Sunday 22 November 2015

An Artistic Education

All this talk of art and music, and especially my passing comment about the need for education in order to discern the good from the bad, made me reflect on what I meant by education in this context, and indeed on my own artistic education.

By artistic education, I don't mean teaching This is the canon: Shakespeare at the top and the rest in some sort of hierarchy beneath him;  or Mozart at the top at the top and the rest in some sort of hierarchy beneath him; or Leonardo da Vinci  at the top and the rest in some sort of hierarchy beneath him...

I think it a gentler and more reflective process; as much to do with exposure, the removal of barriers, and perhaps the discussion of context and why and how some works get their effects, why some are perceived as great, and so on.

The result of that may be an educated taste that goes a little deeper than the immediacy of an uneducated taste. I have likened this before to weaning children off a diet of junk food. 

If the only music a child is ever exposed to is what's currently in the charts, or used in advertisements, or accompanying tv programmes or computer games, it is pretty pointless to expect him or her, at first hearing, to enjoy the Beethoven string quartets, beautiful though they are.

I make no secret of the fact that the visual arts are not my forte. All I learned in art classes at school was that I cannot draw: a conviction it took me many years to shed. (For anyone similarly afflicted, I recommend Betty Edwards' book, Drawing on the Left Side of the Brain). However, I was fortunate that an enlightened General Studies teacher told me to go to the National Gallery and choose a painting, and look at it for thirty minutes. That seemed a tall order, but I decided to give it a go, and stood in front of one of Monet's paintings of waterlilies.

Prior to that experience, I had always preferred photographic realism: the more like the real thing it looked, the better I thought it was. Monet taught me to look differently.

My musical education was richer. My father was a fine pianist, so from earliest childhood I would go to sleep to the sound of him playing Bach, or Schubert, or Chopin, or Rachmaninov or... Then as a schoolboy I joined a good church choir, and quickly learned to love early polyphony. It was very obvious to me that Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons and so on were doing something rather more wonderful than Gregory Murray, Wilfrid Trotman or Joseph Gelineau.

Strangely (or perhaps not, given the historical context, early 1970s) we sang almost no chant. All I can remember is a version of the Ave Maris Stella, with alternate chant and polyphonic verses, which was magnificent. We also sang some Duruflé, based on chant melodies, which was also ravishing.  But my love of chant comes much later in my musical education, and is based on obedience to the Church, and then the discipline of learning to sing it, and, eventually, falling in love with it.

As I wrote that, I suddenly wondered how we have educated the children, artistically. They have not had the same opportunities as me: no good church choir locally, no National Gallery... But I think we have managed to achieve the same basics via different means. They have all learned to play at least two instruments to a reasonable standard, and played in the school orchestra and various other ensembles, which has given them a fairly good exposure to a broad repertoire. It must be a product of Original Sin that their musical taste (like mine) remains execrable. But while they may, for choice, fill their playlists with Disney songs, they genuinely enjoy it when we get the opportunity to go to a concert and hear, dare I say it, good music.

In the visual arts, their school education has been very much better than mine was; and not only have they learned to draw and paint, but they have been encouraged to do artists' copies, which again has exposed them to a range of works, and some understanding of both aesthetics and technique. In that field, as in so many, they are ahead of me.

And in literature, I do my best with them. Again, they read a ton of junk, but in between they occasionally read something worth reading; and again, genuinely enjoy the live screenings from the National or RSC (we saw the Broadway production of 'Of Mice and Men' this week, and very good it was too. And Dominique loved it).

So, a long and rambling post, but I think the point I am edging towards making is that the need for education to appreciate and evaluate art is not some induction into a world of snobbery; but rather a truly Catholic approach that exposes one to a wide range of works, and that good learning will ensue.

1 comment:

umblepie said...

A very interesting post, thank you.
I agree absolutely with your concluding paragraph.