A Mediocre Teaching Machine

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  • National Art Education Association

    A Mediocre Teaching MachineAuthor(s): Jack BurnhamSource: Art Education, Vol. 22, No. 8 (Nov., 1969), pp. 24-28Published by: National Art Education AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3191363 .Accessed: 16/06/2014 04:27

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  • A Mediocre Teaching Machine

    BY JACK BURNHAM. A primary school teacher gave me the subject for this paper. On days when she an- nounced a class visit to a museum there would be one of two responses: mention of a trip to the science museum elicited great noise and enthusiasm; at best, plans for an outing to the art museum produced quiet acceptance with maybe a few groans. The museums in question were the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, two of the finest insti- tutions of their kind in the country. The reasons for this response are not hard to locate, since children at heart are investigating organisms. For twenty years the Museum of Science and Industry has based its philos- ophy of exhibition on interactive systems where par- ticipation by a child with a technical display is felt to be the best aid to learning. On the other hand, except for a modest children's museum, the Art Institute is de- voted to the traditional esthete's role of contemplation.

    The differences between contemplation and partici- pation, more than any style innovation, may prove a watershed for the future of modern art. E. H. Gombrich in his famous essay, "Meditations on a Hobby Horse or the Roots of Artistic Form," poses this whole question in quite another way. He writes: 1

    The implication of . . . an image is that the artist "imitates" the "external form" of the object in front of him, and the beholder, in his turn, recognizes the "subject" of the work of art by its "form." This is what might be called the traditional view or repre- sentation. Its corollary is that a work of art will either be a faithful copy, in fact a complete replica, of the object represented or that it constitutes a degree of "abstraction." The artist we read, abstracts the "form" from the object he sees. The sculptor usually abstracts the three dimensional form and abstracts from color, the painter abstracts contours and colors, and from the third dimension. The substance of Gombrich's argument lies in the

    shifting meanings of the word "representation" and the fact that these originate, as in the case of the first hobby horse, with the desire to have a stick function as a hobby horse. As he states, so-called primitive art, abstract art, and illusionistic art are all forms of "image-making" rooted, as is a functional surrogate, in the desire to form a substitute. For our purposes we will employ the phrase model-making for Gombrich's image-making. The latter term already has a precon- ceived iconic flavor that all but destroys its compre- hensiveness as means of encompassing the various modes of facsimile.

    For at least two decades theories of models and their functions have been one of the key issues in the episte- mology of science. In an article on the duplication of human intelligence through mechanical means, Crosson and Sayre2 enumerate three kinds of models: (a) Rep- lication, (b) Formalization, and (c) Simulation. Repli- cations embody all visual approximations of an object or a system. Dolls, statues, some toys, and scientific

    models may be replications in as much as they duplicate some of the features and proportions of the original. The authors make it quite plain that paintings and drawings, even of existing objects, are not replications but rather sets of highly symbolic conventions which have more to do with formalization. Formal models, second in their classification, represent both the com- ponents and connections of a system through some type of formal logic. Formal systems abound in science- mathematics being the prime example. Thus the coin- cident development of mechanical perspective and pro- jective geometry during the Renaissance gave us the formal derivation of so-called representational or photo- graphic two-dimensional art. Much theoretical confu- sion has resulted from the illusionary qualities of two- dimensional art. Even Gombrich talks about a painting being either a complete and faithful replica of a given order, or some degree of "abstraction" from that order. Because of our ingrained cultural adherence to the con- ventions of Renaissance realism, only recently have we begun to view both as systems of formal technique. Simulation, the third form of model-making, relates to modeling the function or functions of a system. In this sense Gombrich's first primitive hobby horse, born of the desire for a functioning substitute, is a simulation model. Very little fine art of the past has been of the simulation variety, although in practice many models or duplications do serve as more than one type of model.

    Already we have begun to vastly modify our ideas of what really constituted "abstraction" during the early twentieth century development of modernist art. The simple abstracting from an object or idea to which Gombrich alludes, making a new composite image, is in reality an intricate process where often a replication is made and modified from an already formalized concept; or conversely, a formalized statement is made from an existing replication. An example of the last case would be the mask-like faces in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907. Here, partially through the formal conventions of Renaissance painting, Picasso depicts the faces of some of his female figures as African cere- monial masks. The masks themselves are composites of both replicative means and formal convention which derive from the customs and rites of African tribes. The first case, that of making a replication from a formal model, is quite evident in some of the construc- tions of the artist Naum Gabo. His "nonobjective" sculpture, Construction in Space (1928), strongly re- sembles a convex conical surface as generated for use in analytical geometry. It seems ironical, but some of the most daring formalist sculptures take only second- arily, as their point of departure, the stylistic heritage of their immediate predecessors. What sculptors such as Gabo, Georges Vantongerloo, and Max Bill have achieved by the use of existing mathematical models is

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    a form of cultural sychronization between what is sensually acceptable as art and the visual results of the purely formal sciences.

    The process of "abstraction" which previously ob- sessed so much of the art world has reduced itself to the realization that all two-dimensional pictoral art is a series of formal problems with shifting visual conven- tions. Piet Mondrian, by his own evolutions towards Neoplasticism, refined the entire process of formal in- vention. His Composition in Red and Blue of 1925 is frequently referred to as "nonobjective," which is an- other way of saying that it is a more formalized expres- sion of Renaissance-Baroque pictoral formalism. It is a more rigorous formalization because it deals with what Mondrian believed to be the essential elements of the pictoral format. Thus: 3

    In my early pictures space was still a background. I began to determine forms: verticals and horizontals became rectangles. They still appeared as detached forms against a background; their color was still impure.

    Feeling the lack of unity, I brought the rectangles together: space became white, black or gray; form became red, blue or yellow. Uniting the rectangles was equivalent to continuing the verticals and hori- zontals of the former period over the entire com- position . . .

    Later, in order to abolish the manifestation of planes as rectangles, I reduced my color and accentu- ated the limiting lines, crossing them one over the other. Thus the planes were not only cut and abol- ished, but their relationships became more active.

    In his essay "Toward the True Vision of Reality" from which this quotation was taken, Mondrian goes into much more detail stressing the search for formal

    equivalents to the features of his earlier landscapes. Perhaps even more instructive for our purposes is the

    very common use by teachers of formalist conventions for intelligently "seeing" a work of art. The type of dia-

    gramming used in Allen Leepa's 4 analysis of Cezanne's The Sainte Victoire, Seen from the Quarry Called Bibemus (1898-1900) may be superimposed over any work of art, although this Cezanne is a particularly good instance of a work with strong transitional qual- ities between Renaissance and Post-Renaissance for- malism. An example of a transcultural comparison of

    paintings through formalist analogies may be found in Bates Lowry's The Visual Experience. Mr. Lowry juxta- poses Henri Matisse's The Piano Lesson (1916) and A Dutch Courtyard by Pieter de Hooch of about 1656.5 He

    says in part that "Both Matisse and de Hooch present to us, on canvases of similar proportions, balanced arrangements of objects that create tranquil and ele- gant paintings whose primary appeal and interest lie in the sheer beauty and sensual pleasure to be derived from the juxtaposition of certain colors, shapes, and textures." 6 Such formalist equation balancing, as used by Leepa and Lowry, is endemic to art education today. Each painting or sculpture resembles a logical model waiting to be "analyzed," yet one is promised as a kind of extra treat that certain emotional resonances escape even formal analysis. For Post-Renaissance formalism



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  • the need for empathy as an emotional catalyst is as

    great, if not more so, than for the naturalistic idiom. The ability to evoke a painting or sculpture through formal description becomes as important for stimulat-

    ing empathy as were the emotion-charged narratives of a Pater or Huysmans for generating insight in the

    patrons of the last century. Formalism hence is a kind of evolving, culturally derived symbology, appreciated because we are taught to appreciate it.

    The significance of this is brought into focus only if we look at the discrepancy between what our best teachers know about the effects of enriched environ- ments on learning and what they feel art to be. Art in

    many instances becomes a type of moral uplift for

    developing nonverbal cognition. In his essay "Art as a Mode of Knowing" the educator Jerome Bruner7 speaks of the "grammar of metaphor," alluding to some of the

    keys to visual mapping which psychologists of art and estheticians have used for the past fifty years. Bruner is very interested in the theory that mental growth depends upon the ability of a child to relate and or-

    ganize experience according to words and other sym- bolic forms. Hence in the educational process the formalist approach is used as a kind of supplementary learning text, not as experience but as a "mediating process," to use Bruner's expression, for acquiring experience.

    At this point it is necessary to return to Crosson and

    Sayre's third cognitive model, simulation-the ability to model some functional aspects of a system, or the abil-

    ity of a system to model itself, in which case we regard it as an identity simulation. The significance of this model form is beginning to be appreciated outside scientific circles and is gradually becoming the means

    by which we understand ourselves and our society as a

    totality. The field of artificial intelligence research is

    largely that of simulating the brain's functions, though not necessarily duplicating them. All the testing phases of the missile defense program and space program have been made possible through computer-based, real time simulations. In biological experimentation, urban plan- ning, and some phases of industrial operations control, computers are being used to model on-going systems at the same rate at which these systems function.

    In teaching machine theory and in man-machine studies, the effects of simulation modeling are already beginning to filter down. In time these findings will change not only educational techniques but also the goals of education. And in a parallel fashion, art is be- ginning to change radically as cognitive experience. The basis of simulating an educational experience (or an art experience) is to find out how a human partici- pant reacts or wants to react in a learning situation. Let us look at some of the progress.

    As of now, most teaching machines lack sophistica- tion-or at least enough sophistication to sustain the interest of children over long periods of time. B. F. Skinner's first programmed texts sought to break down learning into small infallibly digested bits of informa-

    tion. Yet students thought the programs to be contrived, themselves "manipulated," and the whole experience "repetitious, insistent, and dull."8 Skinner has since amended much of his early thinking about the efficacy of well-defined S-R patterns. One must concede that the

    very inefficiency of traditional education is an important factor for alleviating boredom.

    A more promising experience has been that of O. K. Moore's "Talking Typewriter,"9 a controlled booth where preschool children can play with typewriter, blackboard, and lightboard...