Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Challenges to Productive Discourse

In a previous entry I mused on the grandiose subjects of truth, beauty and goodness, asserting that these three great ideas of western philosophy are the bedrock of critical discourse in teaching and studying art. No big surprise there, but ask a group of students who have just pulled an all-nighter to consciously muse on these virtues and a slight panic ensues. While these are enormous topics, they comprise the metric of value judgements, guiding our opinions, our beliefs and our productive exchange with one another in studio critique. As definitive as that assertion may sound, I'll be the first to admit that digging deep takes patience and a genuine interest in at least trying to better understand our conceptions of these ideas as they relate to the art we make. That's sometimes hard to come by, for both students and their instructors.

I've been teaching for twenty-eight years. In this time, I have always been aware of the fragile veneer of professorial authority that exists in an age of relativism. Postmodern purists assert that there can be no truth (well, apart from math, and even that is questioned); that beauty is entirely a matter of individual taste (and that matters of taste are not worth discussing); and that goodness is likewise elusively relative, without definition. I envy the unflagging confidence of colleagues who render absolute judgments with ease, while to this day I still leave critique with a very heavy question: "why should they heed my opinion?"  This uncertainty has always made critique challenging for me, but I do think some acknowledgment of subjectivity—when and where it exists—is essential. The problem is that students sometimes want absolutes. They do not want "I don't know," and they've told me so.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Three Great Ideas: Truth, Beauty and Goodness.


This timeless and formidable constellation of philosophical ideas is essential to our navigation of life. In fact, we cannot get through a day without these fundamental measurements of virtue. As I form the thoughts you're reading by putting pen to paper, I'm seeking common recognition of some simple truths. I'm trying to accomplish this with aesthetic appeal through the art of writing. And in the end I'm hoping for an enhanced awareness—a good outcome, some degree of betterment as a result of my efforts.  Judgments of what is true (or not true), beautiful (or not beautiful), and good (or not good) pervade our critical thinking, both consciously and unconsciously.

In particular these great ideas shepherd critical discourse with students of art and design. They are the foundation of our conversations about the aesthetic experiences our students are constructing. Where I teach, at Rhode Island School of Design, Illustration studio classes run five hours. That's 300 minutes of weekly debate about the merits and shortcomings of creative effort. I'm pretty sure that all studio faculty engage in this activity to some degree. We grapple with critical language to laud the beautiful or steer the ungainly into aesthetic balance. We weigh the value of one student's efforts against those of his peers, compare the success of formal decisions from one painting to the next, question the motives and intentions of the student in terms of the effect they wish to achieve. Most of us look for the true, the beautiful and the good as they are manifest in process, materiality and critical reflection. While a rubric for assessing these virtues would be mighty convenient, such simplistic, concrete measurement systems for art and design limit creative possibilities, and most of us steer clear of that. But while we may all be well served to identify truth, beauty and goodness as our shared foundation for critical discourse in studio education, the sort of exhaustive discussion necessary for thorough consideration and judgment against those ideas is rarely seen in the classroom. Why? Because it's difficult. Because it requires extremely nimble, patient, exceedingly curious minds and even the most gifted among us question the value of philosophy in our pragmatic, frenetic lives. To many, this level of philosophizing is akin to navel gazing, spinning wheels, an exercise in futility. To some extent, I agree, but only because I recognize the significant limits of time and temperament we face, with so much to accomplish every day. A thorough critical conversation, which even begins to scratch the surface of these ideas as they are manifest in the work of even a single student, could command an entire class period: five hours. Imagine the ensuing frustration if that were the case. Conversation about the nature of truth, beauty and goodness is necessarily circular and inconclusive. It can be unpleasant to dig in this way, of course, especially for an instructor, because doing so immediately opens the door to arguments of a professor's chief nemesis—subjectivity—the catch-all means of disqualification of critical judgment. And then there's time. With only 300 minutes and the hard-wrought work of 18 individuals to consider, there aren't enough hours in the day to completely, exhaustively discuss one piece, let alone the work of 17 more who are run ragged by working around the clock and who sometimes just want practical advice about form, color and composition. The last thing they want is more confusion. Unfortunately,  philosophy's first goal is to confuse. 

This summer, I plan to present some thoughts on this subject at a conference in Athens, the historical and geographic seat of western thought on these ideas, and I may try to hash out my musings here, in this blog. More than anything, I'd like to impart in my students a level of acceptance and recognition that these ideas are what drive our every opinion and decision in the construction of art, and even form a more effective form of discourse to consciously address these issues in the work of every student. Truth, Beauty and Goodness are at the core of all critical discourse. Let's begin with that daunting reality.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Do you want to know joy?

I have a simple prescription.

1. Work your ass off all day. Get yourself good and hungry. Make it a rewarding day somehow; one in which your students express unbridled enthusiasm, understand you, appreciate you. One in which the faculty member who's been cranky or troublesome smiles and says hello. A day which started at the gym and ended with the impression that you're doing it right.

2. Trudge up the hill, without an umbrella, at dusk, in the rain. Your obstacle needn't be a hill and it doesn't have to be raining. You can choose your own obstacles, but the point is to make your return to your car as urgent and discouraging as possible.

3. When you start your car, feel once again a surge of relief from the knowledge that it's been a good day. Tell yourself that you've turned a corner; tell yourself that you're back on track.

4. Arrive home. Allow yourself to be greeted by the cat at the door. Hold the cat. Talk to the cat.

5. Take from the refrigerator the following: a frozen pizza, a handful of fresh, raw green beans, and a plastic tub of calamata and oil-cured olives. Stand at the counter. Look at the olives.

6. Eat a calamata olive. Tell yourself you have never tasted anything so perfect. Tell yourself, "this is joy."