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Permission to Fail | The Nation

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Permission to Fail

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An installation view of Educational Complex (1995), by Mike Kelley

An installation view of Educational Complex (1995), by Mike Kelley

Just as no one family of techniques can be prescribed as the right content of art education, neither can any one set of ideas. The instructor’s knowledge and experience are always in principal too limited for the job they’ve taken on. They’re supposed to help usher their students into the not-yet-known, toward what, in Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, the Canadian artist Jon Pylypchuk calls “another place where there was no grade and just a friend telling you that what you did was good.” Sooner or later teaching art, and making art, is about coming to terms with one’s own ignorance. Maybe that’s why the art world’s favorite philosopher these days is Jacques Rancière, whose best-known book—published in France in 1987 and translated into English four years later—is called The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Its subject is Joseph Jacotot, a forgotten French educator of the early nineteenth century whose “intellectual adventure” was founded on a paradoxical—one might be tempted to say nonsensical—principle: “He proclaimed that one could teach what one didn’t know.” The educator’s job, since teacher and student are assumed to be equal in intelligence, is nothing more than to “use all possible means of convincing the ignorant one of his power” of understanding. The teacher is there simply to remind the learner to pay attention, to keep working.

Jacotot understood that his method, which he called “universal teaching,” could never be permanently instituted. As Rancière affirms: “Universal teaching will not take, it will not be established in society. But it will not perish, because it is the natural method of the human mind.” There is no emancipatory institution, but there can be emancipatory teaching. However natural it might be, I wonder if such a method can ever be usefully applied to physics or history or any number of other university subjects. It appears unlikely. But something like it does seem to occur in the art department (when genuine education does occur there). No wonder, then, that once he discovered his method, Jacotot expanded his instruction from French to subjects like painting and the piano. Nothing in the world sounds more like an art teacher trying to get students to look at a painting than this passage from Rancière, in which he imagines Jacotot, as a pedagogic “madman,” using a page of text to teach an illiterate worker to read:

Tell me “the story of the adventures, that is, the comings and goings, the detours—in a word, the trajectory of the pen that wrote this word on paper or of the engraving tool that engraved it onto the copper.” Would you know how to recognize the letter O that one of my students—a locksmith by profession—calls “the round,” the letter L that he calls “the square”? Tell me the form of each letter as you would describe the form of an object or of an unknown place. Don’t say that you can’t. You know how to see, how to speak, you know how to show, you can remember. What more is needed? An absolute attention for seeing and seeing again, saying and repeating. Don’t try to fool me or fool yourself. Is that really what you saw? What do you think about it?

What’s sometimes called formalism is essentially what Rancière calls the method of equality. He comes close to showing that the exercise of equality in learning and teaching is the true meaning of Joseph Beuys’s affirmation regarding the artist’s “emancipatory lesson”: “each one of us is an artist to the extent that he carries out a double process; he is not content to be a mere journeyman but wants to make all work a means of expression, and he is not content to feel something but tries to impart it to others.”

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That an artist could forget this emancipatory lesson is a reason to be worried when the making of art becomes a college subject like physics or history, to be handed on from knowledgeable professors to students who could not overcome their ignorance without their teachers’ help. What’s encouraging to a reader of Draw It With Your Eyes Closed is to see how many art teachers understand, however obscurely, that their job is to do what teachers in no other discipline are allowed to do: propagate failure. Mira Schor, a painter and writer who teaches primarily at Parsons, puts it most bluntly: “I issue something between a permission and an order: you have my permission to do what you think would be a really bad artwork…. You have my permission to fail.” And what if her students fail to fail? Harry Roseman, a sculptor who teaches at Vassar, observes, “I often think that an assignment works when the students tell me things about it that I hadn’t recognized. When this happens, I know that the assignment is broad enough, and it teaches me as well as the students.”

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As long as teachers in art school are permitted a healthy degree of latitude when making assignments—as long as emancipatory teaching does not perish, to use Jacotot’s word—then within the very institution that encourages the professionalization of the artist there exists a countercurrent that keeps faith with what puts art at odds with other academic subjects. Rosenberg recognized it: “The function of the university is to impart knowledge, but art is not solely knowledge and the problems proposed by knowledge; art is also ignorance and the eager consciousness of the unknown that impels creation. No matter how cultivated he is, every creator is in some degree a naïf, a primitive, and relies on his particular gift of ignorance.” This is why curmudgeons like Dave Hickey and Peter Schjeldahl should stop complaining about art becoming academic. The problem isn’t with artists wanting to learn, but rather when they’re too convinced of what they know. Harrell Fletcher, an artist who teaches at Portland State University, points out “a prevailing idea about assignments in art: that they are something you do in school but that you’re not really supposed to do as a professional artist.” As long as artists keep feeling the need to set themselves something like school assignments, they are in touch with their ignorance and not merely the servants of a program.

One artist who was constantly giving himself assignments was Mike Kelley, whose retrospective is currently on view at PS1 MoMA in Queens through February 2. Long in the planning, the show became a memorial when Kelley, age 57, committed suicide in 2012. And it can be grim: Kelley’s raunchy yet dark, saturnine outlook is always apparent. What he admired about the writing of William Burroughs is true of his own best work: it is “really morose and at the same time howlingly funny.” Much of it is, at least indirectly, about education, which he usually depicts as a form of abuse. But here’s an assignment: remember as many details as possible of all the buildings of all the schools you’ve ever attended; then construct an architectural model combining them into a kind of self-contained miniature city. That’s Kelley’s Educational Complex (1995)—an airless, senseless labyrinth whose only redeeming feature might be its incoherence. This is the emblem of the stultifying education that confirms the student’s inferiority. Some artists, with Jacotot and Rancière, think they see a way out; Kelley makes us feel that we need it.

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