Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Revolution in a Schoolbook

The Little Red Schoolbook, written by two Danish teachers (Soren Hansen and Jesper Jensen), was originally published in Denmark in 1969 and in the UK in 1971. This book caused quite a controversy (see YouTube links below) when it was published in the UK since it was perceived to threaten many of the dominant (puritanical) religious and moral values of the time. Indeed, there were several court cases and the publishers were raided by the police under the auspices of the Obscene Publications Act and many copies of the book were seized. It was later allowed to be published in edited form.

Fortunately for me, my parents were open-minded and curious enough to buy (at the grand sum of thirty pence) one of the original unedited copies when it was first published in the UK. It manages to squeeze a great deal of information into its 208 pages all with the laudable aim of empowering schoolchildren and informing them about many of the issues which really concern young people but from which adults feel they should be "protected". The Little Red Schoolbook continues to be in many ways revolutionary in its frankness and it covers a range of subjects including teacher's authority, punishment, drugs, sex, contraceptives, abortion, and organising demonstrations. In many ways it's a shame there's not an updated version still in print or at least a pdf available for download.

A few days ago I was sent this book by my parents since it had come up in a recent discussion. I'm amazed at just how radical it still seems and to be reminded of just what a powerful influence it had over me as a young teenager. I still remember the first time my brother showed me this book. Inevitably this was to read the sexual content eg:

    "The usual word for a boys sexual organ is cock or prick. The usual word for a girl's sexual organ is pussy or cunt. Many grown-ups don't like these words because they say they're "rude". They prefer words like penis and vagina.
    When boys get sexually excited, their prick goes stiff. This is called having an erection or "getting a hard on". If a boy rubs his stiff prick it starts feeling good and this leads to what is called orgasm. This is called masturbation or wanking. Girls masturbate by rubbing their clitoris, and this may lead to orgasm too."

I remember taking this book to school and showing it to my friends who were astonished that something so matter-of-fact, honest and sensible could be aimed at them and it couldn't have come to our attention at a more appropriate time in our developing awareness (both intellectual and carnal). No doubt the information about sex was the major source of our interest in this book at this time but there is also a great deal of additional information, which I know I also avidly consumed, and which I'm sure has had a significant influence on my development as an individual and my beliefs about life and teaching. It is only since seeing this book again that I've realised just how profound this influence has really been.

    "Teachers and their authority
    Most bad and authoritarian teachers are tied up in knots or afraid of something or other. They are often afraid of their pupils and think they have to appear strict and unapproachable. They're afraid that their pupils may be right and that that they may be wrong. They're afraid that there'll be chaos if they give up their power and authority.

    This fear arises because they don't believe in other people's ability to organise themselves and find their own solutions to problems. This lack of faith in others may be due to a lack of belief in themselves. They're insecure and have to rely on their authority all the time."

I particularly liked the following:

    "Punishment: what is allowed?
    The best way of teaching is to use encouragement and rewards, not punishments. Psychologists discovered this a long time ago. But not all teachers and parents have discovered it yet. There are many kinds of punishment. There's caning, detention, telling off, ridicule and sending people out of the class. Some punishments are allowed in school. Others are forbidden. For example it is forbidden for teachers to take things away from you and keep them. If a teacher has confiscated something of yours he has to give it back. (This applies to The Little Red Schoolbook too!)"

I remember openly carrying the book around school in the hope that one of the teachers would dare to confiscate it.

    "Marks are a means of power
    ...If marks are only used as a guide for the pupil, and the teacher explains to each pupil why he's given him a particular mark, this is acceptable. (Although you might well ask what is the point of giving a mark at all in this case.) But marks aren't usually explained to pupils. Instead they're used to compare different pupils, and may even end up on a noticeboard, without any explanation. In this case marks are meaningless.

    Don't accept marks as the be all and end all. And remember that there are many teachers who are fed up with the whole business of marks too. They realise that marks in themselves don't mean a thing. Talk to your teachers and try to find out what they think of marks."

And finally from the concluding words:

    "Sometimes you have to fight against people who don't have much power, people who are afraid of change and afraid of having to make an effort themselves. This won't last long. In the long run teachers and pupils are on the same side in the struggle against the forces which control their lives.
    You can't separate school from society. You have to change one to be able to improve the other. But don't let this put you off.
    Every little thing you change in school may have results in society. Every little thing you change in society may have consequences in school.
    Work to change always starts with you. The struggle is carried on by many different people in many different places. But it's the same struggle."

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Robert Cumming

A few weeks ago I was sent a link to the work of Caleb Charland who produces black-and-white photographs of pseudo-experiments and strange Heath Robinsonesque constructions using light, magnets, water and various other objects and materials. I was immediately struck by the similarities between Charland's work and the work of Robert Cumming who was very active in the 1970s West Coast American conceptual art scene.

I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of Robert Cumming's work at MoMA in New York in 1996 and whilst there I also bought a copy of the exhibition catalogue. Unfortunately Cummings work is fairly poorly represented in history books and monographs on his work are very rare so I often find myself lending my catalogue to students.

Lending books to people is a risky business at the best of times but when it's a book that you're particularly fond of there's a real disincentive to let it out of your sight. I've lost numerous books and DVDs in this way over the years, so I'm now in the habit of looking artists up on the Internet and sending students web links rather than lending out my precious book collection. It's not an ideal situation because the materiality, structure and precision of books is inevitably lost when they're translated into a crude set of online images. However, when the choice is between a pale simulacrum or nothing at all, I think most of us would prefer the former.

When I looked up Robert Cumming online I was both surprised and disappointed to find that there's barely anything available at all. As a student I remember seeing several images of Cumming's work in different books and exhibitions and being really inspired by the inventive and quirky charm of his images. Hopefully the following may go some way to at least giving a vague impression of what a remarkable image maker Robert Cumming was in the prime of his engagement with photography.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Preconceived Ideas

There’s a common belief, especially amongst new art students, that the creation of art is simply a process of coming up with a good idea and then producing it - the major challenge being the technical realization of this initial idea. The source of this conception of the creative process is not entirely clear but it certainly has a tendency to seriously restrict one of the most important aspects of all art forms which is that the process has the potential to reveal things which could never have been imagined beforehand. This is such a crucial thing to understand about art. As I've written before: "If artists end up where they expected to be, they’ll have only confirmed what they already knew and they’ll have discovered nothing."

So, whilst it may well be necessary to have some kind of initial idea or starting point, it’s also vitally important to give it breathing space and allow it to evolve – even if this means that the initial idea becomes completely lost. The measure of a great work is not what was intended but what was created; not where it came from, but where it arrived. This is one of the greatest challenges when working with deeply personal subject matter because there’s such a tendency to feel beholden to the original intention and the feelings which initiated it. As artists become more confident and familiar with this subtle process, they also become more able to loosen their grip in the certain knowledge that things which run deep come through whether you like it or not and the worst thing you can do is attempt to force them into existence.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Invisible Teaching

Is it advisable for an art teacher to walk into a degree show, exhibition space or studio where a student is hanging their work and, after a cursory glance, to say to the student that they need to change the work?

Last June I wrote on this blog:
Throughout all Universities, staff are increasingly under pressure of time and this often leaves little opportunity to respond to students with the generosity and open-mindedness which is so frequently necessary. Due to their lack of proximity to the experience of being a student - with all its attendant vulnerabilities - many teachers ignore student anxieties or brush them aside as trivial or inconsequential. It’s an attitude which helps no one and can sometimes cause genuine harm. All students are understandably sensitive about many aspects of their studies and even seemingly confident students need reassurance sometimes. More significantly, there’s a subset of committed students who can occasionally appear to be bullish, demanding or self centered and it’s vital not to assume that these students are just “difficult”, but instead to engage them and, if possible, to provide an opportunity for them to explain the cause of their behavior. This takes time and sensitivity, even from highly talented teachers.
    “Criticism, especially, is irremediably social in character, since we are ordinarily as blind to our own failings as we are attentive to those of others. Social interaction is therefore as crucial to the prosperity of critical rationalism as are the individual qualities of imagination, resourcefulness, courage, determination, and willingness to learn.”
    David Miller on Karl Popper in "A Pocket Popper"
It’s important to realize that teaching is a discursive process which requires teachers to engage students meaningfully and generously wherever possible. Whilst it’s often very easy to spot the flaws in students work, this shouldn’t lead one to the temptation to immediately suggest a change. Artworks often take a great deal of time and investment (both emotional and financial) to produce so it’s hardly surprising that students are resistant, at the best of times, to altering their creations. But there’s a more important issue here. Such critical circumstances offer a vital opportunity for teaching and learning at the deepest level because, if the student is genuinely engaged - as they are most likely to be if they’ve made a real investment in the work - then they are also likely to be highly receptive to any opportunities for making the work stronger. However, blunt statements and criticism are definitely not the way to proceed. What is needed is a caring but thorough discussion about the benefits of changing the work. It’s essential in this situation to acknowledge the possibility (as slim as it may seem) that the student is, in fact, correct in their decision. It is only through this acknowledgement that the necessary rapport may be engendered such that an equal discussion can evolve. Students know that they are in these situations to learn, but it is essential that they also feel that the teacher is willing to be persuaded. They need to know that the teacher is interested and most importantly, they need to know that the teacher understands what they are trying to achieve. Once these preliminaries have been established it’s usually a straightforward matter of fulfilling what both parties desire: an improved work of art.

So what's my advice? I think it's vital that every effort is made by each party to understand the motivations and perception of the other, and it therefore seems only fair that the student should be able to seek clarification for any suggested change. It is nothing short of hubris on the part of the teacher to assume that the student will instantly recognise the sheer logic of the suggested improvement like some kind of revelation from on high. For this reason it's far wiser to withhold the suggestion and to introduce it tactfully into the natural flow of discussion. If the advice holds water then there’s no need for persuasion. What the student needs most urgently, is to be able to fully appropriate and internalise the rationale for changing the work. They also need to be able to claim authorship for this change, otherwise it will be no more than a compromise made under an all too familiar but subtle form of academic coercion. For the teacher, the imperative is therefore opposite and complementary. Here the emphasis is on transferring authorship for the suggested change to its rightful owner. In the most agreeable situations, this is done in such a way that the student makes the decision without even realising that the suggestion has been made in the first place.
    'Tis not enough your Counsel still be true
    Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehood do
    Men must be taught as if you taught them not

    And Things unknown propos'd as Things forgot"
    -Alexander Pope, May 1711