A moment of re-enchantment

Introduction: In this relatively lengthy post I first provide an account of certain experiences I encountered whilst engaged with my development as an artist. I then move on to make reference to the influential work of Richard Peters in the ‘philosophy of education’ in order to suggest how tutors of art might enhance the effectiveness of their practice.

Part One: Experiences in Art

Many years ago I was working in a relatively specific academic capacity in a unique institution that had been originally constituted to help people become ‘more fully human’. After a while I was asked by a learned colleague to contribute to a society – the ‘Henry Fielding society’ – that introduced various cultural topics to individuals attending courses in that institution. I agreed and subsequently, during the 1980s, gave evening lectures on the history and legacy of French Impressionism. It was a demanding task but I was able to make good use of the many texts by art historians including Rewald (1973) and Crespelle (1981) as well as the socio-cultural studies of Barthes, Foucault, Benjamin and Berger. I supplemented these with references to the various Impressionist works that I had studied in the museums and galleries of Paris and London. To the extent that various art historians had identified new cultural developments and ways of seeing, including the excitement and promise of science as well as the impact of new technological advances that had all influenced the Impressionist artists and their work, I underlined the fact that this style of painting should not be seen merely as a type of purely aesthetic ‘pretty picture’. I was pleased that this point was forcibly made not so long ago by Januszczak in his television series, ‘Impressionists Painting and Revolution.’

When I finally left that special Institution to begin a form of retirement I enrolled at the local art college in order to supplement my theoretical knowledge by learning more about the practice of art – and I began a two-year foundation course that was designed to expose the student to the many genre of art. I was in my mid-fifties and the majority of the students were much younger than me. The course went well. One of the most notable features of the overall experience was the almost complete absence of any direction or guidance on the part of the tutors. We were regularly given various tasks and assignments to do with a wide variety of forms of art – from, for example, graphic design to print making, textile art to three dimensional manifestations, photography to digital art etc. – and we had complete freedom to respond creatively to whatever domain of art we found ourselves addressing. The tutors occasionally made a supportive intervention and on very rare occasions prescribed the knowledge that we, as students, should cultivate. In this latter respect, we were once told that we ‘really’ needed to develop a theory of art – although this was made more as a suggestion – a recommendation – and was certainly not an absolute requirement. (And I was to discover, increasingly, that theories of art are about as varied and esoteric as those that try to come to terms with making sense of being human.)

The work that I produced during the two years I spent on that course was often very inventive, seemingly radical and informed by artists such as Beuys, Kiefer, Tapies and Broodthaers. It drew more from that distinct sensibility which the brilliant Susan Sontag believed had characterised most of the leading art of the first half of the 20th century. However, I remained disquieted with my achievements on the course: I was unsettled because I had the sense that I was, in essence, creating work that was not entirely authentic. I was not convinced that I was doing much more than imitating an established mode of perception (a sensibility) and a certain convention in art – i.e. the tradition of expressing gloom and darkness, weirdness and misery and horror. It was inauthentic in the sense that I was conforming to the canons of an established ‘taste’ rather than expressing the truth of my experience in the world about me.

At the end of the course I had to go away and think about this. And this I did.

I resolved not to be overly influenced by any single ‘movement’ or fashion in art. Instead, I decided that I would restrict myself to painting – and I would paint that which I knew and with which I had direct experience. This meant painting portraits and full-length studies of my wife and daughters and occasionally people who I had seen in the media. I also spent more than three years in a post-graduate philosophy class, in which, among other things, I had the chance to dwell upon and explore the theories of art such as those of the Frankfurt school and, separately, those of Martin Heidegger. I also had the good fortune to enjoy and discuss Iris Murdoch’s beautifully conceived ‘philosophy and literature’ which, but for the course, I might never have encountered.

More than a decade passed and so, with what seemed to be adequate foundations in place, I decided to enrol once again in the local art college and this time pursue a two year MA in Fine Art. Strangely, whilst my presence had been greeted with enthusiasm by the course leader on the original foundation course I felt an enduring sense of unease on the Masters ‘programme’. This feeling of unease was amplified whenever we assembled as a group and found ourselves participating in the critical appreciations of our work. I was astonished at the reluctance of a large majority of the class (there were nineteen of us) to engage overtly in any sustained way with the creative output that they were seeing. The level of inhibition was remarkable. It was almost bewildering. In the first place very little was ever said and very rarely was any sophisticated reference made to the form, the content – or any of the critical perspectives that might have been ‘alive’ in the work itself. The one exception to this was a woman who was a serious and committed artist and who not only made consistently ‘good’ work but who also drew selectively from the history of feminism and the tragic ghost of Miss Havisham. I did try to express my thoughts and feelings about what I was seeing and made explicit the wider cultural references to which it might allude or reference – but I felt as if this was unwanted. After a while I even began to wonder if people like me were in some undisclosed way ‘unwelcome’ in the field of contemporary Fine Art. (My ‘otherness’ was not the full blown and nowadays more interesting ‘otherness’ of others!) Finally, when a new head of Fine Art was appointed I wrote to her asking if she would outline the underlying theory and practice of education in the field of Fine Art. I really wanted to know what was guiding the minimum use of interventions (and their manner) that was expressed by the tutors within the institution. Her reply was intriguing because it implied that the ‘criticism’ – the weekly sessions when the group of artists and their tutors came together – was, apart from any self-managed learning and development, the single predominant method of actually helping an artist to develop. But my experience of the criticisms was that they were almost disabling because no discernible rigour was apparent nor was any sustained focus given to any judgements about the form and content of the work. They were simply unhelpful.

Something else, though, had struck me about my work on the MA course in Fine Art: it never really achieved anything like the mood or originality of the works that I had made so many years earlier during my Foundation course. It was distant, composed and somehow ‘heavy’ in tone and mood. It could have been so much better – and I could not help but feel that it had suffered from a dominant movement in contemporary Fine Art that is studiedly obscure: meaning is deferred; nothing is certain; abstract concept is piled on abstract concept in a discourse that approaches meaninglessness; a search for novelty amounts to little more than an idiosyncratic extension of the already abstract. Words and the thing disconnect …

So, I returned to study, once again, works in the philosophy of education to consider what educational and training emphases could, in principle, be deployed on MA courses in Fine Art. At the same time I reflected on the various learning structures that I had developed in that original and unique institution in which I had the good fortune to give those lectures on the history and legacy of French Impressionism. Back then I had come to focus more and more on police professional ethics and the question of how best to provide a valued ‘ethics education’ for police leaders and managers. This had pre-occupied me for most of the 1990s and, in truth, my learning designs were only partially successful.

Part Two: Ethics and Education

In that institution, my colleague, the philosopher Neil Richards had, in 1981, begun to introduce, for the first time, an ‘applied ethics’ (as a named subject) for senior police officers. I had contributed to this project – initially with a set of research findings on the development of – and patterns within – police culture and with various observations about the moral system of many police officers. Richards had successfully completed a thorough study of the philosophy of education in the company of Robin Barrow – and some of the most important foundations of the first appearance of an ethics for police were actually provided by Richard Peters’ (1966) remarkable work, ‘Ethics and education’. I was moved to revisit Peters’ text because I had a sense that the framework he provided could offer a rather more thorough way of ‘delivering’ MA programmes in Fine Art – and more. In his book Peters successfully melded philosophical analysis with psychological insights and the realities of professional practice within educational settings. He achieves what is, if a reader has the time and patience to attend to the profundity of his writing, nothing short of a ‘re-enchantment’ for teachers, tutors and lecturers – but also for any person working in public service – including the police. This is because he understands the fact that education is ultimately about the development of mind and that the different subject domains such as history, science, literature, mathematics, economics and aesthetics – including art – reflect highly differentiated forms of consciousness; and he is surely correct: it is far better to think of the different ‘academic’ subjects in terms of the distinct, remarkable and highly differentiated forms of consciousness that they have evolved and that they achieve – rather than as collections of facts and theories.

It follows that the essential task of the teacher – in the first instance – is to initiate pupils and students into these different forms of consciousness. As Peters notes, students have to ‘get on the inside’ of a field of knowledge – and this means understanding the distinct principles and conventions by which it makes progress and calls itself to account. He famously recognises that through the various experiences of education a person, if it is successful, is transformed and comes to look at the world in a new and different way.

As his text unfolds he explores the ethical dimensions of teaching and educating until he finally comes to the last part of his book in which he confronts the problem of social control in schools and colleges. In fact, as we developed the content of applied ethics for police leaders and managers throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s my colleague Peter Villiers, who was especially sensitive to the political dimensions of policing, paid particular attention to the problem of the ‘retreat’ from authority that has emerged and compromised the provision of public services including the police service of the United Kingdom. It is in this section (and perhaps surprisingly) that Peters presents a chapter which transcends any narrow appreciation of ‘authority’ and in which he elevates the practice and experience of education to something of the highest value. Whilst teachers and educators might have hoped to concentrate on the joys of transmitting their subject knowledge to pupils and students, it is the case that a high degree of social control must be ‘in place’ for the performance of teaching to occur. In consequence, in this last section of the book, Peters devotes an analysis to the indispensable concept of ‘authority’; after clarifying its nature and meaning, he then moves onto its justification, before finally focussing on the formal and actual authority of the teacher. And this is where his book provides an inspirational way of thinking about teachers everywhere and those in colleges or universities of art in particular. Peters outline of the formal ‘authority’ of the teacher serves as a reminder of what the incarnation of the role of a teacher should be. He writes:

‘Schools [and colleges] are institutions whose over-riding aim should be that of education, which … involves the initiation of the young [or not so young] into a worthwhile form of life. This involves activities and forms of thought and awareness [such as history, literature, mathematics, science and aesthetics] which are regarded as intrinsically valuable; it involves modes of conduct that are morally justifiable – not only the general and specific virtues – but commitments to liberty and equality – together with their political derivatives, i.e behaviour associated with good citizenship; it involves manners, [and a level of decency] ….which are part and parcel of a [socially acceptable] form of life. It also involves skills … which are necessary conditions for such a form of life.’

And he continues with a striking reminder of why, in the first place, we have brought educational establishments into being:

‘Thus, schools and colleges share with churches, research institutions and various voluntary organisations the function of preserving and transmitting the ultimate values of a society.’

He then makes an observation about one aspect concerning the nature of those ultimate values in an open society:

‘ … in an open society such as the United Kingdom the values reside not simply in a content or body of knowledge and skills which are transmitted; they reside also in the principles of procedure and forms of thought [e.g. the practice of ‘critical thinking’, the provision of reasons and the adherence to criteria and standards of validation] that enable such a body of knowledge to develop and be adapted to new circumstances.’

In fact, what Peters has to say is plain to see and exemplified if we pay attention to the discourse that its used by any of the informed and expert people on television who discuss and appraise any of the practices of interior design, garden design, photography, architecture, pottery, or the study of the natural world: they all use concepts particular and more or less internal to their field of practice. They also make explicit the standards by which a work is judged and evaluated. This as Peters underlines, is also characteristic of any developed subject domain that has ever come into being.

As I was re-familiarised with Peters’ adumbration of the role responsibilities of a teacher or tutor, I could not help feel that nothing quite like this appears to inform the ethos governing the interventions, the atmosphere in the criticisms, or the learning structures – as well as a discernible ethos – that I experienced on my MA Fine Art course. There seemed to be an emphasis on producing things that might be shown ‘out there’ and which seemed to be unconcerned or disconnected with the development of the ‘educated’ artist. In other words, the course was aiming at ends extrinsic to itself. However, as I read Peters’ opening remarks in relation to what it meant to be ‘in a position of authority’ in a school or college, it struck me that he was offering a profound moment of re-enchantment in what it was (and is) to be a teacher. And one could go further: he reminds his readers that any public servant, including the police officers with whom I worked, are the custodians and transmitters of society’s ultimate values. Surely, it is inspirational and enchanting to think of oneself as the custodian of the highest values of a society such as the one that has been developed in the United Kingdom.

But superadded to this was Peters discussion which bears less on the formal outline of the role-responsibilities of a teacher but more focused on the manner in which a teacher or tutor can incarnate his or her role and achieve at least an adequate expression of the fact that they are also ‘an authority’, and, ideally, an expert in some specialist domain of knowledge. In his characterisation of the actual authority of the teacher he insists that an:

‘ … appropriate approach for a teacher is to behave as becomes a person who is an authority on something, to be true to his or her calling. A person who is genuinely an authority about something invests it with an aura. His or her enthusiasm for their chosen activity or form of awareness and mastery of its intricacies lures others to be initiated into its mysteries. A teacher must therefore convey the notion that he or she is engaged in an enterprise of the human spirit – which is not a matter just of transient titillation. Behind all such spheres of knowledge and skill stands the notion that there is a right and a wrong way of doing thing, that some things are true and others are false, and that it desperately matters what is done or said.’

In other words the teacher or tutor opens the doors of perception and animates their field of knowledge with something that quite simply enthuses the student. Knowledge and understanding, in whatever the field of study, becomes exciting, illuminating and enlightening. People get ‘drawn in’ and begin to identify with the outlook and commitments of the teacher. And key, in part, to this process is the psychology of identification in the sense that pupils or students take into themselves some or all of the values of the teacher or tutor.

He continues:

‘A sense of curiosity and wonderment must by conveyed about questions which give the activity its point, together with a passion for precision in accepting or rejecting answers to them. In other words what is intrinsic to the activities and forms of awareness must be vividly intimated without arrogance. As soon as pupils or learners begin to be overtaken with the excitement, to identify themselves with the quest, question and answer and other forms of encouragement can help to lead them on. The methods used will depend upon what is being taught’ – and to this he immediately notes that, ‘art requires different techniques from history.’

On top of this, an effective teacher or tutor needs a knowledge of psychology and sociology if he or she is able to appreciate and work effectively with different levels of cognitive and intellectual development – as well as the phenomena associated with the different life stages through which a person passes. Ultimately, though, the teacher or tutor has to find ways which ‘set activities going in the minds of others that will eventually transform their interests and their view of the world.’

In essence, although it may appear old-fashioned, Peters successfully underlines how a well informed teacher or tutor, who is in the dual position of being ‘in authority’ as well as being ‘an authority’ in a subject domain can conduct themselves accordingly.

It was sobering for me to have the chance to dwell upon the complete text of ‘Ethics and education’. I realised that if, so many years ago, I had been more familiar with the depth of his thinking I would have done a better job when I was working for the government in the field of police leadership development. But beyond this, I cannot but conclude that tutors of art could do more than rely on the inhibited mood of the group criticism (the so-called ‘crit’) and could intervene in a far more extensive and enabling way. Various models detailing the range of intervention skills available to people in the different kinds of ‘people work’ (including teachers) have been carefully elaborated by, for example, John Heron and Gerard Egan and they complement the richness of Peters’ account.

But in saying this I may have mistakenly assumed that certain of our institutions are genuinely committed to ‘education’ and not to something else. And, on reflection, I am not really convinced that what is called a ‘Masters’ degree that is offered by many institutions has much, if anything, to do with being genuinely educated in a subject field that is defined by specialist knowledge and understanding.

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