I. Does Art Make You a Better Person?
If you want to be a better musician, become a better person. –John Coltrane
Making art may seem pretty selfish. One fears the creative soul will withdraw from social interactions, into self-absorption, solipsism, and neglect of societal expectations and ordinary responsibilities. The often obsessive nature of art making exacerbates our fears of these tendencies.
Maybe we’ve been taught to think that inwardly directed attention is a little bit shameful, egotistical, or self-indulgent, and the products of introspection are effete, impractical, or useless, at best. “You can’t eat beauty.” While you’re making art you’re not doing anything for anyone else, and you’re probably not helping out much around the house.
There may be more to it than that. The composer George Rochberg (I painted his garden furniture in 1978 while we argued whether Prokofiev or Shostakovich was the better composer; I had some nerve) stated: “The pursuit of art is much more than achieving technical mastery of means or even a personal style; it is a spiritual journey toward the transcendence of art and of the artist’s ego.” Art helps you get over yourself, beyond yourself.
The Greek philosopher Plotinus likened our lives to the creation of a work of art: “How then can you see the sort of beauty a good soul has? Go back into yourself and look; and if you do not yet see yourself beautiful, then just as someone making a statue…must cut away excess and straighten the crooked and clear the dark and make it bright and never stop until the divine glory of virtue shines out on you…” The French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault recalled that the ancient Greeks sought “to make their lives an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values” He had no fears that a self-aware individual would withdraw from outward social responsibilities, but would “be able to conduct himself properly in relation to others and for others.”
We tend to admire with less hesitation the discipline, direction, mastery, stamina, persistence, and the ability to live with ambiguity and uncertainty of artistic practice. Some schools have also figured out that while kids are making art, they’re staying out of worse kinds of trouble.
What about experiencing art? The concept of empathy began in 19th C. German psychology as a description of emotional and kinesthetic responses to works of art (Einfühlung) — engagement with works of art provokes empathic response. Empathy is how we know others’ minds and others’ experiences. It is a redefinition and expansion of oneself through recognition of the experience of another, resonance with another’s experience so immediate and complete it is experienced as one’s own response. Starting early in our lives, with children’s books, then music, movies, novels, poetry, and visual art, we discover through art worlds that belong to others, and they immediately become our own.
Recent studies in neuroscience have pointed to the role of mirror neurons in empathic response. Wikipedia tells us “a mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another…the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.” Is this the neurological basis for empathy? For understanding what other people are feeling? For moral behavior? Is this the basis for power of art to move and transform us?
The development of empathy in an individual from art mirrors the original derivation of the term; it is art that makes us empathic; art that models others’ inner lives for each of us; art that attunes us to experience and suffering beyond ourselves. It is imagination, the other signal attribute of creative thinking, that lets us see how the world can be changed to be better for ourselves and for others.
II. How-To: The Answers Aren’t in the Back of the Book
Genius is the error in the system. — Paul Klee
When a student asks me, an art teacher, how to do something, I often don’t answer. It’s not that I’m especially possessive of my acquired knowledge; to the contrary, I don’t think knowledge belongs to anyone; it should be shared, or better yet, discovered.
As teachers, we imply there are definite answers and that we possess them. Sometimes teachers play a kind of game in which they encourage students to guess the answer in the teacher’s head. It might be better played the other way around.
Figuring things out for yourself has a high value. Thinking is the best way to learn. But it’s painful and a lot of work, and lengthy uncertainty is uncomfortable.
There are rules, and there is much an art student needs to learn. We must recognize when a rule is a convention or a convenience, rather than a universal law, and we must recognize assumptions underlying what we believe. To learn to apply rule-based solutions without understanding them is incomplete learning.
I think of knowledge as familiarity with facts or formulae; and understanding as the ability to apply the principles of knowledge to new conditions and circumstances. Creativity (I would never limit this term to the arts only) involves understanding and, paradoxically and simultaneously, not knowing; entering a process where ready answers are inadequate to the task, and where the resolution at first uncertain. You can be know a lot about something and be thought to be good at it, yet not know for sure where things are going to come our.
And often when things do come out, and they usually do though it takes a while, they don’t look so good at first. Gertrude Stein, quoting Picasso, said “when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it.” (from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). When you work something out on your own, you often do so awkwardly, haltingly, even blindly, without fully knowing the outcome ahead of time.
The best arts schools are not vocational schools. Students are “trained” to learn the rules and to speak the language of their medium, but more importantly, they are encouraged to develop their own habits of mind and to acquire the discipline of continuing to work in the face of not being able to get the answers right away. They learn how to not give up until they get there.
What else do students learn how to do in arts education?
They learn how their first answer may not be the best. They learn how the last answer may help you get to the next, but it won’t be the next answer. They learn how there might be more than one way of interpreting or doing something. They learn how skill and knowledge in their discipline is a means and a beginning, not an end.
- They learn how to live with uncertainty, to pursue outcomes that are not predetermined.
- They learn how one must risk the thing one cares most about.
- They learn how to look anywhere and everywhere for answers.
- They learn how nothing is sacred and everything is sacred.
- They learn how to let go of the shore and push off into the middle of the river.
III. Learning by Doing: What We Can Learn from the Arts
For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. (Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics).
The educational model of learning by doing is nowhere better exemplified than in arts education. Teachers in every discipline increasing recognize that the value of not only what students know, but what they do with what they know.
Educators are talking a lot about assessment these days, but education is too complex an enterprise to measure in one dimension. Measurement in education is too often instantaneous and linear; a momentary capture of what we already know we’re looking for. At one moment a student shows that he or she knows a certain amount about one thing, and then the class move on. Say you’re learning about cell division; your class takes a week to study it at the end of which you have a test. You get 36 of 50 right and you get a C and you may never learn why you got 14 wrong or how to get them all right. And by the way, you learn that you’re bad at science (which nobody told you involves observation, and experimentation, just like art).
A math teacher colleague created a rubric of skills and content he wanted his students to master. He made sure that these skills were essential (necessary to learn), cumulative (you needed to learn them to move on in the subject), and useful (kids could apply skills right away in context). He gave the kids the year to master them, and he kept a chart (he was a math teacher) of when each student showed he/she could apply the skill. He approached each student, and each topic in a different way. As long as they got there, he felt, rightly, the he had done his job.
Performance in the arts involves a complex layering and interrelationship of knowledge, understanding, and interpretation. What do kids learn in an arts class? Not only the rules and language of their medium, but importantly, to develop their own habits of mind and imagination and to acquire the discipline of continuing to work in the face of not being able to get the answers right away (and they often learn that there is more than one way to get to an answer, and sometimes more than one answer).
What you measure is what you teach for. When we assess students in art we hope to find something we may not already know – what the student has discovered and shown us, if we are open to seeing and hearing it. Not just “is this good?” – but “what did this student intend, what has this student accomplished, how did they get there, what have they told me, what have they taught me, what have they made me feel?”
Can we teach and assess art, or science, math, history, or literature, as an active and meaningful process of observation, participation, exploration, and application? Can we teach for and assess curiosity, determination, resolve, and imagination? Can we help students develop a tolerance for struggle and frustration, for occasional failure, for uncertainty, for sometimes being wrong, and for trusting in their own curiosity, courage, intuition, stamina, and daring?
IV. Why You Can’t Really Learn Art From a How-To Book
I’ve only rarely been a successful autodidact, not for lack of trying (I did teach myself etching many years ago). Several years ago I tried to learn motorcycle repair through an online course, and in fact received my certificate of completion, having read all the booklets and passed all the required online tests. I didn’t get much better at fixing motorcycles, unfortunately; what was missing was the teacher.
Thorough knowledge of content is an absolute requirement for a teacher, but a textbook covers content thoroughly as well, and more systematically and comprehensively than a teacher is likely to be able to. So what are teachers for? The delivery-of-content model of instruction doesn’t describe all of what teaching is about. Most of what you really must know and be able to do isn’t delivered to you.
You don’t need someone up there who knows all the answers to tell you what to do. “Math is not about following directions, it’s about making new directions” says mathematician and teacher Paul Lockhart. A good teacher may not in fact know your answers, but they have a role in getting you to your them.
Key to this is recognizing that learning is as much a matter of doing on the part on the student as it is explaining on the part of the teacher. This model applies to every subject, as educators are increasingly recognizing; arts teachers seem to have always known this, except for writers of how-to books.
What is the role of the teacher?
- To enable and encourage the process of invention and discovery;
- To share the thrill, joy, pain and frustration of creative engagement;
- To recognize success where it happens, for we are not always the best judges of our own work;
- To expect a lot, because we don’t yet know all that is possible; and to push when necessary
- To offer courage and empathy in the face of uncertainty, and remind students that frustration is temporary;
- To embody an attitude towards work of persistence, focus, and constancy
- To instill confidence and its opposite – doubt and questioning;
- To keep what can seem disjointed and overwhelming to a student simple and clear;
- To allow students to ask their own questions, make their own discoveries, and to fail;
- To understand and respect a student’s intentions and to help them realize their goals; recognizing there is more than one way, one approach;
- To remind students that what they are after, finally, is within their own experience, capability, and feeling.
A how-to book, in removing the presence of the teacher from the teaching process, removes much of what makes learning personal, meaningful, and lasting.
IV. What You Can’t Say About a Work of Art
Who shall put his finger on the work of justice and say, ‘ It is there? ‘ Justice is like the Kingdom of God ” it is not without us as a fact, it is within us as a great yearning. — George Eliot
I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat. — A. E. Housman
You can try to put your finger on the work of art. It is possible to say how it works, maybe even why it’s good, but something essential will always, mercifully, elude you. Rationalization and reification seem to be the fate of every inspiration, of law, religion, or art. Jesus was arguably illiterate, and didn’t write a word down, except maybe in the sand, but that didn’t stop 13th C medieval scholars from entertaining frightening literal, specific, and dictatorial questions of Christian dogma. Jesus would not have known what they were talking about. Today’s theologians of art have PhD’s in Hermeneutics. What they study and dispute is as moot as angels on the head of a pin. Should the experience of art really be as difficult, as arcane, as that?
Even if you can figure out what makes a work of art work, which I believe is a learned and important skill on a par with analyzing a work of fiction or poetry, you don’t own the formula for making good art. You can’t work backwards. You can’t reverse-engineer good art from an inferred set of rules. One of my favorite paintings is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It is so disturbing, so repugnant, so incongruent and defiant, yet it appears in every textbook as the definitive emblem of Cubism. Much has been said about the painting, yet it is as recalcitrant and inexplicable over 100 years later as the moment it was painted. You can point to the painting and say “Cubism is there” and you’ve said something about that painting, except everything.