The way that art history is taught at a basic level, think Art History 1000 in College, or Art History in high school, leads many people to be subconsciously afraid of making art.
Chances are you have already heard about how most people give up on making art at age 10. To sum up research on this: Kids are wonderfully free with art, then, suddenly, they hate it. They stop drawing. This is a relatively true and useful narrative.
Another reason that people avoid and distrust art lies in how art as a historical subject, not as a practice, is delivered and taught to entry-level students.
What teachers tend to show their classrooms are the very greatest works of art, such as Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Monet's water lillies, Salvador Dali's melting clock, Munch's The Scream, and any number of van Gogh's self portraits.
Entry-level students will never see the worst van Gogh painting, or a Picasso that was made on one of Picasso's bad days. Art History shows us only the best. This is like teaching human history with no death involved. This model works at some levels of student engagement, imparting only art's impressive glory upon learners who otherwise may not care.
What is taught as artist failure in popular art history is dramatized personal failure, such as van Gogh's suicide, Egon Schiele's decrepit existence, or Caravaggio's tendency to murder people. Historians will say "Yes, Caravaggio was a great and interesting painter, but, he also murdered a fellow" (cue creepy music in the Caravaggio documentary).
This teaching strategy injects awe into the student, awe in that any artist can create masterpieces while being wrapped up in such a miserable life. It also demands pity. The two feelings an art history student could have are:
1. "Man it would suck to be Egon Schiele."
2. "Wow I will never be as good at drawing as Egon Schiele."
Art history shows us monuments of perfection created by tortured humans and demands awe as payment. This narrative scares most reasonable people away from art as an enterprise.
The forgotten truth of art history is that artists both fail and succeed at art itself.
We hear stories about paintings that are rejected from shows, time and time again, until finally success happens. But very rarely are the rejected paintings shown. Rejected paintings that do last the test of time are often paintings that were well-done as far as technique, but considered distasteful in content at the time.
An introductory, lie-proof Art History class would show at least two works by the same artist, always including one perfect canon painting, and one early/bad painting by the same artist. This approach would revolutionize how we understand art. It would make art more approachable, more human, more understood.
The second big lie of art history involves a collective failure at teaching that visual artists are often multi-talented. Since pop narratives are so busy making students feel bad for Egon Schiele, the scope that would otherwise allow us to see both talent growth and ultimate talent gets fuzzy.
Basic art history teaches that painters are painters, sculptors are sculptors, and writers are writers. Due to this lie, kids grow up thinking they can only be a visual artist, or they can only be a novelist. Or worse, they think that because they like art, they can't do math. People go on believing in siloed talent for years. This distaste is built out of popular 101 narratives that suggest:
1. Artistic talent appears without no previous technical failure and exists in terrible personal conditions
2. Artistic talent is one-dimensional and monumental
Squares are not the same as curves. Expression is only for creative people. Good writers can't draw because they are too busy being good at writing. All of these ideas are flawed and they emerge from narrow education. It starts and ends with Art History.
For instance, Sylvia Plath is well-known as an author, but she also could draw well. The drawing that you see at the top of this page was done by Sylvia Plath.
We all know van Gogh as a painter, but a very lucky few will recall him as an excellent writer of letters. If you are one of these lucky people, this means your Art History teacher did not suck.
Tolstoy could also draw quite well:
The examples go on and on.
In an effort to engage in art history classes, artist outputs get whittled down into a twig of paintings in order to support the conclusion of instant magnificence in a single enterprise.
As a result, ideas about art that most people believe today are mostly wrong. I still meet people who think that Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings are solely about sexuality. These are smart, kind people, who have been totally misled by bad popular art criticism to believe that they are 'in' on something in the otherwise puzzling art world.
Here is O'Keefe as we know her:
But, below is one of her earlier paintings. It isn't really that great of a painting. The building edges rise into the sky in an unconvincing, skewed perspective. That said, this less-than-magnificent painting gives inklings into the painter that O'Keefe would become.
At higher levels of art history, let's say Art History 202, a learner might uncover the lesser known or 'bad' paintings of O'Keefe, or a Plath drawing, but this is the only person who gets to enjoy a new facet in the bluntly-carved gem of art history today. When this person goes on to teach art history, s/he probably has no time in a 50-minute lecture to show an unusual Georgia O'Keefe painting. Or worse, uncanon O'Keefe's are not allowed on the master syllabus at a university. Or worse, O'Keefe in general gets banned from a high school because of idiot administrators who are afraid of sexuality (wrong on three counts). And so everyone learns the same story over and over again about how to feel only pity and awe for O'Keefe, van Gogh, Picasso, and every artist that they meet throughout life.
Communicating the fallibility of art on a technical level may sound coddling, but it is not as coddling as teaching that artists magically create great work while murdering/getting syphilis/dying in spectacular ways. Seeing artists as real people who dedicated work to their craft will be the last thing that most people do, but it is what visionaries will do. At least until art history tells the truth.