I wasn’t much of a rebel when I was a little kid. I had strict parents who made sure that the consequences of defiance were costly. They were good at “shock and awe”. I was also given the impression (with continual reinforcement) that my opinion about any matter wasn’t the only one, and that my viewpoint was likely to be faulty based on my youthful inexperience and stupidity.
When I got a bit older I began to notice personal flaws in the folks in authority in my extended family, and while I usually kept my observations to myself and didn’t act on them, I began to give some value to my thoughts. If my relatives weren’t perfect and got some things wrong, it meant that my opinions might be just as valid as theirs. My aunts and uncles gradually understood that I was a quiet, observant child, and they seemed a little uncomfortable when I was lurking nearby. They could see the wheels turning in my head as I studied their faces and listened to their talk.
My experiences in the Catholic church followed a similar route: at first I was cowed into obedience by the supposed power of the nuns and priests over the fate of my soul; then I started noticing that some of the priests were at times cruel, wrathful, self-indulgent, and that many of the nuns were frustrated and bitter living in the narrow confines of their rigid routines. By the time I was fifteen I also figured out inconsistencies in church teachings. When I was told that some things were inexplicable and best left to God, I realized that the faith was just a house of cards. At some point a person had to choose to blindly accept the back story and fables of a religion, or strike out on their own and see what they could see.
I carried my habits of skepticism and close observation into art school and developed a strong dislike for those moments when instructors fell back on their professional mystique when their teaching got muddy and confused. Some professors spoke in vague, enigmatic terms about their theories and practice as artists, and they reminded me of the priests. Both sets of professionals appeared to be practitioners in cults. And the art world in the 80s was divided into so many opposing camps that no one could claim any final authority. If a professor looked down his nose at my realistic paintings, then I could find about twenty things to say about the weakness of his thickly painted, expressionist abstractions that looked like a knock off of Bill Jensen’s work. There wasn’t any high ground. We were all posers busy promoting our pet ideas.
Now I am an art professor. In order to be effective I have to speak with authority and teach from an organized, logical syllabus that leads from one idea and technique to another. I give students direct examples to look at and demonstrations on how to use media. I try to avoid drifting into mystical artspeak. I don’t want to be that hand waving, gobbledygook spewing professor who hides behind esoteric theories like the Wizard of Oz creating illusions of power and mastery from behind his curtain.
I’m fully aware that the creative process is impossible to codify and fully explain, but I create a bubble of certainty while my students are still trying to figure out how to draw an apple using a stick of charcoal. I’m like a music teacher who sticks to the basics of classical music when teaching beginners while being aware that jazz and Indian ragas are valid, alternative forms of music.
At the end of every semester I usually point out that there are lots of other people in the art world who take a different stance from mine, that what I’ve taught them isn’t the only way of approaching art, that other instructors will contradict me and preach a different chapter and verse. It’s up to them to choose what works best for them and means the most. I invite them to rebel against me.
But there are semesters when I don’t give that speech. I sometimes have classes with several students who seem to be questioning my directions and follow up instruction. They watch me carefully and enjoy those moments when I say something garbled and awkward, when I appear frustrated and overwhelmed by the multiple demands on my attention. I know that they’ve already taken me for something of a fool, as an illustration of the kind artist and human being they hope that they will never become. These upstarts have an influence on the students around them, and by the end of the semester there is little chance that I can inadvertently brainwash any of them into believing that I am the sole authority concerning artistic matters.
At the end of the final class I watch the rebels trail out of the art room with smug looks on their faces. They’re thinking, “I’ll never have to listen to that asshole ever again.” And I think, “Karmic payback is such a bitch.”