COLLEGE ART TEACHING

 

Jean Charlot

 

In November 1944, College Art Journal published “A Statement on the Practice of Art Courses” by a committee of which I was a member.[1]  This statement could be used today as a basis for further discussion, as it remains valid and even topical.  I add here a few notes that bring up to date my thoughts on the subject, perhaps clarified further by intervening experiences. 

The fact that the very great majority, if not the totality, of studies in colleges and universities is conducted through the medium of words, through textbooks and lectures, is far from meaning that words are the only available medium for the transmission of thoughts.  It is a common experience of students of languages how each language specializes in certain limited areas of interests or of feelings in which it reigns supreme.  The man who expresses himself equally well in a number of languages will be tempted to use them each for what it can do best and, as he shifts thoughts, exchanges the one tongue for another as a laborer will pick a particular tool for each given job.  When a single language is the only tool, as in our English-speaking universities, there is many an intellectual task at which it is bound to prove awkward. 

Language or even languages are only one of the means of expression, of investigation, and of communication.  Perhaps even more clearly than in the case of the plastic arts, we may point to the vast and peculiar range of knowledge that music covers that is so imperfectly expressible through the medium of words.  Beethoven could describe fittingly through his music his concept of man, of his trials, and of his dignity, whereas he may have failed to do it in another medium.  Unlike languages, music and the fine arts transcend the boundaries that tie language to certain given spots, racial and geographical, with all that it implies of folklore and prejudices.  As a means of transmission, art takes naturally within its scope the kind of thoughts and feelings that are the common denominators of men.  The arts escape from the implied racial or national pride inherent in the geography of language and, considered as a medium of transmission, transcend by their very nature the realm that words cover. 

Though these remarks may seem rather metaphysical, they are a logical prologue to the plea that art-making should take a rightful place in the general curriculum.  If art investigates territories vaster than is the range of words, it follows that contacting art mainly through the filter of words will have strong shortcomings.  Books that treat of art, lectures on art, art history, all will seize out of their subject only as much of its meaning as words may carry.  The container being smaller than the assumed contents, there is bound to be much spilling of substance and shrinkage of matter in this illogical process, to the puzzlement of the student.  Speaking both as an art maker and as a lecturer on art, may I testify that regardless of the quality of an author or of a lecturer, experience proves it to be so.

In the same way that one has to know the language of a foreign author to read his works in the original, to approach the fine arts firsthand, one has to learn to speak the language of lines, areas, and colors, and what kind of grammar or articulation it is that binds these separate factors into plastic meanings.  For the student, the beginnings of art-making, as happens in practice with all languages, follows a course as primary as would be the spelling and pronouncing of one‑syllable words, but such simple exercises are an indispensable step towards future fluency. 

In this parallel between art and language, the teacher of today hits a snag in the current emphasis on art as a mode of self-expression.  At least in the classroom, our concern should not be with art as a therapy that channels outwards the inner pression and expression of a student.  Indeed, art can do that, but I see the place of therapeutical art in schools rather at the kindergarten level, where it is properly used as an outlet for free expression. 

A mature mind finds that there exists in fine art, from the handling of materials to the optical laws of composition, much that is rational and endowed with objective validity.  In this parallel of art with language, I think rather of the kind of approach that informed the pioneers of perspective studies of the early Renaissance or the more contemporary masters of Analytical Cubism.  Such an approach, objective and openly articulate, admittedly plays lower the subconscious and the surrealist angle than is the fashion today. 

Besides the present emphasis on the subjective, another difficulty that confronts the art teacher, and one dependent on the first, is the cavalier way in which the artist treats nature.  When Delacroix referred to nature as a dictionary, he spoke of it as a studious man who consulted his sources often and deeply, if we may judge by his works.  Today, for the many, nature is to be got rid of quickly or alluded to in a kind of shorthand that we could call Parisian.  Legitimate as art, this habit weakens the possibilities of art teaching, as it becomes more difficult to find a common ground between teacher and student, whereas in the older academies, this common ground was nature, to be observed, discussed, and dissected.  Only in nature could the visual experiences of teacher and student attempt harmony, regardless of personalities.  This need not imply a reaction towards realistic styles.  We should keep in mind the fact that nature as we see it is not the same as nature as we know it to be; that our vision of nature is in itself abstract, being but its flattened image on our retina; that even a decidedly “photographic” painting is made of lines, areas, and colors, and thus is far removed from easy definition.  The mystery of art goes much further than a difficulty in recognizing the subject matter of some paintings.  Nature is at the base of all the great styles; it is the common denominator between periods and personalities whose variety would otherwise seem unbridgeable.  If the student is made to understand this crucial role of nature, he will be able to further his visual training outside class hours and without need of slides.  An ideal homework would be to identify the “style” of natural sights, how much of Caravaggio exists in the modelings of a face seen at dusk, of Monet in a sun-baked picnic ground, of Vermeer under a microscope. 

Visual training and its corresponding broadening of understanding are a part of art shared both by the maker and the spectator.  What the maker cannot share with the man who is only a spectator is the manual experience, the manipulation of pigments, the muscular activity inherent in the swing of the brush.  It is easy to slight this or any other kind of manual labor and to relegate them to the realm of vocational schools.  Not unnaturally, universities are ruled by intellectuals, with the white-collar worker attitude that implies how the shuffling of papers is superior in its nature as an activity to, let us say, the dirtying of canvas and fingers with color.  In my career as a muralist, clad in overalls to better climb scaffolds and weather lime dust, I have often met with the disdain of bookish men.  Yet, one should make a difference philosophically between the means and the end.  There is something paradoxical between their contrasting relationship in the case of the painter.  His activity is in many ways identical to that of the house painter, and yet the finished product, if at all successful, will be an accumulator of spiritual values, important as a cultural factor.  College presidents should not be fooled by the “manual” appearance of students and teachers in smocks, laboring in classrooms of doubtful neatness.  Here, perhaps, a parallel could be drawn with chemistry, where laboratory work is allowed though it also is a manual, unclean activity.  But, alas, in our time, and now for over a century, science has possessed the aura of respect that art had and has lost.  The men who preside over the policies of higher education should at least ask themselves if this aura, that in the nineteenth century was meant to raise fact over myth, has not now become an homage to science in its new role as the strong arm of the military. 

Few of the students that take classes of art-making will ever become professional artists.  This could be a criticism only if these classes were intended as classes in vocational training.  But the student who handles brush and pigment, regardless of the worth or the lack of worth of the results, will add to visual aids another valuable aid, one that we could call tactile.  Now and through life, when looking at a picture, he will be conscious of the dynamics involved in the making of that picture and will appreciate them all the more keenly for having experienced them once.  He will know by experience how a beautiful brushstroke is the result of the full or the reserved impact of a natural movement of wrist or fingers, that implies both the mastery of one’s body and the ease of the well-understood craft.  Instead of taking refuge in the idea of genius doing violence to matter, the man who has experienced picture-making, even if only at college, will appreciate how a master painter collaborates with his materials instead, asks of them no more than they offer by nature.  Experiencing picture-making, even for men who will never become painters, removes much fake mystery from art and supplies, in terms of craft, many an explanation that, substituting clarity for mystery, will come closer to the point of view of the old or modern master at work.  Taking into consideration the problems of art-making, one would find that many a factor of style is manual as well as cultural; that for example, the men on Easter Island, had they possessed quarries of Greek marble, would have sculptured differently, and what would the Greeks themselves have done, had their raw material been Easter Island volcanic stone? 

To sum up, Art is both a craft and a spiritual activity, and either as a craft or as an end, its scope is hardly expressible through the medium of words.  To know of art, the university student should train his eye, not only through the usual visual aids of reproduction and slides, but by looking at and analyzing this common denominator of styles that nature is.  Besides visual training, the student should be put to picture-making, because through the handling of materials and the tactile experience and body action, he will add much of worth to his appreciation of pictures as he comes closer to the point of view of past and present masters.  There is no clash between these visual and manual requirements and whatever knowledge may be gathered of art through books and lectures.  One could, however, ask of many a lecturer that he too educate his eye and his hand, at least enough to naturally want to weave these relevant points of view within the parade of names and dates that used to ape for the history of art. 

 



[1] Mangravite, Peppino; George Biddle; Jean Charlot; Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr.; Daniel Catton Rich; Boardman Robinson; Edward W. Root; Franklin C. Watkins, 1944.  “A Statement on the Practice of Art Courses by a Committee of the College Art Association.”  College Art Journal, Volume 4, Number 1, November, pp. 33–38.