January 13, 2014
I was reading about Corita Kent, an artist/printmaker/teacher who was also a Catholic nun for most of her adult life, when I came across this poster she made for her classroom in L.A. I thought it was a wonderful follow up to my last post about the education of artists. I would have loved to have had Sister Corita as a teacher, wouldn’t you?
January 10, 2014
Here is advice from artist Ben Shahn to anyone who wants to be an artist:
“Attend a university if you possibly can. There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do. But before you attend a university work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease-monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle — yes, even potatoes! Or, in the auto shop, the smell of oil and grease and burning rubber. Paint of course, but if you have to lay aside painting for a time, continue to draw. Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and take all seriousness seriously. Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read. And form opinions! Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many artists. Go to an art school, or two, or three, or take art courses at night if necessary. And paint and paint and draw and draw. Know all that you can, both curricular and noncurricular — mathematics and physics and economics, logic, and particularly history. Know at least two languages besides your own, but anyway, know French. Look at pictures and more pictures. Look at every kind of visual symbol, every kind of emblem; do not spurn signboards or furniture drawings or this style of art or that style of art. Do not be afraid to like paintings honestly or to dislike them honestly, but if you do dislike them retain an open mind. Do not dismiss any school of art, not the pre-Raphaelites nor the Hudson River School nor the German Genre painters. Talk and talk and sit at cafes, and listen to everything, to Brahms, to Brubeck, to the Italian hour on the radio. Listen to preachers in small town churches and in big city churches. Listen to politicians in New England town meetings and to rabble-rousers in Alabama. Even draw them. And remember that you are trying to learn to think what you want to think, that you are trying to co-ordinate mind and hand and eye. Go to all sorts of museums and galleries and to the studios of artists. Go to Paris and Madrid and Rome and Ravenna and Padua. Stand alone in Sainte Chapelle, in the Sistine Chapel, in the Church of the Carmine in Florence. Draw and draw and paint and learn to work in many media; try lithography and aquatint and silk-screen. Know all that you can about art, and by all means have opinions. Never be afraid to become embroiled in art or life or politics; never be afraid to learn to draw or paint better than you already do; and never be afraid to undertake any kind of art at all, however exalted or however common, but do it with distinction.”
— Ben Shahn, from The Shape of Content
“It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure . . . to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives. . . .Why should our life be in any respect provincial?”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Thoreau makes a case for a liberal arts education, reading the classics, and lifelong learning. He felt it was not enough to focus solely on things that farmers and traders value, but that money could be spent on bringing scholars and lecturers and culture to the people.
In today’s world, wired to the Internet, we have ready access to the best of the world’s literature, music, and the arts. The selection is almost unlimited; we are limited only by our choices. But how poorly we often choose. We have so much more leisure time than our great-grandparents, and yet so often our lives feel culturally impoverished. In today’s world, we have no excuse for starvation for excellence except our own laziness.
One of my all-time favorite writers, Carol Bly, investigates this fall into intellectual poverty in an essay, “A Gentle Education for Us All” from her book, Letters from the Country. She observes that, “The granddaughters of the women who piled turkey and dressing and four pies and jars of homemade gooseberry preserves onto the church sawhorse tables now come to the county fair with pie-mix pies and to church suppers with very third-rate hot dishes based on fake Chinese noodles and artificially flavored gelatin salads. . . . All this second-rate behavior is no elegant moral breakdown in my opinion, but rather the result of everyone being told ever since the end of World War II that your image in others’ eyes, as well as your own, had to do mainly with your vocation and your acquired property.” Schools and educators postitioned arts, music, and literature as impractical in a world where everything of value was thought of in terms of a job.
Bly recognizes that technical competence is good, and does indeed have value, for eight hours of one’s life. But what of the other 16 hours of the day? Bly advocates for educating the whole person by means of a return to a liberal arts education because the best literature and art and music illuminates the circumstances of our own lives. Liberal arts educates for happiness.
I have often thought that a public school education is wasted on youth; I would appreciate it so much more at my age. When I was 30 years old, I did break from my working life to go back to college for a graduate degree. These days, with another decade of working life ahead of me, I am challenged to keep growing and learning on my own. Our wonderful libraries and the internet do make lifelong learning easier. But what’s missing from my life is a classroom of kindred seekers and a gifted teacher who can inspire creative thinking on topics of interest or open windows to new interests outside my immediate sphere. I know these kinds of opportunities are out there, especially for retired people. It will be my job to find them.