There was a day towards the end of my second semester in art school when it all hit me. I was walking alone through a park on my way home from class when my perception of the world expanded. I saw the sky as a flat compositional shape; I saw fine distinctions in shades and tints of green, some cool, some warm. Some of the surrounding foliage wet with dew and saturated with color, other areas dry and grayed out with death. Some fields of view had a pleasing proportion of dark to light, some less so. As I scanned my environment, I noticed the areas with a level of redundancy pleasing to the eye and other areas with too much or too little.
Like many first year art students I was learning in my classes about unity and variety, value structure, color theory etc. But until that moment it was all “stuff they wanted me to know” as I remember telling a friend at the time. It was a body of knowledge as dry and colorless as the dying foliage I passed in the park. I didn’t trust my teachers to have my spiritual journey at the forefront of their concern. I was inclined then to view maturity, academic and physical, as a slow but relentless de-enchantment; a war of attrition on the creative magic my friends and I had nurtured through a thousand late night conversations, homemade comic books, and idealistic bands.
This was in fact, one of the reasons I went to art school in the first place. It was the lesser of two evils. All my friends were moving all over the country to be educated by a system we were all suspicious of. College, depending on who was talking about it, was either a glorified vocational school, a place where general high-school learning was replaced by direct, useful knowledge of a skill or trade to be engaged in for the rest of one’s waking life. Or, as my uncle who was a professor assured me, a place were young people were initiated into the mysteries and complexities of the wider world. I was ambivalent about either outcome. I knew what I had to lose but not what I might gain.
I don’t think I am merely projecting when I see these same issues playing out in my students’ lives. Outwardly they are almost always nice and serene but there is a furnace of self doubt and academic suspicion bubbling just below the surface. It is this underlying passion that I wish to help funnel into the desire for self-education and creative risk taking.
Wishing to help initiate an aesthetic re-enchantment like the kind I had in the park that day might sound good enough to some people. All the money and time, the moving away for many, and a fragile architecture of dreams for fame and glory, might be a price worth paying to become a more refined human being with sophisticated tastes and rational arguments to defend their intuitive predilections. But for many others, including myself, this pearl of precious price also needs to find a market to be valuable. What everyone else besides my uncle hoped for my college education, that I would be of value to a larger society through skill development, seems less cynical to me as I get older. What seems like two diametrically opposed systems of value are actually the bread and butter of life. The grinding down of our aspirations happens, as we get older in spite of education more than because of it. And though my students would never believe me if I were to just come out and tell them this, I do believe I can show them.
Students today can gather an avalanche of information at the speed of a few mouse clicks. What they desperately need is understanding and synthesis. They need learning from direct experience and trial and error to balance the flood of vicariously derived facts that can distract them from, or even drown out their deeper motivations. And for all of the flaky or unrealistic characterizations of art classes (some all too true), at it’s best studio classes are a place where students are asked to do more than just read and memorize other peoples' books and papers. It is a place where they have to work with their hands and get their dirty clothes messy. It is a place where they are going to risk embarrassment and failure, immediately evident to their peers at every critique, to create something of real and lasting value. A small community where they learn the vocabulary and social skills necessary to join a larger art or design community. Once there, they can work together to make their private cultivations valuable and available to a larger world whose mysteries are just beginning to dawn on these new initiates.