realness and action

I’m thinking about the limitations of my chosen profession. More specifically, I’m thinking about the struggle to claim knowledge — or the claims about where real knowledge comes from. I’m thinking about the long-standing tension between theory and practice. I’m also wondering whether one can make art (or design for that matter) from within the academy, and if the academy is a context from which art can be taught.

I’ve long been a fan of Ben Shahn’s 1957 Norton Lectures, collected in the volume, The Shape of Content. In the first lecture, speaking about artists’ inclusion in American higher education, Shahn challenges us to consider the way we situate arts education within the academy in contrast to historical examples:

“One wonders how the Fauves would have fared without the Bourgeoisie, how Cezanne would have progressed if he had been cordially embraced by the Academy. I am plagued by an exasperating notion: What if Goya, for instance, had been granted a Guggenheim, and then, completing that, had stepped into a respectable and cozy teaching job in some small — but advanced! – New England college, and had thus been spared the agonies of the Spanish Insurrection? The unavoidable conclusion is that we would never have had “Los Caprichos” or “Los Desastres de la Guerra.”  Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content, page 8

I’ve long been simultaneously inspired and vexed by this passage. It vexes me for an obvious reason: I would like to spare my students (and myself) from life’s agonies. I don’t believe in pedagogy grounded in suffering, even if I cannot deny that my most effective teacher has often been painful experience (the lessons derived from such experience ironically being diametrically opposite from the intentions of those inflicting the pain). The passage inspires by reminding me that great insight and genius likely lays outside the academy, waiting to be catalyzed by the world’s events. Shahn appeals to my democratic impulse, and reassures me that knowledge isn’t only created by those who collect, document, and disseminate ever-more theory.

I don’t mean this in an anti-intellectual way. I respect theory, and am often inspired by it. But I seek the dialectic — the space of dynamic tension in which theory is shaped by experience and action is informed by theory — and am weary of navigating spaces in which human agency is stifled on the basis of theory.

I’ve noted recently that my best writing comes from a place of both experiencing and acknowledging rage. To offer some subtlety to my point, I’ll add  that I could equally say that it’s the passion around which my questions are framed that provoke me to really work. I’m at my best when I’m prompted to think, inquire and act in relation to something that matters. Abstractions don’t really work for me. I need it to be real.

This, of course, brings me back to my profession and the academy, where increasingly I’m convinced there’s a lack of realness, a profound disconnectedness, and little will to act. Most of all, I feel defeated by institutions’ default response of “no.” How might our institutions — of learning and otherwise — be realigned toward a pedagogy of yes?


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