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Art Can Be Taught

Why art is something that can be taught (and ought to be).


Art can be Taught

Detail of Painting by Bill Schultz

© Jerry Fresia

Part of the contemporary art world sensibility is that art can't be taught. The assumption is that you either have it or you don’t and in order to free the little artistic genius within, it behooves those lucky enough to have won the DNA lottery to stay clear of structured teaching methods altogether. Such methods are but fences that constrain any possible sublime expression. How sweet it is: just play the music, no need to master the notes.

There are explanations for this point of view. It's no coincidence that the fade-out of solid studio teaching of art has happened with the fade-in of the marketing-curatorial direction of visual art. Essentially, the transformation requires the relinquishing of the teaching of art by artists to the teaching of art by non-artists. And so painting recedes while rather vacuous concepts as conceptual art advance.

Art is About Creativity

You may be thinking that by teaching art I am referring to the body of ‘how-to’ type instruction. Not exactly. ‘How-to’ instruction, or what might be called the mechanics of painting, is a necessary condition of making art, just as the dancer needs to know and have mastered various body movements or the musician fingering techniques. But mastery of the mechanics, however necessary, reflects skill, not art. It teaches you a language, but it has little to do with speaking important truths.

Art is about creativity. Each of us is creative in some way, in some area. The making of art has less to do with a natural gift (and some people are very gifted to be sure) than it does with being in a situation that encourages creativity. This is how we get at the teaching of art. We talk about the right situation and how to get there.

Taught to See, Taught Art

Take a look at a detail of a figure study done by my teacher, Bill Schultz, many years ago. Notice the area of the face in shadow. Flesh is painted with greens, blues and purples. I know for a fact Bill saw those colors and didn’t make them up. As he would say, “Get it through the color.” It is a pretty artful manipulation of paint based upon his excitement of seeing color, I would say. But it begs the question, was Bill just born with a special color sense or was he “taught art”?

I know the answer. He was taught not to paint the expectation (green grass, blue sky, or in this case pink flesh) but to open himself visually to the sensation of color and to his own response to that sensation. He was taught to see.

The implication is that our ordinary ways of seeing are insufficient and here we arrive at the heart of the matter: getting a handle on how a situation encourages or discourages the creative spirit. Compare the many implicit requirements that we adhere to by simply living and working in the modern world with those requirements of a painter standing behind an easel and responding to visual sensation.

In the first instance, values such as efficiency, speed, and productivity are pressed upon us. To succeed in the "real world" we identify with and adopt such values. They become part of our way of living in the world. For the artist, however, these values are negatives.

To take one example, when we make a product or provide a service in a modern economy, we are concerned about finish. In painting we are not. The notion of completion, in the first instance, equates to pulling it altogether by a deadline. As in building a house, the thing doesn’t become the thing until the very end. In painting, what we do is always complete in every stage.

Seeing, too, is very much shaped by a way of life organized around production. When we see, we observe, we identify. Seeing is always a kind of reading. The seeing of a painter, on the other hand, is more akin to a kind of tasting. Not observing as much as opening up to and allowing sensations to stimulate.

A painter does not focus on results but on savoring visual delights, on letting go. In the work-a-day world, the rewards are more external: pay, title, security. The reward for those of us who pick up a brush and open ourselves to visual stimulation is becoming more of who we are.

First Create Yourself

Teaching art, then, has a lot to do with teaching how to let go of one deeply instilled set of demands and embrace not just another set, but a set of demands that stand in opposition to the person modern life makes us. The situation that we are in as actors in the modern economy is in conflict with our situation as artists.

This is a realization that is a little painful; it feels like an indictment, either of us personally or of our cherished institutions. And to a degree, I suppose it is, but only insofar as our way of life undermines our ability to create (and by creation I don’t mean just a product or service but who we are). Making art is the quintessential process of becoming, of creating ourselves.

Notice, then, what the teaching of art requires. Yes, we need to know the mechanics. But we also need to cross through the looking glass into the situation that frees us from the imperatives that we inherit. If we stay within the realm of our everyday set of assumptions about work or making or bringing a product to market, we are akin to actors on a stage who play a part but who cannot simultaneously look at the stage from a distance and see themselves in relation to others or see the dynamics which shape who they are and what they do. In order to express who we are, we must be free to be who we are.

The mistake made is that we think of art as a painting or a thing we make and which circulates in a market. With this assumption, it is not surprising we might conclude that the ability to make art derives almost wholly from some natural talent.

If, on the other hand, we all have the capacity to open ourselves to visual sensation and to the excitement normal ability brings, we can come to understand that art is less a thing than a situation that permits us to see in new and satisfying ways. When we talk about how to get past production as such or when we talk about what we need to do to get the juices flowing, and when we actually do those things we are teaching art.

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