I toured a group of three to five year olds through an exhibit of expressive paintings. The adults with them expected to spend fifteen minutes at most in the gallery; were they shocked when the kids listened and asked questions for over an hour! Even more, they were surprised by how much the children understood and empathized with the work, how sophisticated were their questions and comments. No one of the escorting adults expected pre-schoolers to have that level of insight and involvement in the art. The children had seen things the adults had not until this child or that pointed it out.
I see again and again that adults can be the ones who are clueless.
It brought to mind my childhood art education experience in a Canadian elementary school. I call it ‘education’ generously, because it happened in school, but there was little about what I understood as Art in it.
My first ‘art class’, as opposed to an ‘art project’ was in grade seven. The teacher was big on Beauty and was adamant about the role of art in recording it. Great! I agreed wholeheartedly. As an immigrant from South America with a multi-cultural family background, my exposure to Art had been extensive and varied by the time I was eleven. I knew about Beauty in art so I finally felt right at home in my Canadian classroom.
There followed a series of art assignments over the course of the school year. In the fall, we collected leaves and branches and drew those as best we could in pencil and pastel. As they dried and fell apart, we pushed tempera around to paint portraits of them ‘dying’. In the early winter, we used chalk to render the window frost on black construction paper, and our special treat at Christmas was to make Plasticine balls covered in aluminium foil with toothpicks stuck all over them and covered in sparkles as stars for the school trees. During the late winter months our art recorded the different shapes of tree leaves that we would be seeing in spring though cut-outs and collage, and when spring arrived we drew and painted these as they greened.
Art class was my favourite time in school. I did my homework after much practice and with loving care, but I was confused. “What about El Greco?” I asked. “Not now,” the teacher replied. “What about anatomy?” I wondered. “Later!” she responded. So I waited for ‘later’. When we were given the assignment to represent the most beautiful object we could find in books over the Christmas holidays, I set to with a passion. This was a test, I convinced myself. I would pass it with flying colours!
The other kids handed in pictures of puppies or scenes from Christmas cads they’d received and copied. When it was my turn, I proudly presented my image to the class and handed it to the teacher. It was a graphite pencil on paper, a chiaroscuro rendering of Michelangelo’s sculpture The David from a picture in one of my parents’ Renaissance art books I had always admired.
The teacher held my paper, staring at it for a long, silent time. With surprise, I saw her face grow gradually princess pink and then a kind of fuchsia pink and then a tomato red. Her eyes hardened, her lips set into a tight, nothing-getting-out line. I realized she wasn’t pleased; not at all. She was shocked. She looked sternly at the class, to a person sitting absolutely silent, and announced, “This Art is for Adults! It Is NOT the business of children!” and slapped the drawing face down on her desk. She glared at me. I sat at my desk as if turned to marble.
I finally understood. I understood that teacher’s idea about Beauty was really about Nature’s beauty, not about Art’s at all. Her ‘later’ meant ‘never’, or perhaps ‘when you grow up’. Were Canadian children somehow less artistic than others? I wondered. But I asked her no more questions about Art, about anything at all, in fact.
I did my work quietly, listened more carefully, watched more intently, secretly coming to suspect that she was, in fact, an impostor, pretending to teach something she didn’t even like or believe in, not like I loved and lived for it. I kept my mouth shut in class and did all my art thinking, looking and learning outside of school.
It’s only years later that I realized that she really knew nothing more about Art than what she taught and that she didn’t even know it. Many so-called art teachers aren’t at all. Kids take their classes hoping to learn how to be real artists but all they get are lessons on how to be good recyclers or fair players. Or if the teacher does know, how to do whatever they can do in a minimally equipped art room, if it’s not a ‘multi-purpose’ room, with limited materials.
It’s not until they graduate from a good art college or university art program that those whose self-confidence and creativity survived their education can choose for themselves what they want to make as artists and how. Hopefully by then they’ll at least know how to go about learning to do it and how to thrive doing it. Hopefully, they won’t have to wait until they retire from other jobs to do it.
Here are some of the notes I took as a young teenager about Art:
Religious: What belief it illustrates
Political: What side it takes
Propagandist: What agenda drives it
Medieval: The mystery of it
Naïve: What it sort of looks like
Primitive: What natural forces drive it
Native: It’s inseparable from its environment
Craft: How it’s elegantly useful
Representational: What it shows
Figurative: Whom it shows
Eroticism: How it sensualises
Classicism: The antiquity it honours
Narrative: The story it tells
Realism: What it is
Hyperrealism: What it really is
Romanticism: How lyrical it is
Grotesque: What it overemphasizes or distorts
Rococo: What it doesn’t leave out
Symbolism: What it represents
Decorative: How it beautifies
Design: How it’s structured
Illustration: How it defines
Architecture: How it contains
Animation: How it imagines
Impressionism: How atmospheric it is
Cubism: How it is restructured
Expressionism: What gesture creates it
Abstract Expressionism: What energy creates it
Surrealism: What new relationships it creates
Abstract: How it redefines perception
Minimalism: How it focuses
Naturalism: How it integrates/relates to nature
Installation: How it inhabits its space
Mime: How it slows and magnifies
Dance: How it relates to space
Theatre: How it relocates experience
Performance: How it interacts sight, sound and movement
Sculpture: What form it takes in space
Conceptualism: What it relates to
A Really Good Work of Art: How it moves, what it inspires
A Masterpiece: Many of the above at once