Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Threshold of Meaning (a hermeneutic)

"Deluge", backlit photographic print. ©Jim Hamlyn 2010
“In the case of HE art and design courses, where students are often required to change their mode of operating and reconstruct their way of thinking, we often encounter the bewildered expression of those who no longer receive the accolades they have been used to receiving prior to their entrance to higher education.” (Vaughan et al. 2008)
I’d like to take an opportunity here to examine, a little more closely, a couple of issues which came up in a previous post about the common mismatch between the way the art is taught in schools as opposed to art schools and the role that 'meaning' plays in this troublesome transition.

Art classes in schools predominantly emphasize form, technique and imagination to the almost entire exclusion of interpretation and meaning. In this setting, art is perceived and promoted as a purely practical subject and its intellectual and discursive aspects - since they tend to resist quantification and assessment – are simply ignored by the curricula and are neglected by all but the most intrepid and determined of teachers. Many students arriving at art school are therefore surprised – daunted even - to find that the emphasis within many courses is significantly different. Suddenly a whole new edifice is confronting them which demands that they research, develop, consider, articulate, express and interpret meaning in the work they make and that of their peers and other artists. No longer are they expected simply to create imaginative, skillful, beautiful or original representations, but now they must become informed consumers of art and to understand what this stuff they're looking at actually means. Appreciation is no longer just about virtuosity, ingenuity, creativity, originality, beauty, skill, refinement or a litany of famous “Masters” but about ideas, concepts, issues, themes and content. No longer are they being assessed so much for their command of the medium, or even their hard work, but for the depth of their ideas and their articulacy in exploring and expressing them. Unsurprisingly many students begin to ask “why does art have to “mean” something, why can’t it just be beautiful?”

Art is a product of human action - some might call this free will, human ingenuity or creative purpose. However you view it, art is an experience produced by human intention and it’s the results of this intention which many other humans (artists, critics, historians and art lovers etc) wish to contemplate and understand. If there were no intention, then there’d be little point in trying to understand something, but then again, if there were no intention, there probably wouldn't be much to understand in the first place – certainly nothing in terms of ideas.

If we’re simply seeking beauty, we can gaze at the sheer wonder of the world and art simply pales by comparison, but if we want to know how we or other people view and interpret the world, then contemplating, discussing and making art are some of the best ways we can go about this.

"The picture which has the nobler and more numerous ideas, however awkwardly expressed, is a greater and a better picture than that which has the less noble and less numerous ideas, however beautifully expressed. No weight, nor mass, nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought.” –John Ruskin

It would seem then, that more than 150 years ago, people were already championing the notion that meaning is something to be strived for and valued in art. But what implications might this have for us artists? Are we expected to conjure up profundity from the ether and transform it into works of majesty and greatness? And if this is the case, wouldn’t the most intelligent artists be, without exception, the best? Fortunately this isn’t the case. Artworks which attempt to communicate an idea are often pedantic dismal failures doomed by a lack of awareness of the creative process as a whole. If making great art was simply a case of coming up with great ideas, then who’d actually need to make anything? - we could just explain the ideas. Skipping the fact that this strategy is sometimes advocated by artists, we can say that the constantly interweaving processes of making and thinking are a vital part of the ‘act’ of creating meaning, and as such, meaning doesn’t have to exist from the outset in the mind of the artist. Meaning can come into being through a gradual and accumulative but considered process of engaging with materials and processes: of making.

British Sculptor Anish Kapoor is often quoted thus:

“I have often said that I have nothing to say as an artist. Having something to say implies that one is struggling with meaning. The role of the artist is in fact that we don’t know what to say, and it is that not knowing that leads to the work.”

Unfortunately such statements can easily be misconstrued. The lack of clarity can be demonstrated by considering the following three examples:
1: Artworks which are made to communicate an idea.
2: Artworks which result from a speculative but informed process of experimentation.
3: Artworks which are the result of a inexpressible outpouring of creative genius.
The problem with Kapoor’s statement is that it suggests that art is formed through the kind of shrouded process as outlined in example 3, whereas the truth is almost certainly much closer to example 2. He might not be “struggling with meaning” as such, but his work is undoubtedly the result of a process and that process isn’t one of “not knowing” but of an evolution out of not knowing; of a gradual accumulation of certainties and the abandonment of error.

Finally then, let’s return the discussion to the plight of the student (to quote John Berger’s provocative essay). Sadly, a number of fine art courses (especially in more traditional subjects like painting or printmaking) continue to pay very little attention to discussing the meaning of the work that students produce. Instead they emphasise a mélange of techniques and a hotchpotch of styles and, if the students are lucky, there may be some discussion of more nebulous qualities of mood and feeling. Students on such courses might experience a smoother transition from school to higher education and may even continue to receive the accolades they have been used to. In a sense they’ll be fortunate to avoid the troublesome threshold of “Meaning”, but they’ll also be much less likely to experience the pleasures and insights of informed interpretation. This is one of the most lamentable consequences of the neglect of Meaning. The other, is the fact that some of these graduates will go on to become school teachers where – due to pitifully impoverished curricula - they’ll have no alternative but to promote the craft of art at the expense of its most profound, if not its most important aspect.

BARRETT, T. (1988) Studies in Art Education, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 22-27 Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1320648
BERGER, J. (1960). The Plight of the Student. In: Permanent Red. London: Methuen. 51-53. Available online from: http://ml-in.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=2330538503&topic=2829
VAUGHAN, S. et al. (2008) Mind the gap : expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education. In: L. Drew ed. The Student Experience in Art and Design Higher Education : Drivers for Change. Jill Rogers Associates Limited, Cambridge, pp. 125-148.


Anonymous said...

There seems to be an implicit assumption that the products of rational thought (from which spring concepts, not ideas) are to be valued more than the products of non-rational processes (i.e. apprehended Ideas).

Whilst it is true that we can talk about concepts, can grasp them and produce meaning from them, this does not necessarily make the products of our rational processes any more the worthy as objects of art; indeed, some may argue that it makes them all the more less worthy.

Perhaps talking about form and technique, and the nebulous qualities of mood and feeling, are a concession to our need to have to talk about something in the first place. Perhaps the circular nature of these conversation point us towards the fact that through talking we are missing something.

So whilst art can be about finding meaning or understanding human intention, it can also be about something above and beyond even this holy grail. Something beyond, and not rooted, in the human being. And it could be argued that art that keeps us talking and pointing and looking at each other only serves to stop us seeing what lies beyond; the finger that obscures the heavenly glory ...

PS. If we are putting ourselves in service to the ideas about which we talk, then perhaps it is best for our egos to play as little a role in matters as possible. This is why I will choose to remain anonymous.

Indeed, I, as Anonymous, could as why you, as the ego known as Jim, choose to attach your self to this site in the first place (and to even go as far as to put a picture)? Can we presume that your primary goal is the pursuit of truth? And what if you found that truth was best served through the dissolution of your ego? That anonymity is indeed, "the greatest symbol of self-sacrifice that we know"?

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Anonymous,

Fantastic comments – Thank you.

Whilst trying to dig out a quote from Octavio Paz for you, I stumbled across a better one which echoes you closely:

“Before the aesthetic revolution, the value of works of art was related to another value: the link between beauty and meaning.”… “The meaning of a work was plural, but all its meanings were related to an ultimate signifier in which meaning and being were conjoined in an indissoluble knot: divinity. The modern transposition: for us the artistic object is an autonomous and self-sufficient reality; its ultimate meaning does not lie beyond the work but within it. This meaning lies beyond--or falls short of--meaning; it no longer possesses any referent whatsoever.”… “The modern religion of art turns round and round in circles without ever finding the road to salvation; it goes from the negation of meaning through the object, to the negation of the object through meaning.”…
You can find the whole excellent essay here (though the formatting is a little annoying): http://x-arch.blogspot.com/2005/10/paz-octavio-craftsmanship.html

So, your remarks reveal a very important part of the picture. However, I would suggest that we need to be able to distinguish that finger you mention from the “heavenly glory” as you call it. But that requires language, concepts and articulation. Later in his essay Paz writes: “Our senses, our instinct, our imagination are always a step ahead of our reason.” Granted, but unless our reason strives to advance itself, that step is likely always to be a naïve one.

On the point of anonymity, I actually wrote about exactly that, last September 1st because previously I had indeed been anonymous on this blog. I’m not so sure considerations of ego played a major part in changing my mind but rather a desire not to distract readers or be thought to deceive them and also to raise the bar for myself.

I certainly respect your decision to be anonymous but I guess it raises another question – for whom are you doing it, you or others? It’s interesting that you quote the AA in your comment. You do realise though that as Jacob Böhme said "Whatever the self describes, describes the self" ? Not that I presume you’re an alcoholic but rather that it’s not your name that defines you but what you do. So in fact it’s not anonymity that’s, the greatest symbol of self-sacrifice that we know but rather perhaps silence. And that brings me to your question about my primary goal being the pursuit of truth. I don’t consider myself to be pursuing the truth but rather the conversation.



Anonymous said...

Perhaps reason is the way that we explain pre-rational processes to ourselves. But then reason, in this sense, is a form of retrospective storytelling. Pre-rational processes do not need reason to explain them, inasmuch as we understand them in an immediate way, before and beneath reason. We use reason to paint pictures and to understand, so that we don't have any blank spaces, or black holes. Because mostly we hate black holes. But then, some people find them exciting. I'm not suggesting a regression to pre-rational processes, more a move into a "trans-rational" consciousness; in other words, to a way of thinking that does not raise reason above all else; that can see its limitations; that "good" art needn't talk, or be talked about.

(And I don't mean that to sound dogmatic, because all of this comes with a disclaimer of absolute uncertainty ; ) )


"to raise the bar for myself",
"to raise the bar for my self"

for whom are you doing it, you or others?
Perhaps neither for myself, or for others; rather for something above and beyond both mine, and others' selves; for Truth, with a capital "T."

Anonymity can imply a blending-in; a sacrifice of the ego, with its wants and needs (its will) in service to something greater than the individual. So whilst silence may often be the most appropriate thing for a given situation, a blanket-silence may not always be appropriate; and indeed, may often be counter-productive when it comes to serving this higher power. Anonymity is a gesture; it says, I am willing to serve something higher than my self. It may be that this gesture, like silence, may not always be appropriate.

Your ideology seems to be rooted in selves; whereas mine seems to want to look beyond selves. There is no value judgement here, but this seems to be a difference between us.

"I don’t consider myself to be pursuing the truth but rather the conversation."
This comment points towards this difference. The conversation is the game, and, here at least, you want to play games. Truth demands that we drop all games in service to it. So if we decide to serve Truth, then the game can never be the destination.

It is down to you whether you think anonymity is appropriate for your blog; but I guess your decision will hinge upon what you consider this blog to be about. If it is about selves, then perhaps, yes, anonymity is inappropriate. But if its is about something beyond selves then perhaps not.

PS. "Fantastic comments – Thank you"
You can't stroke an anonymous ego, that's cheating!

PPS. Thanks for the link, I will read that essay.

J. Hamlyn said...

We are indeed.

"Silence does not say, or rather, it says only the reverse of saying. Silence depends on words; it is an ultimate dimension of saying. If everything we touch and name becomes full of meaning, and if all these meanings-provisional, desperate, contradictory-instantly lose their meaning, what is left to us? To begin all over again. Between meaning and meaninglessness, between saying and silence, a spark is struck: a knowing without knowing, a comprehending without understanding, speaking while remaining silent. We can still hear, in what we say, the meanings we do not voice. We can still contemplate.

Two hundred years before us and before our quarrels and questions, in the Tibet of the 18th century, under the fifth Dalai Lama, a notable event took place. One day his Holiness saw, from a window of the Potala, his palace-temple-monastery, an extraordinary sight: in accordance with Buddhist ritual, the goddess Tara was circling the wall surrounding the building. The next day at the same hour the same thing happened, and again on the days that followed. After a week of watching, the Dalai Lama and his monks discovered that every day, just when the goddess appeared, a poor old man also walked around the wall, reciting his prayers. The old man was questioned: he was reciting a prayer in verse to Tara, which in turn was a translation of a Sanskrit text in praise of Prajina Paramita. These two words mean Perfect Wisdom, an expression that designates emptiness. It is a concept that Mahayana Buddhism as personalised in a female divinity of inexpressible beauty. The theologians had the old man recites the text. They are at once discovered that the poor man was repeating a faulty translation, so they made him learn the correct one. From that day forth, Tara was never seen again."
-Octavio Paz

We are in deed.



J. Hamlyn said...

@ Anonymous,


“'All Self' is not more true, or in any way 'better' than No Self."


This Brazen Teacher said...





I'm sorry I have not visited sooner. I also regret I don't have a larger vocabulary... so as to keep up with the dynamic commentary above.

I realize an expansive academic word bank isn't a a prerequisite for visiting this blog... but my, do I feel out of my league trying to tie some words together in this comment bar. I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

I've been doing some reading on The Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution for a paper in my Foundations class. There was a distinct paradigm shift in the 1600's during the induction of Newton's physical world research and theory.

Namely, a shift deeming anything not quantified by the 5 senses as hogwash. Newton (and all Scientists until 80 or so years ago) couldn't tackle fantasy, pyschic connections, the spiritual world, esp, dreams, and the emotions of our souls- or anything non-physical using Newton's laws. Science's inability to address this things set a clear precedent that they weren't worthy topics to be taken seriously. The world stopped taking those things seriously as well.

Fast forward 400 years, and we live in a highly material world. The "running of this world" is centered around a global economic theory fueled by material acquisition and consumption. It's no surprise then that down in the Art classrooms... where they are begging to be taken seriously in this material world... they are constructing their practices t at material levels... principles and elements of design. Texture, line, shape, color.

Meaning? What is meaning? Can I measure the cultural implications of a Bansky stencil? Not nearly as well as I can measure the money he brings to the galleries that display his work. Not nearly as well as I can measure his processes and techniques. His methods and materials.

I don't know if my line of thinking is remotely relevant to this article. Hopefully my connections won't be completely lost. I am quite a divergent and therefore scattered thinker after all. :-)

Thank you for writing this.


J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Brazen,

Thanks for your generous comments.

Divergent thinking - now that's my kind of language!

I wonder though: is meaning something to be measured do you think?


This Brazen Teacher said...

No I don't and I appreciate the inquiry.

I don't think measurement (at least the kinds implemented in a public school systems) is ever really necessary. Is external motivation of evaluation necessary so that I child learns to talk? Learns to walk? Learns to play? Hardly.

Children are natural learning machines without measurement or evaluation from the time they are born...

Why do we change that?

Lori Stevens said...

Your last post loosely discusses the disconnect between the theoretical approach to teaching art as taught in University, and the teaching of art according to the standards in our public schools (and my experience that private and charter schools are worse). I heard this same disconnect when attending grad school, but also discovered that an art teacher has so much personal influence in the way he or she approaches the teaching of art. University clarified for me something I'd discovered in my final years of teaching- that classroom teaching can become less explicit in terms of elements and principles, and more holistic in terms of interpretation and social justice. Foundational skills in art are relatively simple to teach and learn in the context of teaching those hermeneutic skills of interpretation and meaning, dontcha think? (I'd heard an art academy instructor once suggest that the meaning and appreciation of art is essential to learn before college, particularly in those elementary classes and that "one" required art class most students take before h.s. graduation; that continuing art students will study value et.al with the necessary depth they need at the university level. The mastering of value or texture is NOT important to students who are not to become artists. Interesting concept here.)

With attention and compassion, I believe art education can be all we, as good educators, can make it. Mandatory testing, Explicit Direct Instruction, and schools designated as failing- the labels and demands made by the state of education in the nation today- haven't quite wheedled their ways through the closed doors of art classrooms yet; the art room may be the last vestige of teaching thinking. Good art educators need to grasp the power they have, albeit with sly and sneak, with every last inkling of hope that the state of education will turn around soon.
I am so happy to have discovered your blog (and I've posted a link to it on mine.) I retired from 33 years in a California high school, returned to school for a masters in art education, and am still dabbling in improving the arts in our schools. Thanks for posting your thoughts and discoveries. I'll be back!

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Lori,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I couldn’t agree more about foundational skills in art as opposed to hermeneutic skills but do you really think: “that value and texture are not important to students who are not to become artists”? One of the things which I think distinguishes the study of creative subjects is the extent to which they cultivate capacities and attitudes which inform and enrich individuals’ appreciation and understanding of human expression of all kinds. Otherwise I’m certainly in a losing battle since few of the students I teach ever become artists in the conventional sense.



Lori Stevens said...

I had a feeling you'd "get me" in my blog post, and so you did.. in several areas, and I'm smiling so big!! I'm just so happy you responded!
Yeah, thick (and dense) in California probably DO mean as you suggested, depending upon context. MY students will understand MY context. Sorry the implications are so different in the UK! (haha!! and oops!)
And I really do think, as I'd posted, that the MASTERING of value, texture, and other elements and principles is not important. I do believe all students should be exposed and develop clarity about what those are, hence the lack of appreciation of the value of all arts.
My, and Brazen's conundrum Brazen who I read but do not know personally), is that most art teachers currently practicing at the public school level in the states still focus solely on the foundational skills, rarely venturing into interpretive skills beyond such as "Picasso's blue period was depressing." Bringing (Dewey's) experience to classroom interpretation is null.
So where is there room for all this, and what takes precedence?

Lori Stevens said...

I love the banter with you. I suggest you may hear more from me as I dabble through your entire blog and think about what you say. It's so nice to be challenged.
I retired after 33 years teaching high school, English and Art, and then (just) finished my masters in art education (postmodernism), during which I learned I was teaching on the right track but had so much more to do. Now I'm groping to be back, but perhaps not in the same classroom. Think I'll have to write, somewhere. And here. :o)

J. Hamlyn said...

That conundrum of yours and Brazen's is exactly what I was thinking of too. It's always immensely encouraging to encounter teachers who see beyond the surface of art and have a passion for instilling this in others. Looking forward to the banter!

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