One of the questions at the heart of Old in Art School, the new memoir by Nell Painter, is what it takes to be “An Artist” and who gets to decide you’ve earned those capital A’s. In her 60s, Painter left a career as an eminent Princeton historian and author of numerous books about African-American history and race—including, in 2010, The History of White People—to study painting and drawing at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and in the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design.
After a lifetime of hard work and intellectual rigor adding up to success, Painter found that art school was governed by a different equation, where who you were and how you looked seemed to be at least as important as what you produced. “To be An Artist was to be a certain kind of person that you could not become through education or practice,” she writes. “If I lacked the essential quality of being An Artist, I was condemned to failure.”
In a recent interview at her vacation home in the Adirondacks, Painter discussed why she chose such a radical change of direction at this time in her life and what she learned about art, society, and herself in the process.
The Millions: Did you always think you might go into academia?
Nell Painter: Yeah, after I got a C in sculpture and realized—I thought—I didn’t have enough talent to be an artist.
TM: So your earliest love was art?
NP: Oh, yeah, I drew all the time, and I was briefly an art major at Berkeley. But this C—and I earned my C, I didn’t do a damn thing—I thought, oh, if you have talent…
TM: Are you glad that you took the history path or do you ever wish that you had stuck with art?
NP: Oh, no, I did the right thing—not for the right reasons, necessarily. That generation, the Modernist generation of women and black people—totally ignored. And there are some fantastic artists in that generation. I don’t think, working as hard as you have to work for as long as you have to work, I don’t know if I could have sustained it, with virtually no recognition.
TM: What made you decide to make this huge change at this point in your life? Did you feel that you had done everything in your academic career that you wanted to do?
NP: I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but that’s as good a way to put it…I was ready to move on. I had shepherded a whole lot of really good dissertations, and I had written a whole lot of really good books. And as I say in Old in Art School, my history writing had started pulling me into the visual already.
TM: I imagine you knew that you would be older than most of your classmates, but did you imagine that it would make as much of a difference as it did?
NP: No. I had done these tryouts, like taking classes at Princeton and doing the drawing and painting marathon. And it didn’t come up either time, so for me it was, first, satisfying myself that it was rewarding enough to invest a lot of time, and that I had the physical stamina to do it, and so the answers in both cases were yes. I thought that would do it. You know, I didn’t feel so old in undergraduate school, because Rutgers is a university, and there was a lot else going on besides art, whereas the Rhode Island School of Design is an art school and design school.
TM: Are you saying that there were people of different ages at Rutgers, so it didn’t feel like you stood out?
NP: Yes, and at Rutgers my fellow students weren’t on a track to become professional artists in the same way that I discovered was so wrong for me in graduate school. It took me a long time to figure out.
TM: So you’ve concluded that wasn’t the track for you?
NP: I used to say, oh, I’m a former historian. I don’t say that anymore. I’m still a historian. As I was preparing my book, going through my journals, I discovered that every three months or so, I would say, “Oh, I want to make books.” But I’d always forget, what is it I’m doing here? But it was hard to realize that I am not going to be an artist like my fellow students [at RISD] are going to be artists. I mean, they may not become the artists they want to be, but their chances are much greater because they don’t have the kind of past that I have.
TM: Do you think it was your age, or your particular background and education?
NP: It was both.
TM: You wrote about what you called your “20th-century eyes” being a limitation in art school, and also about how the other students presented themselves, that people dressed “like artists,” and I think you even said at one point that everybody was thin or at least nobody was overweight. How much do you feel your critiques or the response to your work was related to how people were perceiving you as a person? And how much do you think who an artist is should affect the judgement of their work?
NP: I don’t know if that’s a “should” I can address. We live in a world that is racist and sexist and ageist, and all of those are so salient in our culture that it’s kind of counterfactual to try to figure it out. I did feel that I was being “invisible-ized” as an old, black woman. I definitely felt that, and women my age, of any race or class, can testify to feeling invisible.
TM: There is so much emphasis on youth and what you called “right-nowness” in our culture, but is there, or should there be, a place for the perspectives of people of different generations?
NP: Art is market-driven. Art is about taste. There are no “should”s. I mean, we can decry ageism and sexism and racism but [it doesn’t change anything]. There are no objective criteria, and that was one of the hardest things, because a lot of people were pretending that there were objective criteria, and there weren’t. There’s just so much art in the world and there’s so much art that succeeds that’s different from other art that succeeds—in the sense of the marketplace, which is basically how you judge.
One of my teachers at RISD, I said to him, “What’s to become of me?” and he said, “I don’t think you’ll get a gallery, but if you do it’ll be, like, in a summer place.” Such a putdown. But turns out that his gallery was in a summer place, and it just closed. Then he said, “Well, people may buy your work but they’ll buy it because it’s you, not because it’s good art.” Another putdown. I think I realized right then what was going on here, that this was very personal about him and that also, what people buy is usually about the artist. And certainly, when you get to prices, it’s about who the artist is, it’s not what the stuff looks like. And then again, there’s so many different ways the art can look, so I don’t feel diminished that people may buy my work because it’s me, because that’s how the marketplace is.
I make the work that satisfies me. I have no idea who my market is and what they would want. I make what I want.
TM: Do you think art school was worthwhile, not just in your growth as an artist but as a life experience? With people living longer, there’s a lot of talk about what to do with your post-career life and keeping your mind active. Do you feel that it gave you a sense of purpose?
NP: I don’t know how much usefulness for other people my particular experience would be, because other people aren’t likely to go into it with what I did. But on the other hand, I think one big question worth asking, for someone who is thinking about an encore career, is how intense do you want it to be? I went for 100 percent intensity. And, you know, people said to me even before I went to Mason Gross, “You have lots of degrees—why don’t you just take some classes?” And for some people that will work. But I said I wanted to be the kind of artist I was a historian, which is totally misguided.
TM: Why do you think it’s misguided?
NP: I just didn’t have the time. Also, I had too many entanglements. When I went to Harvard my parents were healthy; they could help me, and I didn’t have a public presence in the world, so those were the two big sucks of energy and time this time around.
TM: Was this the first time you had written something autobiographical?
TM: How did you find that compared to scholarly writing?
NP: It was so hard. [Laughing.] It was so hard. Luckily I had an agent who is very experienced and patient and helpful and got me through it.