A Gang Theory of Education

January 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

I teach an art seminar for seniors at Harvard. One peculiarity of my own education is that I barely have any. I’m one of those ’60s dropouts you read about, and I never took an art course in my life. This background made me incredibly nervous about teaching, but it has gone all right.

I’m fascinated by the problem of teaching artists in college, because, What is an artist? An artist, in my experience, is a man or woman of unusual talent and peculiar, highly individual sensibility, with an independent and probably contrarian mind, driven by mysterious passions for which another word is neurosis. In getting from point A to point B, the neurotic goes via point Q. It’s in that roundabout that people are either completely crippled and hopeless in life, or highly creative.

The artist is a strange being. I think it’s safe to say that a real artist is conscious of having a personal singularity that is partly a blessing and partly a curse. An artist enjoys and suffers from isolation. As solitude, isolation can nurture. It can also destroy.

Artists are people who are subject to irrational convictions of the sacred. Baudelaire said that an artist is a child who has acquired adult capacities and discipline. Art education should help build those capacities and that discipline without messing over the child. By child, I do not mean childish behavior — I mean the irrational conviction of the sacred.

Everything that would begin to make somebody a good student would tend to make him or her a poor artist, and vice versa. I’m well aware of this as a problem — particularly at Harvard, because at Harvard, the students are, by definition, the best in the world. That’s who they select. It’s certainly a luxury for teaching. The students can actually all write, which is astounding. One of my fellow teachers there once said, “It’s amazing, these kids. You can throw the stick as far as you want to in the swamp, and they’ll bring it back every time.” But along with that comes a cageyness and an all-too-ready ability to beguile teachers.

I have what I call a “gang theory” of education. All gangs are formed by individuals who, for one reason or another, are misfits, wander to the margin by themselves, discover each other, discover other people like themselves. They bond together. If all they have in common is that alienation, they’re a very dangerous group of kids. But if they have some aspiration in common, they can be intensely creative. In a way, everybody does this growing up. Every age group is a cohort — particularly in our culture, which is intensely generational. When we grow up, we tend to trust only those who share our exact historic and cultural period, who watch the same television shows with the same attitudes. Childhood, for everyone, is more than formative. It’s a trove of spiritual material for a lifetime. But this is especially true of artists.

Gang members are extremely competitive, but not with each other. They pool their resources, their information, their knowledge, and attack the world. Teams work this way, too, but I like the concept of the gang because, with art, there has to be an element of condoned anarchy. You can’t measure creative development by criteria that are like crisply executed football plays. Coaching a gang, it seems to me, one must concede the role of judging individual worth to the group.

In a gang — of art students, say — everybody knows without saying who is the best. It’s very primitive, very hierarchical, in the way wild animals are hierarchical. Everyone knows who’s best, who’s second best. There’s a lot of doubt about who’s third best, because everybody else thinks they’re third best. Except for one person who is absolutely hopeless. This person, as a mascot and scapegoat, is cherished by everyone.

The problem is: How do you nurture a gang in academe? I don’t think academia should take much responsibility for this. A college education is, and should be, people wanting typical careers in the structure of the world. Education must not distort itself in service to the tiny minority of narcissistic and ungrateful misfits who are, or might be, artists.

What I want to know from students, and I ask them right away, is, What do you want? I don’t care what it is. I want to help you get it. If you don’t know what you want, that’s normal at your age. And I will feel your pain — up to a point. But if you don’t know what you want past a certain point, then we’re just chattering, we’re wasting the taxpayers’ or your parents’ money. This is fine. It happens all the time. But it’s depressing.

My aim is to help kids realize that they’re artists already, or that maybe they don’t really want to do it, which is more than fine. They’ve saved themselves a lot of grief, and they can get on with their lives. I tell them that I’m not interested in educating their minds, I’m interested in sophisticating them, which is different. Sophistication is knowledge that’s acquired in the course of having a purpose. You know why you want the information at the moment that you put your hand on it. You’re not just storing it up for a rainy day.

And what are you learning about in my seminar? You’re learning about the course of art, the course of society, the course of the world, the course of your life. You are joining a conversation. You do not prepare to join a conversation. You come up to the edge of it and listen and kind of get the beat, then you jump in. And maybe if you jump in too soon, everyone’s going to give you a look and you’ll slink off and come back later. It’s to get this conversation going among a group of people, when they’re students — that’s what I’d like to be able to do. It’s a very messy process.

Aspects of sophistication. Love and style. Spirituality and street smarts. Why do you need street smarts? Shrewdness? Toughness? It’s to protect something soft that is going to be in danger if it’s exposed at the wrong time and place. It’s to protect a soul. But to protect your soul, you have to have one to start with. There’s nothing that can be done about that in a seminar.

The role of the teacher in gang theory is to throw red meat through the bars of their cage. My particular expertise is savviness about the New York art world, so that’s what I share. With another teacher, it would be something else. There’s nothing innately relevant or innately irrelevant to an artist. If their minds and spirits can’t put the stuff in order, then they’re not artists. Very often the flashiest, most seemingly talented person turns out to be not an artist at all, and some hopeless klutz ends up being Jackson Pollock.

A lot of education is like teaching marching; I try to make it more like dancing. Education is this funny thing. You deal for several years with organized information, and then you go out into the world and you never see any of that ever again. There’s no more organized information. I’m trying to establish within my seminars disorganized information, which students can start practicing their moves on.

© Peter Schjeldahl. First given at a conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists in 1998, transcribed and published by Chronicles of Higher Education, 11/27/98. Bio courtesy of New Yorker Magazine.

How Do You Learn to Be an Artist?

January 15, 2012 § 18 Comments

Mercedes Matter was an important figure in 20th century American art, both as a painter and one deeply involved in the education of artists. As founder of the New York Studio School, where she taught and served as dean, Matter helped shape generations of artists as well as the critical discourse about art, its meaning, its practice, and its role in society. This article first appeared in the New York Times, September 2, 1973. Almost 40 years later, her insights seem to have only gained in relevance.

How Do You Learn to Be an Artist?
By Mercedes Matter

Since, in a world greatly transformed, the visual arts have presumably moved far from the premises of art in the past, is there any use for a young artist, in 1973, to study the traditional disciplines?

I say decidedly yes – were this only a matter of becoming visually literate. How arrogant it would be to imagine that what has happened in art during the last few years could have wiped out the validity and relevance, to an artist, of millennia of marvelous works. And these accomplishments were made in sculpture, painting, drawing. Any young artist without insight into these forms of expression, without a key to understanding the art of other times and places, who is tuned in only to current ideas, is indeed poverty-stricken. However bright, sophisticated, ingenious and successful he may be, he remains, as an artist, naïve.

The insight of an artist, as distinguished from that of a sophisticated layman, a critic, philosopher or historian, is something not appealing to the idea-oriented person. It concerns the work of art rather than the idea. In painting, for example, it is first-hand understanding of the critical difference between one position on the surface and another one-hundredth of an inch away from the first, or the divergence, however ineffable, between one color and another in saturation and luminosity – these are things upon which the outcome of a painting depends and with which painters have concerned themselves, regardless of where or when they lived.

To understand Mondrian, who worked for years on his paintings consisting of several lines and areas of color, is not only a matter of grasping his concept. Plasticity, which he defined as an “image of energy,” he could attain to his near-satisfaction only through innumerable and minute adjustments undergone through rounds of action and reflection over a long period of time, to extract from those several relationships the greatest possible energy.

I do not believe that anyone who has never drawn, really drawn, can know a Mondrian, at least so that it can open to him, as an artist, its realm of experience. But to reach this awareness of drawing, there is only one way: to draw… to draw and to draw and to draw. There can be no shortcut designed to fit the college curriculum.

I think drawing has usually been the first step in the training of an artist for two reasons. One, it is primary in initiating visual consciousness. Milton Resnick defines drawing as dividing – dividing is the beginning of consciousness. To attempt the achievement of a coherent work, of unity, without distinctions ever having been made, divisions, resolved, demands a state of total innocence, cynicism – or idiocy. Beyond dividing, drawing is also connecting – and here is the difficulty.

Therefore, secondly, drawing initiates an attitude that is contrary to freedom as identified with self-indulgence and fantasy. It involves effort, effort to reach a specific result, to make concrete a perception, a sensation, an idea. Drawing is an effort to translate motivation into actuality. It is in this sense that Giacometti insisted that “whether it be a question of sculpture, or of painting, actually it is only drawing that counts… if one could master drawing a little, all the rest would become possible.”

Such effort has been lost sight of in art education today. Is this because the point of view of conceptual art has made it seem irrelevant? Or has the lack of experience on the part of young artists in the work of creation contributed to the predominance of conceptual art?

As far back as 1948, Matisse wrote, “I believe study by means of drawing altogether essential. The few exhibitions I have had the opportunity to see during the last few years make me fear that young painters are avoiding the slow and painful preparation necessary to the education of a contemporary painter.”

What does this slow and painful preparation consist of? Surely it is not sitting around and asking profound questions such as “What is art?” or “Is painting obsolete?” It is rather experience that would qualify one to ask. It has always been the premise of study in art to be involved in the process of making art – since the knowledge an artist needs is absorbed only as it is proven in the laboratory of his experience.

One can have a tremendous intellectual grasp and be incapable of putting down a cogent mark on a piece of paper. The study of art is very much concerned with the putting down of the mark. And this is the slow and lengthy process.

Art education – on the college level – whether it be in an accredited art school or university art department offers a rich menu of courses including academic studies, courses in applied art as well as art. But translated into the day-by-day experience of the art student, this simply means that he can never work. It is based on the false assumption that the pertinent information concerning art can be stored away for some future when there will be time to work.

For this reason, I consider art education, in so many cases, a farce, a packaged deal: the student receives the compensation of a degree in exchange for giving up the training he really wanted to have. A Bachelor of Fine Arts degree is usually a certificate of the fact that its recipient has not been studying art at Such-and-Such a college for four years.

At the graduate level, the situation changes but may often be equally false. Though here there is time to work, students are treated as though their period of study were behind them. Now is the time to “find their own thing,” to become professional at doing it and to produce. If it is not possible to get to New York to see “where it’s at,” there is always Artforum. For their Master of Fine Arts, they must develop a verbal rationale for their “thing.” Often the verbal apology is extensive and complex, the actual work slight – not in size but in substance. However, it is presentable, professional-looking, and there is lots of it.

To me, all this is deplorable. Artists who have interested me have never – even in their ultimate maturity – enjoyed the complacency of considering themselves pros. They are too consumed by anxiety about what they want to do, which they rarely feel they’ve done, to think in those terms. I think of Matisse in his old age carefully drawing a leaf, Cezanne in his last letter determining to “continue his studies,” Giacometti racing with time to finally put down what he saw.

For a young artist, to presume to be a pro, often in a way that merely disguises his naivete under a fashionable formula, is preposterous. But it is a result directly encouraged by current art education.

Of course, there are always students who are not conned into accepting this situation. Usually in the past there has been the atelier of a great artist-teacher to turn to as an alternative to the establishment. Here, for generations, it was Hans Hoffman’s school, the closing of which in 1958 left a terrible vaccuum. In 1964, some dissatisfied students took matters into their own hands and, having asked me to help them as an artist they knew to be sympathetic, they went to the great trouble of creating an atelier school for themselves.

It was in the spirit of a crusade that a loft was taken, the necessary equipment built by them and their slender savings, when they had any, put in to make it possible. It was in the same spirit that the extraordinary faculty they enlisted (it later included Hans Hoffman as well) gave drawings at the  start and fairly subsidized the school all along by giving generously of their time for less than normal return.

There could be no greater testimony to the recognized need for schools such as this than the support artists have given this one. Since then, other “studio schools,” inspired by the first and  prompted by the same lack of opportunity, have been started in various cities here and in Canada.

The virtue of an atelier school is its complete authenticity, its appropriateness to the purpose it serves. There is no compromise. For the study of art, it provides an artist’s domain and involves the focus on work which is an artist’s way of life. Any young artists whose intent extends beyond immediate success should devote themselves to a period of study in such circumstances, hopefully with an artist of caliber and insight.

On the subject of quick success, I recall an apt remark by Willem de Kooning. It was prompted by the show of a mutual friend who in his impatience to succeed, had exhibited prematurely.

De Kooning said, “I don’t see how he could have so little ambition.”

When the study of art serves the ambition de Kooning meant, it finds its proper focus.

Mercedes Matter (1913-2001)
Painter, founder and former dean of the New York Studio School (above photograph courtesy of NYSS.)

New York Times
September 2, 1973
Section AL, Page 101

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