Steering Clear of Learning
Updated: Jan 29
In this life there is always the danger we might learn something. In fact I just learned that in spite of how satisfying it might be to foist responsibility for one's own bad habits (in particular, that of carting great quantities of junk home) onto the genetic contributions of one's family tree, we should, at the same time, give credit to that same tree for its better fruits. In particular, I would like to say how much I appreciate that my parents allowed me the freedom to make my own mistakes. They ran a loose ship in that regard, allowing for much experimentation and freedom for ideas to form. I was never talked down from my ideas. Quite the opposite is true. I was encouraged to figure things out in my own way, and that is a parenting concept my bride and I carried forward with our own kids. I think it was the right way to do things, and I think it is largely responsible for my being able to make a living in the creative arts.
In fact, as often as not, I’ve happened across the techniques and ideas that impact my work by accident, or perhaps more accurately, because no-one was telling me what not to do. I don’t mean to discount the positive effects of an education. The higher the platform from which we jump, the more twists and turns and double gainers we can make before the splash, (or the splat). But I just think that we can undervalue the learning that goes along with trying to do something that we know nothing about. No tutoring, no experts, no YouTube, just our hands and our heads in gear, without any road signs, and without any maps. An artist can absolutely become too well educated in art technique to come up with anything new. It doesn’t have to happen but it can happen if every next step is always to take another class.
Somewhere between when we are but curious and resourceful kids, and that point where we have become all loaded up with the ways and means by which things have been done by others, there is a place for creativity to happen at its highest creative potential. A place to step off the education train and plop one's self into the conductors seat.
Even the sciences can educate a person beyond their creative best self. Some of the most important discoveries in our history have come from people and places where their education was independent of the mainstream. A self-inspired and self-directed education. Do we all need to reinvent the wheel? I don’t think so, but we need to maintain a certain willingness to distance ourselves and to try things that we have not been instructed by others to try.
More particularly, in the arts, independence is important, where there is really nothing to
market without an outside-the-box idea. If the objective of art is to make the perfect painting
of an aspen tree, or reproduce the Mona Lisa, then I guess there is a place for the exhaustive education that one might get from staying forever within institutional learning. But if the objective of art is to create a new image that reveals a new idea, a new visual impact, then we need to be willing to make mistakes to make independent discoveries. Another beautifully executed image of a beautiful thing is not necessarily art, and in our efforts to teach creativity, we may actually accomplish the opposite. Too much influence is as bad or worse than not enough.
Most of our 'independent discoveries’ are not new to the world, but if they are new to us, there is a greater potential for them to spark a truly fresh look at an otherwise familiar image. We need to surprise ourselves now and then with something new to us, in order to surprise anybody else.
There has been what might be considered a myth about artists being at the height of their powers in their senior years, but with a look through the history of art, I think we see that most great artists created their inventive works at a fairly young age, and from a relatively less worldly point of view. I think we do get better at doing what it is we’ve discovered how to do. We may refine our ideas through time to a point that they may reach their most sublime execution, but our discoveries were often sparked, in part, by the innocence of youth, and the bounty of experimental independence.
A moment of frustration, inspiration, or even absentmindedness, where I grab up a tool that does something, but not necessarily in the way it is meant to be used, can become a technique that makes a surface more interesting, and answers a missing link in my visual vocabulary.
How much of our education is by trial and error? Not so much anymore. From the day our kids get funneled into an institutional system, we can end up trying to teach them out of making mistakes before they make them. I guess it is both good and bad. But for the artist, it starts to rob us of the experiences that inform our independent ideas. A deliberate ignorance is not always such a bad thing, as I see it, or perhaps I elevate the concept in defense of my having a special knack for it. (No one knows the depths of my ignorance!)
I’ve known a few wonderfully capable art teachers that didn’t have anything much to say with their own art. They had sacrificed much of their creative energy in the quest to have all the answers for their students. Less experimentation, and more mastery of the hard facts of the medium. Of course, obviously, a sound, and even exhaustive education is no death knell for creativity. Different people can handle different amounts of input without it dampening their own creative output. It is just a risk we take when we stay the course while our most creative years roll by, and we never dive into waters we don’t know the depths of.
We hear the saying, ‘One who doesn’t know their history is destined to repeat it’. But when we rely over-diligently on the lessons of those who’ve come before us, we can lessen our chances of making our own discoveries. To borrow from another truism, ‘the thinking that brought us to this point will not be the thinking that gets us beyond this point.’ Yes, in our ignorance we risk repeating the lessons already learned by others, reinventing the wheel, but we might just as likely invent a new bit of language that speaks new truths. The world around us is ever-changing, and we can chase those changes or try to make them.