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last updated 2/23/15

Paper delivered by Brian Curtis, Associate Professor, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida at the FATE conference, Indianapolis Indiana for a panel titled "The Contrasting Ideologies of Teaching Drawing In Foundation Studies", Chaired by John Rise, Professor, College of Foundations, SCAD, Savannah, Georgia

Art For Life’s Sake:
Countering Popular Cultural Trends in an Effort to Re-humanize Foundations

Presented at FATE 2015, Indianapolis, IN for a panel titled 'Contrasting Ideologies of Teaching Drawing in Foundations Studies', chaired by John Rise, Savannah College of Art and Design

While John Rise has called this panel together to discuss the contrasting approaches of teaching drawing as either an imitative process like that promoted in the Renaissance and the French Academy or as intuitive, gestural experimentation like that found in Surrealism or non-objective expressive art allow me to proceed on a slightly different tack by suggesting that both of these approaches are fundamentally rooted in the shared importance of direct, embodied perception and the longstanding pursuit of aesthetic visual quality.

The shared roots of these two approaches to drawing means that they should be understood more as relative positions on a linear continuum of styles of drawing than as competing solo entities. This insight into these two styles of drawing motivated me to design a two-course drawing sequence that highlights both their unique strengths as well as the characteristics they share. Fundamental to this pairing of courses is an acknowledgement that mimetic drawing, by its nature, requires abstraction of the subject matter depicted so rather than talking about fundamentally opposed approaches to drawing we are, more accurately, discussing degrees of abstraction.
Whether a drawing is based in imitation of the phenomenal world or in intuitively generated movement, color, or surface texture both approaches are rooted in the physical sensations they generate in the human body. Although Descartes once theorized a functional distinction between the mind and body the recent discovery of mirror neurons has reintroduced bodily sensory perception as a major contributor to human consciousness. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the early 1990’s. These neurons not only respond when we perform an action but also when we witness someone else performing the same action. The imitative response of the motor neurons is being touted as an innate human mechanism through which we establish connections to that which is outside ourselves. Before the discovery of mirror neurons, scientists generally believed that our brains use logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions. Now, however, there is rapidly growing evidence that it is by feeling rather than by thinking that is our primary pathway for engaging the phenomenal world around us. Or, as Descartes should have said, “I feel therefore I am.”

Both in the making and viewing of perception-based representational drawing and expressive non-objective drawing we are participating in a direct embodied experience that is rooted in our empathetic response to the phenomenal world. In perceptual drawing the empathetic emphasis is on object identification, relational and proportional placement, intuitive perspective, atmospheric perspective, cross-contour, chiaroscuro, foreshortening, disproportionate scale, and contour line variation all of which contribute to the experience of convincing illusions of objects in a three-dimensional space. With expressive drawing the emphasis turns to energetic mark making, shallow space, figure-ground relationships, texture, repetition, variation in shape, value, and color, proximity of forms, compositional dynamics, asymmetrical balance, dominance and subordination of pictorial elements, positive/negative shape ambiguity, sensitivity to the pictorial edges, along with color harmonies and contrasts.

In both representational drawing and expressive drawing mark making is among the most direct and effective tools for triggering a visual sensation of movement  which is then transferred, via our mirror neurons, triggering empathetic sensations in our muscles and joints. This means that as our eyes move along a line, we experience very real sensations of movement, speed, energy, acceleration, weight, rhythm, and texture as well as the excitement and pleasure associated with those sensations. It is these sensations and not some vague intellectual musing that we are referring to when we speak of “feeling” in a drawing.

Whereas representational and expressive drawing share a rich and meaningful commonality in empathetic perception there is a third approach to drawing that I want to discuss that represents a far more radical contrast of ideology than that discussed above. Whereas art foundations once taught hands-on skill acquisition and aesthetic sensibility fashionable "art" programs are now primarily focusing on indoctrinating their students with courses they casually describe as “deprogramming” where incoming students are taught that to be a successful contemporary artist demands a wholesale rejection of the longstanding reverence for visual aesthetics and craftsmanship. This rejection of the empathetic underpinnings of traditional media training is the legacy of Marcel Duchamp. 

In the pursuit of this disembodied nihilism a disturbing number of high-profile programs have been resorting to front loading their foundations program with vaguely constructed courses that privilege conceptualization and digital technology over hands-on studio training. One such program is a 15 credit series of courses titled WARP that was introduced at the University of Florida over fifteen years ago. As you are most likely aware, this trend is widespread. Dr. Jodi Kushins in an article in FATE in Review 2008 – 2009 titled Brave New Basics documented changes at high profile institutions where hands-on training in traditional media has been replaced by conceptually driven approaches using ‘new media’ (she specifically mentions sewing and baking). In her article Dr. Kushins celebrates the fact that these so called innovative curricula are proudly continuing Marcel Duchamp’s denouncement of craft, his assault on good taste and his adamant rejection of “retinal” art.

The well-documented anarchistic underpinnings of contemporary art that have resulted in the disembodiment of art have been continuously reinforced by a cluster of postmodern theoretical perspectives. These perspectives embrace the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, ugliness, crudity, and chaos that is compromising the quality of life in the 21st century life while making no attempt at transcending them. From neo-dada, radical feminism, gay theory, multiculturalism, to pluralism, deconstruction, and Marxism we are told that there are no longer objective standards to judge anything by and that the notion of aesthetic quality and a singular best is nothing more than a discredited capitalistic white male “master narrative.” In such a postmodern model the trendy and the tasteless are always better than work based in longstanding tradition and the “rude boy” trumps the skilled hand every time.

The only conclusion that I can draw from the ironized, deconstructed, dematerialized, de-skilled, and disembodied art education is that art, like so many of our cultural support systems, is on the path of becoming irrelevant to the spiritual needs of human beings. Fortunately, there is a proven alternative.  Sometimes the answers to tomorrow’s questions can be found in the past. This is certainly true in art training. I am confident that there is no better course of study for helping to restore meaningful engagement with the phenomenal world than that of perceptual drawing. 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 seeing. Perceptual drawing is unique in its clarity of focus and in its ability to address not only the expressive potential of the drawing process itself, but also to foster understanding of perception, the means of translating those perceptions, one’s own personality, the relationship of the mind and body, and, most importantly, an understanding of one’s environment.

Because all humans inherit a common central nervous system at birth it is of utmost importance that we structure foundations curricula around our shared perceptual mechanisms rather than around the de-skilling, disembodied mindset of the self-avowed trickster, Duchamp. I argue in favor of a curriculum with a decided emphasis on human touch. Human touch is the cornerstone of direct sensory experiences from which artistic intuition is derived. Taking care and doing one's best when engaging the phenomenal world provides the means to heighten and make more significant personal and collective experience. This slow-media accumulation of direct perceptual experience of the phenomenal world can’t be downloaded it can only be lived. It is time for us to stop marginalizing, disputing, and undermining the experiential core of our humanity and re-dedicate ourselves to making our lives more significant through the life affirming traditions that begins with the study and artistic mastery of both perceptual and expressive drawing.