[NetBehaviour] 22 theses on art education

Edward Picot edward at edwardpicot.com
Sun May 31 17:23:51 CEST 2015

Michael -

I'm having difficulty registering on your site - it doesn't want to send 
me a password for some reason - so I thought I'd post my reactions here 

Very interesting and provoking, with a slightly embattled feel, and 
quite a narrow focus on the relationship between the artist and his/her 
work. 'We're not here to teach you how to be commercially successful as 
an artist, and we're not here to tell you whether your work is good or 
bad – in fact we're not really here to teach you at all; the process is 
one of enablement. Only you can decide what kind of art you want to 
produce, and whether what you produce is actually art or not, and 
whether it's actually any good or not. If we were to tell you to do it 
this way or that way we'd just be limiting you. And what do we know? 
We're essentially in the same boat as you are. It's a journey of 
exploration for all of us, and it's not about technical know-how, it's 
about... well, we don't really know what it's about. You tell us. As for 
making a living out of your art, we'll leave that question to one side. 
Courses which try to teach people how to make money out of their art 
just end up encouraging them to produce marketable crap.'

When I was at university we were encouraged to read a book by M H Abrams 
called /The Mirror and the Lamp/. I don't think it was actually on the 
syllabus, but we all read it anyway. He was an American, and I just 
learnt by looking him up on Wikipedia that he only died in April this 
year, at the age of 102. Anyway, it's a great book, and in brief it's 
argument is that up until the Romantics all theoretical discussion about 
art started from the idea that it's first function is /mimesis/– to hold 
up a mirror to the world in which we find ourselves. So art was always 
discussed in terms of its mimetic qualities, and if you wanted to say 
that a work of art was good you had to argue along those lines. Some of 
the arguments got pretty far-fetched – it's actually verydifficult to 
argue that Homer's value lies in his accurate representation of the 
objective world, for example; and it's even more problematic to talk 
about the mimetic qualities of music – but nevertheless that was the 
accepted norm of artistic theory.

Then along came the Romantics, and proposed a different idea entirely: 
that art represented the world as illuminated by the lamp-like genius or 
imagination of the artist. What lay behind this, of course, was a 
breakdown of faith in the external world as the embodiment of a fixed 
reality, which would be perceived the same by everyone who wasn't mad. 
The Romantics were fascinated by madness, drug-taking, heightened 
awareness, visionary disorders of the senses and so forth, because all 
of these things were closely linked to artistic inspiration and the 
power of the imagination to transform the mundane into the transcendent. 
They saw the external world not as a fixed reality that was agreed upon 
by all civilised and reasonable people, but as something more disputed: 
in fact they tended to regard the 'conventional' view of external 
reality as a monstrous illusion which hid the truth from view, but which 
could be punctured by artists and other visionaries by virtue of their 
imaginative powers.

Abrams draws a diagram with the work of art at the centre, and the 
Universe, the Audience and the Artist arranged round it in a triangle. 
He argues that different artistic theories place the emphasis on 
different corners of this triangle, and point up the relationship 
between art and one of the 'outer' elements at the expense of the other 
two. Mimetic Theories are interested in the relationship between the 
Work and the Universe; Pragmatic Theories are interested in the 
relationship between the Work and the Audience; and Expressive Theories 
are interested in the relationship between the Work and the Artist. He 
actually adds a fourth category, Objective Theories, which are just 
interested in close reading of the Work. To me, the triangle looks short 
of at least one 'outer' element – the Medium – which would help us to 
account for Modernism and Structuralism; but it's a useful piece of 
analysis all the same, because it gives us a chance to get some 
perspective on different artistic theories, what they're emphasising and 
what they might be missing.

Now, to apply all this to your 22 Theses, it seems to me that their 
emphasis is very much on the relationship between the artist and the 
work of art, with a kind of back-door acknowledgement that the external 
world might be important, via the statement that 'a keen interest in the 
world' is 'helpful more often than not'; but a firm slamming of the door 
on the relationship between artist and audience, in the shape of Thesis 
18 - 'Self-imposed, and/or market-imposed narrowness or homogeneity of 
output is, generally, not finding a voice but voluntarily relinquishing 

(I'm not sure I agree with Thesis 18, by the way. For one thing it seems 
to contradict Thesis 12 - 'Work made under constraints of time, 
materials, theme, constitutes the artist’s five finger exercises.' 
Surely working within the constraints of a particular genre, or with a 
particular audience in mind – let's say the under-5s – might be a 
productive constraint too? I can also think of examples that contradict 
the thesis– lots of examples in the shape of children's picture-books, 
stop-frame animations, Shakespeare's /Macbeth/(which was written because 
James I had just come to the throne, and he was interested in witches 
and his own genealogy), sitcoms, Charlie Chaplin movies, or, let's say, 
Herriman's /Krazy Kat /cartoon-strip.)

In some way the most interesting Thesis in the collection is No 3 - 
'When we’re presented with a piece of work that seems banal, clichéd, 
badly executed, overly sentimental, gratuitously unpleasant, that makes 
our hackles rise, that seems like an affront to everything we value, 
it’s at that moment we should most entertain the possibility that we 
might be mistaken. This will be an occasion to identify some common 
first principles and to work slowly and carefully forwards from them.' - 
which could be paraphrased as 'Don't go round criticising other people's 
work, because the chances are your criticism says more about your own 
narrowness of outlook than it does about the piece under discussion'.

Well, maybe. For one thing, what would your reaction be if you were 
presented with a piece of work that was openly anti-Semitic, or that 
represented wife-beating or female genital mutilation in a favourable 
light? Would your first reaction be to 'entertain the possibility that 
you might be mistaken'? I can think of various works of art that have 
obnoxious attitudes or values in them, but which nevertheless remain 
valuable as works of art – Conrad's /Heart of Darkness/, for example, 
which is regarded by some critics as racist; Eliot's /Gerontion/, which 
has a couple of anti-Semitic lines; or Nabokov's /Lolita/, which can be 
regarded aspaedophile. The relationship between a work of art and the 
moral, social or political values it embodies is often a complex one, 
and there are no simple answers, but as a teacher, if one of your 
students presents you with an extremely well-executed and artistically 
powerful poster or video which incitesthe audience to murder all 
unbelievers, I'm not sure that your first duty would be to entertain the 
possibility that you might be mistaken in your moral repugnance.

But for another thing, I don't think that negative criticism is 
necessarily a bad thing. It's a commonplace, when discussing this 
point,to make a distinction between 'constructive criticism' and mere 
'trashing' or 'rubbishing'. Constructive criticism is okay – 'I like 
this bit but I think you could have used a more emphatic shade of green 
over here' – whereas just slagging off someone else's work is 
unacceptable – 'This is so awful that it makes me want to vomit just 
thinking about it'. I do agree with this in principle, but from my own 
personal experience, as someone whose work has been roundly slagged off 
in various forums over the years, I have to say that a good slagging-off 
can be quite bracing now and again. It makes you think to yourself 'Am I 
really just producing a load of rubbish, or is there some value in what 
I'm doing?' - and if you come through that process convinced that what 
you're doing is genuinely worthwhile, you actually feel better than you 
did before. In some ways the most unhelpful feedback is the really 
positive stuff – 'This is brilliant! I love it!' - because it confuses 
your own internal critic, your awareness that there are actually flaws 
in the piece that other people are lavishing with praise; and it also 
makes you feel reluctant to produce something radically different, in 
case the people who liked your earlier work feel disappointed.

Thirdly, criticism of other people's work is an important aspect of your 
development as an artist. You often define your direction of travel as 
an artist by identifying flaws in the work of other artists and deciding 
that you want to avoid them in your own. The Beatles' /A Hard Day's 
Night/, for example, came out as a mock-documentary partly because John 
Lennon and Richard Lester were determined not to produce the 
boy-meets-girl and let's-do-the-show-right-here cliches of the Elvis and 
Cliff Richard films. Imagist poetry was partly defined by its reaction 
against the vagueness of imagery inSymbolism. Wordworth's desire to use 
'the language of common men' in his poetry was explicitly contrasted 
with the artificial diction employed by Augustans such as Pope and 
Dryden. Et cetera and so forth.

Which isn't to say that art classes ought to be a free-for-all, with 
everybody having a go at everybody else's work. But going back to my 
University days, one of the most interesting exercises we did as 
studentswas to bring what we regarded as bad poems to a class and try to 
explain what we thought was bad about them. We spent most of our time 
talking about 'great' literature and what was supposed to be great about 
it – doing the opposite was unexpectedly challenging, and unexpectedly 
good for us.

Anyway, very interesting theses; but those, for what they're worth, are 
my thoughts.

- Edward

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