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Brian D. Cohen

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Education and the Visual Arts

Posted: 08/31/11 06:21 PM ET

I just moved 376 boxes, mostly books and prints, to a new home in California. I get a little fussy about my books, and like to categorize them rather specifically by subject. I'm serious about this, but the more serious I get, the more trying the task becomes.

Let's take a book in my collection, Typologies, a book of photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher, a kind of documentary visual encyclopedia of industrial buildings. Where do I put it? It could likely go in the photography section, simply because the Bechers took photographs. Or the art history section, because the Bechers were pioneering conceptual artists in Germany in the 1960's. Or the book arts section, as Typologies is a multi-page collection of serial images. Or in my separate section on industrial history, which includes books on mills in 19th C New England. Or in my architecture section. Or in a section on the hybrid field of study called industrial archaeology. Or in my landscape section specializing in photographs of structures erected in the landscape. It's a silly problem to have; but I want the book to be among like-spirited book-friends, and I want to be able to find it, and there are too many possible places for it to be.

I thought I coined the term extradisciplinary, until I found it on the Internet already in use. By that term, I meant looking deductively, in totality, and then determining means for further analysis and exploration. Let me offer an example. When Leonardo became curious about the form of the human body, a subject to that point in Christian Europe more or less off-limits, he used what means he had -0 primarily observation through drawing and writing (and some cutting) -0 to inquire about the workings of the body and its parts and why things looked and worked the way they did. The science of anatomy didn't really exist; medicine was more anecdotal than analytical; and science and art weren't yet regarded as separate disciplines.

A little later in the Renaissance, as the notion of a modern liberal education evolved, the disciplines considered worthy of study weren't subjects as we think of them but rather means of inquiry and communication -- language, spoken and written, argument, analysis, and visual art.

Academics and arts are often separated in an implied hierarchy of importance and priority. They don't belong apart, and weren't born apart. What is art, or science, or math, or any endeavor of the intellect and spirit but exploration, observation, recognition, and translation? Art is informed by more than art; it can encompass and embrace every aspect of life and is an impetus and means for inquiry into other areas of human expression and endeavor.

Visual literacy is an essential skill. We encounter an endless array of images pretty much constantly, few of which we'd call art, yet all of which have been created to evoke or induce some effect in us or communicate something to us. Our aptitude for visual and aural interpretation is vastly older, deeper, and quicker than our ability to interpret words. And as the visual precedes the verbal, so it defies and confounds it.

I rarely use the words "talent" or "creativity," as those words do a better job of keeping people away from art than helping them discover it. Creativity is discovering patterns, relationships, connections, and beauty -- seeing itself is a creative act. The potential for creativity resides everywhere, in every subject, every decision, and every relationship. I remind students that what they are after is always within their own experience, capability, and feeling. Chinua Achebe eloquently expresses an educational philosophy I embrace: "What you want to do as a teacher is to make people aware of the complexity of experience... this is what education should aim to do: to draw out from us what is there so that it can interact with what's outside."

Educators are talking a lot about assessment these days, but education is too complex an enterprise to measure in one dimension. You learn more than one thing when you learn. What do we assess when we look for quality? Not just a momentary measure of what we already know we're looking for. When we assess students in art, we hope to learn something we didn't already know -- what the student has discovered and shown us, if we are open to seeing and hearing it. Not just "is this good?" -- but "what has this student discovered, what have they told me, what have they made me feel?" The full depth of assessment comes in time, in a student's growth and his or her own discovery. It is the evolution and development of thought and expression, and this education never stops. At Idyllwild, the arts are central to our lives and learning. We are fortunate to see and guide this during the most formative years in a young artist's growth, adolescence.

But I remember that it's never really easy. Samuel Beckett's admonition to "fail; fail again; fail better" has served as my personal credo as an artist. Beckett's quote recalls both the inevitability and necessity of failure as well as the ceaseless imperative to strive to get somewhere, and it reminds us of the vulnerability, uncertainty, and frustration of creative exploration. But no one who has the creative imperative would every surrender it.

Art offers something to draw from and to return to (what have we created that we can be more proud of, in our anthropogenically damaged world?). Daniel Pink writes in his book A Whole New Mind, "Abundance has satisfied, and even over-satisfied, the material needs of millions -- boosting the significance of beauty and emotion and accelerating individuals' search for meaning." By studying precedents for the work they undertake and experiencing the rich historical and multicultural array of the arts students find recognition and embodiment of their own condition. And in creating art, the world is revealed to them, and they are shown to themselves. "We see the brightness of a new page where everything yet can happen." (Rilke)