...prompted by querying an undergrad friend the other night about his first assignments in painting. Last week the class was to paint a still life with subjects of their choice, while including some kind of organic material and a black and white photo, and this week they’re being asked to paint the sky. While I’ll always leave open the possibility that the teacher is inspired and I just don’t get it – it does happen! (see the post below) – I’ll also continue to agitate for students’ prerogative to choose their own subject matter. After all, if I wanted to encourage a kid’s sense of personal style, I wouldn’t start by having his mom pick out his clothes. To continue the analogy, the still life assignment is like saying, “You can wear anything you want as long as it’s from the Gap and has short sleeves.”
What is the most important ingredient in making a successful work of art? INTEREST. Art is hard (and then you die, as they say) and what drives it is DESIRE, a feeling not usually successfully generated by what someone else wants. Art happens through imagining an outcome and wanting so badly to see it realized that you’ll try anything, do anything, to make it happen, including starting over if the first, second, third, or hundredth attempt doesn’t succeed.
The other reason for choice in subject matter is to establish from the beginning that execution and concept are intertwined. Technique is simply the vehicle that allows an idea to reach its fullest potential. How is it we think we can expose students to a bunch of techniques using our ideas and just assume that afterwards they’ll find their own concepts to attach to them? Do ideas generate techniques or do techniques generate ideas? That’s a chicken-and-egg question.
Sometimes I think we’re still teaching art like it’s 1890.
So what is a teacher’s role? Unlike some others, I believe we do have a purpose, which is to expose students to new ideas, new methods, and also validate theirs—help them to “detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [their minds] from within,” as Emerson would say, as they develop their creative intuition and artistic idiosyncrasy.
And, yes, art history is useful as long as we’re not using it to impress upon students what the culture has valued in the past, but to stimulate what’s already percolating so they can supersede it.
Needless to say, I did not share my opinions with my student friend. And while I found the sky painting assignment BEYOND BORING, I will admit to having done one:
Carol Diehl, Gloria, 2007, oil on panel, 12" x 12".