Mediumism: The Art of Education

| September 23, 2010

MediumismAs someone who takes the aesthetics of education seriously, I was pleased to be asked to respond to René Arcilla’s new book, Mediumism. The Panel is this evening, and should prove interesting. In part because Arcilla confounds the line concerning aesthetics and education. If Art Education, at first glance, is simply about the teaching of art, Arcilla suggests that art, in turn, may have much to teach us, and about teaching.

His argument, in a nutshell, is that the Modernist movement can serve as an exemplary model for educational thought, in part because of the way in which it challenges and subverts our easy aesthetic interpretations by highlighting its own medium. Hence the title of the book.

Having taught future art educators, I have been witness to their uneasiness with their profession: feeling called by the disruptive power of expressiveness—even beauty still—that they have found in art, but challenged to think what this might mean translated into the educational domain. Lesson plans and classroom management.

What we wound up exploring together was the ways in which our vision of education is itself already aesthetic. Art is not merely a beleaguered backroom of education, one neglected subject amongst many others. It is instead possible to imagine that education itself is a particular artistic problem.

That is, if teaching is an art, it is so not in the facile sense that we can throw the term around, but as a deeply challenging area in which we struggle to express something perhaps always beyond our grasp.

Art struggles with its own meaning, always in danger of having too much in addition to too little. This is the difficulty Arcilla suggests Modernism rises too: Kitsch. And as in art, so in education: we run the risk of kitsch. The repetitions themselves drive us to triteness. Education’s Velvet Elvises.

(Er… Elvi? Elvisēs? Is this not the problem of replicating the singular? The eerie creepiness of seeing too many Santa’s? Move right along…)

Arcilla challenges us to imagine the troubling force of modernist art, its anti-kitsch. Liberal education does not merely steer us to our freedom, but has the potential to highlight the ineffability of this freedom itself. We do not learn to be free, but instead are pushed to learn what it means that we are already free. And even further, beneath our freedom, we are confronted with the the puzzling fact of our own existence.

And it is to this, that education, as Mediumism, might drive us. So why do I find myself frustrated with the project, as sympathetic as I should be, and struggling to put my finger on from whence the unease comes? As it so turns out, I have also been reading Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor’s book, On Kindness. And I came across this passage:

The modern Western adult’s fear about himself is that, to put it as crudely as possible, his hatred is stronger that his love; that there is, in the British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones’s words, “much less love in the world than there appears to be.” Our kindness is chronically in doubt (and not, as philosophical skeptics have traditionally tried to persuade us, our existence.) Childhood has become the last bastion of kindness, the last place where we may find more love in the world than there appears to be.

And it struck me that there was much more, for us moderns, to work out in the relationship between art and education. And that freedom and existence, like “knowledge” or “beauty”, while part of the canvas, might distract us from the challenge of kindness. Of what it means to, in no easy way, be together. This is the deep perplexity that runs quietly through Mediumism: are you with me, and on what terms?

Is this not the challenge the new art teacher feels most acutely? Called to the last bastion of kindness, childhood, do they not worry that they won’t be loved, perhaps thrusting the notion that it is art that is not properly loved like a shield and a mission in front of them. Worse would be the horror if they were to find that they themselves possess much less love than appears to be.

Arcilla is right, then, to challenge and invite us to rethink education. And what if the medium of education, its difficult currency, is not merely existential, but the mixed media of love and hatred?

Would we not have much too learn?