre-art school drawings - of which the above is an example. It was a colored version (executed in pastels) of a black and white automatic drawing I did around the same time. I did a lot of automatic drawing in my pre-art school days. I liked this one because it was less abstract than the others... it was a recognizable symbol and I knew it meant something, although, at the time, I was unable to identify it. Years later I would come to the conclusion that it was a representation of Thoth, the ibis-headed Egyptian moon god of knowledge and wisdom, who was both patron of the arts and sciences as well as an important occult symbol. My teen-aged self had dipped into the collective unconscious and Thoth is what emerged.

The drawing is obviously not an example of high art. It is primitive, at best, looking like something pried off a cave wall. And, yet, therein lies its power... a vitality and immediacy that I've somehow lost along the way, and will never again recapture. But, why is this?

Because, shortly thereafter, I went to art school.

Oddly enough, even the dean of the school, upon my acceptance, expressed some doubt as to whether or not I really belonged there. He felt that I, possibly, had already found a direction and a style, and wouldn't really benefit from an art school curriculum. I wasn't sure what he meant... but he was right. I only wonder what would've happened had I not been accepted.

So, I went to art school. I think my favorite course was Contemporary Literature, where I was exposed to several poets I hadn't heard of before. In the Art History course, I learned that women, apparently, did not do art, and, therefore, did not enter its his-story. Otherwise, I can't remember ever learning a great deal. I already knew how to draw from life; I just never particularly cared to. So, drawing from life became an unpleasant task... and painting from life - those uninspired obligatory still lives of bottles, boxes, and other detritus - a true nightmare. I simply could not find my way into that painterly realm, prompting my painting instructor to point out that, although an excellent designer and colorist, I would never be a painter.

And I believed him. And, for the rest of my life, avoided wet mediums like the plague.

(Ultimately, I would turn to an electronic medium, replacing paint with pixels... but, meanwhile, years and years of creativity were lost while I floundered, unable to find my footing in the artistic arena.)

I spent less than two years at school, then quit, presumably to do "my own thing". But, it was already too late, and the "thing" kept morphing over the years (further complicated by all the day jobs I had to take to keep my body thriving) until the spirit which had produced the Thoth drawing was gone. While I still channel muses in my work, that sense of freedom and wild abandon has been constrained by the overlords of Logic and Structure, (not to mention meat-space reality)...which, in the end, is the death of true art.

The moral of this story? You be the judge. But, although I know little about the quality or modus operandi of art schools these days - keep in mind that my experience occurred in the 1970s - I think I'm qualified to say one thing: if you're a young, impressionable artist with a vision, and, haven't developed enough arrogance and true will to withstand assault, you might think twice about crossing the threshold of an art school...

... oh, yeah, and choose your day jobs wisely!


The Original drawing - ball point pen on paper - 1973 - DS

I decided to include the original drawing here, if only to illustrate and compare the types of artifacts which emerge in various states of consciousness. In the original drawing, more or less a "doodle" executed in the trance-like, somnambulistic state that sometimes accompanies this sort of drawing, the image which presented itself was narrow and spare; almost a warped glyph one might find in a dream. In the color version, I was in a receptive state, but was also consciously interpreting the image to express the emotional impact it had on me at the time of its discovery... that is, what it "meant" to me.

Automatic drawing was key for the Surrealist artists... something more fully explored in the future post, The Language of the Birds (and the Memory of Sound.


  1. And this is always the isxue....is it not. To learn, one is directed, but.......in the directing, original ideas and cocepts are often lost. Had you NOT been accepted to art school, you might well have gone on to be a house-hold name....OR......you might have considered yourself a failure and settled into some drudgery involving answering telephones all day long.

    Originality cannot be taught..only technique. Any artist can learn technique over time. Hell..by our very nature we are experimentive.

    I love the image that you used to cap this article -- it's very shamanistic with a breath of power.

  2. I think you've missed the point of this post, BG.
    I wasn't referring to originality, ideas or concepts... and I don't think technique can be taught, either.
    What you probably like about the Thoth image was what was lost... raw power.

    1. Incidentally, no amount of an education saves you from day jobs, nor a sense of failure, and this is probably true across the board. Factories, food service. phones, photo labs, graphic art jobs, and grappling with the threat of both personal and professional failure - been there, done that. ;-)

  3. MMMmmmmmmm.....so you're saying you lost..the rawness of your execution? Due to a mind-numbing repetition of ares you did not care to know? Makes sense -- before you attended, you had no knowledge of "rules" as applied to art. Which of course, makes no sense to me since rules hinder any execution. I was fortunate - I merely minored in art (focused on photography). I have been blissfully ignorant of rules in all the mediums I have explored since then.

    And yes...the shamanistic raw power of that image..

    1. Hmmm... yes, more or less. But, what it breaks down to is self-consciousness, and a preoccupation with craft... which is all I came away with from doing time in an art school... i.e., how to kill or severely impair the muse. Happily, I merely walked through this shit, but, didn't inhale...

      But, this is also true across the board. I'm always reading writer's blogs extolling the virtues of attention to craft, and I want to scream. Preoccupation with "craft" makes for an excellently written book a reader will never finish and will never read again. Likewise, an image which is dependent wholly on craft is not art... it's an image you will soon forget; it's a well-rehearsed parlor trick, and has no meaning.

      I congratulate you on maintaining your blissful ignorance!