Painter also recognizes an unhealthy essentialism in the way the system determines what it means to be an artist. “Both race and art can be envisioned as some quality beyond words that inheres within the person, a quality that can’t reliably be measured,” she writes. “According to this kind of logic, art and race reside in something as slippery as your temperament and the way you perform your identity of black person or artist; you can’t change them…for they cannot be taught or learned.”
The book begins by detailing two of Painter’s major challenges throughout her years in art school: being taken seriously as a real artist, and experiencing prejudice due to her age. “The crucial fact of my age emerged, not as an incidental, but as my defining characteristic,” she writes. As she learns, there’s a particular bias against artists who begin artmaking later in life. Judged as Sunday painters, dabblers, or dilettantes, they’re also scorned for their (often) comfortable financial position. After all, with annual tuition at RISD clocking in at $49,000 (before financial aid), an advanced art degree can certainly be seen as a luxury.
As opposed to the stereotypical young and starving artist, old women with money rarely exude such passion, need, and ultimate devotion to their art. Painter even makes a collage entitled Embarrassment of Riches (2009) about her doubly fraught relationship with her financial situation (she’s always lived comfortably, even if she’s not exactly wealthy). “I have never felt totally, authentically black within American society,” she writes, “because real black Americans…are supposed to be poor, or at least formerly poor, and to have good stories to tell about overcoming adversity.”
Painter infuses her writing with new revelations about art making. Initially enthusiastic about artists who engage in social practice (
), she comes to appreciate process, as well (an undergraduate instructor exposes her to the drawings of
). Though she at first dismisses
as a vacant consumerist, an exhibition of his large-scale “Mao” silk-screens at Gagosian
changes her mind.
Painter even comes around to the idea of appropriation—like
’s remaking of everyday objects on a large scale—which first grates on her as a historian who’s always needed to cite her sources. Overall, Painter generously describes her evolving appreciation of different media and styles—few of us are born “getting” what’s so special about a lot of contemporary artwork, and she openly discusses her hang-ups and how she learns to see art anew.