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In new memoir, a pathbreaking historian of ‘whiteness’ recounts her attempt to be a Serious Artist

‘Old in Art School,’ Nell Irvin Painter is humbled but also enlightened

Nell Irvin Painter’s new memoir, Old in Art School, is about how humbling it is to start an undergraduate degree in art at age 64 and realize you know next to nothing.

And because it’s impossible for the acclaimed Princeton history professor to shake her teacherly habits, the book, which goes on sale Tuesday, is also an argument for the necessity of arts education and a critique of it, served up with generous doses of wit and charm.

Painter is the author of multiple scholarly history books, including the best-selling The History of White People. She bears tremendous responsibility for how we discuss and define whiteness. In her role as a public intellectual, Painter has pushed us to consider whiteness as something beyond a neutral palette against which everyone else is defined. She’s studied why we ever thought of it as neutral, as well as the history that led to that way of thinking.

Painter, who received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and a master’s from Rhode Island School of Design in painting (just imagine if her last name were Cooper), has long harbored a passion for visual art. Since early adulthood, she’d taken classes in drawing, painting and sculpting. She could have spent her golden years leisurely painting in the Adirondacks, not unlike Lily Tomlin’s character in Grace and Frankie.

But Painter didn’t want to just be someone who dabbled. She wanted to be a Serious Artist in the same way she’d come to be a Serious Professor. In fact, Painter opens Old in Art School seething at an RISD professor she identifies as Teacher Henry, who told her that she’d never be a “An Artist,” and crestfallen at the judgment of another (Teacher Donna).

“Teacher Donna faulted me for not being ‘hungry’ enough to be An Artist,” Painter writes. “I asked myself what on earth is ‘hungry’ if not moving to another state, paying a fortune in tuition, rent, and supplies, working endless hours, and being humiliated on a daily basis? What an art-world fun house of jumbled, upside-down values.”

Therein lies the tension that makes Old in Art School more than just a set of cutesy observations. Painter is simultaneously aware of the more ridiculous conventions of the art world, and of her own need to absorb them.

As she travels further down the art school rabbit hole, Painter amasses all sorts of realizations. Her preferred medium, painting, is largely out of style compared with installation, performance and video art. She sends up the affections of the New York art world establishment while remaining open to trying them, including dressing like an artist (interesting, but also disheveled, and definitely in black).

“What on earth is ‘hungry’ if not moving to another state, paying a fortune in tuition, rent, and supplies, working endless hours, and being humiliated on a daily basis?”

“Undergraduate study has a lot in common with youth in its freshness of discovery for the first time — youth as first-timeness,” Painter writes. “You aren’t expected to know a lot already, so you can learn everything in the freedom from guilt over not already knowing. … I loosened up (some), tried things out (a lot), and relaxed (a bit) into unknowing.”

Painter allows herself to be challenged in ways that I wish were more common — perhaps it would improve our public discourse about art. Like in so many subjects, discussions of art and politics have calcified into a series of predictable displays of righteous indignation. Just look at the way we talk about cultural appropriation, conversations that revolve around what belongs to whom, who’s guilty of stealing and profiting from someone else’s ideas, and what’s owed for the theft.

In Old in Art School, Painter relays her astonishment as she learns that borrowing — oh, hell, even what most would call stealing — in art isn’t necessarily frowned upon but encouraged. She has to reorient her thinking about appropriation from that of a historian to that of an artist. In doing so, she discovers a new appreciation for Andy Warhol, for instance. Painter writes:

Before art school, I approached art as though it illustrated social relations and history, upholding or denouncing the political status quo. During my years in art school, I increasingly concentrated on visual meaning, on how artwork looked — its composition, its color, its artist’s style, as separate from what it said about society. Critics call a preoccupation with appearance that ignores social meaning formalism, which carries a negative taint these days when formalism divorces art from the power relations surrounding its creation and circulation.

Coming from The Left, I began as an anti-formalist. But as a maker of art, I moved toward formalism as I sought to discover processes of how art was made, a move prompted by the neglect of the formal qualities of the work of black artists, assumed to be important only according to the degree to which it critiqued American racism.

During last year’s Whitney Biennial, a familiar argument about race, art and ownership erupted over the inclusion of a painting called Open Casket by a white artist named Dana Schutz. Open Casket depicted a deceased Emmett Till lying in his coffin. Another artist, Hannah Black, who is black, wrote an open letter to the Whitney, requesting that the painting be not only removed but destroyed.

“I happen to like Dana Schutz’s work in general. I know a lot of people don’t. And I have seen the painting now in person, and it’s an extraordinary painting,” Painter told me.

“So here was this person, Hannah Black, deciding that this painting should be either destroyed or something, but not seen. And my first thought was, Wait a minute, Emmett Till’s mother was the person who decided that he should be seen in his casket. She was the one who decided that Jet magazine should publish it. So who are we, including everybody else, to contravene what she wanted? She wanted the world to see what they had done to her son. That was the first thing.

“But then I kept thinking about it, and what I keep hearing over and over again in these discussions about appropriation is somebody writing on behalf of me [alleging appropriation], on behalf of black people. So wait a minute, you don’t have jurisdiction. Actually, nobody has jurisdiction. There is no jurisdiction on black people. Nobody has been appointed, anointed, delegated as the spokesperson for black people.”

“There’s a stigma attached to old, and especially if you’re an old woman.”

In sharing her journey through a world in which she’s not a highly respected know-it-all, Painter ends up teaching another lesson about the gift of curiosity, of vulnerability, and the satisfaction of challenging oneself.

I know, I know: Leave it to a teacher to make a compelling case for learning for learning’s sake. But it’s not just that she brings some clarity to circular arguments that so often take on the tenor of he who shouts the loudest is right. Painter writes of her discoveries while sidestepping land mines of self-deprecation that befall so many women. She is forthright and refreshingly self-aware about her knowledge and accomplishments as a Serious Historian, and equally so about her lack of knowledge as an art student. It makes her giddy enthusiasm for shopping for art supplies all the more charming and the frustrations of her graduate studies all the more relatable.

“Art supplies — paper, ink, paint, charcoal, brushes — are so inviting, so sensuous, like walking into a vagina,” Painter writes. “… the possibilities seemed limitless in these voluptuous houses of treasure.

“When I compare art supply stores to vaginas and candy stores, I’m not just speaking visually, for there’s more to the parallel than brilliant color and the promise of pleasure. You can’t eat art supplies, but you can practically taste their scrumptiousness.”

It’s the sort of thing that’s ripe for an onscreen adaptation starring Angela Bassett: How Stella Got Her Groove Back With Paintbrushes.

“I was talking to a young journalist, and I actually gave her advice of not to see yourself through other people’s eyes,” Painter said. “I in my life could not do it once and for all. And maybe I’m weaker than other people. I don’t think there’s a remedy, and especially if you’re a woman, if you’re black, if you’re a black woman, if you’re an old black woman, because all of those things work differently in the world. And there’s no one version of identity.

“I think it’s really easy to assume that black will take care of all your identity needs, and that black is a default younger person,” Painter said. “In visual culture, generally the default person is a younger person. And the black person is a younger person. And there’s a stigma attached to old, and especially if you’re an old woman.

“I suspect that there are people out there who will not look at my work, my artwork, because they know I’m an old woman, and I am an old woman. So I said at the very beginning I wanted to call this book ‘old,’ and I wanted to use the word ‘old,’ not ‘older,’ as some people would say. … Because it’s kind of like black before Black Power. Black used to be a word of insult. If you called somebody black, those were fighting words. And then Black Power said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ and used the word ‘black’ as a badge of pride. So I’m using the word ‘old’ as a badge of pride. I’m old and I’m proud. In that same spirit, that same James Brown spirit.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.