Unreal Nature

October 18, 2016

This Talent, However Small

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 9:16 am

… the development of this talent, however small, carrying with it a severe discipline of its own, results in the students becoming more sensitive to order in the world and within himself than he can ever be through intellectual effort alone.

This is from Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College: 1933-1957 by Helen Molesworth (2015):

Rice, a man who knew little about art and knew no artists personally before founding Black Mountain, insisted that art be at the center of the curriculum. Refusing its typical designation as extracurricular, he felt that art “should no longer have a precarious existence on the fringe of the curriculum but … should be at the very center of things.”

[line break added] According to Rice, “There are things to be learned through observation [that] cannot be learned through words.” Rice felt that art not only occupies a possible zone outside of language but also holds the potential to enable individuals to make choices — and choices, he stressed, were at the heart of a truly democratic society. The arts, he felt, “when properly employed [are] least subject to direction from without and yet have within them a severe discipline of their own.”

[line break added]  Martin Duberman elegantly summarizes Rice’s thinking when he suggests that learning art taught students “that the worthwhile struggle was the interior one — not against one’s fellows, but against one’s ‘own ignorance and clumsiness.’ The integrity an artist learns when dealing with materials translates into an integrity with oneself and other men.”

… Self-expression was actively discouraged [by teacher Josef Albers]; for “experience shows that in young people this encourages artistic conceit but hardly results in a solid capability which alone can give the foundation and freedom for more personal work.” That, he went on to say, “will develop best afterwards and outside the school.” Moreover, there was an overall understanding that though it had placed art at its core of instruction Black Mountain was not an art school; it was a liberal arts college. Rice summed up the concept:

A beginning is often best made by persuading the student to submit himself to the discipline of one or more of the arts. It is for this reason that no classes are allowed to conflict in the schedule with the elementary courses in Music, Dramatic, or the Fine Arts. There is no expectation that many students will become artists; in fact the College regards it as a sacred duty to discourage mere talent from thinking itself genius; but there is something of the artist in everyone and the development of this talent, however small, carrying with it a severe discipline of its own, results in the students becoming more sensitive to order in the world and within himself than he can ever be through intellectual effort alone.

[ … ]

… While the dictionary may define haptic as “relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception,” the word,, when used in reference to works of art, denotes those works that engage visuality through an appeal to tactility. Haptic objects intertwine visuality and tactility so thoroughly that they are inextricable from each other.

Such a recasting, away from the prioritization of visuality, allows us to think about the production of woodworking, architecture, collage, and pottery nonhierarchically. Thinking through the matrix of the haptic might offer a way around now-hackneyed classifications of art and craft to permit a full engagement with the stated aims of Black Mountain, which was to enable “learning through doing.”

[line break added] There is a tacit assumption that “learning through doing” means using one’s hands and one’s brain, a disruption of the Cartesian model of subjectivity that privileges the mind over the body. At Black Mountain, there was a desire to teach students to become more aware of the world around by instilling in them respect for the acts of both perception and process, all in the services of honing their critical skills.

In the following, Molesworth muses on her own motivations in how she’s writing this book:

… I know that my own desire for Black Mountain remains bifurcated: I wanted to debunk the myth as much as I wanted to prove it true. (Because in an era such as ours, dominated as it is by the monetization of art and education, to work on a small art school where almost no one got paid is a kind of Hail Mary pass.) I knew all of this in a flash when, as I neared the end of an interview with Black Mountain pottery instructor Karen Karnes, she said to me, benevolently, but with transparent exasperation: “You contemporary people have so many questions, because you think there are answers.”

My previous post from Molesworth’s book is here.




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