It is a moral injustice to teach art with a textbook

Today in my “art” class at my “arts” magnet school I had to test in to and submit a portfolio for (with six pieces of my work) I was confronted with a textbook. I looked down at it and I read its title, which I now don’t remember, I looked at the student next to me and asked, “What the hell is this?”

“Is this a textbook?”

A: “Yeah, it’s a textbook.”

I stared at it a long time. I was flabbergasted.

You see, you can’t teach art with a textbook because art is a creative thing and a textbook is the very absence of creativity. It’s there so you don’t have to think up your own way of doing things. Instead of a textbook you should just be able to talk to artists and explain what you did and you can look at their art work. I think the textbook must be required by state law or county law. This really depresses me.

Yesterday I drew closing stitches all over my arm. I looked like a badly repaired teddy bear. My mother says it’s kind of cute. My teachers were not amused. Neither was anyone else in the entire building. They would all say, ‘What’s on your arm?” They had this tone like I had a large amount of jelly or blood was running down my arm. I was really confused for the longest time. And then I finally understood and I said, “Oh, you mean the drawing?” It’s like, don’t you draw on yourself too, or did you ever draw on yourself? And they would all just look at me like I had committed some sort of crime or I had chopped my arm all to pieces and sewn it back together.

I passed someone who is sort of considered to be my guidance counselor and he asked me to wash it off, but I said I couldn’t because it was permanent marker. And he said, “Well, OK, wash that off when you get home.” And then after that I was really frightened I had done something punishably wrong. And if I get punished I would get kicked out of my art class and then I would be very sad because I had to work pretty dang hard to get into an arts magnet and my neighborhood school was worse.  It was scary for one thing, which was very scary.

I also discovered yesterday these odd student of the month awards. They were for Kindness, Courage, Respect, Honesty, Trustworthiness, Citizenship. I stared at these for a while, or thought about them for a while, since I can’t “stare” at crap. I can’t even use the water fountain during the change of classes or the bathroom or talk or even think about anything.

The Courage one has some obvious issues. How can you be courageous in a system that runs on fear and get an award for it? You get suspended for courage. And then Citizenship, I wondered what they were talking about there, and then I found one of those weird posters in my school and it said “Citizenship: doing what you feel needs to be done to help your school community.” I’m even more confused now! Citizenship gets you expelled too. And then I started to also wonder about the Trustworthiness and Honesty posters. What’s the difference? Whether you say you won’t lie or whether you don’t lie? And whose to determine whose more honest or trustworthy than others? And then there’s Respect. OBVIOUSLY there was some mistake when they decided to put this one up.  Why are these student of the month awards?

The other thing I have noticed about these posters with the awards on them is that they use Microsoft Word’s Word Art for their titles. And also cheap clip art as the pictures.


3 Responses to “It is a moral injustice to teach art with a textbook”

  1. 1 thatguy
    September 4, 2009 at 12:21 am

    I feel somewhat compelled to defend the art textbook. Although I can see where you are coming from on this, if done properly the textbook is a surrogate for the artist’s explanation which you seek. It inherently costs more to have artists come in and explain things than it does to have printed paper explain it to you. The quality of learning is indubitably worse for it since if you have a specific question, the book may not address it, but there is probably not a better solution until school funding is vastly improved upon (which is not the school’s fault).

    I think where my art progressed the most was actually from…what basically amounts to a textbook. Burne Hogarth’s guides on “dynamic” art. Yes, it tells you how Burne Hogarth draws. Mostly what I did was picked what I liked out of it and let the rest rot, but I cannot thank Mr. Hogarth enough for existing and bothering to write his series of books. I had never heard of Burne Hogarth before this and it was really by providence that I encountered him since my mother bought the first book for me which I likely would never have done on my own and otherwise would never have given him a chance. And I know she was no expert on the subject, so really it was a good fortune that I ended up being introduced to him.

    I am very much my own explorer as well and generally resent being told how to do things, but it has eventually become my experience as I’ve grown older that quite a few arduous steps are cut out and it helps to avoid bad habits in the future to follow some examples of others and then from there formulate your own style.

    If all you want out of art is to explore and enjoy the journey, then so be it. You don’t even need an art class for that. But if you’re looking for advancement and refining your technique, then following examples of others’ techniques is going to save you quite a bit of time and really in the end, you cannot escape the influence of others anyway. You are inevitably influenced by what you have seen and experienced. Adapting techniques will only enhance your ability to express that.

    In short, learning new things is never bad. Give the textbook the opportunity to redeem itself. As the old adage goes, “never judge a book by its cover”. It is unlikely to be perfect, but if you pick a few techniques out of it, you will come out better for it. The artists who took the time to put the book together likely know what they’re talking about and although it’s probably just a dry book about technique and has nothing to do about creativity, that is fine! The book is serving its purpose and it shouldn’t begin to attempt to teach you about creativity in the first place since that is a highly individual thing.

    But I reiterate, learning something new is never bad! My English professor in college had this little theory that he would repeat to his students early in the semester, which I’m sure he’d be happy to know his words weren’t wasted on me. It was a little criticism on what he called “the bucket theory of the mind”. He criticized students for refusing to learn things on the assumption that cramming one’s head full of seemingly useless facts would eventually lead to brain overload, much like water overflowing in a bucket. In his theory, the human mind is more like a net and the more that falls into it, the more it will capture.

    I think I agree with him.

  2. 2 OppEd
    September 8, 2009 at 6:28 am

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    That’s from Lewis Carroll’s book “Through the Looking Glass.” That Alice is the same one who’s in “Alice in Wonderland.” Maybe you enjoyed the fun stories and poems in those books when you were little. It turns out they have parts that are meaningful at other times in your life too–and the poems never stop being fun.

    Another great writer who thought about the same issue was George Orwell. He wrote the book “1984” back when that was a long time in the future. The ways his futuristic society used language show that he was thinking about some of the same things you are. For example, the party that runs things uses the slogan “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” That book has stayed popular for all these decades because it does such a good job pointing out things lots of people think about.

    I was about high school age when I read Orwell’s essay called “Politics and the English Language.” It made a lot of sense to me and I often think of some of the ideas that were in it.

    It seems like people with power are always trying to use words the way they want them to be and we always need people to see through it and call things what they are. It’s a challenge to get good at seeing through it, get good at calling things what they are, and figure out the best times and places to say something (and when to hold off and observe quietly). Best of luck to you!

    P.S. About the art textbook, I like how you spot contradictions, and there sure is a lot you can’t teach in a book. But I found out from listening to artists talk about what they meant when they painted particular paintings that I was missing a lot of things I didn’t know realize were in there. It’s like the painter was speaking in code when she painted something. Now I’m curious about what I’m not getting when I look at a piece of art. I ask questions at art shows and go to museums and read books to try to learn the code. You can live a long and happy life without knowing any of it. But it can be fun to learn some of it and then see something you would have overlooked before in a piece of art and then see that same theme somewhere else and say “Oh, I get that!”

  3. 3 Gabe
    September 14, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Mac, from what i can see you are a pretty funny writer, i enjoyed reading your blog, and it put some interest into my sick day. by the way i hope none of your family gets sick, because i had a relapse today, the day after i went over to your house!
    P.S. try that robot costume idea, i would like to see how that turns out

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