Leonardo Thinks


Historical Opinion by Sonia Landy Sheridan

Sonia Landy Sheridan comments on the tenets of art education toward the end of the twentieth century (in 1990) and the importance of new technology and new social conditions in educational program development.
New Foundations: Classroom Lessons in Art/Science/Technology for the 1990s

In less than a decade we will enter the twenty-first century, yet art education is creeping along as though this were still the nineteenth. While our planet is going through a communications revolution, much of art education is geared to the past. If the sole function of art education were the guarding of past knowledge, then at least it would be acting as a living museum; but unfortunately too much of what is being guarded is a mere shadow of the past. Besides, the function of art is not simply to preserve pieces of the past but equally to understand where we are going in light of where we have been. Art shares with science the capacity to explore and to reveal the unknown. From that last great school of art, the Bauhaus, we inherited a social philosophy and a sense of the dynamics of the creative process in a social context. Yet art educators have ignored the social and educational contributions of the Bauhaus and have simply frozen certain aspects of that school-primarily its foundation courses-in time. But the basic Bauhaus art courses – two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design and color – are not anachronisms. They are part of a larger multidimensional structure composed of energies long ignored, energies that are now being reapplied in light of recent scientific discoveries. In a new multidimensional universe created by science and technology, art educators still teach shadows of what used to be. It is about time that we placed the Bauhaus teaching into its proper twenty-first-century context. It is time for new foundations in art education.

The core of the Bauhaus program involved the exploration of material objects – wood, metal, glass, fabric – by crafts people in a society where fine material goods were the property of the few. Almost a century later, in societies rich in material goods, we artists are foundering toward the realization that our major economic base is information, which is an immaterial process of structure and communication. Objects remain needed, but the emphasis on mass acquisition of objects of quality has shifted to the need for information of quality. In a factory building, sound barriers are created with white noise rather than with material substances. In advertising, information about the U.S. Bill of Rights is used to reinforce subliminally a right to smoke and thereby to sell cigarettes. Is white noise a reasonable construction material? Can we tell the difference between information and disinformation? Is industry to make the sole decisions about the new aesthetics of our lives? Does not art education, if it is to have any social impact, need to work in a contemporary world, while grounding itself in the richness of its past?

For the most part, art-educational changes are occurring in layered increments. Although new areas of interface between art, science and technology are sprouting up all over the world, the vast majority of institutions are only adding new media to old structures. Every decade in our century, a new medium is tacked onto an existing program. In the 1950s, printmaking was added to painting and sculpture. In the 1960s, photography was added to printmaking, painting and sculpture. In the 1970s, video was added to photography, printmaking, painting and sculpture. In the 1980s, computers were added to make a neat technological stack. In my visits to schools in the United States, I learned that new technology generally is placed on the bottom floor. As the base of the stack, it pushes the top – painting – through the ceiling.

Painting, of course, is the heart of the art marketplace. Painting as a process is quite different from painting as a product. The basic painting process, with its simple manual tool, is the most direct recording means of our mind, senses and hand. The mechanical camera and the electronic computer are far more complex intermediaries between ourselves and the record, and therefore they are often less direct. The more complex the tool, the more likely that it is the product of many minds and many specialists. The uncomplicated brush, directly connected to our hand, is ideally suited to act as an immediate and tactile extension of our innermost feelings and dreams. Paradoxically, while nothing but a few hairs in a brush stand between the painter and the canvas, many an artist, using the more complex, mechanical camera, has made visual statements more direct and powerful than those of many a painter. Much painting has become more of a technology than so-called technological art. I am not referring here to painting that is created to make us aware of the look of a technological process, such as large painted halftone dots by Roy Lichtenstein, but rather to the vast body of painting that apes the technological look and is produced mechanistically by formula for the marketplace, thus nullifying the very reason for painting – its capacity for tactile, intimate and direct connection with our senses.

Meanwhile, artists in other art movements such as Conceptual Art are working in the intellectual context of today, but when it is time to show the works, they use the means of previous centuries: art galleries, museums and the marketplace, all of which demand salable objects. Nevertheless, individual artists are still creating the visual poetry of our time.

This issue of Leonardo is directed toward art educators, toward those who need support in their often difficult struggle to meet the art-educational demands of our times. No doubt a reevaluation of the present course of art education is going on in many institutions. If, however, we pursue our present course of educational development, tacking onto our art curriculum one new technological area after another, the technological will override the human. We may have to go back to the Bauhaus, to Gropius and to Moholy-Nagy, for a reminder that art is part of a whole, a process, a biological necessity. The technology, or the tool, which is created by people, is a time-lag phenomenon, governed by the rules of its era, and in our confusion we create it and then pursue it. It is, for example, technologically possible to create an airy, intangible, transparent, three-dimensional holographic image with sound in space. An entire body of such spatial holograms could be stored in a tiny space, thereby making obsolete cumbersome board-mounted holographic images. Society, however, is still frantically capturing images on paper and film with cameras and video and has hardly caught up with mounted holograms in space. It takes time to educate, sell off old technology, retool, retrain, create new markets and go through the rest of this complex cultural/social/economic cycle before moving on to a new system of sights and sounds. Even if the spatial hologram technology were available, it would have to wait while the time-lag technology of film ran its course. But there is really little need to tell readers of Leonardo of this phenomenon except to try to set in context the dynamic forces at work so that we can understand where we are going.

When this issue was first planned, it was to contain lessons that might, like the Bauhaus lessons in two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design and color, provide new foundation courses. To insure a broad spectrum of ideas, a call was put out for lessons. About half the articles submitted (from areas ranging from Australia to Europe) were about the struggle to cope in an environment that was hostile to change but that needed to change to meet social pressures. Although practicing artists and scientists responded with lessons, it seemed advisable to publish also the articles dealing with local struggles, provided that they discussed attempts at resolving the problems they described. In presenting all these pieces, we hope to share a variety of measures used to meet the new educational challenges of our era within the context of specific local conditions. It appears, moreover, that the commonality of experience in art education, created by a common global communications revolution, is more important than any particular set of local features. New technology and new social conditions are determining the directions of the programs.

My own lessons offered here present a basic foundation program dealing with energy – light, electrostatics, magnetics, heat and sound. These can be studied manually, mechanically, electronically, photonically and biologically. This means that the Bauhaus studies of two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design and color can be integrated into a program of dynamic motion study, that is, into multidimensional studies visualizing objects in time and space. The object as product remains – part of the process – but the object is altered as the process of creating it is transformed. An architectural unit such as a brick is an old technological building block. Today that brick object can be replaced with a block of sound waves. The object has been transformed from a solid to an intangible form, but the creative process that produced the new spatial form remains a constant, even though changing, process. As part of the creative process, the technology can remain integrated into the whole, which is at once artistic, scientific and technological. And poetry must always be present-in the joy of searching, discovery and creation.
Sonia Landy Sheridan is a visual artist and professor Emerita of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where, after ten years of teaching the fine arts, she founded the program Generative Systems in 1970.  For more information about her work see http://sonart.org/ and http://soniasheridan.com/.
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Sonia Landy Sheridan, Leonardo International Co-Editor, E-mail: Sonia.Sheridan@valley.net
Originally published in: Leonardo Vol. 23, No. 2/3, pp. 165-167
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online : ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1578600.
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