Let me begin with an experience which I had repeatedly after speeches I had given on teaching or teaching of art. After having spoken about my way of teaching, teachers came asking me if there were a book describing my method.
This summer I was asked to write a sample lesson for a prospective book containing lessons by so-called master teachers of art. As the publishers wrote, they wanted a typical lesson of mine. I have not written this sample lesson.
I can imagine that such a book could be very instructive because it could show many different and, what would be particularly stimulating, contradictory approaches.
I knew an assistant art teacher who had to teach a class parallel to the class of his superior. Thus in the afternoon, he gave his course just as his master conducted it in the morning. Although his master was very successful, the assistant was not. In spite of his applying the same procedure, in spite of his repeating the master word for word.
This is to explain that teaching is primarily not a question of method and technique. It may also explain that my not contributing to that book was not a withholding of private educational secrets. It is opposition to a dangerous belief that in teaching, imitation and repetition of others are sufficient; a belief which is just as disastrous in teaching art as in practicing art.
In order to clarify the situation I should like to make first some general remarks on teaching, then to explain why art education, and how I try to do it and why.
Teaching is definitely more than giving information. Teaching should be education which means developing of the will and of the ability more than the producing of knowledge.
To know more is less than the ability to do more. Simply knowing something or many things produces easily a kind of pride in which someone for instance enjoys heaping money for heaping's or money's sake. But pride of possession is poverty as pride based on power, is fear; both are unproductive.
Only dynamic possession is fertile, materially as well as spiritually. Let us therefore consider knowledge not as a static possession or as a goal in itself, but as a means.
In order to be less abstract: we—through teaching—may feed youth, and they may eat and enjoy our food, but its assimilation should receive our greater interest. If we understand teaching as a kind of nourishing, the associations with the term digestion will suggest various methods of teaching. For example: cooking, which is preparing our meals to be served, should be an art of selection and combination. Normally, a meal should be nourishing, the food should taste good. Different constitutions need different diets. Mealtime is more eating time than talking time. And, to overfeed disturbs, wastes, and spoils. Or, compare homemade food with manufactured foods. Canned food has less vitamins than fresh food; just as a mimeographed letter is less effective than a personal letter.
One can suffocate with knowledge, never with experience. We forget easily what we have heard or read, but we cannot forget what we have experienced. Wisdom is more a result of experience than of knowledge.
With hearing and reading must come seeing. Real educational growth begins with making discoveries. Facts should be used to build conclusions and viewpoints of our own, to create a feeling for atmosphere, mentality, and culture.
As I see it, there are two kinds of teachers and two kinds of students. There are teachers, who, so to speak, trade printed matter, then there are others who produce first-class letters. Students represent either the possessive type or the productive type. In each group I prefer the latter: the teacher who gives something of his own, and the student who is discriminating among quantity and quality, who places creativeness highest.
These are only a few considerations in promoting a modern school in which productive teachers cultivate productive students. Only inactive minds can be satisfied with so-called academic standards. It is worthwhile to magnify the term academic standard in order to see its emptiness. It is certainly no praise to call a person or music, or a book or painting, academic. Academic connotes something no longer alive. Why then does it exist in education? And what does standard mean? One can standardize bicycles, because the development of this vehicle reached an end. But standard in education?!
I have emphasized before: productive students and productive teachers. This is to say, the example of the strongest medium of education. The indirect influence of the teacher's being and doing is more effective and contagious than many like to believe. Therefore, we can develop others only if we develop ourselves, and we as teachers have no right to demand from our students what we are unable or unwilling to do ourselves.
Moreover, our teaching will be most infectious if it is based on our own thought, our own discoveries, our own experiences. Therefore, education demands first the self-education of the teacher. Da capo: first the self-education of the teacher.
If we develop active pupils and productive students who are human beings whose best fun in school is to feel their own growth, then we as teachers can feel justified and just as happy. Then we will gladly admit that we learn from our pupils too, and, that education is not a prerogative of parents and teachers, that education is also a mutual service.
It is not adequate to call teaching a "job", education is a kind of religion based on the belief that making ourselves and others grow—that is making stronger, wiser, better—is one of the highest human tasks.
I believe that somewhere and somehow everybody has ability, if not talent, which should be developed. I believe also that academic studies under academic teachers, and academic methods, and for academic measurements will produce school stars which will wane after school. Any work done for the sake of the teacher or the sake of the school is not enduring, because life is everything but academic.
Good schooling results in a continued studying throughout life.
The natural way to shift our school work from over-emphasized and unbalanced accumulation of facts—that is, from industriousness toward productiveness or creativeness—is in the cultural fields of teaching where hearing, reading, and memorizing cannot dominate, but where immediate action is the inherent procedure. I mean here studies in acting, in dancing, in writing, in music and in art.
Let me illustrate productiveness from another angle: to see for instance grass only as an eatable vegetable, that does every cow. But as soon as we see grass for instance as a carpet, or, as a fur, as an assemblage, or as a forest (suppose we have our eyes deeply enough in it), or when we see it as a color, or many and changing colors, or as a plastic, or tactile appearance—there enters the human being who naturally wants to be creative. There comes the flexible and productive mind that wants to do something with the world around it. Here comes the poet, the artist, and also the scientist or philosopher. I like to believe that every human being inclines to develop as one or the other kind of these species of homo sapiens.
To turn productive seeing into creative revelation is a most exciting educational task, "as creation is the most intensive excitement one can come to know."
But before speaking we need sounds and words. Before making music comes making tones and learning their relationship. Before building a house we must consider material and construction and also the purpose and function of the house. Before serious painting we have to distinguish colors and must understand their influence on each other and their effect on us. A sensible drawing presupposes familiarity with the graphic elements. In any art field, before doing any art work comes naturally at least some comprehension of the medium to be used.
In order to develop familiarity with material and implement it is psychologically right with children to make them start in a free, that is, an undirected use of a medium. But let us be aware of the fact that children have no primary need to "express" themselves in terms of color, line, or plastic volume. To work with such elements gives children more physical than mental enjoyment. To be doing something is naturally of greater interest to them than to produce something. For they have little concern for keeping the results.
It is not childlike to think about realization of idea and vision through form. Form is here used in its broadest meaning and includes shape, color, space, volume. Children are too realistic to think beyond illustration towards abstraction.
If we think this through, consequently then, children's work is essentially no art in spite of the fact that it often shows form qualities. Directness and spontaneity, its main characteristics and most engaging qualities, are not enough to produce works of art. The inspiring effect of children's work on adults is seldom recognized by the child himself. It sees in its work what it wants to see. Therefore, children's work is also no self-expression. It may tell us many things about the child, but seen from the child's own purposes, such revelations are involuntary as self confessions, and undesired as self disclosures. They are therefore accidental and not intentional.
Furthermore, a play-like use of material is not studying art, it is only an unrestricted start or an encouraging preparation for studies to come.
If we want to lead the child's active interest in art material towards spiritual demonstrations in such material—that is, expression—then we must, already before puberty, develop self confidence in his ability. Through tasks which the child is sure to solve definitely it will gain security and independence. Otherwise, after puberty, through comparing its own work with more advanced results of others, it will feel completely inferior. The result, which we see often in older children, will be the loss of any interest of studies of form.
So called self expression alone before puberty results in no expression at all after puberty.
This frequent experience gives the teacher a very important task, namely to transform the instinctive drive of the child for doing or using something into a desire for intuitive forming—that is for creating and expressing something. If I could say it in German words which are not translatable it means transformation of Beschaeftigungstrieb into Gestaltungstrieb.
Self expression in art is the result of mastery and worthwhile to aim at through a whole life. Rembrandt at the age of 30 is said to have felt the need of twenty years of study for a certain color-space problem. This may prove that in school we can only prepare for self expression, and, what is here more important, that a teaching method mainly concerned with self expression is wrong, psychologically and artistically. I call this method exclusively aiming at self expression "selfexpressionism".
I have tried already to explain why selfexpressionism is insufficient in teaching children. The same negative effect we can experience with adolescents. The preponderously sensuous contact of the child with the world turns later into a more intellectual contact. The more cerebral approach of the older pupil, and also its need for response and recognition, will not be satisfied when continuously employed by selfexpressionism alone. Because the adolescent and the adult need to see or to know by anticipation how to do it, and maybe why, and certainly for what.
It is significant that selfexpressionism dominates mainly courses in painting and writing. (At Black Mountain College this attempt of writing has been designated "Belly-writing".) As soon as we apply this method of employment in other fields it becomes obvious that it offers no serious studies. Imagine starting studies in music, or acting, or architecture, in self expression, without any task, without any understanding of the What and the How! Serious work is based on at least some understanding. And, a clear head never interferes with genuine feeling.
The real value of any studies in school will appear after school, in later life. (Thus, let us be careful with student exhibitions, with student performances). When, for instance, the influence of the teacher X results mainly in disciples which are only other X's, multiplying the teacher's creations or aping his technique, it proves either oppression of individual creativeness by the teacher, or—sometimes and, —impotent technicism on the student's part. Both result out of a business approach which has nothing to do with art.
To carry out any artistic conception needs a bearing the full time and results in labor pains in its original meaning. Serious art teaching has to avoid both, undisciplined laissez-faire (selfexpressionism) as well as imitative parroting (discipleship). Shooting without aim is as senseless as shooting at objects already shot. Therefore I believe in developing of ability, that is, a systematical studying of the basic problems of art through practical and theoretical learning of the crafts of art.
Besides training our eyes—in order to make them more sensitive—and our hands—in order to bring them into our command—we must find out the possibilities of our media, and also must know about, or feel, the psychic effect of our form elements: shape, color, space, and volume. That will give us a solid basis for the realization of our visions.
Of course, art is not primarily a result of knowledge and technique or, of an "interesting" experience from outside of us, but of an inner urgency to impart and communicate our emotions. But to formulate any expression we have to possess the understanding and the handling of an adequate language in the chosen medium.
Before writing, there is speaking (but speaking is different from writing!). Before speaking there should be thinking (why not thinking before writing? also about how to write!).
When an emotion or artistic vision demands formulation then the execution demands choice of an adequate medium and its proper application in order to regenerate that individual emotion of the artist in others. Here the circle closes: in between original emotion and regenerative emotion is mastery of the medium.
Now I should tell you how we handle art classes at Black Mountain College. Our art studies are understood as a part of general education. They are not exclusively for prospective artists, but for everybody who is interested in learning to see and to train eye and hand, and to cultivate taste and skill. For special art students there are additional tutorial correction and criticism. The main interest is not the single momentary result but the process of growth. All art studies are studies in the crafts of art because as already explained, free personal expression comes after schooling. We emphasize class work because we believe that the influence from student to student, evoked by common class tasks and mutual criticism, is often just as important as the influence from the teacher. Our studies are consciously, but indirectly, studies about ourselves in order to recognize our inclinations, tendencies, abilities, and non-abilities. We prefer practical exercises to mere theoretical information and isolated historical appreciation.
The general art courses given are Drawing I and II, Color I and II, Design in Material. Occasional guidance is offered in photography, printing, bookbinding, woodwork.
In all classes we begin with the beginning: elementary exercises and studies of fundamental problems.
Drawing is understood as a graphical handicraft and aims as far as possible towards objective representation. The beginner class starts mostly with technical exercises, that is, practice in measurement, direction, and disposing, applied mainly in constructed lettering. In order to balance physical and psychic seeing our basic studies in overlapping and foreshortening are based on mathematical explanation and understanding. We continually use the motor sense as corrective for visual perception. The advanced class exercises are free drawing from nature, preferably of plants, still life, figure, and portrait. Emphasized is three-dimensionality; approaches and techniques are changing as often as possible.
The painting classes we call color classes. The elementary course, Color I, for beginners consists of basic studies in the different qualities of color. Thus, we study color related to color, light, space, form and quantity; also important color systems and to some degree the psychic effect of color. All color laws or rules are learned through systematical exercises, executed mainly in colored papers. All rules and laws do not aim at a mechanical application but try to sensitize our seeing for color and to clarify our reaction to color. The advanced color class is concerned with the practical use of color in painting which is combination, construction, and composition in both two- and three-dimensionality.
Werklehre is practical designing with unlimited choice of materials. Its purpose is to develop an understanding of material and space. It gives the opportunity to study art problems usually not considered in drawing and painting. It includes practice in combination of material—related to its appearance (for instance, textures, factures)—and practice in construction in material—related to its capacity (for instance, firmness, flexibility; compression, extension). As a study of the relationship between matter and form, it is elementary preparation for handicraft or industrial design, with the aim to preserve a creative approach, opposing a mechanical application of traditionally fixed methods. It is too inflexible or uncreative if for instance a carpenter has, so to speak, only a wooden brain, or if a plumber can think only of pipes.
It seems not necessary to explain here that we try to connect our art classes with classes in other fields, particularly with music and dramatics, or why we have changing exhibitions in the main hall, and that we give general lectures on art for the whole community, that we hang original art work in private studies. It may interest you that we introduced a new kind of art lecture called "Silent Picture Concerts". "Concerts" because they happen usually before music concerts, "Silent" because there is very little talk. We project on a screen smaller art studies or reproductions for the purpose of "seeing art through the eye". These projections are only occasionally accompanied by remarks to draw the attention of the audience in a particular direction.
I should mention however that we don't have regular studies in modeling. But some students do modeling in clay as private art studies. If we could arrange it, I should prefer a course in plastic studies to a class for modeling. Yet our course in Werklehre gives opportunity enough to study plastic as relationship between active and negative volume and space. I cannot believe that clay is a material in which plastic problems can be studied comprehensively. Clay only seems to be a material easy to handle. It is really the most difficult material to be formed according to its typical qualities. Because clay is ready to do everything. I believe that modeling in clay as preparatory studies for plastic in other materials as stone, wood, metal, is misleading and is the reason for the degeneration of sculpture work during the last generations. Genuine work of art preserves reverence for the characteristic properties of the medium chosen.
There I come back to my previous explanations which promote the teaching of elementary studies in form. I purposely formulate "studies of form" because it emphasizes our concern with the process, whereas "studies in art" are concerned with the result which presupposes already one or another understanding of form.
Now after having criticized so much other methods, let me criticize the proposed elementary method of teaching too. This method of elementary teaching seems to be—and sometimes easily is—an over intellectualization of studies in form or art. Technical exercises incline naturally to mechanization, experimental studies to classification, representational studies to literalness. Studies, for instance of color systems, may lead to inartistic application of analytical criticism. Therefore, all rules, schemes and systems which we are going to deduct have to be clearly recognized as necessary correctives for misinterpretation of our intellectual and emotional reactions.
As in exercises in any language course any rule, after being assimilated will become inactive, and the exceptions of the rule will keep our speaking alive.
It has been said often that intellectual understanding disturbs intuitive feeling. It is certainly true, that art can not be definitely analyzed. But in practical studies of form we are on another level, because we are concerned with personal training on the way to art. Concerning feeling, I like to repeat: a clear head cannot disturb a genuine feeling.
Here the old question arises whether art can be learned and taught. If we follow the development of the great masters then we will see at least they developed, that they became great, that they learned through working and studying. That shows that the old belief, art is not to be learned, is wrong, at least to a certain degree. And what can be learned, should be teachable, and if only to a certain degree, and even if it may cost years. If there is a way of learning, there must be a way of showing how to learn.
Of course genius and talent are given. Here, genius has not to trouble us because genius does not "go to school". But talent has to be discovered and developed.
But how in school can talent find a place to start and opportunity to prove itself in different directions, when in schools the accumulation of knowledge dominates, and when teaching is bound to a certain technique or mannerism, to a definite fashion or style?
Even style, the most respectable member of this group, being a result and end, will stop development. Style is uneducational.
Instead of defining more single terms, let us see how the old masters began, as apprentices for instance in painting. Before doing any painting of their own, they had to grind colors, many colors, and again and again. After cleaning brushes came making brushes, then preparing walls, panels or canvas. For quite a while there was only watching the master, later helping the master.
This procedure shows a realistic and healthy approach, it is elementary teaching.
If we as teachers try to understand our teaching fundamentally, then we must abstract the details from our aims. Then the basic task will appear, simply: to open eyes.
This is a simple task but great, and, as everything simple, difficult, but exciting.
Let me end with a fundamental comparison for all teaching: the broader the base, the higher the top; the higher the top, the broader the view.
"I am impressed by the fact
that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way.
Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think,
but thousands can think for one who can see."
Speech presented at a teachers' meeting, Winnetka, Illinois.
November 28, 1939