I’m not going to pretend to know everything about my discipline. I learned a great deal studying my way through school, but I learned even more in the past four years of teaching. It really is true what they say about learning something far better when you have to teach it to someone else.
While I’ve gained knowledge, there’s still a great deal I don’t know, and I’m sure my practice would be improved if I expand my understanding. My struggle has more to do with time and choice than anything else. It’s such a busy place where I work and I want so much to focus on learning more, and I do! But, it’s not as simple as we all wish it might be. I’m coming to know so much about the mechanisms of education, about the brain and how it works, about the way people learn and how they’re uniquely motivated. Doing so takes time (and yes, reflection), and it’s pulled me away from my pursuit of learning about art.
I once had a teacher who offered me a bit of wisdom: when it comes to making art, life will inevitably get in the way, so remember to make time and to practice.
In school it was so much easier, since it was all that was expected. With the resources of a university at my disposal, I could easily learn about art through the experience of exploring the available knowledge, whether it be the tools of the studio, the people in the environment or books containing the wisdom of brains long gone.
I remember scouring the library for new images and forms (this was before Google made searching images so simple): for new ideas. What struck me the most was the times when I would read theory from artists. So many times these theorists from every genre and generation would talk about the “new art”, and I could never understand what it is they meant. The idea confused me because in my mind, art was not allowed to change. Art was a discipline with firm boundaries and rules. Certain principles must guide every aspect of art from composition to color and from creation to commerce.
Now, after years of suffering the joys of naivete, I understand what those artists meant when they wrote of the “new art”.
This year I took the opportunity of writing a letter to the parents at Lawrenceville. It was to be about art at Lawrenceville, but I saw it as a chance to share some of my personal views on what it means to be a person seeking to understand that which art has to offer.
Dear Lawrenceville Parents,
Students are busy with academics, athletics, and extra-curriculars these days, not to mention Facebook, Twitter, blogs, texting, and email. Instantly they post pictures to the web and scroll through streams of imagery, video, sound and print. In an age when everybody naturally generates content, it’s vital that the digital villager knows what it means to create a footprint, and that each seeks to understand his footprint’s relationship to his self, to technology, and to society.
Art media may suggest particular uses, but they don’t prescribe only one. Likewise, technology suggests we interact with it in obvious ways, but people always find new and novel means to use the technology.
The role of the artist in contemporary society, as father of Media Studies, Marshall McLuhan observes, is to identify those opportunities inherent in a material, a medium, in information or technology, and manipulate them in exploration of what’s possible. Art, McLuhan concludes, “can always be relied upon to tell a culture what is happening to it.”
At a time when new advances instantly render year old technologies obsolete, we must remember art. The artist is a soothsayer: a figure who, through thinking and making, foretells the road on which culture travels. Emerson writes: the artist goes “where there is no path and leaves a trail” for us to follow.
At Lawrenceville, students not only practice the process of art, but also critically investigate the sensory world of their daily lives. Each becomes aware of creative processes by probing his own motivations in an effort to better “know thyself”. Through acknowledging the limits of their own abilities, students seek to make their work and lives meaningful. Professor Robert Richardson, in First We Read, Then We Write, articulates Emerson’s philosophy on the creative process. “Art is the path of the creator to his work”, says Emerson. “One cannot repeat it enough” Richardson writes, “art is not the finished work, art is the getting there.”
In “the getting there”, Art asks the maker simultaneously to look both inward and outward: to examine herself, as well as the society in which she finds herself. As Alfred Whitehead wrote, “Fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas.” The emerging glitz of speed, the glamour of instantaneous communication, and the universal access to information demand that we reinterpret our basic selves.
Man is made anew in his relationship to electronic media. The information landscape has changed our habits, has shifted our aims, and has remade our relationships to one another. No longer can we say that art is the image frozen in pigment, suspended beneath the vaulted barrels of guarded rooms. Art today is information: image, sound, and text; alive in the form of bits and bytes, evolving as it spreads from brain to device. Students of tomorrow should have the capacity to recognize these societal shifts and make their own personal transformations meaningful. Empowered by knowledge, these thoughtful creators of content will manipulate the tools given them to critique and mold their own footprints in this rapidly evolving information environment.
Clearly my understanding of the discipline of art has evolved and become tied up in the nature of human experience itself. Having read enough about the state of art in different historical eras and art’s relationship to society and to the man who both consumes and creates it, I have a much better sense of what all those theorists meant when they referred to the “new art”.
Nothing is static. Things change, as they do also in education.
Web 2.0 has given me opportunities to understand the current limits of my knowledge and to redress my understanding when I have misconceptions. I have a blog that I’m not so good at keeping up these days. On that blog I once posted lessons in basic drawing. I did one about perspective — showing the viewer how to draw a cube correctly and then to cast its shadow. One of the most frustrating, but also the most rewarding outcomes of making that post is the commentary it invited from viewers around the globe. From some, especially those with very little knowledge of the discipline, I got a great deal of praise, but from others who understand the discipline much more deeply than I do, I got feedback which was critical, yet supportive.
Where do I stand as one who knows about art? Somewhere in the middle, I guess. Gosh, it’s not like there’s really a clear spectrum, standardly accepted, that defines any person’s understanding of art. (This is part of the problem I have with teaching courses on art — the criteria for success, if defined solely by the teacher, narrows the possibility for learning). There are so many dimensions of understanding one can achieve in a discipline — so much specialization that goes on.
I can say that through my own experience as a learner, as one who is self motivated to understand the world around him and his place in it, that I have acquired both skills and knowledge of what it means to inquire wholeheartedly into a discipline, to ask the right questions, and to do so with the aim of building new understandings. While my grasp of content will always lack in both breadth and depth, my understanding of how to access, study, and synthesize new content into schemas of knowledge will ensure that whatever little chunk of the world’s vast databanks of information I possess in my meager brain will ultimately grow.
For me, that’s more important than specializing in a particular content area. I’d personally rather know a little about everything than everything about very little.