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Brian Curtis, artist,painting, oil painting,narrative painting, drawing,narrative drawing, charcoal drawing, digital imaging, narrative digital images, oil pastel on paper, drawing from observation, introductory perceptual drawing, introductory perceptual drawing text, drawing text, how to draw, observational drawing, renaissance drawing, observational drawing, drawing what you see, drawing essentials, drawing technique, drawing mechanics, drawing materials, intuitive gesture, intuitive perspective, clock angle, clock angle drawing tool ,positive/negative shape ,perceptual grid, x/y axes, Mondrian Grid, Mondrian tool, alberti's veil, gesture drawing, extended gesture drawing, proportion, Golden Mean, Sacred Geometry, Golden rectangle, Pythagoras, Phidias, Great Pyramid of Cheops, Stonehenge, Solomon's temple, pentagram, mandelbrot set, cross-contour, cross contour, atmospherice perspective, flag drawings, foreshortened circles, circles in perspective, ellipses, cirkutcamera, imaginary birdhouses, biomorphic form, schema, tree drawings, chiaroscuro, continuous-tone, continuous tone drawing, Akhenaton, Mach bands, simultaneous contrast, visual field, visual world,linear perspective,scientific perspective,monocular cues,alternative perspectives,one-point perspective,two-point perspective,three-point perspective, fixation point, brunelleschi, vanishing point, picture plane, cone of vision, birds-eye perspective ,composition, gestalt principles, principles and elements ,symmetry, picture plane dynamics, visual power of proximity, emphasis by contrast, emphasis by isolation, visual weight of depth, rule of thirds, rule of odds, thumbnails,viewing frames, drawing assignments, asymmetry, fibonacci sequence, the parthenon, brian curtis resume, artist statement, figurative painting, figurative drawing, observational drawing, conference presentations, CAA conference presentations, F.A.T.E. Conference presentations, SECA conference presentations, MACAA conference presentations, n'artWhy N'art ani't Art, Academic art, modern art, postmodern art, postmodern practice. contemporary cultural practice, Critically thinking critical theory and contemporary cultural practice, Leonardo's Legacy,
last updated 6/14/11
Leonardo daVinci
Whenever postmodern-leaning art educators assemble at national conferences, the importance of instilling visual sensitivity and offering skill based studio instruction to their students is a re-occuring theme in their presentations. Curiously, however, in practice, neither the teachers nor the students in most art programs across the country are behaving as if these are meaningful goals. Why the descrepency? I don’t think we have to look any further than the need for enrolments. Given that today’s prospective art students are generally more interested in skill acquisiton than in performance, art video, and installation, I believe that contemporary art programs are actively engaged in what is commonly known as the old “bait and switch” in order to fill seats in their Freshman classes. They pay lip-service to traditional, hands-on studio training but instead they inundate their students with an art curriculum that aggressively and purposefully dematerializes the art object and undermines the intellectual underpinnings of the institutions of higher learning. Further more, what had been the foundational academic principle, that facts and evidence matter in our search for truth, has been replaced by the deconstructive declaration that all intelectual inquiry boils down to subjective interest and local community perspectives. This is a radical paradigm within which words like truth, justice, and beauty can only be used with the addition of “fear” quotes, quotes that are intended to render the the Western rational tradition irrelevant. In programs designed to promote contemporary cultural practice, the life-affirming and life-enhancing aesthetic traditions like those available through traditional studio training have been supplanted by destabilizing and de-civilizing cultural forces in the form of arcane postmodern theory and a pop-culture generated euphoria for all things digital. Like a present day version of Scylla and Charibdys, continental theory and digital technology have become nothing short of a binary system of pedagogical disruption. In a manner reminiscient of our recently failed capital markets that catastrophically severed the link between profit and material productivity, art education is currently functioning on an intellectual platform of smoke and mirrors.

While some might consider this characterization of postmodern pedagogy as extremist, facts, and the majority of topics at this conference suggest othewise. There is ample evidence that the curricula currently in place at a majority of art programs are firmly rooted in an historical sequence of de-civilizing, anarchical theoretical perspectives. First there was the Dada dissolving itself in its nonsensical founding manifesto. That was followed by Duchamp's denouncement of craft, his assault on good taste and his aggressive rejection of “retinal” art. Then came the Futurist manifestos' exaltation of the destruction of the existing social order and its redefinition of beauty as political struggle followed by Die Brucke's anti-enlightenment fascination with primitivism. These radical perspectives continued with the purveyors of shock art from the '60's. First we had the international network called Fluxus whose manifesto called for the elimination of illusionsitic art, abstract art, and mathematical art and the promotion of anti-art and of non-art reality. Then came Up against the wall, Motherfuckers (known to their friends as simply “the motherfuckers”) which was a Dada influenced anarchist art group connected with the Weather Underground and SDS that was famous for its disruptive political interventions (throwing trash in the fountain at the Lincoln Center, cutting the fences at Woodstock, and faking assassinations – although one peripheral member of this group did, in fact, actually shoot Andy Warhol). And the list continues to the present day with the conceptualists, Pop artists, performance artists, installation artists, video artists, punk rockers graffiti artists, and the variety of postmodern approaches that have been lumped under the banner of contemporary cultural practice.

The anarchistic underpinnings of contemporary cultural practice continue to be supported by a cluster of radical postmodern perspectives such as radical feminism, Marxism, gay theory, multiculturalism, deconstruction, and pluralism. Each embraces ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and chaos while making no attempt at counteracting or transcending the de-civlilzing aspects of postmodernity. These assorted perspectives insist that there are no objective standards on which to base value judgments and that the notion that visual quality and the notion of a singular best are discredited capitalistic white male European 'master narratives.' Within this pluralistic model, it is anathema to insert intellectual discipline (critical thinking), structured learning, or skill training into the curriculum. Core courses, prerequisites, course sequencing, and the like are defined as misguided, parochial, chauvinistic, and pernicious. Ironically, whereas 'openness' used to refer to the virtue of pursuing good through reason, it has now been co-opted to mean the acceptance of anything except reason.

Because my academic qualifications do not qualify me to singlehandedly challenge the underlying philosophical premises of postsmodernism, allow me to quote a colleague at the University of Miami, philosopher Susan Haack, who is both eminently qualified and highly vocal in her criticisms of postmodern academic practice. She observes,

“When sham and fake reasoning are ubiquitous, people become uncomfortably aware, or half-aware, that reputations are made as often by clever championship of the indefensible or the incomprehensible as by serious intellectual work, as often by mutual promotion as by merit. Knowing, or half-knowing, this, they become increasingly leery of what they hear and read. Their confidence in what passes for true declines, and with it their willingness to use the words "truth," "rationality," etc., without the precaution of scare quotes. And as those scare quotes become ubiquitous, people's confidence in the concepts of truth and reason falters."

Unfortunately, the sort of metatwaddle that Susan Haack is warning us against is precisely that which serves as the rationale for the postmodern redesign of art curricula. At my university advanced students of contemporary practice are adept at reciting a litany of postmodern theorists; Adorno, Derrida, Foucault, Boudrilard, Lacan, Lyotard, to name just a few. And curiously, this superficial second- or third-hand familiarity with contemporary critical theory is loudly proclaimed to be critical thinking. However, missing from our students repertoire are the great minds from the Western rational tradition like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant.

Not only are our students not being exposed to the intellectual giants of the Western rational tradition, they are not even aware that there are those who question the legitimacy of postmodernism, like Alan Sokol. Alan Sokol, as you might remember, was a physicist from NYU who, in 1996, in an attempt to reclaim the legitimacy of the Western rational tradition from those prone to theorybabble, wrote a parody of a postmodern article and submitted it to the prominent postmodern journal, Social Text. The editors of the journal, undeterred by the outrageously farfetched assertions the article contained and unaware that it was written tongue-in-cheek, published it. He describes his process:

“Throughout the article, I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that few scientists or mathematicians could possibly take seriously. For example, I assert that Lacan's psychoanalytic speculations have been confirmed by recent work in quantum field theory. Even nonscientist readers might well wonder what in heavens' name quantum field theory has to do with psychoanalysis; certainly my article gives no reasoned argument to support such a link. -- Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.”

While Sokol’s article, in itself, is not evidence that all postmodern propositions are invalid, they do lend disquieting support to Susan Haack's previously mentioned assertion that in our current academic environment “reputations can be made as often by clever championship of the indefensible or the incomprehensible as by serious intellectual work.”

The fact that art education is simultaneously riding a pop-culture wave of techno-euphoria has exponentially complicated the de-skilling, de-civilizing, dematerializing, and de-sensitizing direction of art education. While a standard list of the virtues and benefits of digital technology is widely circulated, the real question is whether all or any of it is true. It might surprise you to learn that promoters of digital technology have little or no data to support their claims. There is, however, data that suggests that students with considerable exposure to computers read less and have shorter attention spans than those with less exposure, making digital technology more like a curse from Pandora's Box than the wonder tool that is being sold to us. And being sold it is. Like the automobile was in the late 1950's by the automotive industry, the petroleum industry, and the highway construction industry as the pivotal element in the equation for human happiness. A similar case can be made that the current wave of techno-euphoria in academia is more the result of corporate hucksterism in a hyper-competitive, marketing-saturated, consumer society rather than of sound social or educational policy.

Another shortcoming associated with the use of computers as learning tools is their reliance on simulation over hands-on manipulation of the physical world. It is important to remember that learning is, at its best, a broad based emotional, intellectual, and tactile experience. It flourishes when all five senses are engaged. Knowledge is enhanced when we learn with our senses and experience the physical world through our muscles and reflexes as opposed to substituting something as mechanical and synthetic as a computer interface for our physical experiences. Without direct awareness of our physical bodies and how our bodies react to and affect wider natural systems, we become unable to separate the natural from the artificial, real from unreal. Interestingly, among an increasing number of computer and neuroscientists working in AI there is a growing suspicion that artificial intelligence can never be achieved. This hypothesis is based in the understanding that human consciousness is fundamentally an intuitive process. Without a body a computer cannot "feel" and therefore cannot develop intuitive and emotional information processing, the corner stone of what it means to be a creative thinker.

What we sacrifice when we promote computers for the easy and convenient access to information that they provide, are the traditional skills of thinking logically, learning to make qualitative judgments, writing clearly, speaking well, developing perceptual and motor skills, and aesthetic sensitivity through hands-on training in drawing, painting, printing, sculpting, ceramics, design, and weaving. Deprived of the ability to think rationally and raised without integrated knowledge from firsthand, real life experience, students become powerless to discriminate the relevant from the irrelevant and the significant from the insignificant in the information glut found on computers. In a cloud of techno-euphoria students confuse information for knowledge. They become more passive in their judgments, more alienated from their traditions, more devoid of community. Theodore Rozak, in The Cult of Information, admonished us that thinking must always come first in education and that thinking means how to effectively manipulate ideas, compare them, contrast them, and discriminate among them. All of this is more important than having access to information. Knowing how to manipulate ideas is what is important. Students don't learn better from computers. They learn best from nature, from other kids, from teachers. Without this ability to manipulate ideas, “screenagers,” when confronted with difficult challenges, are condemned to a life of rolling their eyes and muttering “Whatever!”

Despite the fashionable popularity of radical theoretical perspectives and the exalted status of digital technology there are some among us who still look at these issues from a Enlightenment-based, life-affirming perspective. Ellen Dissanayake, for example, in Homo Aestheticus, presents a thought-provoking Darwinist perspective on aesthetics that takes serious issue with the postmodernism denial of the naturally aesthetic part of human nature that has evolved to require beauty and meaning.

“Making special is a fundamental human proclivity or need. Aesthetics is not something added to us-- learned or acquired like speaking a second language or riding a horse --- but in large measure is the way we are. To make something special generally implies taking care and doing one's best so as to produce a result that is -- to a greater or lesser extent, ---- accessible, striking, resonant, and satisfying to those who take time to appreciate it. This is what we mean when we say that via art, experience is heightened, elevated, made more memorable and significant.”

Pereptual drawing is an essential building block for making the visual world special. Perceptual drawing has contributed to both the development and maintenance of the “post-medieval mindset,” a mindset that is fundamental to the modernist enterprise known as the Western rational tradition. E. H. Gombrich described this mindset as one of constant alertness, a sacred restlessness and readiness “to learn, to make, to match, remake, seize, and hold” that which is unique and important in human experience. He goes on to say that the symptom of this mindset is the “sketch.”

With perceptual drawing being the symptom of this sacred restlessness it folows that a thorough introduction to perceptual drawing will necessarily embody wide-ranging lessons in aesthetics, philosophy, psychology, history, theology, mathematics, mythology, not to mention both rational and intuitive problem solving. It also encourages artistic sensibility (taking care and doing one's best) and provides the means to heighten and make more significant personal and collective experience. Perceptual drawing is the mother of multidisciplinary experience. This is Leonardo's legacy.

A class in perceptual drawing engages the full spectrum of human intelligence requiring students to apply six out of seven of the most commonly cited types of intelligence. Besides the requisite and obvious Visual-Spatial Intelligence, there are lectures and demonstrations that involve Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence. The physical nature of the drawing process demands Body-Kinesthetic Intelligence. The use of analytical gesture, proportion calculation, geometric schema, and the principles of Brunellescian perspective rely upon Logical-Mathematical Intelligence. One-on-one instruction and project-oriented activities often require Interpersonal Intelligence. In addition, the concentration and sensory focus required for perceptual drawing has been likened to a meditative act, "the kind of seeing that penetrates the surface of appearances to discern an internal structure beneath." This is referred to as Intrapersonal Intelligence. Of the seven commonly listed types of intelligence only Musical-Rhythmic Intelligence doesn't play a critical role in a perceptual drawing course. However, it is not uncommon to stimulate intuitive information processing by playing instrumental music during intensive drawing sessions. Perceptual drawing is, unquestionably, a "whole brain" educational process.

If Dissanayake is correct in identifying our essential aesthetic needs, and I believe she is, then it is critical that we acknowledge the aesthetic, rational, ethical, and spiritual character of art making and art education. I encourage this return to aesthetic sensitivity in the understanding that our long-standing cultural values, far from being the root of evil, are that which give meaning to our lives. In the words of Theodore Dalrymple:

“Art, in its highest expression, explains our existence to us, both particularities of the artist's own time and the universals of all human history. It transcends transience and therefore reconciles us to the most fundamental condition of our existence. In the history of art, unlike that of science, what comes after is not necessarily better than what came before.”

Let me close with this exhortation, “Teach your students to care, Encourage them to feel. Demonstrate the joy and satisfaction that comes from being constructive rather than deconstructive. Provide them the tools to acticely respond to the things in their experience that are beautiful and alive. Instruct them on how to draw, paint, sculpt, model, print, and weave before exiling them to the anti-art wasteland that dominates so much of contemporary cultural practice.

We can make a difference. The choice is ours to make.

Paper prepared and presented by Brian Curtis, Associate Professor: painting/drawing, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL for a panle titled Just Taze ne Bro. Chaired by James Davis and Herb Rieth, Mississippi State University, at 2009 Biennial FATE conference in Portland, OR