Leonardo Thinks


Historical Opinion by Sheila Pinkel

Sheila Pinkel proposes that a synthetic art education prepares students to negotiate, question and comment on the challenges of our complex world.
The Necessity for Synthetic Art Education

At the present time specialization in the arts, humanities and sciences at the university level allows students to focus intensely on their area of interest but precludes interdisciplinary discourse. Although most art departments offer a spectrum of classes in techniques and history, the basic assumption of art education is that the practice of art is an isolated and somewhat abstracted endeavor. Exercises in the art classroom rarely incorporate the concepts or approaches of the sciences or social sciences into the rigor of artmaking. It is quite possible for students to complete an art education without acquiring research skills, studying how signs and symbols convey meaning, or learning to integrate their understanding of other disciplines into their art. They may never develop the tenacity which would enable them to decipher and comment upon the world around them.

At universities, art students are required to take courses outside their discipline, in which they must research a wide variety of academic subjects. At private art schools, however, the situation is much more restricted. Usually only token humanities classes and few, if any, science courses are offered. The void in the understanding of the sciences on the part of artists, regardless of the school, leads to the impoverishment of artists and to their inability to use the tools and concepts of the scientific world in their artmaking.

For students to learn to communicate their ideas clearly they need to take a course in art and culture in which they practice integrating ideas from diverse areas into their artmaking. Such a course should include using the library, the books and reference materials in the business and statistics section, and resources as diverse and unlikely as the Guide to Periodic and Business Literature and The New York Times Annual Abstract. Discussions in the classroom on subjects as varied as anthropology, physics, topology, music, philosophy, politics and economics are crucial to the process of creative expansion and synthesis. Lectures by specialists from other areas can stimulate expanded ideas in artmaking. Frank Webster has stated in The New Photography, “If the communicator refuses to seek out power relations, then he runs the serious risk of, perhaps unintentionally, perpetuating the status quo. His images will lack critical edge, directness and relevance” [1]. This seeking out of power relations requires research and analysis. Students must be given this experience while in school.

It is ironic that at this time of technological explosion art students generally are not exposed to courses in which they learn to integrate these technologies into their artmaking activity. Usually students, and ultimately artists, stay ignorant of and intimidated by equipment outside of standard artmaking tools. As a result, most artwork that utilizes sophisticated technologies is simplistic, remaining a formal exploration without strong poetic or cultural content. University courses organized to take advantage of technologies found in the physics, chemistry, medical and engineering departments can help to fill this void in education.

The abstract forms and concepts used by scientists can be useful in conveying new formal structures to artists and persons studying culture. George Kubler [2], when writing The Shape of Time, uses models from biology, electrodynamics and topology while trying to grapple with his view of history. The matrix vision used by David Bohm [3], when describing the holographic model of the mind and universe, has resonance in field painting and matrix images of artists involved in making contemporary philosophical constructs. Unless schools provide students with experience in synthesizing and incorporating these ideas and technologies, the relationship between art and science will continue to remain tenuous.

The courses and approaches mentioned above may seem far removed from the ideas traditionally associated with art. But, if we say that art is about forming a picture of something, about a passionate framing of ideas, and the emphasis is on passion and ideas, then the strength of a person’s work lies in the conviction which that artist brings to the work process, even if the art does not directly incorporate any of the intermediate data or images. Such exploration strengthens the artist’s understanding of the subject and allows the final work to bear the power of that resolve.

By all of the above I do not mean to imply that I ignore poetry, the landscape of the interior, the world of the subjective. Ultimately, it is from this level of artistic experience that the final synthesis of ideas takes place, allowing artwork which extends consciousness and has profound human meaning. Finally, artwork needs to be evaluated in terms of the extent to which it leads to growth on the part of the artist and viewer, the extent to which it plays a dynamic part in dialogue. Too often we think an artwork as finished when it is framed and hanging on a wall. But, unless it becomes part of a larger discourse and stimulates the viewer to think new thoughts, ask new questions, it remains flaccid and without meaning.

We are living in a time of great struggle, and there is an urgent necessity for artists to enter into a dialogue with, as well as a critique of, this culture. My experience is that students, and indeed most people, feel that the world around them, especially the scientific and cultural world, is impenetrable and that they are at the mercy of conventional options rather than independent and potent contributors capable of generating their own opportunities. We can no longer afford to offer an educational experience that leads to a passive and impotent relationship with culture and to alienation from our own voice. My hope is, rather, to prepare students to negotiate, question and comment upon this world. It is up to us as educators to revamp the current educational system to give students the tools with which to make significant and challenging statements and to function as individuals in this complex world.

Sheila Pinkel is a Professor of Art and Art History at Pomona College

[1] Frank Webster, The New Photography (New York: Riverrun Press, 1981), 117.

[2] George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1962).

[3] See, for example, David Bohm, Fragmentation and Wholeness: An Inquiry into the Function of Language and Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1976).
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Sheila Pinkel, International Co-Editor, Email: spinkel@earthlink.net
Originally published in: Leonardo Vol. 19, No. 3 (1986), pp. 183-184
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online : ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1578234
Leonardo is a registered trademark of the ISAST.