Currently I am researching learning methods and theories to understand learning in arts and design practices. I am wondering what different methods are out there and if one could exchange different learning practices to learn even more in different disciplines. Learning about varying techniques and methods from architecture to zoology is very inspiring, but recently I asked myself: Maybe we shouldn’t focus on techniques or methods, it might be more fitful to spend time on the time we spend with learning.
Apparently the Beatles had to practice for 10.000 hours to become really good at what they are doing, which was playing pop music. Their catchy tunes prove that repeating the same thing over and over again does make a difference in depth, accuracy, and intention. In the last decades after conceptual arts was invented, repetition got a bad reputation in the art world. I see a lot of artists and art students who try to deliver a convincing piece with one single attempt. Me too, I am so impatient that I always only want to give my writings or drawings just one try. Sometimes brilliancy does happen by chance. Most of the time it doesn’t. While teaching art in the US I met a lot of International students from Asia, most of them had practiced drawing and/or software skills for 10.000 hours at least. They had experience through repeating. These students had practiced drawing in the same way as someone would play the piano for hours to be a successful pianist. I have to admit those students' brains and hands were trained in a complete different way than the American students' (who rather hung out partying - excuse this cliche).
I want to look at learning and repetition from a different angle: One of my loves in life is Asthanga Yoga. In Ashtanga yoga our teachers say: Practice, practice and all is coming. Students repeat the same sequence of postures every single day. The same posture every day for years. This practice taught me not to be thrilled, when I finally manage to brezel myself into a certain pose. I am more excited about the state of mind I have through the repetitive time I spent on my mat.
Maybe it is learning as an activity we should focus on and not the technique, media, methods or results connected to learning. Maybe we have to allow art students more time to repeat. Maybe we should give credits for hours not outcomes?
I had to learn to leave my stories behind. The kind of stories about your life you tell yourself over and over again until you believe them. And still they are only stories and as such exchangeable. Of course there are also stories around art schools. What is your art school story? Why are you here? Today I wanted to tell you mine: My grandfather wasn't allowed to study art because he was partly Jewish. He had to leave high school early, in 1930s in Wroclaw, former Prussia, now Poland. He couldn't live his dream, but had to become a factory worker. This story left me with a mission: Because I was the artistically talented one in my family, I had to study art to get it off the family check list. A likely story, isn’t it?
My other art school story goes like this: When I was 16 years old my grandmother asked me what I wanted to be later in life. She was a great role model. She managed to be one of the first female medicine students in Germany. I proudly proclaimed that I would do something completely different from the paths of my family of professors and doctors - and told my over 90 year old grandmother that I wanted to be an interior architect. She replied that that was a good idea, that I would be a great wife who could decorate the house of her husband nicely. Of course I rebelled and I gave up the idea of being an interior architect immediately. At the same time I somehow still believed in my creative talent (and the other story), and managed to get into an art school. In my first art school experience, I was trained as a designer to be a creative owner of the design process, and a whole new world of art and design as political tools opened up for me. Yet in my mid twenties, I told my dad that I decided to be a professional full time artist. My dad told me that one could not make a living being an artist. That small sentence chilled my idea immediately. I spent the next years tiptoeing around making art. I was trying to qualify myself in every single possible way to get the allowance of finally being allowed to be an artist. I went abroad. I interned. I published on making art. I did PR for art. I taught art. I wrote my PhD dissertation on art. I worked as an educator in art museums. I became a professional art enabler. That was all fun and taught me a lot of things, but did not count as making art exactly. I finally realized when I was appointed full professor and department head for art and design education at a well known European art school, that I must have become quite good in working around the arts, but it also showed me that I still wasn’t quite doing what I set out to do.
Two things happened with me just because I allowed myself to stick to those two stories:
I believed in the bottom of my heart that I had to have a real job, not an arts job (which is rather funny when I consider that I have a meditation teacher and a pastor as parents). But simultaniously I didn’t really know what else to do with my life than the arts. So I ended up circling the arts and doing one course, one study after the other to somehow get the blessing of someone, telling me: Now it is okay. Now you are allowed to make some art too!
Sometimes there is no one there to tell you that it is fine to go ahead. Sometimes your family or your friends or your partner or your children or your dog do not quite know what is right for you.
Circling around teaching, publishing, organizing, curating, mediating, critiquing art showed me that I truly believed that everybody is an artist except me. But not leaving the art world showed me that even deeper down in my heart I still believed in the idea of being an artist myself. Finally checking everything off my to-do-list (all the studies I could do, all the jobs you could get, the right salary, blablabla). Then and only then I finally realized that I was a victim of my stories. The stories I believed for years. The stories I thought my family had told me. (Probably they told me to be an artist a million times and I somehow filtered that out). One day I realized that and started to write, not in an academic way, but in a way I wanted.
After all is said and done, I guess I am pretty old fashioned. I want art to be moving, to be spiritual, to be well made by someone with talents. I even want art to look good in my living room. I just said that. Totally politically incorrect.
But then there is this other me who thinks that art should be political, provocative, life-changing. There is this other me who spends half her life engaged in something called artistic research. I have nothing against artists with phds (I’ll write on that another time), but I have to admit that I am bored with artistic research. (Second confession.) I want to feel something through art. What extra value is there? What do I get from perceiving an art work? Does art have to be entertaining, life changing, interesting, spiritually challenging, mind blowing? I guess everything and none of it. At the end of the day the artist does whatever she wants to do, no judgement, no blaming. I came to learn that art is not about the product (which might look nice with my new throw pillows), but always about the personal process of the artist - and maybe about the individual process of the recipient.
Most of all: I want art to be transforming for my students. Making and perceiving art should show them that they have the right to be whoever they are. I want them to love themselves and scream out into the world their weird, fun, whatever authentic selves. I want art students to use art to free themselves from conventions, trauma, family stories. I hope they use art to show their worldview and their opinions. But does that count as research? I personally doubt that, but there are many definitions of research out there. I strongly believe that this form of expressive art making counts as being human as best as we can and as consciously as we can: Maybe the process of art making supported to my students to be who they are. Then I guess it counts as research.
My American self tells me that everything is possible I just have to go for it. Sometimes I forget to go for the little things that bring me joy and happiness. What are the activities that make me feel like I could bench press a gorilla and clear my mind at the same time?
John Dewey said learning is all about connecting. I think that education should involve educating yourself by connecting all the fields you want to learn about. There is not one study program, but your individual way to make sense of things in the world, but mostly to make sense about yourself in the world. The beauty, absurdity, urgency of art might support making those connections. Colin just tells me that there is someone working on Kafka and vegetarianism. Here you go. Cultural studies inspirational mixing de luxe. Where are your links?
Art and Education