Over the last four years I have been teaching at the university level. This hardly makes me a seasoned individual in academia. I have, in various ways, lived in academia for years, either from a distance with a spouse who was a teacher, to having taught in graduate school, and teaching in my studio practice as well as at the university level. But here is the thing. I knew about SOL’s and how there had been a bru-ha-ha over them. It is clear now what the problem is with this type of testing as it relates to art…(at least TO ME). There are a number of challenges that impact teachers and the students that they teach as it relates to the SOL’s. But there is one issue that doesn’t seem to be addressed much, if at all…and I am going to bring it up here for the simple reason that it impacts me as a teacher.
For people who are used to linear processing and solving problems using rational predictive schemes, it may be difficult to see how something like art could be of benefit in and of itself without hanging a purpose or job or expected outcome on it. It turns out that art has been very hard to quantify. And I suspect I know why; like the right brain, seeking to stick a quantity on an experience with the creative or artistic is extremely slippery. You can measure gravity, space, a rock, and how much rocks can be ground in a day at the gravel plant, or how many cars you can build in an hour in Detroit, or how many essays a student can write about the rise of the consumer culture in the U.S. But there is an aspect to the creative that escapes this. And I say that it should for the very reason that this aspect of the creative that is so slippery is also the very aspect that allows us to conceive of things that were a moment before, incomprehensible to us. What I am saying is, how do you measure something that you do not yet know, but WILL be able to know in a moment’s time…..and yet, the thing that you know is merely a product of something larger…we can measure cars as they travel through a tunnel, but we are unable for some reason to measure the tunnel. The tunnel, if you haven’t caught on yet, is creativity. But unlike a tunnel, I don’t think you can measure creativity….only what it creates. You know? How do you measure something that has so many dimensions and is changing so fast and much? How do you define it when everyone says “I know it when I see it.” The very fact that we know it when we see it means that it cannot really be measured very well.
So those who would insert themselves into the creativity game by coming up with SOL’S wind up creating art experiences based on a rational understanding for how problems are solved. As if creativity itself is something that can be parsed and kneaded in order that it give up an expected result. Now don’t get me wrong, having a project where students learn about color theory or methods for composing a painting or drawing are all important. In fact, I am actually all for artists copying the work of other artists not to try and pretend that the artists work is their own, but in order to try and learn what that artist was seeking to do. This is why some artists can be seen copying the works of Vermeer, or Monet, or Degas. They are not innovating, but learning something. At the end of the day, though, once you have learned all of this stuff, you are going to have to DO something with it. And what you do with it is greater than the sum of its parts. What results is not always necessarily a formula. At all. Paint by numbers if you must, but all that will ever do is to help you to comprehend why certain ways of painting will yield a given result. It is a fact-finding mission. This is a far cry from the rarefied air one finds oneself in when you discover the big “Ah-ha!” of the inspired moment.
The result of the SOL generation is that we have students who want to know the rules for creating. They want to know HOW they are supposed to arrive at their creative moment when what I am asking them to do is to arrive at that place themselves. So I wind up explaining WHY my assignments are as vague as they are; I am asking them to follow certain very specific requirements all in the hopes that they learn the material I am asking them to work with but to also have enough room for their own innovation to shine. My teacher Tom Walsh used to say that the best beginner projects were the ones that had very specific requirements with the broadest range of interpretation. That means that I might say “Create a wire-frame sculpture using wood dowels and some form of epoxy that is a minimum of 2 feet in one dimension and at least six inches in another dimension, with the third dimension being up to you. At what point does a line begin to create a sense of volume when it crosses other lines in space? How do you create the illusion of volume while using these lines in space? Choose two of the following Principles of Design to base your work on: movement, tension, harmony”
The challenge is that many students are used to much more specific projects and actually get anxious when given greater freedom. Really? I explain to them what I want them to learn and that beyond those few simple things, the rest really could be up to them. “Just make it cool, guy and gals! You know what I mean, right? I am talking about being creative, innovative!” I am asking them to take responsibility for their educational experience. And because I value freedom so much, I give them as much as I can because someday they will be faced with having to come up with ideas all on their own without the benefit of a project to push them forward. I am aware that in the beginning students need the structure of an assignment in order to learn a given media or technique. Sure, absolutely, but this can be done while giving the student the freedom that they will one day need to work within if they are ever to be self directed artists. Out of this will flow discipline that is unlike the kind of discipline they know that is meted out by their teachers. This is actually about what happens when you mature as an artist. I actually believe that this is important to begin doing as soon as possible. I believe that our children, even at age 18 to 22 have the means to begin to experience this freedom in their work. The more they are able to experience it, the better off they will be.
There is a place for learning technique. There is also a place for being inspired to create in such a way that we each grasp that creating is itself sometimes a mysterious process, an irrational one, but beautiful and rewarding. The FEELING that comes moving through you in such moments is actually something that is sustaining in and of itself and will, if we let it, change a life. It can break up the rigidity of the belief-constrained self in order to break out into new ways of thinking and seeing. It is what the journey has been about in art except that this process has been something experienced by only the bravest of our kind. it is something native to us all and the sooner we can experience it for its OWN sake, the better. Our creative spirit is less a thing that can be bounded by any one discipline, but encompasses our whole lives because it is what we are deeper down. Impoverished is the life that does not know this the way one might know breath or ones heartbeat. These ought not be special occasions, but ubiquitous ones. Living a creative life is one of the most rewarding things a person can experience. It fulfills, unifies, and even heals. It does not require a belief or dogma and cuts across all borderlands of belief, liberating and enlarging ones own self in selfless ways.
The problem is that you cannot measure joy, and so much of what art does is to bring joy. You can’t measure it. The problem, you see, is that when we are so busy wanting to measure everything, you miss those things that fall outside of the bias, which suggests that only what we can measure is worth anything to us. But you see, the joy of creation is where it is at when it comes to art. It is what we each lose as we grow up and is what we have to each rediscover as we make our ways back into art as artists. Sometimes as artists we try to be the best we can on a technical level in order to make up for our lack of childlike wonder and joy that made us such natural artists as children. You see, this is what is missing, and if we are to grow a better generation, it will mean that we did it with the arts as much as we did with math and science and all the rest.