Monday, July 29, 2013

Where Ethics, Creativity, and Freedom Meet: Teacher as Artist

This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave on Saturday, July 27, 2013, at the graduation of eleven teachers from the Waldorf Elementary Teacher Education program at Sunbridge Institute, where I teach each summer.

Rudolf Steiner tells us that a teacher is an artist, and that the material of our art is humanity itself. As teachers in Waldorf schools, we may have as many as 8 years to complete each work, and we may be engaged with a couple of dozen works at a time.
Let’s take him seriously. What does it mean to say that a teacher is an artist?
Let’s say that a teacher is an artist the way Jackson Pollock was an artist, splattering paint around. This teacher might produce a few great works, but she will waste a lot of material and destroy herself in the process.

Jackson Pollock, Convergence, 1952

Let’s say that a teacher is an artist the way Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, trademark, was an artist. If you don’t know Thomas Kinkade, he painted saccharine images that threaten no one and that hang over a lot of American couches. You have seen his work even if you don’t know that you’ve seen his work. That says it all. This teacher might produce many saleable products that all look a lot like each other but that no one will truly take seriously.

Thomas Kinkade, Deer, Creek, Cottage, 1995

Our world is not one that pays a lot of attention to what an artist actually is. We’ve relegated this question to the pile of the purely subjective and pretty much left it there. Many actual artists make terrible models for the concept of teacher-as-artist. We may need to return to an earlier definition of an artist, one that strives toward greater precision than Jasper Johns’ definition of the work of an artist, which was this: “Take something. Do something to it.”

Jasper Johns, Ballantine Ale, 1960

Earlier artists were practiced in a craft following a long apprenticeship. They had the support of a studio full of assistants and the support of a like-minded cultural community. They worked to allow novelty but within recognized forms. Perhaps they lacked the freedom of a modern artist, but their works have endured. Sandro Botticelli apprenticed as a goldsmith, developed skill in painting under different teachers, worked his way up to open a large studio, supported many men in their development as artists. He breathed new life into European painting by incorporating Greek and Roman mythology into accepted forms that had been purely Christian for a thousand years. He did not sign his work, however, just as your plumber does not sign his repair to your pipes; he’s a craftsman, not an egomaniac. As a teacher, at the end of 8 years, would you sign your graduates?

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1486

We can learn from an earlier conception of an artist, but we can’t simply return to those days. For one thing, being an artist today requires greater individuality, greater self-criticism, and a greater willingness to improvise outside accepted forms, to fail and try again. There are thousands and thousands of talented persons, and very few actual artists. Vincent van Gogh was rejected from art school, had no studio assistants, sold no works, and died in virtual obscurity after being shot accidentally, we now believe, by two boys. He claimed to have shot himself—in the stomach with a rifle—so they wouldn’t get in trouble. Who would wish van Gogh’s suffering and peculiarities on a class of children? He’s a modern artist, but not a model for a teacher.

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1890

Further, we don’t enjoy the insular traditional cultures of nations and tribes and peoples that have their own artistic style and artistic development. We have moved beyond the idea of traditional culture in the industrial world and especially in the United States. The world circuit of art stars and art fairs and biennales is hardly a model for schooling. Ai Weiwei is a great contemporary artist—profound, political, incisive, amusing, and provocative. But to make several of his works he destroyed priceless Chinese vases—the very phrase is a cliché. The metaphor of destroying something old in order to make something new is powerful. So is the artist’s comment on the way in which the so-called Cultural Revolution had the same destructive effect on Chinese art and artists. But these are not metaphors that are immediately helpful to teachers.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

I will even go a step further, in my totally obvious way. Because of the greater freedom and the greater individuality that human beings today may enjoy, the days are past when a person could be an immoral jerk in his personal life but a great artist with his materials. Caravaggio killed a man after a tennis game in a botched attempt to castrate him because of their mutual attraction to a prostitute. I don’t believe a teacher-as-artist could kill a rival after a tennis game and then walk into the classroom and expect to have a healthful effect on his pupils. Yet Caravaggio spanned the distance between jealous murderer and devout painter with little effort.

Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of Peter, 1601

Maybe the idea of teacher as artist is a nice metaphor, one with some vague poetic truth but no real value. If we stop here, however, I believe we dishonor Rudolf Steiner. I don’t believe he means simply to create a warm fuzzy metaphor. I believe he means seriously that teachers are artists, that their students’ lives are their material.
Because of the contradictions among our lack of traditional culture, our cultural relativism and the value of our teachers’ materials—our children—we need a higher definition and model of an artist if we wish to see teachers as artists. We need a definition that combines the craft of earlier artists with the freedom of modern artists and then goes a step further. The missing element, one that was present instinctively in the past but that we need to cultivate consciously and individually in the present, is ethics or morality.
Creativity, freedom, and morality are intimately linked in the work of a creative person, and they are perhaps most closely linked when an artist’s materials are a human body, a human soul, and a human spirit.
If this is not obvious to you—as it was not to me for a long time—listen to this:
Our conceptions of creativity and morality are intertwined in a number of ways… At once we see that the indispensable middle term between creativity and morality is freedom. We can hardly speak of a moral act if the actor has no choice. Creative work also requires inner freedom… Creative work must be in some ways kindred to the world, if not the world as it is, then the world as it will or might be. It flows out of that world and it flows back into it. Thus the creative person, to carry out the responsibility to self, the responsibility for inner integrity, must also in some way be responsive to the world.

This is not Steiner, not Ralph Waldo Emerson, and not Walt Whitman. It is the developmental psychologist Howard Gruber. And he is not writing about artists—although they are included, too—but about creative persons in general. Gruber’s life’s work began with a study of Charles Darwin as a creative person. A true characterization of an artist will necessarily apply to the creative work of a scientist as well. Scientists derive insights from creative work, pursue their work in freedom, and, if we are to survive, conceive their work ethically for the benefit of the world. For Gruber, a scientist is an artist and an artist is a scientist. A notch below these are, let’s say, mere technicians. And there are lots of these. If this talk has advice to give, it’s this: Don’t be a mere technician.

Howard Gruber, c. 1990

We have done our best as your teachers here at Sunbridge for the past three years—or, in some cases, more than three years—to teach you ethically, creatively, and freely. We have done this so that you may leave us as ethical, creative, free artists of the lives of the children who are waiting for you to teach them.
Please go now and do this with all our blessings.

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