Friday, January 1, 2010

Art Pedagogy in the Trenches

Art pedagogy starts with sublime coffee, and the ritual of making, sipping and sharing it has a profound effect on whether your art pedagogy works or splats unceremoniously to the floor. My advice is to avoid being cheap with your coffee and go out of your way to find the best. My current favorite is Maya Earth, grown by Mayan farmers using secret ancient indigenous practices and rites.

We art scholars are constantly challenged as to how we teach our new young students how to succeed as artists. I'm not going to write a scholarly essay about art pedagogy per se; you can get much better versions at places like the College Art Association. This is more about the behind the scenes struggles of what we actually face in the trenches, as they say.

After a certain point, the pedagogical theories fall by the wayside as you simply try to explain to students why certain art may be luminous and enlightening, while other art simply sucks. I can't recall ever coming right out and saying it precisely like that in class, but do have a tendency to speak very plainly with precise descriptions as to why certain art is way better than others. I believe that giving an excellent critique is an art unto itself, because you have to have a sense of both the actual art and the potential that is lurking about somewhere, as if something sumptuous is buried and you both have to use all your wits, intellectual abilities and intuition to find it and bring it to the surface. This is the fun part; well, for me anyway, because this is where we nurture students and help them to realize what is significant in their lives, and to encourage them to make art about it.

For a lot of us art professors, it starts with our own research, and how we are passionately and decisively immersed in it, because for us it represents a lifetime of professional experience that feeds directly into the content of our art pedagogical practices.

Anyway, fast forward to the trenches, where I've been preparing my class materials for the last three days, or the most recent lifetime. I'm at my computer right this moment, banging out the last of it before it gets printed. You don't have to see all of the actual materials, just a few snippets here and there.

Notice that the date is January 1st, it's 10:27pm and Jim Pepper is playing in the background? For me it is essential to have something stimulating, but not distracting to listen to in the background. Sometimes silence is best. For some reason, Jim Pepper and John Coltrane worked their magic this time around. Coltrane's Live in Japan album worked exceptionally well, and come to think of it, listening to it in its entirety also opened a portal to the universe next door.

I noticed that the record company kept it locked deep in their vaults for over ten years prior to its release, and I can see why, but that's another story. Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

I think that the most challenging part of being an art professor is nurturing a young artist's visual aesthetic and getting them to realize that art with a level of authenticity has to come from someplace deep within themselves. Sometimes it helps to see it in writing somewhere, so just above the required texts seemed a good a place as any.

When I was in grad school, one of my best conversations was with one of my own mentors, Patrick Nagatani. It was about paying attention to what seemed to be trivial details that we encountered in our everyday lives. I'm not going to tell you the story, because it is ours, but it did involve being accosted by an uppity raven and noticing what seemed to be insignificant at the time. It was memorable enough for Nagatani to include it in one of his art talks at a museum soon thereafter, but it was mostly about the value of paying attention to the subtle details in life, because perhaps they're not so subtle after all. In the spirit of paying attention, it is buried between minor schedule details.

The last part of the handout sheets has to do with giving students an idea of the rhythm of the overall semester, and the concluding item is at week seventeen. I thought it was important to pass on the one piece of advice that I never received as a student and wished I had. And that is the philosophy that if you are not given chances in life, sometimes you just have to be bold and take them. That has been the story of my life and has driven just about everything I do as an artist.

The parting phrase is so true. At it's best, art helps us makes sense of a world that sometimes defies logic.

Now go make art.

Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hiy hiy (thank you)
As an newly art actionist/instructor I have been diving into answering questions about art pedagogy. Thank you for your advice and deep thoughts!
~big cree hugs to you~