Writing Archive

The Mind of Materials: Why a Good Education in Art Emphasizes Techniques Over Ideas

paper delivered at 2009 FATE Conference, Portland, Oregon, January 27, 2009

This paper will address the teaching of art. But to begin I'd like to ask you a question: Can you juggle? Specifically, can you juggle five balls?

In case you answered no, I'll tell you how. Start with three balls in your dominant hand—let's assume your right—and two in your left hand. All tosses should make a high arc to the opposite hand. First, throw out of the hand holding three balls. The second toss should come out of your left hand, shortly after throwing the first. The third toss should come out of your right again. If you've done this correctly, the first throw should be coming down towards your left hand, so toss ball number four up the same path as ball number two and catch ball number one. Ball number two should then be coming down towards your right hand, so throw ball number five up the same path as one. You now have ball one in your left hand and ball two in your right, opposite where they started. So follow the previous steps, but in reverse. Then repeat. The balls follow a figure-eight pattern.

Now that you have the instructions, I'll ask you again: can you juggle five balls? Allow me to presume that the answer is still no. Juggling is not a philosophical or theoretical activity. It is not even primarily a mental one. It is a physical one made possible by an understanding about how your body works and a few million stored memories about movement and physics. Your conscious mind, by design, takes all this for granted. The neurological components activated in juggling are working in a manner that one cannot really call "thinking." The only way to accomplish it is by intelligent practice. Starting with learning to juggle three balls, or even one, would be a decent idea. The theory flows forth from practice, not the other way around.

Art is the same.

By saying so, I wish to counter the idea that conceptualism ought to be introduced early on in the college art curriculum. For the purpose of this paper, I am not going to distinguish between conceptualism (an approach to art primarily dominated by ideas), critical theory (the interpretation of art objects according to postmodernist analytical models), critical thinking (which unfortunately has become a euphemism for critical theory in certain settings), and conceptual thinking (a horrible coinage that aspires to make the inculcation of critical theory sound like a respectable enterprise). By the time they reach the student, all of these impulses translate to an idea-driven art practice. After a dozen years of teaching art, I have come to the opposite conclusion: that a serious fine art education should embrace its roots in the physical. We should teach art more or less like dance, or juggling. The student should spend the bulk of his time acquiring techniques, and implementing those techniques in a way that interests him. It makes sense to favor the former early on and the latter later on.

Along the way we should encourage the student to think. Note that I did not say that we should teach them conceptual thinking. Neither did I say that we should teach them critical thinking. They're already thinking, and we ought to invite them to do it more, and do it better. But we're looking to turn them into great artists, not great thinkers, and the former hardly depends on the latter. Mostly we need them to labor, to put their talents to use. We need them to act.

In 2003 I was teaching art in Miami, and I had the opportunity to speak on a panel discussion with a variety of art educators. At one point I lamented the fact that a friend of mine, a figurative marble sculptor, had recently moved back to New England. Consequently, no one could teach figurative carving in marble in the entire lower half of the state of Florida. Smirking, the panel moderator let out a derisive huff of air. He then verbalized his objection to my remark: that a contemporary art education shouldn't privilege "fetish materials"—he actually called them that—and asked hypothetically why contemporary art students wouldn't be equally well-served by learning how to make sculptures out of, say, shoes. There's a simple answer to this: marble provides more possibilities of form. You could sculpt a shoe out of marble. You could not sculpt a realistic human figure out of shoes. One might ask, legitimately, whether we ought to teach both carving and assemblage. But that's not what Professor Shoe, as we'll call him, was suggesting. He was disparaging a medium and the techniques that go with it.

Techniques are not merely uses of tools. They represent a holistic understanding about the interactions of tools, materials, and the myriad details of human feeling that together give us the stuff of art. Too, a technique is not merely the way that one manifests an idea. Techniques define the space in which one can form ideas.

Paul Graham, in his seminal book on the programming language Lisp,1 makes an important assertion: "Programming languages teach you not to want what they cannot provide." I would suggest that mediums do this in general. You can use marble to produce outcomes of such enormous variety as to dwarf the possibilities of shoes. The converse is also true: mediums teach you to want what they can provide. Once you gain a certain amount of familiarity with plastic medium like marble, you start to imagine creative possibilities that would never have occurred to you before you learned to carve. The materials don't merely serve the imagination—they fire the imagination. Technique, seen properly as a relationship between desire and materials, causes new possibilities to appear to the artist. The materials not only have limitations, but potentialities. Stated poetically, materials have their own mind, and the artist interacts with that mind.

So why would someone argue against marble in favor of shoes? I learned subsequently that this notion derives from a particular reduction of postmodernist boilerplate. The idea, briefly, says that since the Western tradition of art-making values the carving of marble, and the Western artistic heritage is guilty by association with Western peoples and their often deplorable behavior over the course of several centuries, the denigration of marble carving qualifies as progressive. I have since seen the same opinion expressed by others whose preferences tend towards critical theory. The notion has at least two problems. First, in logic, we call this a genetic fallacy. Second, it amounts to arguing against possibilities in favor of hobbling yourself.

The Western tradition also produced the five-ball cascade, and while I've never seen anyone try to characterize the figure-eight pattern as a fetish shape or damn the pattern as a Western cultural construct, one could do so via the same genetic fallacy. Why not throw all the balls in a big circle, which was the native practice of China, according to the few depictions we have? The answer becomes instantly clear if you try it. The shower pattern, as we call the big circle, requires you to throw five balls consecutively with one hand before you make the first exchange, which is extremely difficult. Why privilege balls over, say, shoes? Because shoes fall in an irregular way, and they won't roll or bounce, and therefore provide fewer possibilities for manipulation. It turns out that the traditional techniques have an enormous wealth of information in them.

If you're a teacher, and a student comes to you interested in making assemblage sculpture out of shoes, you'll give him information about epoxy and thrift stores and working in an area with good ventilation. If a student comes to you interested in figurative marble carving, you'll give him information about chisels, and making drawings for different aspects of the final work, and covering your head so your hair doesn't get cut by marble shards. At least that's what you'll do if you're worth anything as a teacher. The irony of Professor Shoe is that he imagined himself as a progressive teacher who wouldn't force a future shoe sculptor to work in marble. He failed to see that he had become its mirror-image: a retrogressive teacher who would force a future marble sculptor to work with shoes.

Six years later, this kind of Oedipal thinking persists. Brett Sokol, reporting for New York Magazine on the graduate (or possibly postgraduate) school currently under development in Miami that will take the name Art + Research, quoted Yale instructor Henry Madoff saying, "Most art is conceptually based now. It's art based on an idea. It didn't turn out that the twentieth century's most influential artist was Picasso. It turned out it was Duchamp. ... We don't need to do foundation courses, how to draw, how to sculpt."2 This is true, in a way, presuming you don't want to draw or sculpt. The departure of one of the only people in the state who can carve figuratively in marble only constitutes a loss if you care about what he does. But one of the few things everyone agrees on in art education is that art school ought to generate more possibilities for the student. Certain things only become possible after an apprenticeship to one's craft. Drawing turns out to be one of them. If you can't draw, you never learn to want the things that drawing makes possible. Madoff's quote is not only description, but self-fulfilling prophecy. It aims to replace an arguably restrictive tradition with a demonstrably restrictive innovation. The supporters of this innovation don't see it that way, but like Professor Shoe, they can't.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that no creature succumbs to habit quite like the assimilated rebel. As Hannah Arendt put it, "The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution." Railing against the hoary medium of marble, in all its Eurocentrism, phallocentrism, and oligarchic implications, apes writers who had their heyday in the early '90s and are now, if they're still alive, critiquing allegedly insidious hegemons from lofty, tenured perches in academia. A side effect of the institution of tenure causes fashionable ideas to remain in place long after intellectual hemlines have changed altitude, and a generation of students of these tendentious thinkers have cycled through college on their way to all manner of positions in the art world, including museum curatorships. Conceptualist curators demand conceptualist work, thus obliging educators to teach conceptualism to prepare their students for the art world. (Indeed, what self-identified progressive teacher doesn't want a position near the front, wherever that may be?) This is the second reason that conceptualist teachers don't see their innovation as restrictive: the road to conceptualism is paved with good intentions.

Conceptually-driven instructors substitute an easy kind of freedom for a hard one. When Professor Shoe challenged the place of marble in an art curriculum, he did so as an effort to expand beyond the traditional conception of art. He, and a lot of teachers like him, have invested heavily in the idea of infinitely increasing options. The modernist project consisted, at heart, of efforts to attain quality at the expense of previously known traits about art. Its prototypical examples come from postwar abstraction, which achieved the heights of art despite its jettisoning of what had been understood for hundreds of years as a picture. The conceptualist project seeks to establish the identity of objects as art objects at the expense of previously known traits about art. Instead of seeking the essence of art's quality, it seeks the essence of art's identity. Its prototypical examples are the readymades and collages of Duchamp. Contemporary objects that trace their lineage back to Duchamp's art pranks (and not, notably, his more crafted works) try to defy expectations of what art is supposed to look like, adopting a similarly anti-traditional stance. The theme of the 2008 Whitney Biennial was "lessness,"3 the title of a dreary rant by Samuel Beckett,4 and it encouraged the display of arrangements of detritus that hardly evinced human involvement, the most casual standards of photography, and happenings so devoid of originality or distinctiveness from the background of normal life that they could only be recognized as art by context. The Whitney Biennial opened during the inaugural show of the New Museum in its new building, entitled "Unmonumental," with largely the same aesthetic priorities.5 Then in October the Guggenheim opened "theanyspacewhatever," featuring artists for whom "an exhibition can be a film, a novel, a shared meal, a social space, a performance, or a journey."6 We're witnessing an effort, a hundred years in the making, to legitimize ever-increasing kinds of objects as art, starting with a bottle rack and culminating in a shared meal. This is a kind of freedom, a freedom of possibilities, maximized to an absurd scale that moots a discussion about marble carving. But it's a dissipated freedom that gives rise to exhibitions as lethargic as their titles. As is typical of perversions of modernism, it starts with the observation that intense labors do not necessarily result in the best art, runs it through the standard equine-vehicular reversal, and proceeds on the assumption that minimal labors result in good art.

But where there is only freedom of possibility, there is effectively no freedom at all. There's another kind of freedom that we need to address as teachers: the freedom of ability. I have the freedom of possibility to juggle six balls: circumstances, opportunity, and the general conception of juggling all permit it. But it's not going to happen, because I physically can't do it. Against a background of freedom of possibility, which is more or less given, one has to develop freedom of ability by dint of practice—physical repetition of skills with the desire to produce a particular outcome. We should recognize that we are dealing with an entirely different sort of freedom here. I can actually demonstrate the juggling of five balls, and even witnessing my doing so does not enable you to do the same, because juggling does not operate in the realm of ideas. Ideas can be communicated. Technique must be embodied. The profound pleasure of juggling five balls is available to you only secondhand, as an observer. The same is true of drawing, painting, and sculpting to the extent that you can't do these things. The common point about contemporary art practice, that manufacturing skills can be outsourced to artisans while some conceptual savant directs production, like Jeff Koons, for instance, results in a second-hand kind of art that can be thought about endlessly but is physically and emotionally lacking. It befits an art world that doesn't regard materials as legitimate unless supported by a conceptual framework. But there's a longstanding tradition, to which I adhere, that conceptual frameworks are not legitimate unless supported by the heartfelt use of materials. And while good art does not necessarily need a conceptual framework—as far as I can tell, good art does not necessarily need any particular thing—conceptual frameworks need materials or we're talking about philosophy instead of art. So there are not two sides to the equation, nor an agreeable midpoint somewhere. Time spent dealing with issues is time spent not making art. Such time may be fruitful and healthy, but we ought to see it for what it is—a break in the action.

So we need non-virtual classrooms where we let students serve their apprenticeships to their materials, occasionally picking up their tools for them so they can see how things are done, and letting them return to work. Our authority derives from a longer time spent in our own apprenticeship to materials, which we will never fully satisfy. Incrementally, the students develop technique. As technique builds, the materials start to suggest their own possibilities. The upward launch of art comes from freedom of ability. Freedom of possibility is the launch pad—necessary, to be sure, but not notable in itself. Freedom of possibility doesn't demand an apprenticeship. It needs simple establishment as policy. The students will take it from there. As for ideas, we ought to encourage a love of reading, writing skills, and articulate presentation. These three virtues self-evidently correlate to conceptual skills, whereas the willy-nilly introduction of issues into studio syllabi promises nothing of the sort.

Technique, understood correctly, is a form of freedom. A good education in art emphasizes technique because a good education, in the broadest sense, emphasizes freedom. If we mostly stick to teaching technique, we stay away from the question of what a student should be doing, which frankly is none of our business, and keeps us on the task of maximizing the student's capabilities, which is. The education of ideas as envisioned by Professor Shoe threatens to do the opposite. One could characterize the conceptualist mindset as an effort to prioritize ideas over technique, or stated conversely, an effort to drive the priority of technique below that of ideas. Freedom will follow suit.

1. Paul Graham: ANSI Common Lisp, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1996.

2. Brett Sokol, "Miami Art Machine," New York Magazine, April 27, 2008.

3. Henriette Huldisch, curator, writing in the catalogue for the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

4. Samuel Beckett: Sans (Lessness), 1970. "Scattered ruins same grey as the sand ash grey true refuge. Four square all light sheer white blank planes all gone from mind. Never was but grey air timeless no sound figment the passing light. No sound no stir ash grey sky mirrored earth mirrored sky. Never but this changelessness dream the passing hour."}

5. "Unmonumental" took place at the New Museum December 1, 2007 to April 6, 2008. "Investigating the nature of collage in contemporary art practices, 'Unmonumental' also describes the present as an age of crumbling symbols and broken icons." (http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/3)

6. Nancy Spector, curator, on guggenheim.org. The title is taken from Gilles Deleuze, "who used the term 'any-space-whatever' to describe a cinematic moment defined by multiple perspectives that are unmoored from the coordinates of time and space."

Word count: 3001

Return to Archive