On teaching young artists about the necessity of revelation
The following is a talk I delivered on 20 January 2023 in Umhlanga, South Africa, to a group of teachers at the Kwazulu-Natal Independent Education Board conference. It distils quite a bit of my recent thinking around art creation and creativity. I’m sharing it because I believe it applies beyond visual arts education, to anyone wanting to live a more considered, contemplative life. My sincere thanks to Gary McIver for the invitation and to the IEB for funding the trip.
“Good art shows us reality, which we too rarely see because it is veiled by our selfish cares, anxiety, vanity, pretension.”
In 1994, Henri Nouwen’s book on Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son was published. It is a profound meditation on a profound artwork. Nouwen shows, among other things, how that single picture says far more than just a thousand words. In contrast to this, consider Jeff Koons, one of the most successful living artists, who wants anyone who sees his work to utter just one word: “Wow!” While considering Koons in particular, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, in his book Saving Beauty (Polity, 2017), writes,
“It seems that [Koons’s] art does not require any judgment, interpretation or hermeneutics, no reflection or thought. It intentionally remains infantile, banal, imperturbably relaxed, disarming and disburdening. It has been emptied of depth, shadow and profundity.”
In the few centuries between Rembrandt and Koons, a significant change has taken place. I think it is worth exploring the nature of this change if we are to better understand what we, teachers of young creative people, are supposed to be doing. I am aware, of course, that all of you have your own concerns about visual arts education in this difficult time in South Africa—about the pervasiveness of certain ideological constrictions, the loss of craftsmanship, the advent of powerful image-generating AI, the fact that student numbers are plummeting, the fact that so few boys take art, the fact of students being largely indifferent to history and contextual understanding, the obsession with novelty, and the fact that visual arts education is so often forced to follow art fashions, and so on.
That said, I think that understanding the contrast between the depth of Rembrandt and the shallowness of Koons will help to suggest a way to address—or at least begin to address—many of these concerns. Once I’ve explained what I think we’re contending with, I aim to get to some principles on teaching art now, and especially teaching young artists how to develop creative ideas.
The core question I want to ask is this: How does art relate to knowledge? Another way to ask the question is this: What sort of knowing does art (or should art) aspire to? In Ancient Greece, art was known via the word technē. The meaning of the word is broad. In Plato’s work, for instance, Socrates uses technē to refer to various skills, including carpentry, dancing, harp and flute playing, wrestling, medicine, commanding an army, housebuilding, running a household, farming, and mathematics. Aristotle singled technē out as an important intellectual virtue. We could roughly translate the term to refer to practical skill or practical knowledge. It refers to knowing in and through doing. But it is important not to be reductive in how we think about this sort of knowledge. Technē is not the equivalent of modern pragmatism.
In technē, we’re dealing with a large way of knowing. It is both intellectual and embodied. It is enworlded—that is, reflective of and intertwined with a larger social, cultural, and historical context. As suggested by the use of technē in those olden days to refer to things like medicine, running a household, and building ships, the word implies gathering together different perceptions and ways of knowing. Technē is about harmonising; it is about creating order and unity. The goal is wholeness and even, if we use the medical reference as a symbol, about healing. Technē is an integrative way of knowing that combines the world of ideas and stories and things and tools into oneness.
This is roughly how Martin Heidegger explains the idea in his Introduction to Metaphysics (Yale, 2014), although he also stresses that this way of knowing is about revelation. It takes what is given and intensifies it; it enhances it and brings it into consciousness. However, it does this in such a way that a sense of the whole is retained. The figure—the artwork, for instance—works in concert with the ground. Take Michelangelo’s approach to sculpture as an example of this integrative way of knowing. As Michelangelo famously said: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”
Michelangelo perfectly expresses technē here. The unity is already there but the artist takes up his tools (his technology) to reveal it and so also to preserve it. Somewhat as an aside, this is simply not possible in AI-image-creation, at least taken on its own, since it always hides more than it reveals. AI de-grounds and de-sites. It de-localises. It unworlds. It does not allow the perception of the whole but always builds some sort of fragmented form out of disembodied parts. By ridding people of skill, which is what technē is all about, AI is not about the act of creation at all or the experience of art-making; it functions like a slot machine or a glorified spreadsheet with fancy algorithms. But, having said this, I must get back on track.
As I have suggested, and as the Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui notes in Art and Cosmotechnics (E-Flux, 2021), “For the Greeks, technē means both art and technics, so for Heidegger the Greek origin of art and technics has the function of revealing Being from its self-hiding, to allow human Dasein to experience it.” In simpler words, the harmonious, personal, local combination of artistic and technological thinking is what creates an experience for an audience. The artist’s way of knowing, which reveals the world in a certain light, is continued when it is encountered by an audience.
In the experience of an artwork, the audience is invited into a profound kind of knowing. This experience cannot be objectified or reified. It is a unique event that transcends any reduction into a theory and any temptation to succumb to a false abstraction. The revelatory experience of an artwork, which is what technē hopes to inspire, is deeply situated. It is a point of meeting between the particular and the universal, the personal and the public, the individual and the world. Think of the world here less as some impersonal abstraction than as the dynamic reality we deal with every day. The world, as I’m using it here, refers to our direct domain of being, and technē is how we participate in it. Beware of anyone who tells you that we must think first of the global and only later of the local. Being a slave to some de-situated global ‘relevance’ is against the spirit of true artmaking.
The betrayal of technē
Is the deep, expansive knowing embodied knowing of technē in something like Jeff Koons’s Seated Ballerina (2017) at the Rockefeller Center or his Balloon Dog series (1994-2000)? The answer, to my mind, is no. This is a significant part of an explanation for why Koons’s work resists contemplation. Arguably, you could spend some time thinking about these artworks, but for Koons communication is the point, not contemplation. In his work, the cosmic gives way to the cosmetic. The world of meaning shrinks dramatically. In fact, for Koons, art is unworlded. The audience is less a traveller than a mere tourist. The audience isn’t invited to ponder and wonder but is told to simply react. Take a photo, post it on social media, and move on to the next tourist attraction to be consumed, and so on.
Koons’s work is tame and friendly. It reflects an essentially smooth aesthetic. “The smooth is the signature of our time,” writes Han in the same book I mentioned earlier. “It connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhones and Brazilian waxing. Why do we today find what is smooth beautiful? Beyond its aesthetic effect, it reflects a general social imperative. It embodies today’s society of positivity. What is smooth does not injure. Nor does it offer any resistance. It is looking for Like.”
The smooth follows the communication imperative of social media: Keep the chatter going and don’t, whatever you do, stop to ponder anything deeper. Don’t even feel the meaning of things. Just intellectualise them. Ironise them. Critique. Then critique some more.
I’m not saying, mind you, that art has simply and universally started to echo the digital world, as if the internet is the cause of this communication imperative. As I’ll get to shortly, I think this trend away from technē and contemplation towards embracing the communication imperative has been with us for a very long time now, even before any of us were born. However, it does seem to be intensifying, probably thanks to the digitalisation of being, and so resisting this intensification seems to me to be an urgent task before anyone involved in the world of creativity.
The above-mentioned communication imperative is evident, for instance, in the art that is meant to shock, such as in Tracy Emin’s My Bed (1998), Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), or Damien Hurst’s diamond-encrusted skull artwork, For the Love of God (2007). The idea is to get a reaction. These artworks say something, maybe even quite a lot. Nevertheless, they do not invite deep contemplation. We are thrown into a political world of feminism, the evils of communism, or the evils of capitalism, but we are in the process alienated from our own experiences. Existential meaning is kept at a safe distance. Even if I can imagine giving some time to considering the meaning of such artworks, and the various points they are trying to make, it seems to me that I will not even get close to the kind of attention that Nouwen gives to that Rembrandt painting.
Truth has been usurped by rhetoric. Narrative has given way to the force of a single statement. Novelty has replaced depth. Revelation has been replaced by reaction and reactivity. Artworks strive to be as famous and as empty as celebrities, as noted by the late art critic Robert Hughes in his documentary The Mona Lisa Curse (2008).
Having said all of this, though, I am aware that perhaps your intuitive sense is different from mine. I know many who would put this shift down to taste. Some would say that progress demands that we embrace the new and forget the old. But I am not talking about taste or fashion. I am noting a definite set of decisions that has led to the acceptance of a shrinkage of meaning. And, in fact, over the past century or so, artists have participated in this process with gleeful, if unconscious, abandon. This is to say my initial diagnosis of the difference between contemplation and communication needs to be deepened. What does this shrinkage of meaning in the creation of art mean? How was the betrayal of technē ensured within the art world itself?
Manifestos against the manifest
I started thinking especially deeply about this years ago while watching German artist Julian Rosefeld’s quirky and very interesting art film Manifesto (2015), which is well worth watching if you haven’t done so yet.1 Rosefeld’s film is composed of a mishmash of scenes in which the actress Cate Blanchett performs various selections from several art manifestos written during the last century or so. Blanchett plays a host of characters: a school teacher, a CEO, a factory worker, a Russian Ballet choreographer, a mother, a broker, an intoxicated punk, a newsreader and news reporter in conversation, a scientist, a puppeteer (with a look-alike puppet), a widow, and a homeless man. But what struck me while watching Manifesto was how similar each manifesto was in its structure.
Yes, the manifestos all say different things but they present us with a strikingly similar pattern of thinking—and this pattern of thinking somewhat indicates the nature of the meaning-shrinkage in the art world. This pattern is suggested in Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto, which is quoted in the movie, where he admits, “To put out a manifesto, you must want ABC to fulminate against [i.e. denounce or dismiss] 1, 2, 3.” Tzara’s assessment was a decent place to start, I found, but I sensed there was more to it than this. Tzara admits that a strong opposition or negation is the starting point of his manifesto but I wanted to figure out precisely what the nature of this opposition was to see what it revealed about art since the dawn of the Avant-Garde.
To investigate, I read the two hundred art manifestos collected in two Penguin volumes and found that there is a deeper issue in twentieth-century art that echoes what we find in Aesop’s famous fable of the fox and the grapes. Aesop’s story goes that there is a fox who comes across some tasty-looking grapes draped on a trellis. He tries to get at them but fails. Trying to maintain his dignity and an air of superiority, he says, “Ah, but the grapes are sour anyway.”2 Obviously, how the grapes taste is not the fox’s issue. His issue is that he wants to look good even though he has failed to achieve what he set out to achieve. And the quickest and easiest way to make yourself seem superior is to look down on something or someone else superior to you. The technical philosophical description for this act is ressentiment, the inexact English equivalent of which is the word resentment.
Ressentiment refers to a reordering of the sentiments. Nietzsche calls ressentiment a “reversal of the evaluating gaze” and a means by which some action “seeks out its antithesis [or opposite] to affirm itself.” Sweet grapes become sour grapes and an optimistic but stupid fox turns into a snob. So that is the primary answer I found to the question of what the nature of Tzara’s ‘fulmination’ was.
There are good reasons for taking ressentiment as a far larger cultural and historical trend in modernity but let’s just focus on art and visual arts education, since that’s what we’re all here for. This knee-jerk, adolescent ‘ressentimental structure’ of repudiating the higher in favour of the lower was most clearly established, of course, in Marinetti's 1909 Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism, the first Futurist manifesto. The Futurists created a definite sense that the creation of art should be drenched in rivalry with other artists and this set the tone for so much to follow. In Marinetti's manifesto, we find a clear case of ressentiment against the art tradition itself. He calls museums “abattoirs for painters and sculptors,” and compares “[a]dmiring an old painting” to “pouring our purest feelings into a funerary urn.” Academies become “cemeteries of wasted effort, calvaries of crucified dreams, records of impulses cut short!” I find these overstatements funny but they seem to have been intended in all seriousness.
In his later Futurist manifesto, Marinetti calls tradition a “sewer.” Even though he hints that “we are the sum total and extension of our forebears,” he declares that he wants “nothing to do with” them. Sadly, while various art fashions have changed, ressentiment is as fashionable as ever. We see the same sort of ressentiment today in the way that many contemporary artists are quick to denounce anything too “patriarchal” or “Eurocentric” or “colonial”—not because their art is better than the work of past masters or because they even understand what they are saying but because ressentiment is still an almost instant way to create a false sense of authority; instead of simply doing great work, others have to be put down.
This ressentimental structure helped to establish the 20th-century unique obsession with novelty for novelty’s sake, which is still very much with us today. This obsession certainly originates further back than the Futurists, whose own vision of the world was by no means unique. However, I think it is fair to suggest that the Futurists, precisely by setting a precedent for artists to be writing manifestos, helped to normalise it. As the art writer and critical theorist Boris Groys notes in his book On the New (Verso, 2014), novelty is bound to a revaluation of values, which is another way of understanding what ressentiment is. Novelty relies on reordering what we find valuable; it relies on setting up a new system of values and evaluations.
Anyone who creates and teaches art ought to know what this means for them. The implication is that art has been, since even before our time, a field in the throes of a perpetual crisis of values. It has therefore been, for as long as anyone can remember, a field in the throes of a crisis of meaning. If you ever wondered why it is so difficult to teach art, this is a significant part of the reason. It’s why, for instance, with the arrival of much more sophisticated AI on the world’s stage, you’ll have this terrible mix of different responses in the art world, from extreme opposition to an unquestioning embrace of this new technology. But this, of course, is just one issue or area of concern. Each one of us is likely to have different concerns and very different opinions on art and art education.
But I think the essence of what we are faced with, as a result of the way that ressentiment has become fashionable in the art world, is captured precisely in Jeff Koons’s desire to have his audience utter only one word: “Wow!” The proliferation of revaluations of art over the past century has resulted not in a glorious pluralism of different complex perspectives but has, perhaps paradoxically, resulted in a reduction of perspectives to whatever immediate gut response we have to any artwork. From the sheer excess of artistic expressions, we have arrived at a nihilism of pure ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’. In noting this, I’m suggesting taking a good long look at the spirit in which art is created. If it is just more ressentiment, then we don’t need it. I’m sure you are as tired of ressentiment as I am.
That said, the proliferation of novelty-seeking also represents a much deeper problem that I have already named as the betrayal of technē. It betrays the kind of knowledge art could aspire to. I have mentioned that technē concerns itself with an entire world of meanings, which it intensifies through embodiment. It allows for the figure to recall the ground. But what the ressentimental restructuring of the art world since the dawn of the 20th century sets up is an expectation that art will no longer be concerned with the world of meaning but will set figures against the ground. Instead of artists chipping away at stone like Michelangelo, they chip away at the world of meaning itself. Revelation ceases to be the main aim and revolt or reaction becomes centralised. In other words, artists, for quite a while now, have concerned themselves too much with unworlding their artworks. The erosion and disintegration of meaning become central to the creation of art. What is a shark in a formaldehyde tank? What is a diamond-encrusted skull? It becomes difficult to care when the artist is so commonly a figure who disdains the audience and rejects even the possibility of richly enworlded meaning.
Before I carry on, let me just briefly recapitulate the core points of my argument so far. Firstly, there has been a notable shift from contemplation to communication in art. To understand this shift, which is the second point and the core question of this talk, I have asked what sort of knowledge art can aspire to and answered by pointing out that art embodies, or at least is capable of embodying, the rich, practical knowledge that the Ancient Greeks called technē. Thirdly, I have said that the art world has become complicit in the betrayal of technē, meaning, in other words, the refusal to aspire to the highest kind of knowledge that art is capable of aspiring to. Fourthly, artists have done this largely by succumbing to a ressentimental structure, expressed commonly by the tendency of artists to be in rivalry with other artists, and in the process to be fighting for attention through a frenzy of novelty-seeking, which sets figures against the ground. As I’ll get to, resisting the denigration of the ground is thus an important part of the rescue mission I think all of us should be part of—and can be part of.
Admittedly, thankfully, there are exceptions to the general trend. But, sadly, these do not disprove the rule. And the reason I say this pertains to what I will get to now. My fifth and final point before I get to answering the question of what we are to do about this is that technē has been replaced by technology in our time. While the art world seems to be in a constant rivalry with itself, and while this rivalry has been expressed in terms of various ideological squabbles, this rivalry is a byproduct of a larger sense of inferiority that so many artists feel. No artist feels this inferiority more than the one who is caught up in narcissistic self-assertion and activism. The constant crisis of meaning and legitimation, which Boris Groys discusses in his work In the Flow (Verso, 2016), is about art’s place in the world. The real rival—although this rivalry is built on a misunderstanding—is science and technology. And as Girard’s work indicates: the rival is always someone we emulate. That science and technology aim at utility has meant that art, among other things, has often become bluntly utilitarian.
Technology against technē
Early on in Modernity, the Rennaisance ideal of being an all-rounder interested in various ways of knowing was abandoned. Very soon, scientific ways of knowing the world grew to be more important. We still see this today. For example, the STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—get more funding than the human sciences. In fact, the humanities are under enormous strain to legitimate themselves according to terms set by STEM fields, as if the value of a painting could be accounted for by measuring how big it is. Strangely, many in the humanities comply with this bizarre ‘quantification’ of ‘quality.’
I’m reminded of an apocryphal story. During the Second World War, while Great Britain was struggling desperately with serious financial concerns, someone apparently asked Winston Churchill if arts funding should be cut. He reportedly replied, “Then what are we fighting for?” Even if the story is fictional, it is ‘spiritually true.’ Churchill did safeguard funds for cultural endeavours, and the sentiment that what makes life worthwhile is the non-essential stuff is spot on. And yet, today, together with the emphasis on compulsive communications, which I have called the communication imperative, is a definite emphasis on the STEM fields; on economic bottom lines and bare life. Humanities departments are struggling globally. And this is to a great extent because of the rise of what I will call technological thinking.
In his book, The Failure of Technology (1946), Friedrich Georg Jünger looks at the nature of technology. His friend, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, does the same in his work, most famously in his essay The Question Concerning Technology (1954). What follows is something of a mishmash of their views, which are entirely compatible with each other. The key to understanding technology, as it turns out, is that it represents, as art does, a certain way of knowing; it represents a certain way of understanding, interpreting, and—yes—revealing the world.
Heidegger says the essence of technology—the essence of technological thinking—is in what he calls enframing. The essence of technology, in other words, is in how it frames the world. It confirms a certain subjective attitude towards the world that is decidedly restrictive. Its mode of revealing is like like abuse or torture. It challenges being to cough up the goods. Enframing refers to a decision made in advance of an encounter with the world. It is a predecided way of engaging with the world, to hell with what the world itself is trying to show us. Already in this, you can see how this might severely compromise any hope of embodying technē.
It is the pre-decision, this preemptively forceful approach to the world, that will effectively destroy the world to get the answer it is looking for. Jünger puts this down to what he calls technological rationalism, which is defined in the introduction to Jünger’s book by Friederick Wilhelmsen as follows:
“The characteristics of technological rationalism are so well known that it suffices merely to list them in this place: the elimination of sense qualities; the suppression of the organic; the mechanisation of time; the patterning of the world after the dead dynamism of the machine; the suppression of the rich idiosyncrasy of personal existence; the ideal of a horizontal and featureless cosmos; the postulate that a universe is less rich and beautiful than it looks.”
Jünger says technology distributes poverty, which is certainly not how Elon Musk thinks of technology. The specific way that technology gets us to organise the world will find some utterly minuscule form of wealth while excluding all other wealth. This idea is confirmed by Jacques Ellul’s conception of the technological society as one that is obsessed with solving problems and seeking out solutions ahead of encountering them. One name for this ideology is solutionism. Technological thinking makes a decision and then acts according to that decision, even if it means excluding possibilities that would be beneficial to people; and even if the resulting solution doesn’t address any real problem. This is a bit like Midas who, while valuing gold too much, ends up destroying everything he loves. Social Justice-types are Midas-like solutionists. They have no idea what the problem is but, boy, do they want to solve it. They want a cure that is definitely worse than the disease.
Here’s an example of technology distributing poverty. It is precisely a technological mindset that would look at a landscape and think: “I’ll bet there are diamonds in this landscape.” And the technological thinker will take his machines and his labourers and he will destroy the landscape to get whatever diamonds it happens to be hiding. This is a pyrrhic victory: what is won is some figure at the expense of the ground. Note that, as with the Koonsian artwork, something is revealed—or, more probably, just spewed out—but it is a diminished thing, a thing acquired at the expense of everything else. The figure is preserved (the diamond in the landscape, in this case) but the ground (the landscape itself) is no longer available in any of its former glory. There is quite a lot to be said for the current resurgence of ecofascism which, to my mind, reflects a larger symbolic concern with the loss of the environment as such, although perceived by a consciousness too small to properly interpret the meaning of this concern.
Well, I believe that artists have been, for the longest time, in the throes of a crisis of legitimacy precisely because they tend to be stuck in a particular mode of thinking that is technological. The art world is pressured, often by certain neoliberal expectations, into accepting a measure for the value of art that is not true to art itself. Art must ‘work’ in a certain way, apparently. It must prove itself in a certain way. It competes with scientists and other artists, even though competition was never its primary function. It tries to score points with the ‘market’. Art is about almost anything except revelation; it is less about knowledge than about publicity.
As Groys notes in Art Power (2008, MIT), art has even often been overburdened by trying to legitimate itself through this or that theory. Having diminished its revelatory power, it relies heavily on unworlded abstractions that have nothing to do with revelation and everything to do with some or another reductive politics. And this amounts to creating so many small-minded rules about what art should and shouldn’t be. Art must be decolonial or anti-patriarchal, etc, etc, apparently. It must moralise. But this is just more of the betrayal of technē. The world is no longer revealed but tortured into admitting facts, even if that means that context is scapegoated and even if that means closing the world up to the very people who need to feel some kind of connection. The audience is no longer communed with but shouted at and alienated. No wonder kids want less and less to do with art. No wonder so many people now would stare at an artwork and ask that perennial question: But what does it mean? The question is met with silence—only, unfortunately, it is not the sort of silence that invites contemplation.
The artist feels inferior from the start, trying desperately to create something novel, to say something that will make people listen. When you read through hundreds of art manifestos—and I’m not sure I recommend this, given that it isn’t nearly as interesting as you might hope—you’re likely to be confronted with a constant, nagging suspicion that so many artists have no faith in what they’re doing. They’re just very, very busy—with the art market or with the latest ideological fashion, for example. When photography was invented, artists were thrown into a panic. What’s the point of portraiture if a camera can ‘paint’ a portrait much more accurately and so much faster? Well, AI has come along and now artists are oscillating between fully embracing the technology or rejecting it. And yet, all of this reactivity and activity is to miss the question that I have been asking: What sort of knowing does art aspire to? Well, I have answered the question already but I want to look at some practical suggestions for how to inspire technē in students.
A brief side note on teaching in a time of decline
I want to be clear before I present my suggestions that I fully appreciate the challenge in front of all self-aware, large-minded teachers. In recent years, I have seen technological thinking metastasise and solidify to such an extent that overcoming it seems impossible. There are many forces in the world—some ideological, many existential, and technological—that have rendered the world of meaning almost entirely inaccessible. Technology shatters everything it touches but it turns out there is almost no resistance to this shattering because it is so very useful to so-called ‘market’ logic. If you can obliterate any sense that people have of coherence and meaning, you can use market trends and demands to manipulate them into constructing a worldview using money and nothing else. In the short term, this may be great for profits and a quick consumerist dopamine kick. In the long run, this spells disaster for everyone.
My students don’t even consume the same entertainment as their classmates—not that this should even be a measure of what it means to live in the same world of meaning. They have only their own self-curated little social media feed through which they encounter the world. Only occasionally will some massive, largely vacuous cultural event—a meme or series or, even more seldom, some sort of news event—generate some semblance of shared meaning. I ask my students if they know what’s happening in the Ukraine and Gaza and most of them have no idea. I ask them what the great novels are and they can’t tell me. Who are the big thinkers who have shaped the world? They have no clue.
They generally accept what little shreds of information they get as facts without context. They don’t realise that everything needs to be carefully sifted and interpreted, including some of the nonsense they get taught in university. Fewer and fewer of them have anything like a coherent religious framework through which they can assess, even imperfectly, the truth or falsehood of any idea presented to them. Nietzsche prophesied the arrival on the world’s stage of a total moron called the Last Man, who is so ignorant that even the big existential questions cause him to do nothing but blink in reply. Well, the Last Man is here. Whole tribes of people across the globe are Last Men and Last Women, hashtagging their way into psyops and fake communities. We live in the most philosophically, mythologically, and culturally impoverished time in human history. I cannot think of a more nihilistic time than our own.
Mind you, I don’t think the problem is just with my students. The world of grownups, the world of my peers and your peers, isn’t much better. Most of my colleagues have no coherent worldview. I would hazard a guess that most teachers are so overwhelmed by the demands of their jobs that they aren’t even vaguely in contact with their own lives. How are you supposed to grow as a person when there is this much to do? In an age in which everything becomes a bureaucratic check-box, where we have to be so careful out of a fear of being cancelled or worse, it becomes difficult to know precisely how to improve things. However, knowing the rather doomed state of things, which I have only briefly covered, is important. Being unreasonably optimistic is foolishness, given just how large the challenges are that we are faced with.
Still, I think there is cause for hope. Despair is not an option. I have asked what sort of knowing art aspires to because it’s easier to do what you and I are doing if we have a clear sense of what we are aiming for. I have found that aiming high and failing is better than aiming low and succeeding. We are not trying to compete with technology—to do this is to reduce art to something it is not. We are also not trying to inspire even more of an obsession with novelty—to do this is to obliterate the possibility of reuniting art and contemplation. So how do we encourage, as much as we are able, the recovery of technē? Even if the task of reworlding our students is too big for any of us to do, how do we gesture towards it? while also encouraging creativity? Here are three concrete-ish suggestions.
Practising technē. Principle 1: Ground
Jeff Koons’s work represents the problem of overemphasising figures at the expense of the ground but I hope you can see that this is a pervasive problem in the art world, and in the world beyond it. The figure-ground relationship is reduced to a world of figures without any ground. Rivalistic art, of the kind encouraged by constant manifestoing, is inevitable. One of the ways to spot this is in artworks that are overtly polemical and preachy. Who wants to be yelled at when they’re looking at an artwork? Who wants to be judged by someone who has not the wisdom to judge rightly? When it comes to teenagers, who are often only too ready to dish out ready-made opinions shaped by TikTok influencers, their obsession with figures is a sign of immaturity, not maturity. We shouldn’t capitulate to it.
Ironically, the obsession with novelty, which the figure-fixation inspires, gives rise to a world of clichés. The art student wants to paint a big eye or a jellyfish or some other aesthetic object. But why? Or maybe the student wants to critique beauty standards or comment on current racial or gender politics. All of this is trite and predictable because none of these things represent that lost, invisible background. All of these things are figures but it is the ground that has always been the domain of good art and good artists. This is most obviously symbolised by landscape painters. It is as if all of them have been saying and still say: Do you see this? This is the world we live in.
We should remember that what made Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup Cans works of 1960 and 1961 interesting was the fact that Warhol took something that was part of the everyday life of Americans and recontextualised it. He drew attention to the ground; he made people notice what they were likely to take for granted. Even if the revelation stemming from this isn’t particularly grand, it is not nothing. Arguably Warhol’s work repeats what Duchamp did with Fountain (1917): take what people take for granted and allow them to see it. Thus, even the art world was confronted with itself. And still, many of the better artists have done the same, in innumerable different ways. The best art, the art that is likely to inspire some sort of contemplation, the art that is likely to reveal the world, is art that focuses on the invisible, the overlooked, and the underexplored. It is the art that draws attention to some sort of pervasive and often complex universality that people tend not to notice. The best art focuses on the background.
Practising technē. Principle 2: Negativity
Of course, rediscovering the background or the ground is not so easy. Artists are just as prone as everyone else to miss it. The crucial step to take towards doing this is to get away from the aesthetic of smoothness that I mentioned above. If everything in our world tends towards efficiency and opposes the lingering of contemplation, then it is the job of art teachers and artists to return us all to contemplation. Contemplation rests on what Byung-Chul Han calls negativity. Negativity doesn’t mean negation or opposition, which is what the ressentiment artists adopt as their primary mode of engagement. It means any difference that allows us to perceive things more clearly. You’ll find negativity in bumps, hesitations, delays, dithering, inefficiency, doubt, questioning, indecision, reluctance, and lingering. Niggles, winkles, gaps, mind-wandering, boredom, and playfulness produce creative ideas. Serendipity is essential. Even errors can be helpful. When you find yourself rushing to a conclusion and judging too quickly, you have left the domain of creativity and entered the domain of ideology.
What this means for creativity—that is, for inspiring your students to come up with ideas—is that you should encourage them to adopt a practice of contemplation. Contemplation is not the same as meditation. I don’t mean that creatives must empty their minds and focus on their breathing, even if that may be a decent thing to do for any of us. Rather, I mean that they must fill their minds with good, solid stuff—good poetry, history, philosophy, excellent novels, etc—while refusing to adopt a posture of simply agreeing or disagreeing. The essence of contemplation is to discover hidden, unthought-of relations.
Above all, it seems to me that reading itself is the best tool for developing good ideas. Slow reading tends to be good for contemplation and this can apply to almost anything. One of the practices from the Christian Catholic—specifically Benedictine—tradition called Lectio Divina or Sacred Reading may be helpful to keep in mind. The monk or nun would read Scripture calmly and attentively until a word, phrase, or image jumped out for them. Something in the text would move their imaginations and hearts and the reader would then take a moment to put the text aside and contemplate the specific resonance of that word or phrase or image. What this contemplative negativity does is it allows for insight. Yes, there is a direct personal aspect to this but there is also universality. And I am certain that going back to really good sources—old books, great novels and the like—is the way to recover genuine originality.
On this, I am reminded of CS Lewis’s brilliant observation that “in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” However, seeking out the truth is not about accepting mainstream media and news as the dominant paradigm for truth. Arguably, contemporary journalism is often just about rummaging through the trash of the household and then claiming that whatever dirt has been found explains the whole household. No, we need old wisdom to return us to the truth: old myths and stories and religious texts, parables and idioms and proverbs that inspire us to see beyond the immediately obvious. Contemplate such things, and encourage your students to do the same, and genuine freshness will start to emerge again.
Creative ideas tend not to arrive by force or will. They rely on allowing. Allowing comes after negativity. Creativity involves creating the conditions within which the answer—the ‘word’ or ‘insight’ that can’t be found by willing—shows up. When an insight makes itself apparent, it’ll be recognised by its fittingness and not by its mere conformity to a set of predictable (ideological) expectations. Insight happens quickly when the conditions are right, although it may take time to arrive. It collects and collates; it puts together what was not assumed to be together, and creates a moment of decision (a choice in its creator and/or viewer); it sees the universal in the particular; is true for the individual and the group; relies on understanding and memory, and is cumulative. It grasps a pattern, the formal cause, and serves a purpose, which is the final cause. It is not merely the victim of unconscious efficient causality, the will of the maker, and material causality. It is a permanent personal acquisition. But, of course, it can be resisted and avoided. Insight does not necessarily resolve tensions it works with them, given that its chief aim is revelation, not resolution. There is a disproportion between the before and the after of an insight.
Keep in mind that often, you, the teacher, will need to be the negativity that helps your students to go deeper than they intuitively want to go. You’re not the opposition but the one who offers resistance and questioning.
Practising technē. Principle 3: Non-resolution
Already much of what I have said gestures towards enlarging the perspective of your students. This is a fairly obvious but essential aspect of helping them reclaim their sense of worldedness. I think about a parable offered by Charles Péguy, who writes about meeting three stone cutters. He takes the time to ask each of them what they’re doing. The first one says he’s cutting stones but he hates it and feels worthless. The second one says he’s cutting stones, working to feed his family. He’s content because his story is not just about himself. The third, full of joy, says, “I’m building a cathedral!” He is happiest of all because, while he is earning a living and even supporting his family, he feels a definite sense that he is contributing to a magnificent world, rich in meaning. He refuses, quite rightly, to reduce what he is doing to the mere act of stone-cutting.
Enlarging the world of meaning, and opening it up for students, is essential. But I want to stress, as part of this, that the artist’s job is decidedly not to resolve things for the viewer, even if they have secretly resolved things for themselves. Observing rather than judging is the aim. This doesn’t mean that there is no decision or that all great art is without any clear perspective. I do not think that a view from nowhere is possible. However, artists, both new and experienced, should resist anything that looks like an easy, offhanded, unthinking answer. In our time, polarisations are rampant. And certainly, people may have good reasons for picking whichever side they do. But it is not the artist’s job to pick a side—at least, it is not the artist's job to alienate the audience through some forced polarisation. The artist is not a preacher. The audience remains, in fact, a vital component of the creation of any artwork.
If the audience is not allowed to interpret and participate in the meaning-creation suggested by the artwork, then the artwork is a failure. After all, it is through interpretation that we take responsibility for our sense of personhood. We become persons through our hermeneutical gestures. If the artist is not creating a space for revelation for the audience, given that the artist should have taken the trouble to seek out a revelation or two of their own, then they are failing their audience. The artwork is a meeting place, a thing meant to inspire resonance, and the best way to do that is to keep the tensions in play—precisely because the background exists in tensions. Again, the artist ought to aspire to make work that gathers the world up, first for themselves and then for an audience. Any artwork is most meaningful when it participates in the vital work of enworlding or reworlding.
A helpful thought to keep in mind, while we recognise that to create art is to live within tensions, is Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to a young poet, which is not any different from the advice I would give to a young artist. And it is with this very well-known but still apt quotation of Rilke that I want to end:
“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
This is where we get the idiom, ‘sour grapes’.