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In sunny Santa Barbara, California last December, I had the pleasure of being invited as a visiting artist at Westmont College. One morning, I got to take a walk along the beach, only a few minutes from a hotel filled with Charlie Chaplin posters. Home of multi-millionaires and legends of the arts (Martha Graham grew up there), it does not take long to get seduced by the blissful scenery. One of the professors at the college told me to look out for dolphins swimming in the morning, and sure enough, a group of them frolicked in the blue grey horizon.

As I began to interact with students in the art department, I began to assimilate into lives of youth and the limitations and potentials of a college environment. As I walked the beach, I began to ponder: “what really is art education?” I had in mind an earlier incident at one of the classes. A professor encouraged students to bring out their best works to show me and very few students seemed bold to volunteer. So I suggested to the students, “Bring out works that you don’t like.” In a few seconds, we had a portfolio of works rejected in student’s minds as unworthy. We may all have a closet full of works that we are not proud of, works that need permission to come out.

We live in a culture of perfection, or at least in the superficial resemblance of things perfect. When we look at ourselves, we are trained by our culture to cover up our imperfections and blemishes. At school, or in business of life, we are driven to compete against others to refine and perfect our art. Yes, we need competition to excel, but if competition does not teach us humility, but only shame, the very business of education can create a culture of death. The best critique I have received in my life came from people who taught me who I was not, not just what I was good at. Failures teach us more than successes. Isn’t education about giving us courage (the root of the word “en-courage”1) to take risks to fail?

James Elkins, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, wrote a book called “Why Art Cannot Be Taught” (University of Illinois Press), in which he comes to three conclusions:

  1. The idea of teaching art is irreparably irrational. We do not teach because we do not know when or how we teach.
  2. The project of teaching art is confused because we behave as if we were doing something more than teaching technique.
  3. It does not make sense to propose programmatic changes in the ways art is taught.

We make assumptions about teaching art, apparently, that are not really justified by the very philosophy we have come to embrace in the art world: do we really have anything to say to each other if every effort to communicate is fragmented, as in Derrida’s labyrinth of languages? What are we pretending to teach, then? Aren’t we sowing more confusion, by pretending to teach while in such a fragmented state?

But as I walked the beach in Santa Barbara, one thing remained perfectly clear to me. As we are drawn to the sun, we will always believe in the significance of the experience of that light. Art depends on the light that reveals our gestures, surface tensions and even fragmentations. Irrational or not, just as the dolphins so predictably visit the bay, we will just as predictably come back to that light via our art. Further, it takes faith to see the significance of each surface movement, it takes faith to teach art, and it takes faith to learn.

Since Westmont is a Christian college, I also began to think about what allows a Biblical worldview to permit us to explore the mystery of each teaching moment. Since I make assumptions that James Elkins chose not make, and assumptions that our pluralistic colleges and universities would not assent to, I realized I was aided by the very “limitations” I have come to embrace. I can assume that such a thing as “teaching” is beneficial, because I have been wooed by this world-view to have faith in the God who communicates, and, as a result, to have faith in communication itself.

Our pluralistic society demands complex communication via various cultures and languages. If you have faith in a Creator that communicated via the pure “media” of stones etched with the Decalogue, you can make assumptions about communication, for instance, that 1) you can indeed speak and be understood, 2) what you hear is mediated by a benevolent mediator and not random echoes of an empty world, and 3) there are laws that govern our relationships and by accepting these boundaries, we communicate better. These presuppositions are what today’s pluralistic society desperately looks for, in order to communicate to each other, but cannot fully embrace. I have learned from scriptures to pay attention to works (in my life) of which I am not proud. They speak to teach us. I have learned that what the ancients calls “repentance” is a journey of coming home to a place where all of our wretched works rest, but also where our wretchedness is overcome by light. That reality can powerfully alter how we view our lives and our art. Even our wretchedness cannot confine us, ultimately, to reaching across boundaries of cultures. But indeed our wretched state may be what draws us together.

But really, you might be asking, isn’t it just your optimism, and not your faith? Aren’t you blind to the reality of our present condition to state such a rosy picture? Perhaps, and it will be optimism, and not faith, if we cannot take failed works and learn from them. Blind optimism cannot truly teach, because of the continuous denial of our failures. Faith is more honest. The honesty reveals our weakness, but, at the same time, points us out of darkness into the light. That’s what scriptures teach us. Scriptures teach us grace. Our world does not.

Take “Sideways,” a movie full of Santa Barbara scenery, for example. It is an ambivalent, brooding impasse of a movie, but with a few poignant moments. The characters play out their frivolities to a typical irreligious fervor noting along the way their obvious cynicism toward life. Just as professor Elkins continued to teach in art schools, despite his cynicism toward teaching, movie makers insists on making movies that celebrate how lost we really are in the light of the California sun. Perhaps a pluralistic society breeds cynicism, or even a false, Sisyphean brand of optimism, because so much needs to be overcome in communicating. Perhaps a “winner” today looks like a cynic celebrating in the light of a false Eden, drinking his pinot noir (all alone). Watching this movie reminds me that acting, as teaching, assumes much based on the zeitgeist swimming about. I can only hope that a college environment can challenge such normative paradigms of the day. We need to create an environment that can encourage even a cynic how to operate in a paradigm of a true, lasting desire, rather than continue to lie our way into fleeting desires. After all, how else can we entertain the presence of dolphins in our lives, playfully swimming in the refracting rays of Santa Barbara?

Recommended reading:

Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage (Gingko Press)

Read Schuchardt, His essay “Splendor of a Medium” in my recent catalog is a gem.

  1. from a friend/sociologist Tony Carnes