Dissonance

Perhaps it’s just projection on my part, but reading everyone’s class blogs of late has been bringing to my attention what seems an increasing plague of frustration, annoyance, dissonance, and lack of clarity and precision of thought. My mind is full of mud and cobwebs, and keeps babbling about inane things and questions that no modern really believes can be answered; it ties itself up in knots so bad that I end up dazed and wishing it would just shut up. It’s extremely difficult to get outside myself, and introspection is turning increasingly toward the perpetual circle that Chesterton describes as madness or the case where “everything is possibility and nothing is necessity” that Kierkergaard names despair. I can’t do art, can’t seem to learn anything of substance, sleep for no apparent reason, can’t make even a single lesson plan that I’m satisfied with, can’t seem to research anything, nor even finish a book, even one that I love; can’t get all these educational requirements or bits and pieces of postmodern jargon out of my head, but they won’t submit to living harmoniously with the rest of the contents of my mind or soul. It’s fundamentally alright of course; there’s still God and all shall be well; but still wasteful and aggravating.

I exaggerate of course, but don’t think I’m the only person here who feels this way, at least to a degree. A clue that I’m not too far out there in my thinking is that Dr Stephens felt it necessary to reassure everyone that a high level of confusion, frustration, dissonance, and stressed busyness is a normal part of starting out teaching. Perhaps so: I haven’t had enough experience to judge yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable personally.

Among other causes that I won’t go into here lies one that has been showing itself to a greater and greater extent over the past few months. There is a marked difference in how something comes to be known between whether it has been learned for its own sake, either out of use or interest, or in order to try to teach it to others. It’s not the same thing at all; the proportion and weight of things ends up dreadfully skewed. At least that has been my experience. It’s all very well to learn something and then teach what I know; it’s something altogether different, however, to try to research enough to teach what I not only know nothing whatever about, but that my mind actively rejects. Holding two opposing ideas simultaneously for any reason other than to compare them and decide on their relative value is not really constructive and “critical” thought as the textbook (Children and Their Art) suggests, but rather an unpleasant and destructive case of dissonance. Such has been the case with teaching meaning in works of art.

In art, what I know well enough to teach is quite simple: I know how to make things. I’m quite good at it: craftsmanship, color, texture, design, and harmony I have down. Find something specific, metalworking let’s say, and I’ll learn a decent proficiency very well. Art history I’m working on, and before I started trying to try figuring out how to teach I knew not what, I had quite a decent grasp of it, especially certain areas. I’ve made a pretty good start in learning Northern Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic, Byzantine, early through medieval Russian, and classical art. Religious symbolism I can point out without a qualm – that’s what I’ve studied and know. Most of art history I’m sure could be picked up if I had a decent book or professor and a wee bit of direction.

Even the realms of knowledge I don’t particularly care for could be picked up without too much trouble if they would simply form themselves into concrete elements and not this amorphous broth I’ve been swimming in of late. Aesthetics, for instance, can be traced through the great philosophers and even theologians to its birth as a discrete study around the time of the Enlightenment. There are books that can be read, quotes to be quoted. But I, of course, am too lazy and muddled to strike out on my own in search of exactly what those books are, who wrote them, and why they are important, much less read them, and I somehow doubt anyone would appreciate it if I did. We start too late, when the reaction against those thinkers was already in full flower, and know the rejection before any clear picture is put forth of what has been rejected. So I have an unformed notion that art is about truth and beauty, while another person has an equally unformed notion that it’s really about intentionality and self-expression. I counter with a muddy supposition that using self-expression as a criterion of art is a very modern thing, and therefore should really be looked into more systematically than it yet has been. It’s like trying to make pots out of regular mud, or work out an equation without knowing the order of operations wherein I’m expected to divide by zero. There’s little chance of going back and learning things right when everything continues progressing forward, and I’ve never really figured out what it was I missed out on in the first place. What I largely missed out on was, in fact, a goodly amount of training in postmodern thinking, and as I tend to look at all that with terror and dislike, another way is really in order.

While it’s true enough that a teacher need not know everything, it really is important that she know enough to be able to converse intelligently in whatever subject she’s teaching. I really can’t without suffering a wave of confusion and the feeling that my head is going to explode. So how about taking a few steps back and another look at what’s going on. There’s a marked difference between having all the answers and having an answer. An answer is a starting place for further enquiry; something firm enough to use as a working definition and sturdy enough to stand questioning. When that answer hardens so much that it leaves no room for discretion it may be time for some serious re-examination and perhaps an upheaval, but even that is better than nothing at all. I speak of this primarily in relation to the perennial question: what is art? ART, it seems to me, is in desperate need of what the sciences would call a working definition. Something everyone can agree on as a point of departure, to be learned first. Only then does philosophy have the tools it needs to work on something better, bringing Discretion in when needed. It’s a millennia old debate, and the best thing would probably be to read what has been said and trace the current of thought that brought us to the present. If that’s too difficult, reading a decent book on the subject will do all that work for me. Then, when I know some of that, I can muse on where I fit in to the discourse, and help students do likewise. It’s not something that can be skipped, however, nor picked up piecemeal as I go along. I’d give that at least a semester of intensive study, and would start with Plato on Beauty.

Do that, and there’s a little hook cast into meaning. What about philosophy’s brother, history, our window into the operation of ideas in time?

I took art history courses, of course, but only paid enough attention to get As, and nothing more. Northern Renaissance I learned well enough, and could teach Welsh diptych and triptychs with great confidence. It’s rather a pity there’s no call for the teaching of religious oil on panel paintings containing obsessive detail and conventional symbolism among elementary students. Otherwise, I’m mostly aware of tiny glimmers of understanding within vast bogs of ignorance, filled with hundreds of pools of dislike, which I am trying to not only navigate, but guide others through as well, in the dark holding a candle and ten lb. weight. I need a reading and viewing list to form some kind of map; some experience actually reading whatever I assign myself to cast a bit more light; some time and distance to help drain out the sogginess a bit, and a trip through without any followers to scout for quicksand.

I’ll probably have more later, or even proofread that which is above; for now though, consider that there’s about two years of work just in history and aesthetics, without even getting into actually making art, and that I’ll be bunbing my nose up against trees of paint and marble at least until then.

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