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last updated 6/14/11
A paper delivered by Brian Curtis, Associate Professor, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida
for a panel titled "The Role of Perceptual Drawing in Higher Education"
at the 2001 CAA in Philadelphia. Chaired by Laurie Fendrich, Hofstra University
Alberti's Veil

Radical changes in art curricula are being proposed or have already been made in art programs across the country stemming from the growing influence of contemporary critical theory and digital technology. Both of these recent arrivals are claiming to be radicalizing the intellectual climate at our institutions of higher learning. They are not simply introducing new and original data into the existing institutional model; they are proposing radically new pedagogical paradigms that, when accepted, require that we fundamentally change the way we think about our roles as educators.

Because these radicalizing influences are altering the pedagogical landscape, we need to reflect on what is lost when traditional studio curriculum is replaced by a curriculum based in contemporary theory and digital media. I will begin my reflections by focusing on perceptual drawing's unique strengths as a core-level requirement and then, secondly, by contrasting these strengths with the theoretical and practical pedagogical qualifications of the curricula alternatives that are being proposed as replacements.

Perceptual drawing demands active, perceptive sight. It requires both the artist and the viewer to look deliberately, look intensely, seek meaning in experience, and pursue a state of complete awareness of what it is that you are looking at. That I can imaginatively experience three-dimensional space while looking at lines or tones on a flat surface, creates a clash of experience that triggers considerable excitement. Representational images have always struck me as special in this way. They function in an ineffable boundary between two otherwise exclusive dimensions and, in so doing, act as catalyst for increasing my sensitivity to the world around me.

I remember the first time I saw pictures of the images from the cave walls of Lascaux and Altamira. These drawing resonated with a vitality and intensity even in reproduction. They substantiate the fact that our species has been drawing from observation, and doing it amazingly well, for at least 14,000 years. They also point toward the importance and universality of this behavior. The resonance that these drawings produce springs from a universal preference for making things special and because they are vehicles for group meaning. Ellen Dissanayake, in presenting a species-centered Darwinist aesthetic writes, 

"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. "

E.H. Gombrich, in Art and Illusion, has also addressed both the importance and commonality underlying both the making and the appreciation of graphic works based on perception.

Concentrating on the appearances of the physical world is a method that manifests and celebrates our physical, corporeal reality. According to James J. Gibson, as we learn about the world, we learn about ourselves, and the two are inseparable.”  

Perceptual drawing is a fundamental component of the Western rational tradition. It has contributed to both the development and maintenance of the “post-medieval mindset.” This is the mindset that has shaped Western culture, as we know it. E. H. Gombrich describes 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.”

Despite its prestigious pedigree, perceptual drawing is extremely modest in its materials and mechanics. Some paper, charcoal, erasers, correctable eye-sight, and normal eye-hand coordination are all that is needed. However, in contrast to its material and mechanical simplicity, perceptual drawing is a complex and challenging multidisciplinary educational experience. A thorough introduction to perceptual drawing course touches upon wide-ranging lessons in aesthetics, philosophy, psychology, history, theology, mathematics, mythology, not to mention mechanical 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 unquestionably a multi-disciplinary experience.

A class in perceptual drawing also engages the full spectrum of human intelligence. Perceptual drawing requires 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.

Those who challenge perceptual drawing's role in core-level curriculum often trumpet unrestricted freedom and unbridled self-expression as the premier platforms from which to teach art. As a practicing artist, I thoroughly understand and vigorously defend the pre-eminence of freedom in an art-making environment.  However, as an educator, I also understand the parallel importance of discipline, visual sensitivity, patience, eye/hand coordination, a rigorous work ethic, and a solid conceptual base as the essential tools needed to take full advantage of one’s freedom. Ed Hill (The Language of Drawing) shares a similar sentiment.

"Expression surely stands as the final object of art; however, it is expression of an individual's understanding of his art and his experience, not a catharsis of his emotions or sheer display of idiosyncratic personality. The student must set understanding as his goal, not self-expression; the latter will arise naturally from the former. In this light we can see that the value of the study of drawing goes beyond training professional artists. There is not one of us who could not profit from the education of our vision.”  

Art departments dominated by modernists generally support perceptual drawing as a core-level requirement. Despite certain philosophical reservations about representational imagery in modern art, modernists nevertheless consider perceptual drawing to be a uniquely effective vehicle for increasing visual and mechanical sensitivity. Opposition to perceptual drawing is, however, commonplace in departments dominated by postmodernists. Not surprising, given that, in rejecting the tradition of a singular best, postmodernists espouse pluralism. Pluralism means that it no longer matters what anyone does. By definition, then, postmodernism belittles discipline, learning, and training. Core courses, structured learning, prerequisites, course sequencing, and the like are perceived to be "inadequate, misguided, parochial, chauvinistic, and even pernicious." Whereas "openness" used to refer to the virtue of pursuing good through reason, it has been co-opted to mean the acceptance of everything and the denial of reason.

Although my educational training does not qualify me to single-handedly challenge the philosophical premises underlying postmodernism, I have been able to locate highly qualified experts who can and do. The first is a colleague of mine at the University of Miami, philosopher Susan Haack who describes the postmodern intellectual climate in less than glowing terms.

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."

Alan Sokol, a physicist from NYU, in an attempt to reclaim the legitimacy of the Western rational tradition wrote a parody of a postmodern article and submitted it to a prominent postmodern journal. Unaware that it was a parody Social Text published it in 1996. He describes his article,

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.

The postmodern declaration that it has replaced the idea that facts and evidence matter with the idea that everything boils down to subjective interest and "local community" perspectives is an attempt to render the Western rational tradition irrelevant. This is a most dangerous form of anti-intellectualism. Unfortunately, it is just this sort of metatwaddle that is providing the rationale of the self-professed "progressive" approaches to core-level curriculum. Such is the case with a recently redesigned freshman foundation experience at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Their new program, described in Art Journal, spring 1999, is called W.A.R.P, (Workshop for Art Research and Practice). According to its co-creators, Kate Morrison Catterall and Helen Maria Nugent, W.A.R.P is a radical solution for the teaching of art foundations. While admittedly the great majority of what I know about this program comes from that published article, I do believe there is sufficient information in that article from which to make some relevant observations.

There are troubling elements sprinkled throughout the entire W.A.R.P. article. There is an overriding emphasis on discussion groups and language based assignments that belies their stated commitment to the development of "technical skills. Woven throughout is high-pressure, institutional hucksterism assigning exalted status to "new media" programs including performance, electronic intermedia, and installation courses without any corresponding mention of or exposure to traditional media. All nine credits of the initial core-level experience are geared toward indoctrinating students into the cultural relativism found in contemporary conceptual and theoretical thinking while moving them along through a lock step experience that winds up being a sort of "new age" therapism. Let me read a passage from the Art Journal article that I think just about sums this approach up.

"The relationship of the pupil to his or her world should be an active and critical one, rather than passive and domesticating; that this world is not static, closed, or God-given, but open to critical intervention and change; that every pupil, through dialogue with others, is capable of looking critically at his or her world; that the teacher as much as the pupil is the subject of each process (social, political and aesthetic: the development and growth in each area will be dependent upon the degree of power, freedom and self-direction which the teacher - within the institutionalized context of the school - is able to negotiate for his or her pupils)."

Given what I've just said about W.A.R.P. it might surprise some to hear me say that I do not have a problem with the content of this program. The difficulty I have with it is that its narrowness, inflexibility, and zealotry are being force-fed to freshman in the guise of openness and inclusivity. I say, save these ideas for ingestion by upperclassmen or, at the very least, present them to freshmen in tandem with traditional art making approaches. . The most dangerous tyranny after all, in the words of Alan Bloom, "is not the one that uses force to assure conformity but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities.  24

Imaging technology, both photographic and digital, is also exerting pressure to redefine core curricula. Digital imaging is rapidly gaining notoriety in the marketplace and academic programs want to cash in on what they perceive as an enrollment bonanza. Administrators get weak in the knees reading proposals from faculty that contain the phrase "cutting edge technology." Additionally, postmodernism's disdain for anything resembling traditional "high art" has given the head-long rush toward technology added momentum . A casual look at the issues involved, however, will quickly show that these alternative imaging technologies, as exciting and important as they may be, have little to offer as comparable core-level substitutes for perceptual drawing.

Photography has long shared considerable conceptual, historical, and technical similarities with perceptual drawing, As photography has become more and more digital it has become much more like drawing and painting. Digitally manipulating images demands the identical eye/hand coordination skill set, visual perceptivity, and conceptual understanding of spatial representation that are covered in an introduction to perceptual drawing. Since it takes an entire semester to adequately introduce the theory and techniques underlying perceptual drawing much essential material would have to be expunged if camera and film technology, film processing, darkroom printing, introduction to the computer, introduction to scanning, and software literacy were to be added to the syllabus. And the truth of the matter is that photographers need more perceptual drawing, not less.

Video and cinema are inappropriate core level replacements. The essence of video and cinema is in time-based sequencing of images and the more technology there is involved, the less time there is for students to concentrate on the perceptual, conceptual, emotional, and operational aspects of the medium. Image sequencing, stage direction, lighting, set design, storyboarding, camera movement, and the choice of a lens add so many levels of complexity that they can’t possibly function as effectively as a core-level requirement as does perceptual drawing.

Photographic, electronic, and digital technologies have added an exciting set of tools to the art-mix but they haven’t changed human needs. I value imaging technology.  I am, however, also a strong believer in the value of tradition and the importance of making students aware of the full range of concepts, media, and aesthetic approaches that have been used throughout the ages to address the inexplicable, control it, and celebrate it by giving it meaningful order and form. The tools may change but the principles remain the same.

While I find many contemporary theorists and artists to be clever, in the end, I am always struck by their overriding lack of common sense. Nowhere is this more evident than when the issue under consideration is how to provide a thorough, broad-based core sequence that provides students with a flexible theoretical platform for future decision making rather than programming them to follow the latest fashionable trend. Perceptual drawing provides them this broad-based theoretical platform. It deserves to remain in its pivotal position at the heart of core level art instruction.