Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Problem with Barnstone, Having Drawn

I was in New York recently,  achieving clarity by drawing some sculpture in the Greek and Roman room at the Met. Later, as I walked down 5th Avenue, a thought jumped into my head regarding Barnstone. It occurred to me that Barnstone doesn't teach you how to draw. Notice how little actual drawing goes on in his class. What Barnstone teaches is not how TO DRAW, but how to HAVE DRAWN. It sounds funny to say it that way… but it is the only way to put it. He is only interested in what you should HAVE DRAWN, not what you actually drew.

His critiques always reference a preordained result that you should HAVE DRAWN. In this sense, Barnstone is only interested in the ANSWER… but not the QUESTION… and he has very little interest in the work you put into what you produce. Imagine that you used this approach to teach someone how to think clearly. Employing the Barnstone method, you would give the student the answer and all supporting arguments, and it would be up to the student to simply repeat the argument and conclusion. The students thinking skills would then be criticized if they failed to deliver the preordained content.

The student would not learn how to think in this way. The student would only learn how to repeat the answers they were given.  Learning how to give an answer through mimicry is not equivalent to giving an answer that arrives from thought. It's not even correct to say that thinking skills are being critiqued, because thought doesn't actually happen. It's the students memorization skills that are critiqued, along with their willingness to do be cowed by authority and do what they're told.

Barnstone would argue that it is better to mimic the correct answer than to come up with your own, incorrect answer. But if the goal is to learn to think, then even an incorrect answer that arises from actually thinking is superior (as thought) to an answer that you mimic (non thought). That is, if your goal is to think for yourself.

Barnstone might further counter-argue that mimicking the correct answer puts you on the right path… so that even if you aren't actually thinking when you mimic it… that you will somehow absorb the correctness of it into your mind, and it will then trickle down into all your future thinking… and make all that future thinking correct. This Barnstone-trickle-down theory makes some sense, but at the very least it still shows that while you are memorizing stuff,  you are not actually learning to think… and it is not at all clear how memorizing the right answer will find its way into your future thinking. In as much as memorization is NOT the same as thinking, then I don't see how memorization necessarily leads to anything except a head full of what someone else told you. And since Barnstone does not provide the linkage between mimicry and thought, he really can't claim the latter.

The fact is, that thinking is a tricky process… full of false starts, dead ends, and mistakes. It is only by struggling through these difficulties that we construct an understanding of the world.  The only alternative to this effort, is to be given the answer. But what use is an answer when you don't know the question? It is of no use. If you are given answers, you might ask.. "What is this an answer to… is it correct… is it relevant… what does it relate to…etc". But i the absence of thought, you will never know. You will rely on the same authority figure (in this case Barnstone) to supply you with the answer, and so on and so on… the cycle of dependency never ends.

If we substitute "drawing" for "thinking" in the above example, it pretty much describes Barnstone's  drawing classes. All answers, no questions, and no thinking.. or should I say.. All perfect drawings, no individual input and no struggling with the real issues of drawing.

I don't think it is coincidental that there was so little drawing done in Barnstone's class. His only strength is as a lecturer of abstract ideas. The ideas he asserts are generally quite valid on the face of it, but the manner in which he demands you engage these ideas works against their being properly understood (as opposed to being memorized). His distaste for the honest effort of trying to draw is apparent, as he storms around the drawing room getting pissed off when someone isn't doing it exactly the way he thinks he described it. He sets aside only a small amount of time for actual drawing, but even at that the drawing session breaks up quickly enough, and it's back to the lecture room for more talk. After all, why "waste" time "trying to draw"… when he already gave you photocopied hand-outs on what you should HAVE DRAWN.

This is typical of Barnstone, and I no longer have any interest or desire to take any class he teaches. Aside from the negative vibes and harshness of his personality and of the environment he creates, I think it really doesn't make any sense in the end. Just as you can only learn to think by thinking, you can only learn to draw by drawing. Teachers of thinking or drawing need to engage you positively in the act of your thinking or drawing… assess what your level is, and develop you from there. That is how you develop with a teacher. Just because modern art schools don't have a strong structure for teaching drawing or painting DOES NOT mean that Barnstone's rote, authoritarian approach is correct.

 In General Then...

The problem with being given "an answer" ahead of time (i.e., ahead of the actual thinking process), is that you don't know what an answers is an answer to. You don't know what question is answers because you have not formulated the question. Without thinking for yourself, the only way to approximate knowing the relevancy of an answer is to "just be told" what the relevancy is.  Of course, being told the relevancy is to be given another answer, and so this just puts you deeper in the hole, as you are now two layers deep in answers with no questions. You are now well on your way to requiring that answers be supplied to you from outside of your own mind. You will grow dependent on external sources of answers, and will spend all of your mental energy memorizing and automatizing these answers. You will construct entire systems of thought that are not your own, with no way of checking it against physical reality, or against your own mind and emotions. You can even have a very complex hierarchical system of answers, where not only the answers are supplied, but also the relationships that make it a hierarchy.

This description of the situation seems direful, and I am tempted to say by proceeding this way, you will be alienated from your ideas. However, in as much as you are adept at accepting answers that do not come from your own thought, then you will come to experience yourself in terms of these externally given systems. This means that your sense of identity can be taken over from outside influences. Now that sounds bad, but I wonder if it is unusual. Certainly, many ideas we hold are of this sort, especially the ideas we accept when we are young. But even as adults, we are continually bombarded with answers, where we never asked the question. In a complex work or social environment, we assume there is relevancy to these answers. And as I theorized before, the relevancy of an answer is given to us as yet another answer, and so on. And so it seems somewhat natural to construct complex hierarchies of thought based not on questioning reality, or ourselves... but instead by absorbing assertions from other people, i.e., from society. Social metaphysics gives rise to social epistemology.

But if one is studying to be an artist, one must ask themselves if they want to be molded from the outside in this fashion. It is a warm-and-fuzzy idea to think that a young person can put themselves in the hands of the master, and be molded into a mature artist. But beware, most of those who are molded exist forever in the shape of that mold, never achieving independence of mind or spirit. That fits many just fine, in fact, I think it fits most. The question is, does it fit you? Be honest.

1 comment:

  1. Ive only been there for a month but I appreciate his approach. His method of measuring and creating networks and grids of lines has helped me achieve a measure of speed and precision already. I dont know what classes you took but every week in figure drawing 1 hes had me drawing from casts for 2.5 hours per class. He wants you to end with realistic representations, but this isnt modern art class, were studying stuff by michaelangelo, durer, rubens, caravaggio etc as well as impressionists, and these people were trained to represent realistic anatomy and forms, regardless of the direction they took...and his method of gesture drawing has helped me build speed as well. I know alot of people who went to art school who couldnt paint an accurate portrait if they wanted to, and one thing you didnt mention is that he doesnt charge 20 grand a year like these art / design schools...If i paid that I better be able to costruct a reannaissance style mural from scratch, and I dont think schools are teaching that.