Friday, February 22, 2013

Art and the ways of the spirit: Philosophy of Education, Chapter 10 (Curriculum)

Towards a Philosophy of Education, Chapter 10 (Curriculum), On Teaching Art

(Sister Mary Osithe's art class photo found here)
"There are few subjects regarded with more respect and less confidence in our schools than this of 'Art.' Of course, we say, children should have their artistic powers cultivated, especially those who have such powers, but how is the question." ~~Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, Chapter 10
Almost everyone who's read or listened to anything about Charlotte Mason schooling knows something about picture study.  The process is given in detail in more than one book; it's something that we can be fairly sure that we are doing "right."*  The Simply Charlotte Mason website offers portfolios of prints and biographical information, based on the Parents' Union booklets published by the Medici Society which are still easily obtainable through used book sites.  Ambleside Online has an ongoing rotation of artists to study.  Harmony Fine Arts also offers an artist and composer plan.  And so on...the resources are there.  There are no particularly big barriers of language or irrelevancy.  It's even something we can adapt fairly easily to our own countries or special art interests.  (I'm thinking of studying Canadian sculptor Joe Fafard for our own third term this year.)

And yet we can still miss something basic along the way.  In discussing again how the children were taught to draw, Charlotte mentions a system of art education that had been popular when she was a young woman:  
Redgrave, drawing on Dyce's ideas, and propelled by Cole, set out the "South Kensington system", a highly specific syllabus for the teaching of art, which was to be dominant in the UK, and other English-speaking countries, at least until the end of the century, and not to entirely vanish until the 1930s....The full course was divided into twenty-three stages, most with several sections. Different types of students were to take different combinations of stages: "machinists, engineers and foremen of works" should take stages 1–5, and then skip to the final 23rd stage, "Technical Studies", while designers and "ornamentalists" took most stages.[13]

There were several types of students, pursuing different courses: the "general students", who paid no fees and were given a small living allowance, training to be teachers of art (though many ended up elsewhere), the "National Scholars" intended for industrial designers, and fee-paying students, pursuing a course more oriented to the fine arts. Latterly these were in fact the majority.[33] Women pupils were taught at least partly separately, and their life classes consisted of drawing a man wearing a suit of armour. The Royal Academy Schools did not accept women students until 1861, although there were other alternatives for women. The female school, under Royal patronage, became a rather fashionable place for young ladies, able to support its expansion by society fundraising.[28]  (Wikipedia Article) (Italics mine)
System, syllabus, stages,'s obvious why Charlotte rebelled against something so mechanical.  And yet, she noted, even sixty years later (and later than that, according to Wikipedia), its effects were still being felt, if only in the "same-old" assignments such as arranging cones and cubes to teach perspective and shading.  You've probably done that, I've done that, everyone's done that...nothing so much wrong with sketching geometric solids, right?

Charlotte Mason responds:
But we begin now to understand that art is not to be approached by such a macadamised road. It is of the spirit, and in ways of the spirit must we make our attempt. We recognise that the power of appreciating art and of producing to some extent an interpretation of what one sees is as universal as intelligence, imagination, nay, speech, the power of producing words. But there must be knowledge and, in the first place, not the technical knowledge of how to produce, but some reverent knowledge of what has been produced; that is, children should learn pictures, line by line, group by group, by reading, not books, but pictures themselves.
In other words...she says, and you may disagree...who really wants to draw cubes and cones and cylinders?  Who wants to look at them?  It's the same issue as the potato-printing and blob-making I mentioned in the last post; her argument is that such art says nothing to our human spirit, says nothing about beauty.  If it's only a technical exercise in shading, it's not making art, any more than fingering exercises are making music.  Children are better off fumbling a little over a first watercolour of a buttercup, as long as it's a real buttercup that they've just met outside:  "The first buttercup in a child's nature note book is shockingly crude, the sort of thing to scandalise a teacher of brush-drawing, but by and by another buttercup will appear with the delicate poise, uplift and radiance of the growing flower." 
"For it is true as Browning told us**,––For, don't you mark, we're made so that we love / First when we see them painted, things we have passed / Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see." ~~Charlotte Mason
When we draw or paint beautiful things ourselves, we will see them in a new way.

And when we look at beautiful paintings, or sculptures, we will also see the world in a new way.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Evening
*Although I've read that some people, after viewing the DVDs of veteran CM educator Eve Anderson teaching a picture study lesson, find it surprising that the teacher talks so much up front.  I think we originally got the idea that basically you gave the children the pictures and told them to look, without a lot of prior information.  I am thinking through another whole post about that issue, and not just about picture study, so stay tuned.
** "Fra Lippo Lippi" by Robert Browning

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