Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Problem with Barnstone, Absolute Doing

Yeah, I've thought it through all right.  These thoughts have been building since halfway through that first drawing class, so it's not simply that I became instantaneously pissed a week or two ago. I was originally very excited by the ideas he taught. I feel his lectures are generally very good. But his manner of assigning and evaluating homework has always rubbed me the wrong way.  I have struggled to make sense of it.  The email I sent you was my attempt to make sense of it... to produce a singular critique of Barnstone, and although I brought up some good points and examples to myself, I don't feel like I quite put my finger on it.  

The closest I came was was the term I devised for the critique called absolute doing. More blunt ways of putting it might be to call it robotic, or mindless, or drone-like, etc... all of which are valid. But I like the term absolute doing because it is super abstract, which makes it useful, because then I can decompose the problem of Barnstone more generally. And in this general view of things, the problem is not  simply Barnstone himself... the singular individual who tortures people on wednesday nights. He simply is a perfectly crafted adherent to a certain way of thinking about things. It is his way of thinking about things that is the problem. His way is absolutist, and that is not simply inconvenient, or personally hard for me to deal with... rather, absolutism is wrong thinking.

Absolutism in any cognitive activity is not just a problem with the domain of that activity, but is a general problem, a problem of the mind... a philosophical problem. Absolutism is, by it's very nature, anti-conceptual. Conceptual activity is, by it's nature, an activity of generalizing experiences and thoughts so as to retain them in your mind in relation to other things that you already know. Absolutism, by it's nature, is not a generalizing behavior. It is a mental behavior that desires to have the content of the mind be equivalent to various absolute statements that you simply store in your mind, and repeat when called upon. It is memorization.

Memorization is useful at times. For instance, I memorize that the AMC channel on my cable box is channel 235, and that I left my shoes in the living room. That kind of knowledge isn't really knowledge at all. It is simply recall, simply a memory. It is stored in your brain, but it is not conceptual. You do not have to engage in generalization in order to remember that AMC is channel 235... and conversely..."knowing" that AMC is channel 235 isn't conceptual knowledge. We say that we "know what channel it is"... but really, we simply recall what channel it is. The ability to recall things, or to memorize things... is not itself knowledge, but it is a pre-condition to knowing. The reason is, if you couldn't remember anything, you would have nothing in your mind to generalize from.  But memory is memory, and thinking is thinking, they are not the same thing.

Barnstone's methods operates in this gray area between rote memorization, and thinking... leaning almost totally (or maybe just totally totally) towards the rote. He thinks that by cramming memorized absolutes into your mind (or fingers), that you will (some day in the future), be able to tap into the power that these absolutes are supposed to represent. The problem is... the absolutes don't mean anything. They mean no more than recalling that 235 is the AMC channel.  Being able to recall that 235 is the AMC channel is useful when it comes time to watch a movie playing on the AMC channel, just like being able to mix a pile of paint EXACTLY like Myron told you, is useful when you are painting a painting that myron tells you to paint. But beyond that, no claim can be made to it's meaning. To grasp the meaning of mixing a pile of paint , one has to consider the paint mixing conceptually.  But Barnstone is not about the conceptual.

Supposedly you can be conceptual later, long after you have left Barnstone's school. In theory this seems possible. But in practice, I find it hard to believe that any disciple of Barnstone is going to be able to get around the lock that absolutism has on their minds. They will simply look for more and more "correct" answers, and then dutifully execute them. There is a market for that sort of thing, and a subculture in this world that wants such things.  It is art that looks like what art is supposed to look like.

So the problem of Barnstone exists on two levels... the level of the man himself, and the impact we allow him to have on us when we go to his class.. and on another level, the problem is that he represents (what I think) are bad ideas. The idea of absolute behavior instead of conceptual behavior. We can solve the first problem by not going to his classes. The second problem is more insidious. It is the idea that absolute execution of the absolutely right thing (as he defines it) is the key to art. If he were to define it more loosely.. such as... generally correct execution of generally correct things.. then I would agree. But he doesn't really say that... and he certainly doesn't accept it in any of the work you do around him.

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