John R Walker responds to Joe Frost's article “Bad words and thoughts”, Issue12:

John R Walker, Work bench, Ian's shed, gouache on archival paper, 2010

John R Walker, Work bench, Ian's shed, gouache on archival paper, 2010

IN HIS ARTICLE “Bad words and thoughts” in ARTIST PROFILE Issue 12, 2010, Joe Frost writes about the many paradoxical ways of using the term ’modern’. You can have a fair bit of fun with ‘modern’: ‘that Swedish moderne chair looks perfect in your very contemporary 1950s retro-look lounge room’. Most of the time we manage the conflicting usages of terms such as ‘modern’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘advanced’ pretty well. Most of us do not automatically assume that the latest model is best. We pick and choose; a bit of the latest and a bit of the classic.

If you Google “The Battle of the Books” you will find pages of essays, discussions, references and citations. “The Battle of the Books” is one of the sharpest writings on the fight between the classic canon and contemporary writing, and it was first published in 1706! The language and style of Jonathon Swift, the author, is very modern. The episode of South Park in which Mr Man introduced Paris Hilton to the ‘fundamentals of life ‘ (he shoved her up his arse) was very ‘Swiftian’.[1] The Swiftian irony about battles in learning libraries between contemporary authors and classic canon authors is just that: nothing new.

During the 1960s and 1970s, art education developed a widespread and profound confusion about usages of terms such as ‘new’ and ‘original’. A good example concerned the confusion centred upon conflicting usages of the term ‘advanced’. ‘Advanced’ is a term that can have usages that are time or spatially specific: ‘that car has advanced down the road’. It can also have meanings that are perceived qualities: ‘That car was very advanced for its day’. The confusion at that time about terms like ‘advanced art’ and ‘modern art’ had serious effects that have lasted to this day. At the time there was a widespread, innocent desire to create art that did not yet exist and ironically, this innocent desire was to a degree successful: contemporary art became a bit  hard to see. This confusion led to a general and fairly extreme rejection in education of the very idea of a ‘classic canon’ and, in particular, for artists’ education, this led to a rejection of ‘copying from the masters’.

Steven Jay Gould was an evolutionary biologist who was very sharp on the vital difference between evidence of directional changes in time: that is, history, and evidence of qualities such as improvement or progress. In both evolution and history, progress (unlike change) is not at all inevitable. Gould wrote an essay on the themes of “The Battle of the Books”, the canon and changes then happening in education. In his concluding observation, he stated that:

“I am worried that people with an inadequate knowledge of the history and literature of their culture will ultimately becomeentirely self-referential, like science fiction’s most telling symbol, the happy fool who lives in the one dimensional world of pointland, and thinks he knows everything because he forms his entire universe.”

Gould continued:

“I can’t do much with a student that doesn’t know multivariate statistics and the logic of natural selection; but I cannot make a good scientist – though I can forge an adequate technocrat – from a person who never reads beyond the professional journals of his own field”  [my italics][2]

If this is true for anybody who wants to be good at science, it is then doubly true for an artist who wants to be good at art. Contemporary education and training has become too compartmentalised, jargon ridden and too narrowly ‘professional’ in focus. A wide knowledge of what used to be called the ‘liberal arts’ is very useful to any creative enterprise.

In the visual arts, the idea of ‘copying for education’ was largely abandoned. Quoting something is not the same as ‘copying for education’ by which I mean, re-producing the act of making something.[3]

Years ago, Douglas Hofstadter rightly stated that “all originality is variations on a theme”.[4] Error prone copying combined with the survival of the fittest is the basis of all evolution. Whilst it is obvious that slavish copying ends in stasis, it is not so obvious that no copying also ends in stasis. Paradoxically without copying, that is, re-producing, there can be no ‘meta’ (change).

The concept or idea of an art without antecedents is a concept of evolution without origins. This is a sort of religious (teleological) conception that, when transposed into art education had effects that were often illogical, strangely circular and sometimes harmful.[5] An art training that cannot learn from history, creates artists that are stuck in a show called groundhog day.

John R Walker

[1] Swift’s solution to the starving Irish problem was ‘eat babies’: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled …”. From his essay “A modest proposal” 1729.

[2] The essay, ‘Sweetness and light’ is published in a volume of Gould’s essays entitled Dinosaur in a Haystack.

[3] Auden believed that the best way to understand a poem was to physically rewrite it, line by line.

[4] Gödel, Escher, Bach (usually called GEB) is a book by Douglas Hofstadter. It is a meditation on the strangeness that is ‘representation of representations’.

[5] The not-yet-existent future affecting the present is a ‘Terminator’ sort of idea.

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