Tuesday, 31 December 2013

End of year thoughts

In the sixth-century the following was written in the Visnudharmottara.
A king asks a sage about the meaning of art:
"Oh Lord of men," replied the sage,
"he who does not know properly the
rules of painting cannot discern the
characteristics of images."
"Then please narrate the rules
of painting," replies the King.
"Without a knowledge of the art
of dancing," says the sage, "the
rules of painting are very difficult
to understand."
"Then please speak to me about the
art of dancing … "
"The practice of dancing cannot be
understood by one who is not
acquainted with music. Indeed
without music, dancing cannot exist
at all."
"Tell me then first about music … "
"Without singing, music cannot be
understood," replied the sage. "He
who knows the rules of singing
knows everything properly."

As the sage continues you come to realise all is connected and that the arts feed off each other. They of course also feed off our whole life experience. A sense of balance comes from our peculiar ability to walk on two legs, our sense of rhythm comes from the constant heartbeat that lies beneath our chest, our feeling for the dark and light from our experience of the turning of the Earth away from and towards the Sun every 24 hours. A Guardian review this week of ‘The body in Indian Art’ reminded me of visiting the ‘In the Image of Man’ exhibition years ago at the Hayward Gallery. Indian art is about totalities, it doesn’t separate the body from the mind, doesn’t have a legacy of Christian bodily evil. Perhaps this is where our obsession with categorising things comes from. Sex and spiritual transcendence are close companions in the sensuality of Indian religious art, the body maintaining its centrality to experience. If the body is neglected or put at the command of a separate ‘mind’ this I believe only leads to repression and eventually some type of madness.

My recent venture back into working full-time on the fine art programme has convinced me that we have been getting things wrong. (See last post) I am reminded again of the time I spent with an Indian sculptor, he taught me much in the period he was over here, perhaps more than I knew at the time. In particular he told me that when he was working with his ‘master’ he was introduced to a method of understanding where the seat of the sculptural experience lay. He was first of all blindfolded, then introduced to a large stone carving by feeling it. He had to feel the forms of the sculpture and speak as he traced its forms with his fingers and every time he felt a significant change in the sculpture’s dynamics he had to explain this to the master. Sometimes the master would confirm his findings and at other times the master would retort that although there was a change it was not significant. He did this several times and several different sculptures were used, each time the master would also recite particular passages from scripture, intone lines of poetry or hum a particular rhythm that would be used to guide the young artist towards the wider consequences and meanings related to the sculpture that was being experienced. Gradually the young sculptor built up in his mind an understanding of the ‘touch’ of great sculpture. He grasped what it was for one form to meet another, how the rhythm of the hand-feel corresponded to the ‘life’ of the sculpture and how strong and weak joints feel. At the time I was very impressed, and more so now that I am older and look back upon the failure of atomised educational theory.

When I go back to work next year I will be presenting two new modules to the first year students and then moving immediately into assessment preparation for 2nd and 3rd years. I have tried to adjust my presentations to account for something more than what the modules aspire to, but I wont be available very often to personally explain or give advice as to what I meant because of my administrative duties. Perhaps what I resent most of all is the time taken away from students by the assessment process. What my old friend taught me was how important the ‘master’ / ‘student’ relationship is. Sometimes we forget how experienced we are, I have in my time looked at thousands of art works from many different cultures and spend many hours contemplating their meaning and how they were made. On top of this I have years of my own practice behind me and this is communicated at its best in a ‘one to one’ situation, where I can show what something can be, where I can demonstrate by miming or humming a tune or linking in a particular piece of music or poetry or simply pointing out something about life and how art can be made to reflect it. Life experience is something we don’t value as much as other cultures, as I was told when I went into phased retirement and questioned why my salary was so low, “We don’t value experience”. A strange phrase but one that is a product of a managerial culture, a culture whereby the people who make the decisions don’t have to be able to practice what is at the core of what is being taught. Once computers became readily available what they seemed to be used for more and more was the collecting of statistical information, each human contact reduced to number-crunched data and here perhaps lays the problem. In order to make decisions people need information but the only information that appears to count is quantitative. Qualitative information is either collected as sound-bites or simply ignored, but only in those ‘one to one’ moments of human contact will authentic communication take place and those moments are becoming few and far between. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Working full-time again

I’ve had no time for reflection lately due to the fact that I’ve been working full-time again. Kelly the head of first year and head of the drawing strand has been incapacitated by her increasingly bad back problems and has been off work. I was asked to take over and have for the past few weeks been sucked into the nightmare of administration and assessments. This blog started out as a reflection on my final years of teaching. The one area I have not really opened out is of course administration and assessment because both these areas never interested me and I never found them useful. In theory they ought to be of value but the reality is that they are often unnecessary evils. The attempt to atomise learning through the use of learning outcomes was something I’ve already pointed out was a failure. You shouldn’t know what outcomes are going to be achieved. Both staff and students should be open to discovery and the journey should be about self-realisation, not a demonstration of learnt abilities. In particular assessment begins to skew things around in ways that totally distort what the activity of becoming an artist is really about. The evidence trail itself stops us getting to grips with those moments of realisation that are like epiphanies. Artists can feel when the moment is right to talk about something. You see someone working and know whether or not they are lost in the making. If a student is lost in that making you wait until later and then you can engage with how that immersion was allowing them to reach a totally focused attention. It is more akin to the moment of meditation or being in the zone as sports-stars put it. You need practice and commitment to achieve this state and more experienced practitioners can guide you towards this, by pointing towards those necessary building blocks that take you through knowledge and beyond into the meaning tone of the practice. Instead what I often find is that students become obsessed with the evidence trail. Studio books full of photographic records of what they have done, notes that tell me they have done this or that, each component of course designed to lead me to the conclusion that they have satisfied the learning outcomes. This type of evidence gathering has usually been undertaken as part of a previous course and students have been trained to present the evidence in particular ways, but this is all they have been trained to do and it means nothing. I have been an external examiner and been faced with boxes of this sort of evidence and I had to ask courses to not do it again, and to try and think about how artists actually work. For instance; a painter who is totally in the zone might paint, scrape out, re-paint, scrub out, paint again, scrape off etc etc over and over again, each time building towards a moment of discovery. There will be no sketches, no preparation drawings, no photographs of each stage, no images of similar artworks, no studies; simply focused painting. If we look at a Frank Auerbach portrait drawing for instance, it will have been worked on and worked on, the image will have been cut back and re-built time after time, but all we have in the end is one drawing. The experience is in the mind of the maker, that experience is one that another artist can appreciate but you can’t give it a mark. What you can do is acknowledge intensity of involvement, you can help steer students towards their own areas of fascination, help them find their obsessions and acknowledge them.
However I’m employed to sort out the assessments and standardise the competing rhetorics surrounding different staff so that assessments are ‘fair and valid’. These rhetorics are to do with different value systems that staff come with, all of course valid but all subjective. I have to attempt to employ some sort of objective criteria to iron out these differences, but at the end of the day it simply covers up an activity that doesn’t make any sense. Students want feedback but they themselves get confused by asking for feedback on the marks. Why did I only get 56, why did I get 68 and not 70? These are meaningless questions except for those who want to achieve grades. Yes you can be told how to get higher marks, basically provide more and more evidence. If you work hard every day and evidence this you will get good marks but there is something else, it is closely related but different, you have to work hard to get into the zone, just ask a sports-star, they will refer you to hours and hours of practice, but then there is that moment of epiphany and it’s un-markable and yet essential to becoming an artist.
I may be having to work full-time for a while and if this is the case I suspect I shall be making far fewer posts, but it will no doubt give me lots to reflect upon again. In particular I have been writing lectures to support new modules and I might post these up when I have time.